This small, simple cartoon has a powerful message. Irish and German foreigners were allowed to enter the United States as immigrants – climbed the ladder “Emigration” and subsequently rose in status in America, the land of opportunity. In the cartoon, the last of the European immigrants scales the wall, his back end visible as he kicks away the ladder of opportunity for others. The European immigrants who ascended the wall now declare that Chinese access to America is closed. The man at the top, his arms extended, proclaims nativist sentiment. Another, on the left, with a jutting jaw and top hat, clearly a representation of Nast’s Irish, is triumphant. He is clearly enjoying the Chinese calamity below.
To the right, a flag waves — its message declares the new American territory belongs to the Know Nothings, a secret yet a popular group of Americans who vehemently protested newcomers. Interestingly, 30 years earlier, the original nativist Know Nothings protested the arrival of Irish Catholics. The Know Nothing flag reads “1870 Pres. Patrick” and “Vice Pres. Hans.” This inscription signifies great advances for Irish and German assimilation into mainstream American culture as Nast perceived it to be. No doubt, Nast is reeling here from the social and political advances the Irish gained through the patronage and support by William M. “Boss” Tweed. Tweed rewarded the Irish and other immigrants with patronage jobs in exchange for their loyalty at the voting booth.
Five Chinese are seen at the base of a large wall which boldly states, “The “Chinese Wall” around the United States of America.” Demonstrating their knowledge of China, the European immigrants are taunting the Chinese by comparing their wall to the Great Wall of China, built in ancient times to protect their nation from invasion.
Three of the Chinese are wearing doulis, the conical shaped hats, also known as rice or “coolie” hats. All five Chinese are men wearing their native garb and hold onto goods they hoped to bring along as they ascend the ladder.
The cartoon’s caption, “Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose” is Nast’s harsh commentary on the hypocrisy of these new Americans and their willingness to oppress others who are in the same circumstances in which they found themselves 30 years earlier. The once oppressed have now become the oppressors.