Tag Archives: Native Americans

“Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day” 1879

“Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has Its Day” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly

Nast drew numerous cartoons sympathetic to the Chinese in reaction to unfolding events in California. In Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day, February 8, 1879, Nast drew attention to a disturbing shift in anti-Chinese sentiment, but he does so at the expense of the Negro (Keller 107).

Nast features a male Native American (Red Gentleman) and Chinese (Yellow Gentleman) standing as they consider a wall of seven placards espousing various sources of nativist sentiment. The Native American, driven out of his East Coast territories in the early nineteenth century is forced to move westward and encounters a Chinese man somewhere in the middle of the United States. Each is being forced to live in new areas as a result of racial prejudice.  At the stop, he warns the Chinese man that it is now his turn to be uprooted from the West to the East. The caption reads: “Red Gentlemen to Yellow Gentleman. Pale face, ‘fraid you crowd him out, as he did me.”

Behind the two men is a classic Nast device of using public declarations – proclamations of prejudice and hate speech plastered on a wall for public viewing. At the top of the wall, a simple illustration shows a feathered man with a tomahawk fleeing westward, barely ahead of a U.S. railroad engine at his heels.

Conversely, in the sketch directly below, a Chinese man flees with such urgency that his queue is propelled airborne at a 45-degree angle. He beats a drum of “cheap labor” as he tries to catch up to an Atlantic-bound steam engine.

Six other wall posters pronounce prevailing and growing political sentiment brewing from coast to coast.  The notices call attention to an overall fear of foreigners and Irish illiteracy. Nast wants his readers to see the variety of vitriol that exists. He sarcastically turns the meaning of the secretive nativist society, ‘Know Nothingism’ as braggarts of ignorance. Those who were once oppressed (Irish) are now the oppressors. Nast tucks his signature right below the bottom right sign. The history of Know Nothings’ ignorance repeats. Once, the nativist society had proclaimed “Down with the Irish,” and “Down with the Dutch.” Now, the current Irish have organized, risen in rank and political power, and now eschew the same behavior and techniques of their Know Nothing oppressors from the past. Only the victims have changed. German demands for a “bier” government round out the cluster of declarations. Most are proudly signed by their purveyors:  “‘Down on the Nigger,”  “K.K.K.”  and “’The Chinese Must Go. Kearney (A real American).” Denis Kearney (an Irish immigrant) as a real American is Nast’s ironic reminder of the Irish-born instigator and white-labor organizer who shouted the loudest, and most effectively, that “The Chinese Must Go.”

The largest and most prominent poster in the cartoon addresses the “Chinese Problem” and its solution–highlights of a proposed law prohibiting Chinese immigration to the United States. This would become the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in May 1882.

The two gentlemen read the writing on the wall. The feathered Native American “Red Gentleman” scratches his chin. He’s seen this all before–he has lived it. Driven from his native East Coast lands he has walked the Trail of Tears. A blanket drapes his upper body covering a hump that suggests he carries and travels with most of his belongings and is a nomad in his native country. In his hand, he holds a peace pipe which he is ready to extend to the “Yellow Gentleman.” The Chinese man is styled as a diplomat,  the same “John Confucius” character seen in the Civilization of Blaine. His eyes are fixed on the pending legislation that is advertised front and center. His face shows concern and his arms are folded in defiance, enveloping his long queue close to the front of his chest. He is embracing his culture and identity. Hanging low in his left hand is a western-styled pipe (not an opium vessel). Both men are wearing their cultural dress–a dignified, if not a purposeful use of stereotype.

Among the many stereotypes that prevailed about Chinese people, Americans considered Chinese men docile and easily manipulated. Therefore, employers believed the Chinese performed as ideal workers for capitalist interests. In this cartoon, Nast creates a different character, a man who does not readily accept his limited options. The Chinese man is serious as he reflects and weighs his future plans.

Curiously, off to the left and in the background an African American relaxes against a wall on which is scrawled “My day is coming.” The black man is minimized and not part of the larger debate commanding the discussion at hand.  An early champion of abolition and the African American vote, by 1879 Nast no longer considered the African American an equal partner in the minority rights debate. After winning a hard-fought battle for abolition and civil rights, which included suffrage, Nast is angry by failed Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party. Nast believed the African Americans as a group, too easily compromised their gains to southern politicians who did not have their best interest at heart. Nast, therefore, draws the African American kicking back, one leg resting over a knee; head tipped down, with a carefree grin on his face, content to allow the politicians to oppress other minorities. Nast felt this turn of events was a breach of the hope and integrity once reflected within the values of early progressive Republicans. Nast’s subsequent drawings of African Americans would never again possess the dignity that embodied his original Utopian vision seen in the “Emancipation of Negroes.

Works cited

The influence of Harper’s Weekly

In his A History of American Magazines Frank Luther Mott, credits Harper’s Weekly as the most important magazine on the East Coast in the nineteenth century. The management of the Harper brothers, the writing and editorials of George W. Curtis and the drawings of Thomas Nast “combined to make Harper’s Weekly popular and powerful” (40).

Harper’s Weekly, The Journal of Civilization” with a Thomas Nast cover,                    8 February, 1879

Exactly how powerful is difficult to quantify, at least in terms of circulation numbers. Mott makes a point to establish that publishers of this era did not maintain circulation statistics and were offended by inquiries into same.  The information was deliberately mysterious. “There was something sacrosanct about circulation figures.” But by 1874, Mott had determined that Harper’s monthly and weekly publications had subscription lists of more than 100,000 each (6).

This of course does not account for newsstand purchases, and pass-along readership shared with a neighbor or friend.[1] According to an Ohio State University website that maintains a measure of Harper’s scholarship, the weekly had a circulation of 120,000 in 1861. Perhaps owing to the circulation mystery to which Mott alludes, Wikipedia quotes circulation figure of 200,000. HarpWeek, the official website for the magazine states, “Its circulation exceeded 100,000, peaking at 300,000 on occasion, while readership probably exceeded half a million people.” Whatever the figures were, by the standards of its time, Harper’s Weekly stood as a successful publishing venture. Nast’s artwork, particularly his political caricatures, is widely acknowledged[2] to be the major ingredient of the magazine’s growing prosperity.

Images mattered.  The illustrated weekly format provided an alternative conveyance for messages that resonated with the public, sometimes more effectively than the word. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1870, the first year such data was recorded, illiteracy rates for whites was 20 percent and for blacks, nearly 80 percent.

With a weekly deadline, illustrated magazines grew in popularity complementing hard daily news with images. Photos were reproduced by copper plate etchings and illustrations were drawn to scale, often in reverse to be transferred from paper, or drawn directly on, a large cross-section of boxwood. The areas not receiving ink– the white areas– meticulously carved out by a staff of engravers, leaving only the black lines in relief to press against the page. (A mind-boggling feat given the prolific crosshatching in Nast’s work). In New York City, the most notable weeklies were Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, the New York Illustrated News, and the most respected and prominent, Harper’s Weekly. Nast had worked for them all–and in that order– but happily achieved his goal to work full time at Harper’s in 1862 (Paine 28).

Established press organizations in the northeast largely promoted Protestant-based, pro-Republican ideals, and during the Civil War, adopted a pro-Union stance in their editorial positions. The two leading daily papers, The New York Tribune and the New York Times, were Radical Republican and mainstream Republican.” The publishers and staff of Harper’s Weekly, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, were mainly Protestant or secular liberals”  (Kennedy, HarpWeek).The more progressive Tribune led as an early advocate for abolition and “attacked Lincoln daily, demanding emancipation” as a cause for Lincoln to adopt (Paine 79). Other media followed suit.

Harper’s was “strongly Methodistic in trend” (Mott 86) and part of a publishing center that “loathed the political culture and style of the Democrats and resented their control of the metropolis,” (Fischer 8). Northeastern Methodists joined other Protestants in a strong alliance of moral authority and civic duty that sought freedom of slavery. “No single issue had greater power than slavery to shape Methodist political responses,” (Carwardine 597) and Northeastern Methodists, like most Protestants in that region, were Lincoln supporters.  In 1861, a year before he began as a staff artist at Harper’s, Nast married Sarah Edwards, the daughter of English-born parents. Nast figuratively and literally, as historian Robert Fischer suggests, “married into old-line Yankee culture and embraced it with the fervor of the prodigal son come home” (29).  His background, the culture of his employers (cartoon historian Donald Dewey writes that the Harper family had an established anti-Catholic bias) and marriage into an Anglican family all coalesced to shape Nast’s Republican views, steeped in the conviction of perceived Protestant superiority.

Journalistic historian Thomas C. Leonard offers the term “visual thinking” to describe the effect Nast’s woodcuts had on Harper’s readership. The public had learned to rely on Nast’s cartoons as a legitimate form of truth telling.  “Harper’s Weekly drew power from common knowledge of illustrations as well as the public’s hunger to see more of them” (102). Leonard cites the Nast’s series of anti-Tweed images as the most effective use of visual thinking.  Nast’s images resonated and were eagerly awaited by Harper’s readers. Many Nast scholars maintain that his “dammed pictures”[3] led to Tweed’s downfall and to his eventual arrest in Spain by someone who saw the fugitive’s likeness in the magazine. The illustrations added to the overall dialogue.  “Harper’s verbal descriptions often missed the visual clues and the radical elements of [that] Nast’s images” were able to capture (Hills 111).

Nast’s power and popularity gave him free artistic reign at Harper’s. He drew what he wanted. “Nast drew only what he was moved to draw for Harper’s Weekly, having no editorial or ownership responsibilities. Nast refused to draw anything he didn’t believe in” (Dewey 10). Nast enjoyed artistic autonomy under Fletcher Harper, but this artistic freedom dissipated after political editor George W. Curtis assumed the managing editor role after Fletcher’s death in 1877.


[1] Citing various modern sources, the consensus is that printed magazines are “passed along” on average four times. This figure may be conservative for the late 19th century.

[2] There are numerous references to Nast as a major contributor to Harper’s success. Paine, his biographer, quotes Colonel Watterson as saying, “In quitting Harper’s Weekly, Nast lost his forum: in losing him, Harper’s Weekly lost its political importance” (528).

[3] Tweed is reputed to have said, “I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!” This quote appears in almost every account of Nast’s work. It may be true, it may be apocryphal.