Nast and his publisher Harper’s Weekly strongly believed in the separation of church and state. No other issue rankled Nast more than the public school issue and no other issue called to define where the line to separate church and state should be drawn. William M. “Boss” Tweed supported Irish Catholic demands for public funds to establish their own sectarian schools. If allowed to stand unchecked and unchallenged, Nast feared the repercussions of all groups and religions dragging their special interests before the state for favors and custom dispensations.
In this marvelously detailed drawing, the scene Nast so feared is put into reality. Each figurehead of a religious state is pulling from behind a pull toy representing their church (or non-church). They approach Columbia at the foot of the state building. Elevated to emphasize her wisdom and revered status, Columbia will entertain none of their appeals, she shoos them away with her hands. Above her head enlightenment and wisdom glows.
On the right, most of what is in tow are miniature churches or religious buildings that resemble playhouses.
A German and Chinese delegation approach together on the left. They are the only two who have brought people, not buildings with them as examples of need. A German smokes a pipe while he waits for his audience with Columbia. He totes a beer-drinking, august regent who sits upon a barrel and raises his foamy mug in the air. Next to him is a Chinese diplomat who has brought along a “Heathen Chinee” kneeling on a padded four-wheeled cart. His posture is erect, and he is naked from the waist up. His long queue falls past his back and behind the cart. The face of the kneeling figure is highly stylized. By mentioning the Chinese as heathen, Nast acknowledges the rights of believers and non-believers to equally petition the government, even if the answer is “no.”
All religions, non-religions (heathens) and factions are on the same level of their appeal – each represents a desire to advocate for their cause and constituency. Columbia rejects their pilgrimage. Columbia rests on her principles, and will not grant or refuse favors on an individual basis. All are accorded the same consideration. All religions are separate from the state.
To the right, Nast draws an array of cupolas, domes spires and steeples and the plain A-frame roof of Mormonism gathered to receive official favor. A Native American stands among the congested crowd of churches, waiting to be anointed with the approval of the state in the same way New York City had blessed the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church at center right, displays the most elaborate replica of a house of worship.
At the center, a Union soldier, and what appears to be a man wearing a Tam o’ Shanter cap, bars the entry to the state steps with crossed rifles.
Nast signed his name at the foot of the Chinese diplomat.
Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840 in Landau in der Pfalz, then an autonomous region of what is now modern Germany. His homeland is also known as the Rhineland-Palatinate, a region that had historic links and union with Bavaria. He and his siblings were baptized at Roman Catholic Church of Sankt Maria (Saint Mary’s) in Landau (FamilySearch.org). Landau was a Protestant and Catholic region close to the French border. Religious tensions existed – most notably among Catholics. “When the Nast family left Bavaria in the 1840s, events in Europe pitted the Pope and Catholic orders –especially Jesuits–against liberal reformers and radical revolutionaries” (Justice 175). The Jesuits adhered to a traditional or ultramontane dogma that acknowledged papal infallibility and advocated a strong Roman Vatican control over its flock. Though it cannot be firmly established, Nast’s art deriding the Pope’s inability to commit human error, suggests the Nast family sympathized with the reformist camp of Catholics practitioners.
In America, Nast was not a good student, with a language barrier being an early obstacle. His official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, suggests that Nast’s was educated in Catholic schools and that the strictness and “rod and ruler” punishment disturbed Nast and did little to encourage his study habits. There are references to stern-faced female principles, but it is not expressly stated these women were nuns. Nast’s Catholic education came to a close at the age of 13, when “he left when required to confess, regarding his sins as too many and too dark for the confidences of the priest’s box” (13). What dark sins could a boy of 13 have? The passage is ambiguous and an active imagination might draw inferences of abuse. If some level of abuse existed it would explain the origin of negative feelings toward Catholicism or clergy. Harper’s also confirms Nast’s Catholic education in a short biographical profile, written at the height of his popularity and his anti-Catholic attacks (HW Aug. 26, 1871).
The Nast family arrived in New York City in 1846, just before the largest numbers of Irish Catholics arrived to escape the Famine. Nativism, an anti-foreign sentiment felt by many American-born Protestants toward new immigrants, was in full swing. Nativism grew as a direct response to increased immigration to America and peaked, when immigration did, during the Famine era. Between 1845-1855, an estimated one and a half million Irish, most of whom were Catholic, flared nativist concerns of Catholic takeover and prompted nativists to organize into secret societies, such as the Know Nothings.
When the Nast family established their American home, distrust of foreigners in general had narrowed to fears of Irish Catholics in particular. The Nast’s family’s attitudes for or against the Irish cannot be established. If they were reformist Catholics, the conservative brand of American Catholicism would not have been to their liking. There are other circumstances to consider as well.
Historians William Meagher, Kerby Miller and others agree that German immigrants fared better than most of their European counterparts at the time, possessing education or skills in trades that enabled them to quickly find employment and better living conditions in New York City. Paine makes a point to describe the first Nast family dwellings in New York City as being on west side and “respectable.” Most new immigrants occupied the Lower East and Lower Central part of Manhattan.The Nast family may have considered themselves in a higher class, than Irish who, as immigration progressed, arrived with less skills and options, and were forced to live in destitute conditions in notorious neighborhoods.
If the Nast family were reform-minded Catholic practitioners, they may found the Episcopalian faith an attractive alternative to practice and a means to distinguish themselves from Irish Catholics who observed a more conservative or ultramontane doctrine. Immigration historian Kerby Miller theorizes many early Catholics made the religious change in order assimilate into dominant Protestant culture in America.
A clue to their religious shift might be indicated in burial place of Nast parents, who are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (Hayes 4). “The fact that she [Nast’s mother] is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, a non-sectarian cemetery might be somewhat of a clue,” wrote Father Morris of the New York Archdiocese, “It was rather rare, at least until prior to the Ecumenical Council for Catholics to be buried in unconsecrated ground. If so, special dispensations were required” (Email 30 Apr. 2012).
According to research done by Benjamin Justice, when Thomas Nast and his wife relocated to Morristown, New Jersey in 1871, they became members of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and their children were christened in that faith.
Whatever his religion was at the time, Nast began his professional career at the age of 15. 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 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) the American Catholic stance against abolition, and marriage into an Anglican family all coalesced to shape Nast’s Republican views, steering him to a conviction of Protestant superiority.
For his book, Paine interviewed Nast toward the end of his life. His anti-Catholic drawings are not discussed in detail in the large biography. But in an effort to explain away the anti-Catholic reputation that had obviously followed Nast, Paine echoed an earlier Harper’s profile piece and wrote, “He was inspired by no antagonism to any church–indeed he was always attracted by Catholic forms and ceremonies” (150).
Outrage over Nast’s treatment of Irish Catholics continues to permeate in modern Hibernian societies and is the primary reason that “the Father of the American Political Cartoon” has been kept out of New Jersey’s Hall of Fame.
In almost every biography or reference to Thomas Nast, he is described as a Protestant – and in some cases more specifically as a Lutheran. One scholar, Roger A. Fischer, deviates from this mold. In his book Them Damned Pictures, Fischer writes:
“Nast, born a Catholic in Bavaria and raised Catholic in a German neighborhood in New York City, converted to the Protestant faith as an adult.” Fischer speculates that Nast’s marriage to Sarah (Sallie) Edwards was an entry into old world Yankee culture and embraced it (29-30).
Fischer also credits Charles Press and Draper Hill for also acknowledging Nast’s Catholic roots. Most reporting on this has been lazy, with researchers repeating Nast’s Protestantism while overlooking his original family faith and traditions.
But if we are to fully understand Nast’s anti-Catholic drawings, his religious roots should not be overlooked, for this was the faith of his parents.
In nineteenth century America there were many reasons for Catholics to convert. Love may certainly have been one of the reasons. In my own family history, the reverse seems to have been true. My paternal great grandparents, Bavarian Lutherans, were very upset that their daughter (my grandmother) fell in love with, and at the turn of the twentieth century, decided to marry an Irish Catholic and convert to Catholicism.
Without precisely knowing when Nast converted, likely, there was more to it than just amoré. Nast emigrated to New York City in 1846, about the same time the potato crop was failing in Ireland. The Irish had been coming to America long before then – but most Irish emigrants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (about 70 percent) were Presbyterian (Scots or Ulster Irish) and 30 percent percentage were were other Protestants, such as Anglicans or Dissenters (Baptists or Quakers, William Penn being the most famous of the latter). Kerby Miller’s research indicates Roman Catholics comprised a small minority of Irish emigres, and there were social, cultural and economic pressures for pre-Revolutionary Catholic emigrants to convert to Protestantism, typically to the very similar Episcopalian faith. As the American colonies were still very much under the influence of England, Catholics were afforded few property rights, an exception being Maryland and small parts of Pennsylvania.
After the Revolution and the enactment of The Bill of Rights, Catholics in American could relax. After the Napoleonic Wars, Irish immigration to America picked up. From 1815 to 1840, a second wave of Catholics left Ireland for better opportunities. These Catholics, generally speaking, saw the writing on the wall as their native Ireland fell sway to British oppression. Increases in tithes and taxes and decreases in land ownership rights, particularly for Catholics, fueled their immigration to America, and also to Canada and Australia. Emigration to the latter two countries was encouraged by the British government who often underwrote the travel expenses.
These pre-Famine Irish Catholics arrived in America with agrarian skills and a bit of money in their pockets, poor, but not destitute. This small distinction enabled them to move out of East Coast port cities toward opportunity in the American West (at that time east of the Mississippi), and to the South. They did not congregate in large cities as the Famine immigrants were forced to do. Whether they converted or not, Miller suggests this second wave of Irish immigrants, were for the most part, accepted into American mainstream, in part because population numbers did not make them conspicuous. They did not stand out or appear to have congregated in large enough numbers to be alarming to the Protestant status quo which still dominated in the expansive American West.
This perception changed with the Great Famine and its aftermath. While historians like Kirby Miller estimate about a million Irish of mixed faith came over from 1815 to 1845, they did so over a 30-year span and spread out all over the country. During the Famine years of 1845-1855, one and a half million destitute and desperate Irish emigrated to the Northeast region of the U.S., usually New York City, and there they conspicuously remained. Almost entirely Roman Catholic, the third wave of new arrivals had no money, nowhere to go, and few relatives to claim them. The first impressions these Irish Catholics left upon the New York and Protestant status quo was anything but positive.
They came to be known as the “shanty Irish” who are depicted in Gangs of New York (book and film) Sante’s Low Life and also Tyler Anbidner’s excellent, factual account of Five Points neighborhood, the most notorious of the the quickly built, inadequate tenements of the Fourth and Sixth Wards. Most Irish had little choice but to call the city tenaments home. They lived in slums under the most horrible of conditions with few skills or opportunities to improve their lot. As a result, many were forced to adopt vice and crime as a means of survival. If the Irish Catholics did find honest work, it was the most demeaning and menial of work as domestic help or as low paying textile workers and shirt makers. From a Protestant perspective, the Irish arrivals practice of a strange, cultist form of Christianity, and their inexplicable worship a foreign man on a Roman throne, further solidified the notion that the Irish stuck together like glue and didn’t want to assimilate or become “American.”
Consequently, the terms “Irish” and “Catholic” became synonymous —absolutely interchangeable and derogatory in usage.
As a result, Protestant Irish no longer self-identified as Irish, preferring to make the distinction as “Scots/Scotch Irish” or” Ulster Irish” and some affiliating as “Orangemen” in honor of William III of Orange who subdued Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne, or better yet, just plain American. They did not want their Protestant Irish ancestry associated with the slum Irish. The Germans immigrants who arrived before and around the same time as the Famine Irish, emigrated mostly for political reasons and left their homelands with money as well as useful skills — artisans with a trade which advanced their livelihood and living conditions in America. Although many nationalities and races were present at Five Points, the majority of skilled Germans lived in neighborhoods on the west side, in areas that are today known as Greenwich Village and Tribeca.
Nast’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine (also Mark Twain’s biographer) makes a point to place the Nast family in a “respectable” house on Greenwich Street. Paine does not mention the Nast family faith at all, but early on provides a hint of where Nast’s Catholic problem may have had originated:
His [Nast] early religious impressions were confusing. There were both Protestants and Catholics in Landau, and once at a Catholic church he saw two little girls hustled out rather roughly for repeating some Protestant prayers. This incident disturbed him deeply. He resented the treatment of these little girls. It may have marked the beginning of a bitterness which long after was to mature in those relentless attacks upon bigotry which won for him the detestation, if not the fear, of Pope and priest (6).
In New York City, Nast was educated in the Catholic faith, at least until the age of seven. Never a promising student, his parents moved him to different schools to see if an academic spark would ignite. Paine continues,
A little later, by advice of his father he attended a German school though only for a brief period. He left when required to confess, regarding his sins as too many and too dark for the confidences of the priest’s box. A brief period at another German school followed, and a term at a Forty seventh Street academy, considered then very far uptown. It was all to no avail. (14-15).
The mid-nineteenth century (1840-1860) saw a fervent rise in nativist sentiment and anti-Catholic rhetoric. The Know-Nothings rose and gained political power by essentially feeding into a growing anti-foreign, anti-Catholic paranoia.
“Catholic traditions continued to look dangerously un-American partly because they did not harmonize easily with the concept of individual freedom embedded in the national culture” (Higham 6).
They also drew very strong political lines — and politics would play a huge part in defining the anti-Catholic sentiment. Aside from their strange faith and odd practices and preoccupation with politics in their native Ireland, Catholics were successfully recruited by and subsequently aligned with the Democratic Party, which among other things, was staunchly anti-abolitionist. The Catholic Church took the unpopular position of not wanting to rock boat in their new home, on the issue of slavery. The Catholic Church was very keen to earn headway and inflfuence in the U.S. They believed in the law of the land and that law included slavery. The official position of the church was to let slavery continue.
Republicans, the Know Nothing factions among them, found the Catholic position on slavery reprehensible. During the Civil War, the Democratic Party affiliated and aligned with the Confederate South, and despite exceptions and Union loyalists, the majority of Irish and Catholics sympathized with Confederate side.
These pressures may have propelled a young Thomas Nast, and others like him, to convert. It may have been in pursuit of love (his intended was Espicopalian), the taint of Irish Catholicism, or from a desire to ascend and better assimilate in New York society. Given Nast’s staunch abolitionist views, it is not unreasonable to assume the American Catholic Church’s position on slavery had a lot to do with his conversion and continued skepticism of Irish Catholics in New York.
Nast did not hide his Catholic roots however. At the height of his fame during the Tweed era, Harper’sWeekly introduced their star artist to readers with a brief biography and engraved photo. Nast was described as Catholic, a fact that Harper’s clearly felt bolstered Nast’s integrity and the real purpose of his attacks on the American Catholic Church’s relationship with Tweed and New York City finances. It was the issue at hand, and not the people or faith that Nast attacked.
The pro-slavery position of Northeast Catholics during this time is not something that is well known among today’s Catholics. Modern Catholics might find the revelation of their history on this issue in America shocking. Certainly, it is not a part of a history that American Catholics choose to highlight and brag about. Nonetheless it is an ugly part of the American Catholic past that did factor into perceptions of the time. The Democratic Party was on the wrong side of a pressing moral issue. Irish Catholics strengthened the Democratic Party and therefore had a indirect role in blocking the progress for civil rights. Abolition attitudes ran very strong in Republican and Protestant circles, and may have contributed to social and moral pressures for Nast to abandon his ancestral family faith, and view American Catholics – Irish Democrats with increased scrutiny.
Nast’s images about Catholicism are brutal, but they erupt from specific issues (public school funding) and the social policies of dominant political figures (Tweed). The Irish’s persecution of Chinese Americans likely factored into Nast’s attention and sarcastic scrutiny.