Tag Archives: Roman Catholics

Thomas Nast’s religious (and Catholic) background

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.

Why Thomas Nast?

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was an amazingly talented and controversial artist during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Illustrator, painter, engraver, he is best known for his scathing caricatures and political cartoons that appeared in Harper’s Weekly’s Journal of Civilization, and which called out corruption and hypocrisy in American and especially New York City politics.They often referred to Nast as “Our Special Artist.”

Photograph of Nast by Napoleon Sarony, taken in Union Square, New York City. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nast remains controversial today. His most recent nomination for induction into New Jersey’s Hall of Fame (Nast lived the majority of his time in Morristown) was doomed after a flurry of outrage and has been tabled for another year. With our politically correct fixations, he may never get in.

I first learned about Nast when I began exploring my family’s genealogy on sites like Ancestry.com. My lineage is 75 percent potato famine Irish, 25 percent Bavarian German. Raised in the Roman Catholic faith, if asked, my family identified ourselves as Irish-Catholic, but it was never a zealous, over-the-top kind of thing. I grew up thinking we were just “American” like everyone else. A sense of ancestral family history was never conveyed in our home. I was unaware of the experiences of my immigrant ancestors.

After seeing the 2002 film Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, and watching an interview about the making of the film on Charlie Rose, I learned about a book titled Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante (1992) and I decided to get a copy. It was a fascinating account of the American immigrant experience during the Gilded Age of New York City. It was through this reading that I first learned about Thomas Nast. I was surprised to discover that the Irish were looked upon as low life and wrote about it in an early blog.

For my first graduate course, American Art and Culture in Context, each student was assigned to select an artist to represent each century of American history and determine the cultural context in which it was created and why it was significant. I decided to narrow my focus to a particular genre, political/editorial cartoons, and selected Benjamin Franklin as an artist for the eighteenth, Thomas Nast for the nineteenth, and Patrick Oliphant for the twentieth century. Cartooning has always held a fascination for me. As a teenager, I was an amateur pen and ink artist. I fancied myself as a cartoonist and envisioned my career landing in newsprint. I had every intention of selecting art as my major in college and formally honing my skills and artistic voice – but when I found out that all the art classes began at 8 a.m. in the morning, I decided to switch my major to English. True story. Such is the wisdom of a 17-year old that puts sleeping in late at the top of her priorities!

Nevertheless, for me, an appreciation for art, and a particular enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Thomas Nast endures. It coincides well with my curiosity about nineteenth century American history, family heritage, politics in general, and how art influences culture and vice versa.

Drunken Irish sitting on top of a gunpowder barrel
The Usual Way of Doing Things, by Thomas Nast, 1871. Source: The Ohio State University

Thomas Nast is misunderstood. Given my heritage, I claim every right to put Nast on a $hit list, but I have chosen not to do so. I am not pleased to see my ancestors depicted as apes. I want to know where this comes from and why the stereotype, which originated in Great Britain, migrated to the United States and continued to thrive here for generations. I want to understand what made him draw images like this. Nast did not invent this stereotype, but he certainly perpetuated it. The image at right, The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things has made many appearances on the Web as an example of his vile Irish defamation. It is not a flattering portrait. The image is usually cropped to remove the story below, nor is it considered in the context of events that caused Nast to create the image. To fully understand the image, we need to understand the back story (which I will elaborate on in a future post).

One of the benefits of being trained as a journalist (aided by my position as a middle child) is to make oneself aware of all points of view, and present facts in context. It’s easy to stand on a soap box or slip behind a screen and keyboard and rant and rave about policies and positions – an advocate who is right and who is wrong. It would have been very easy to emotionally react to these images and be offended by what at first glance appears as cruel, salacious and mean spirited drawings spewed from Nast’s pen, brush, and pencil. Those were “my people” he maligned. Few would blame me for jumping on the “outrage” bandwagon.

I did not react with anger or outrage. Instead, I’ve chosen to ask “why?” Was Thomas Nast a racist? A hater? And if so, how does that happen to someone? Bigotry doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is learned. How did his time, place and circumstance shape his views? Why does he appear to turn against the faith he was born into and raised for a time? Perhaps my minority Bavarian DNA has something to do with an internal need to find balance and explanation. I wanted to get as many sides of the Thomas Nast story as I could. As these pages and blog posts unfold, I will share the images in historical context, supported by academic research and established differences of opinion, including my own. Fair assessments based on facts. Those afternoon courses in good old fashioned journalism did not go to waste! You are welcome to draw your own conclusions, and by all means, share them.

Therefore, it is the purpose of this site to define who Thomas Nast was, what his politics were, his general philosophies and determine what exactly was his beef with the Irish and the Catholics? How did he treat other minority or immigrant groups? Scholars and students of Thomas Nast will generally agree he was a product of his time, he adopted and practiced a new form of Republicanism that was hard won by Abraham Lincoln, which advocated toleration for all races and creeds. When Nast called out the Irish or the Catholics, he did so to protest specific behaviors or practices that he felt were an abuse of power or ran hypocritical of American democratic ideals.

William Meager Tweed photographed in 1870. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Nast’s world, Irish and Catholics are inexorably intertwined with William Meager Tweed, the Tammany Hall Sachem or “Boss” that ran a corrupt “Ring” in New York City. Tweed was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian, and as a younger man was no admirer of Irish Catholics. All of that changed when Tweed quickly figured out the political value of this massive immigrant population. He cultivated the allegiance of the Irish and the Roman Catholic Church for expedient political reasons. In the view of many at the time, especially for the Republican, Protestant ruling elite, Tweed’s arrangement was a malodorous quid pro quo – votes for favors. That the Irish allowed themselves to be so manipulated by Tweed and how a particular church grew and benefited directly as a result of Tweed’s support with public funds is at the heart of Nast’s ink and ire.

Thomas Nast did not have a fundamental problem with the Irish or with Catholics. His family faith was Catholic! Nast was consistent in calling out corruption and hypocrisy wherever he saw it emerge. Had it not been for their political alliances, which in Nast’s view involved stolen elections and misappropriated public funds, there would be little reasons for Nast to attack the Irish Catholics. His pen would turn on anyone, or any group, who he felt had turned on his or her principles or moral code. I will examine Nast’s use of symbols and stereotypes and seek to explain, rather than excuse their employment in his work and commentary. Everything Nast drew, was executed with deep conviction. One may not agree with Nast’s conclusions, but those who are informed of his life and times find it difficult to question the well of integrity and consistency from with which Thomas Nast drew his creative inspiration.

“Something That Will Not Blow Over ” 1871

Thomas Nast drew Something That Will Not Blow Over, a double-paged illustration in Harper’s Weekly, in direct response to the Orangemen’s Riots of July 1871. It features a large central drawing, with various smaller vignettes surrounding the main picture.

Like many of Nast’s larger images, good and evil is divided, shown in the left and right images respectively.

Center image Something That Will Not Blow Over

In the mid to late nineteenth century, for the Protestant ruling class in New York City, percieved “Irish” and “Catholics as synonymous terms.  Irish meant Catholic and Catholic meant Irish.  Italians and eastern European Catholics also arrived in New York, but were not as visually prominent as the Irish. German immigrants, the second largest immigrant group, tended to reside alongside other Germans from the same region.  German Catholics worshiped separately from Irish Catholics, and had their own Catholic churches and communities (Nadel, 29, 37-39).

At first, the  Nast family did not live near the largest German community, Little Germany or kleindeutschland, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but resided further west on Greenwich Street. Bavarian immigrants were scattered across several wards in New York (Nadel 37). Later the Nast family moved to  William Street in the Fourth Ward, closer in proximity to the Sixth Ward that included a large Irish constituency.  Irish American historian Timothy Meagher asserts that the Irish often tangled with Germans, and anyone they saw as competitors (223). Nast’s attacks against Catholics may have grown from this experience, but more likely formed from his observations of the Irish and their political positions. As his biorgrapher Paine suggests, Nast appears to single out the Irish “for the reason that a large percentage of the foreign immigration–an important political factor–professed that creed” (Paine 150). Tweed was the thread that wove many Irish and Catholics together in what Republican Protestants viewed as one neat, corrupt package.

For Nast, the Orangemen’s riots of July 11-12, 1871 confirmed the violent Irish stereotypes that his German culture and neighborhood may well have believed and pre-disposed him to adopt. The 1871 street riots provided Nast with the excuse to not reprise his 1863 draft riot imagery, but strongly reinvent or embellish it.

For several years, Irish Catholics in New York City celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with an annual parade. New York City’s Protestant Irish, calling themselves “Orangemen” — members of the Loyal Order of Orange named in honor of British King William III, Prince of Orange. William III had defeated a Catholic James II for dominion over Ireland, wanted an equivalent celebration. The Protestant Irish insisted their own parade to celebrate their own history. In 1870,  they had gotten their wish, a parade of  Protestant Orangemen-Irish. This first parade resulted in mild disturbances — and future Orangemen parade permits were banned.

Nevertheless the Orangemen petitioned for another public celebration for the summer of 1871. A permit was extended. Irish Catholics were outraged. Tweed succumbed to his constituents’ demands and ordered Mayor A. Oakley Hall to retract the permit for the Orangemen to celebrate.

The vacillation of official approval only proved to stoke Orangemen’s desire to exert their rights.

After Protestant outcry and pressure, Governor Hoffman issued Order 57, allowing the Orangemen to publicly march in the streets of New York City. The July parade would go on, and like its predecessor a year prior, the parade was not a peaceful assembly. Several hundred Irish Catholics heckled the paraders and disrupted the procession, hurling bricks, stones, clubs, and shot at women and children waving to the parade from their homes. The violence escalated to murder.

Referring to the incident as the Tammany Riots, Harper’s reported that two soldiers and one policeman with Irish surnames protected the parade participants and were killed along with 44 civilians. But the New York media could not help but fixate on the apparent hypocrisy that Irish Catholics could have a parade, but Protestants could not. Along with the 46 fatalities, anadditional 26 police and soldiers and 67 civilians were wounded (Harper’s July 29, 1871 p. 564).

Nast relied on his arsenal of elaborate visual commentary and symbols to convey the layers of complexity and political maneuvering that surrounded the incident  Like his Emancipation drawing of African Americans in 1864, Nast used a montage to depict the ancillary events that culminated in the central image. On important occasions or events of conflict, such as this riot, Nast called upon the imagery of Columbia as America’s advocate of fair play, morality, and when appropriate, admonition to wrong doers.

As an Irish Protestant-Catholic conflict. racial prejudice were did not contribute to the Orangemen’s riots. Religious, not racial tensions were involved in the argument or the violence that ensued. Nevertheless, Nast resurrected the images of the 1863 draft riot lynching and violence as the central ingredient in which to examine a completely different incident. Nast’s 1871 revision hardly resembled his original eyewitness account of 1863, where he is ambiguous about Irish involvement on Clarkson Street, a scene of racial lynching in 1863.  By linking the Orangemen’s riots to the draft riots, Nast loses the ambiguity of Irish and Catholic involvement in the public violence. In the eight years that elapsed, Nast’s views against Irish Catholics changed and intensified. Something That Will Not Blow Over is a strong condemnation of the Irish and the Catholic religious hierarchy whom Nast viewed as meddlesome instigators. What had changed in the transpiring eight years that led Nast to strongly implicate Irish Catholics? Politics. William M. Tweed entered Nast’s arena and dominated three years of his artistic and professional life, beginning in 1869.

Something That Will Not Blow Over exposed what Nast perceived as a destructive trinity of Tweed-Irish-Catholic partnership. Nast laid the blame squarely upon all three. The cartoon ran at the climax of his three-year tirade against Tweed.

In the center image, an African American hangs lifeless under a lamppost marked with the date of the draft riots. The Colored Orphanage that was destroyed during the 1863 riots once again smolders in the background.  A mob bearing raised weapons shout in outrage. To the lower right of the murdered African American, a Roman Catholic cleric faces his flock. His hat designates he is Monsignor or a Bishop. He does not give a blessing to the soul hanging by a rope nor to the dead and injured piling up on the ground. He is not heading off the crowd. This priest is not a figure of comfort. He clutches his crucifix close to his body and his posture, with his head down-turned, face unseen, and his shoulders raised in a hunch, suggest a devious and cowardly role in the midst of the melee.  The mob is his congregation, his faithful, and he does nothing to stop their attack.

Detail. Walking away from the rioters
Detail. Walking away from the rioters

To the right, a diverse group of people walk away from the mob scene. Uncle Sam, a symbol of the federal government, is front and center, but he is withdrawn, either putting away his sword or is second guessing his impulse to draw it forward. The wiser course may be not to engage or incite the mob, but defuse them by walking away. Only the Chinese man, on the right, flees from a sense of fear. The rest of this crowd turns away from the mob, and looks back at the instigators as they do. Their faces and body language show dejection rather than fear. They are not making a hasty retreat. The feathers of a Native American Indian, Kaiser helmets, Italian fedoras, a saucer cap and queue of the Chinese man are all part of Nast’s Republican “come one  come all” symbolism used in other cartoons that advocate a utopian vision where different races and cultures can live together in harmony.  Nast included heads of state, such as a morose Queen Victoria, to help to express his view that the whole world might be ashamed by the Irish-American state of affairs in New York City. A violent outburst like this would never have been allowed to happen in her country. No wonder Victoria looks so dejected.

In the back of the crowd to the right, two banners are visible, one reads “Liberal Catholic Dollinger and Hyacinth.”  It is important to note that Nast placed a Catholic element on the positive side of his drawing. Ignatius von Döllinger, a progressive Catholic scholar and priest from Nast’s native Bavaria, vehemently and publicly opposed the dogma of papal infallibility. He was excommunicated by the Pope, which raised him to the rank of exalted hero at Harper’s (June 17, 1871) and in several Nast images (July 17, 1871). A courageous, independent thinker was a Catholic to be admired! Only a month before the Orangemen riots, Harper’s had saluted Dollinger’s moral courage and position as moderate Catholic, “Dr. Dollinger declared that the dogma of papal infallibility contradicted both Bible and tradition, and would create interminable conflicts between state and church” (Harper’s June 17, 1871).

In Nast’s view, heroes like Dollinger were a rarity. Conservative, ultramontane Catholics set policy in the Vatican. On the left side, the American flag is upside down, a clear signal that the nation is at peril. The overarching statement, “Has no caste, no sect, any rights that respect the infallible ultramontane Roman Irish Catholic is bound to respect” reinforced the widely held Protestant notion that the Irish did not have minds of their owns, nor did they respect any tenets except those preached by the Catholic Church. Directly opposite, a Catholic flag, adorned with the Irish harp, a very Irish looking Tammany Tiger, Nast’s animal symbol for the political power of Tweed’s machine, and the papal standard, fly high over the land. Here, Nast suggests that the menace will become transcontinental – what starts on the East Coast will soon blow westward. Beware California, the Irish Catholics are coming! Public schools are seen crumbling on the Irish side, Nast’s snide reminder of the municipal funds which poured into Catholic schools at the behest of Tweed and at the expense of public interest. To the right, the Protestants must contend with the spires and steeples of Catholic cathedrals, churches, and schools supported by tax dollars.

Other smaller scenes show the series of events that led up to the Orangemen’s riot.  The top right image’s theme is honor or lack thereof. King William III, Prince of Orange, with two police escorts, shows his written permission to parade to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Irish Catholics. It is not offered meekly, slipped across the floor as Tweed has done with his documentation (see lower left and right images). King William’s authorization is placed on a pedestal. William is trying to reason as one leader to another. He offers a compromise – a quid pro quo – promising that the Protestants will abandon their parade if the Catholics will do the same. He asks for fairness as if to say, we will give up our rights, but will you? Despite any animosity, he is approaching his adversary as an equal. Nast does not extend any artistic courtesy toward St.Patrick. Nast laid an array of stereotypes upon St. Patrick.  Nast creates an obstinate figure who will not listen to reason. Despite his higher position he delivers his “Nivir” in heavy Irish brogue. Although he wears the robe of Catholic hierarchy, he looks like an ape. His attitude is anything but saintly. Hands on hips, exposing his vestments and crucifix, he turns away from William, according him no respect.

Detail from lower right. A uniformed Irish thug raises a sword to the kneeling Tweed ring

Below, Tweed grovels on the ground. He and his cowardly cohorts take orders from their beastly Irish masters. The Irish are not afraid to fight for their cause. The Irishman’s saber is central to the image. He stares down his subordinates. Finally, the lower center image shows a dejected, perplexed, and once powerful Tammany Ring; Boss Tweed, Sweeney, Connolly and Hall, are on the ground trying to figure out what went wrong. Tweed can’t win. He and his cohorts are losing ground. Over them hovers a rhetorical question, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

Harper’s represented two perspectives in the form of prose. The author(s) are unknown, but they were likely written by the editorial staff.

And Pat’s Complaint:

At the top left of the image, Columbia places laurels on the heads of New York CIty policemen, presumably some of whom are Irish, for their valor and adherence to law during the riots.
At the top left of the image, Columbia places laurels on the heads of New York City policemen, presumably some of whom are Irish, for their valor and adherence to law during the riots.

Columbia appears as Nast’s voice. Columbia freely rewards valor, shames cowardice, and highlights hypocrisy.  She does not suffer fools, particularly Tammany fools, lightly.  Put into service by Nast, she will do his bidding, rising to a noble call to defend  her country without hesitation.  While these vignettes are important,Nast’s deployment of Columbia on the issue’s cover image, Bravo Bravo, deserves special attention.

Complimenting Harper’s reports of Irish policemen serving valiently during the riots, Columbia places laurels upon the heads of the police who aimed to keep the peace between the warring factions. Are these public servants Irish? They could be.

If so, the image defies the allegation by some scholars that Nast always drew the Irish as beasts and thugs. It is easy to pick out the Irish that Nast criticizes. He uses stereotype and caricature to call out their crimes.  How does Nast show an Irishman in a favorable light? Policemen in uniform would not be wearing the waistcoat or a top hat. In the line of civic duty, It could be argued that whenNast drew Irish policeman, he drew them to look like any other American from a European ancestry. It is easy to prove a negative. Far more difficult to spot the everyday ethnicity, including Irish, whom Nast felt behaved admirably.