Tag Archives: utopian

Celebrating Thanksgiving: two coasts – two interpretations!

A direct contrast of how the American East and West coast differed toward the Chinese, and other immigrant groups, is shown in two illustrations of an American holiday, both titled Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.  These two cartoons demonstrate how a.) influential Harper’s Weekly was as a publication across the entire nation and b.) how differently these regions approached the issue of immigration and communicated their opinions to their audience. (Double-click images to enlarge viewing).

Harper’s enjoyed a national circulation. The San Francisco Wasp catered to the proclivities and prejudices of its local readership. Wasp historian Richard West writes that there is little evidence that The Wasp was distributed east of the Rockies, though a few issues must have been transported by long distance readers. Nast’s comings and goings were documented in California newspapers. As Nast’s popularity and celebrity grew, other artists, including those employed at The Wasp, enjoyed poking fun of Nast in caricature. Eight years after Nast drew his utopian drawing of an all inclusive America, The Wasp responded with its own version.

In 1863, Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. However, the Civil War interrupted national observance of the holiday as southern resentment lingered, preventing old Lincoln adversaries from fully accepting the proclamation. Nast’s Thanksgiving illustration was published one year before it became a national holiday in widespread practice.

Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner, 20 November, 1869, by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, Source: Library of Congress
Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner, 20 November 1869, by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, Source: Library of Congress

Nast’s large woodcut encapsulates the artist’s Radical Republican vision of America after the Civil War. “Nast, Harper’s Weekly and the Republicans they represented did not or could not acknowledge the value of different cognitive, verbal, and social styles, or the sociology behind those differences. They assumed that a universal standard of civility was both natural and necessary” (Hills 118). Nast forms this ideal into an all-inclusive American feast. In the lower corners the sentiments, “Come One Come All,” and “Free and Equal” set the inclusive tone.

At the head of the table is Uncle Sam. He carves a large turkey while an array of nationalities and immigrants politely wait to be served. Universal suffrage and self-governance are featured as the decorative centerpiece. On the back wall, Nast includes his heroes Lincoln and Grant, who flank a center portrait of George Washington, framed by Liberty and Justice. At the table, opposite the host, is Columbia, Nast’s favorite personification of America’s values and promise. Columbia’s kindly face is turned toward her Chinese male guest and his wife and child. It is a very unusual scene since most Chinese in America were men whose families remained in China.

imageRounding out the holiday banquet are representatives of an array of races and religions waiting patiently to begin the feast. The work is more an illustration than an editorial cartoon, the genre from which Nast would later earn international fame with his caricatures of William A. Tweed. Only the Irishman exhibits any hint of mild caricature that could be seen as derogatory. Nast would become highly critical of Irish Americans, but he includes an Irish couple as deserving guests. Nast includes the stereotype to make clear to his audience of Protestant Americans, that Irish Americans had right to be at the table. Nast does not draw the Irishman’s wife in “Bridget” caricature and she is attractive.[1] Babies speckle the drawing. This is a family portrait.

The guests represent many races and ethnicities and they dine at the table as equals. Nast does not insert them as mere tokens. He imbues them with respect and dignity. They are people capable of relationships and human emotion. The guests at this American banquet are all different, yet bounded by their common humanity.

Covered dishes everywhere wait to be unveiled. At America’s table, there is enough for all to be served. Behind Uncle Sam is a large painting titled “Welcome” which depicts Castle Garden, the processing center for all immigrants in New York City at the time.

This image represents Nast’s true political, utopian philosophy —his belief in a united America and the potential for the nation’s promise.

In 1877,  eight years after Nast’s work, George Frederick Keller produced an identically titled cartoon, undoubtedly a direct spoof of Nast’s holiday illustration. This tattered example (the only apparent extant copy) is seen below:

Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving, by G. F. Keller, San Francisco Wasp. Library of Congress, Collection: The Chinese in California 1877

The two artists differed in the power and autonomy their editors extended. By 1869, Nast had become a local celebrity had little editorial oversight. Unencumbered by owner/general editor Fletcher Harper (much to the chagrin of Harper’s news editor George Curtis who wanted more artistic control) Nast enjoyed free artistic rein. It is generally accepted among Nast and Harper’s scholars that Nast’s images reflected his personal beliefs rather than a directive from his editors or publishers. Richard West has suggested that The San Francisco Wasp artist G.F. Keller only drew what he was assigned. The fact is, little is known about the artist’s political feelings and there is no indication that Keller had the editorial impunity that Nast enjoyed.

Keller’s image includes several international cultures present at the holiday table. Each male guest at the table is feasting upon his national dish, indicating a refusal to assimilate. There are no wives and children joining them.

Keller's Chinese man dines on a rat
Keller’s Chinese man dines on a rat

Front and center, an Englishman with long sideburns and hand-held spectacles is aghast as he watches a Chinese man begins to dine on a rat.

Columbia, wearing the outfit of a cook, sassily stands at the threshold of the kitchen and dining room. Her character is the most faintly drawn. No one is dining on the same food. Hats of many countries dangle from hooks on the wall. A very racialized African American butler preens as he serves Uncle Sam the holiday meal —the turkey. Interestingly, it is not cooked, indicating a lack of civilization and raw hunger. Uncle Sam represents the ruling Republican government and prefers the company of barbarians. Keller’s Uncle Sam leans back, utensils at the ready, eager to dig into his bird. The holiday meals and experiences are not shared at this table. Unlike the Nast drawing, where everyone waits until Uncle Sam carves the turkey, here the guests dig into their own individual feasts. No one is waiting for the host to start. They have no manners. They possess no decorum. The message is clear: it is a mistake to include these outsiders at America’s table.

[1] The prevailing Irish stereotype in New York was of lower-class, monkey-faced simpleton. Nast likely employed the slightly simian look in this work because his audience would not have been able to distinguish the Irish from the English without the stereotype. This was one of Nast’s kinder renditions of the Irish. His animosity toward the Irish would be developed or artistically realized when New York politics saw a larger Irish role.

2. For a very fine account and amazing examples of The Wasp illustrations, I recommend Richard West’s book The San Francisco Wasp An Illustrated History. It is a must have for anyone interested in political art or nineteenth century cartooning and illustrations. West remains the definitive historian on The Wasp and he is often cited in many scholarly works on editorial cartooning, including Nast.

Works cited

Liberalism/Radical Republicanism

In his essay on American keywords, Nikhil Pal Singh identified the literal use of “liberal” to “free men” and use of the colloquial of the term as one of the “foundational intellectual discourses of political modernity.”

In the twenty first century, one identified as “liberal” is often pitted against its counterpart “conservative” with each position slinging the other term as an insult.  For conservatives, Singh suggests that describing one as a “liberal” infers that person has a “reckless disregard for traditional values and moral virtue.”

Singh points out that many versions of term exist and interpretations are highly uneven. For certain, the word’s roots come to mean a certain proponent of liberation or freedom.

In Nast’s time and politics, “liberal” was closely related to “radical” and used in his own political faction, “Radical Republicanism.” Singh asks a question that Nast and his progressive Republicans may have continually wrestled with; “How to combine an expansive, even utopian, defense of individual freedom with a stable and cohesive structure of social organization.”

Nast may have agreed with John Locke, who Singh reminds us, envisioned liberalism as a state where individuals enjoy a “natural liberty” and enter into a “social contract” in order to establish a government where life, liberty, and property can be secured (Singh).

Nast historian Morton Keller describes Nast’s Radical Republicanism as more than simply a party affiliation. “It rested on a set of social values that induced him to comment on a wide range of American public issues” (105).

Abolition and civil rights for African Americans, particularly the right to vote, Keller says, represented the “touchstone” of Radical Republicanism. Even after the war, when Negrohobia “prevailed” Radical Republicans believed in a nation of equality.  But the rights of African Americans were a priority.

“Nast’s sensitivity to the rights of minority Americans extended to others besides embattled freedmen,” (Keller 107).  His vision of America included all minorities – in public schools – at the voting booth and allegorically, at the Thanksgiving table.  “The Chinese and the Indians in particular came under his protective wing” (107).

After the Civil War, the preeminent Radial Republican leaders in the nation were Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner (Foner 229). With ideals originating in New England constituencies, the movement was strong in both small towns and family farms – where free labor was self-evident (Foner 228).

Radical ideology embraced the utopian vision of a nation whose “citizens enjoyed equality of civil and political rights, secured by a powerful and beneficent national state” (Foner 230).

After the Civil War, those leaders affiliated with Radical Republicanism “hoped to reshape Southern society in the image of he small-scale competitive capitalism of the North” (Foner 235),

Examples of Nast’s Radical Republicanism and utopian beliefs are best expressed in his work of the 1860s: “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” “Emancipation of Negroes” and many of Nast’s commentary on the New York Public School System.

After Lincoln’s death, Radical Republicans placed considerable hope in Andrew Johnson and the promise of northern-led reform. Johnson did not live up to these expectations. Increasingly, Johnson unveiled “an emerging image of the white South’s champion (Foner 190). Radical Republicans felt disillusioned with the Johnson administration and with the president as an individual leader. This reality bitterly disappointed Radical Republicans and especially Nast, who took his angst out in the form of satire and caricature. With Johnson as his subject, Nast embarked on a new phase of his artistic career – personal political cartoon satire.

Nast’ most recent biographer (2012) Fiona Deans Halloran attributes Nast’s German origins and the German community in New York as key in shaping the young artist’s liberal philosophy. Germans in New York  especially focused on local political corruption and the national struggle over slavery” (29).  As German Forty-Eighters, the community in New York City keenly followed the social movements in Europe. “The fundamental principle of Liberalism was the idea that human history was a story of progress” (29).

“Distribution of the Sectarian Fund” 1870

Distribution of Sectarian Funds, 26 February, 1869. Harper's Weekly.  Source: HistSociety.blogspot.com
Distribution of Sectarian Funds, 26 February, 1869. Harper’s Weekly. Source: HistSociety.blogspot.com

Nast drew this full-page cartoon at the height of his attacks on Tweed. Nast took exception to the Democratic politician’s granting of public funds to the New York Roman Catholic Church for the establishment of sectarian schools.

Nast strongly believed in the newly formed public school system and saw the institution as a utopian organ of education – a place where all religions, creeds, cultures, ethnicities and races could attend.

While not a Chinese cartoon per se, at the top and bottom panels, a Chinese child experiences differing educational possibilities and potential treatment that depend on whether or not public or sectarian schools are allowed to prevail. With the establishment of special treatment for Catholic schools, Nast predicts a domino effect that will result in mayhem and violence among New York City schoolchildren.

Still hopeful for an implementation of Radical Republicanism in the era of Reconstruction, in the top panel Nast includes a happy, Chinese boy, joining a multi-cultured group of children at play in front of the “Common School.”  Racial stereotypes are applied to all the children in an effort to emphasize the diversity of the student body. The school and its playgrounds are “Free to All,” and “All Hands Round.” With his queue happily tossed in the wind, the young Chinese lad is but one of many that is enjoying play, each child drawn in an obvious way to represent his or her culture.  It is the children’s version of Nast’s Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.  In both cartoons, the theme and message are the same.  The “Union in Strength.”

While this website does not focus on Nast and the public school issue (See Benjamin Justice’s fine article Thomas Nast and the Public School of the 1870s.) It would be negligent not to mention Lady Justice, a relative or incarnation of Columbia, who Nast draws for the first and only time as an Irish woman. Lady Justice may be blindfolded, but she has been bought off by the Irish Catholics, tipping the scales toward the source of the money – and in Nast’s opinion, the corruption. The Protestant side is shown defeated as “Death to Us” hovers over a dejected public school system. Their buildings crumble. Roman Catholics however are elated and exclaim “Fun For Us.” They enjoy the fruits of their influence on the education system and the fine institutions built with taxpayer money. The division of public funds is lopsided.

In the third panel, Nast presents the repercussions of a special school for each ethnicity or race, the consequences that began with Irish-Catholic special interests.  Each building in the background brands its own school identity. Everyone places claim on their differences and these differences result in competition and bitterness. The play area is a battleground. Children do not hold hands. Chinese queues do not spin in merriment. The queue, once again has become a tool for oppression – a handle upon which to grip, restrain and torment.

In this scene, Nast shows another victim of oppression becoming the aggressor. An African American child has gripped the queue in his hands and prevents the Chinese child from heading toward his school.