Like the year before, 1880 was not a good one for presidential hopeful James G. Blaine. Thomas Nast went after the Republican senator from Maine with a visual vengeance. Nast broke his allegiance with his beloved party of Lincoln, and took on Blaine with a relish comparable to his attacks on William. M. Tweed more than a decade earlier.
Blaine aspired for national office. He sought to win votes in California and made a decision to break from his party and earn votes by siding with anti-Chinese Denis Kearney and the Workingmen party. Kearney’s war cry, most notably delivered in vacant Sand Lots, coined the phrase “The Chinese Must Go” which he delivered with charismatic zeal before and after each speech.
In this alternative reality cartoon, it is the Chinese who demand that Kearney, and his supporter from Maine leave. The Chinese figure is confident and defiant and taunts Blaine behind his back. He removes his hat to expose his shaven head, except for the braided queue grown from his crown. He dangles the braid toward Blaine, who doesn’t appear to know quite what to make the behavior. Chinese were typically thought to be docile, but this Chinese man feels emboldened to lash out at the august senator. Blaine’s expression is not one of appreciation.
On February 14, Blaine is reported to have been asked, “Ought we to exclude them?” His reply: “The question lies in my mind thus: either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it” (qtd. Gyory).
Nast taunts his nemesis as well with the visual question, how does it feel to have done to you what is being done to the Chinese?
The Chinese man craves an answer to the same question. He wants Blaine to experience what it feels like to be an outcast and to be excluded. The Chinese were legally prohibited from becoming citizens and could not vote. Nast identifies the Chinese man as a”Non Voter” who exclaims: “Now Melican Man know muchee how it is himself.”
Above the Chinese man’s head, a sign shows a trans-Atlantic handshake between Democrats in California and Republicans (led by Blaine) in Maine. The handshake is a fusion of interests and with Maine breaking with the Republican Party, a change in immigration policy.
This sign, as well as top banner, plays on the word “fusion.” Nast adds the preface “con” to indicate the tumult his Republican Party is experiencing.
Another sign reads, “Denis Kearney is ready to lead a gang of men to Maine, to make the Republicans GO.” Although Blaine clearly jumped the Republican ship on the Chinese issue, Kearney had not converted the rest of the Republican Party. The signs on the wall warn Republicans that with Kearney in control, and along with the Chinese, the Republicans were next on his Exclusion list. Blaine, hat in hand, is appealing to stay. With his break in philosophy, the Chinese see Blaine as a traitor.
In California, Republicans sided with the capital interests of labor and soon fell out of favor once Kearney began his campaign to oust the Chinese. Kearney and the Democratic Party soon dominated California politics, and politics there clearly fixated on removing the Chinese.
Harper’s editorials had previously lamented the abrogation of the treaties and Blaine’s role in the treaty’s demise and decried that presidential politics had trumped common sense:
CONGRESS has announced to the world that the United States intend to break treaties at their pleasure. The peremptory abrogation of the Chinese treaty is a flagrant breach of public faith which sullies the good name of the country, and puts every other nation upon its guard in under-taking any dealings with us which depend upon our honor… But to argue that the presence of a hundred and ten or twenty thousand Chinese upon the Pacific coast is such an imminent peril to American society and civilization as to justify the peremptory abrogation of a treaty, withoutnotice or attempted friendly modification, is insulting to common-sense. (Harper’s Weekly, March 30, 1879).
This commanding cartoon was published by The San Francisco Wasp approximately one year before the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted on May 6, 1882.
The image appealed to white workingmen’s fears of a Chinese takeover of American society and enterprise. Despite the Chinese only occupying 0.002 percent of the population, visual depictions of the Chinese continued to reinforce imagery of infestation and sinister monopolization of industry.
The Coming Man colorfully illustrates the worst in negative stereotyping and Sinophobia. The Chinese man’s over-sized left hand stretches out to the foreground of the image. It is stamped “MONOPOLY” and his fingernails are represented as animal talons, the nails are curled and grow upward like an overhang of a pagoda.
The hand grasps control over trades and services for which the Chinese were most associated – cigar making and sales, laundry, underwear and shirt manufacturing, box factories, clothing, and shoes.
Above his blue mandarin jacket (Chinese tunics were commonly blue, purple or black) is the image of a Chinese nightmare for white Americans. The Chinese man’s face is grotesquely distorted and he greets the viewer head-on with a sinister expression. As if to focus better on those looking upon him, he closes one eye with his index finger to sharpen his stare. His right eye and brow lurch up at an unnatural angle. His ears and nose are large. A devious smile reveals a single tooth, evidence of his bad health. His tongue dangles from the left side of his mouth.
On his shaven head is a skull cap. From the back of his head, the Chinese queue appears to have a life of its own, and whips out from behind the head. The very end of the hair queue looks like the end of a whip.
This Chinese man is not afraid of the white workingman clientele and readers of The Wasp. Behind him and to the left, six factories smolder with industry, possibly a reference to the Chinese Six Companies, an organization which advocated for the Chinese in America. A Chinese pagoda is seen among the buildings. On the right, a few angry, white, Euro-centric workers appear, faintly drawn. They are disappearing. A bearded man wears an apron and a white hat and holds his fist up in the air. Only two factories are viable on this side of the image.
The dominant colors of the cartoon are red, white and blue. This Chinese Man, this “coming man” has taken over the American Dream. He has pushed American workers into the background.
The implicit message of the cartoon is to stoke fear and uncertainty. This man and others like him must be stopped from coming.
The caption reads “Alee samee ‘Melican Man Monopoleeee”
The labor question was uppermost in the publics’ mind during the latter 1870’s. It was a political question. Nast chided Republican Senator from Maine, James G. Blaine, for his willingness to forgo promises made to the Chinese with the Burlingame Treaty, in order to secure a Chinese Exclusion measure (Paine 412)
Blaine was a three-time presidential hopeful. With corrupt scandals of the Grant administration surfacing and swirling in political circles, and with no signs of public sentiment shifting in favor of the Chinese, Blaine courted Democratic voters and advocated for a revision of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty. The treaty was the product of negotiations between the Chinese Six Companies, “the most important association representing the Chinese community and the federal government” (Takaki, 113).
The more groundbreaking articles of the treaty included measures that promised the Chinese the right to free immigration and travel within the United States, and allowed for the protection of Chinese citizens in the United States in accordance with the most-favored-nation principle” (U.S. State Dept.). The treaty was “a major victory for the Chinese” (Takaki 114).
Republican politicians who wavered and bowed to the growing anti-Chinese mob pressure alarmed the artist. “Nast never had the slightest sympathy with any sort of organization or movement that did not mean the complete and absolute right of property ownership, as well as the permission to labor, accorded to every human being of whatsoever color or race. His first real antagonism to James G. Blaine began with the latter’s advocacy of Chinese Exclusion” (Paine 386).
Nast viewed the attempts to abrogate the treaty, and Blaine’s role in that shift, as deplorable and an unforgivable breach in Republican values. As Nast’s biographer points out, Nast frequently lampooned Blaine in order to expose his hypocrisy, a reality that made Blaine “heartsick” given his national ambitions. Nast was for Blaine, a painfully persistent pest.
Blaine was all too aware that Nast’s sphere of influence on the electorate was wide. Nast relished exposing Blaine’s hypocrisy. Nast’s fixation on Blaine was unrelenting, nearly equaling his Tweed/Tammany days. The adverse attention worried Blaine, who “attempted to explain and to justify his position, but the artist could see in the Chinese immigrant only a man and a brother, trying to make a living in a quiet and peaceful manner in a country that was big enough for all” (Paine, 413).
The cartoon also capitalized on the popularity of a popular 1870 poem, Bret Harte’s “Plain Language from Truthful James,” with Nast exploiting James Blaine as Harte’s fearful and deeply suspicious character.
Blaine is seen center at the top of an equal rights podium, welcoming an Irishman on right, and giving him space on the platform by kicking off a Chinese worker. The irony that both ethnic groups arrived in the U.S. to flee famine, was not lost on Nast. All of the accusations leveled at the Irish by Protestants, e.g. cult religion, large numbers (hordes) of poor and diseased people of a different race (the Irish were thought to be of a different race) who would ruin and dilute American culture, and an unwillingness to assimilate, became the exact charges the Irish leveled against the Chinese.
One of Thomas Nast’s last cartoons featuring the Chinese was published in the fall of 1885 as a reaction to the Rocks Springs Massacre of Chinese miners, “one of the most violent racial episodes in the history of the West” (Pfaelzer 209).
Harper’s Weekly addressed the massacre in two separate issues, each with an illustration and unsigned editorial commentary (likely by George W. Curtis). While Nast contributed full-sized images on other topics, his sole cartoon on the massacre was a quarter-page-sized image near the back of the issue.
The cartoon lacks the passion and sophistication one would expect from Nast in reaction to the largest racial attack in U.S. history. Perhaps the cartoon was hastily drawn as events became known. The image may have replaced another cartoon slated for the spot – the advertising section always blocked out the area for one or two small cartoons.
Nast’s image may provoke different reactions from those who view it. One common reaction is that the cartoon adopts a pro-Chinese stance, but depicts a sarcastic Chinese tone or voice – one which emphasizes Chinese civility over Western “enlightenment.”
Two Chinese diplomats stand upon higher ground and overlook a scene of mayhem below. They witness the Rock Creek massacre in progress. An assortment of white laborers are pummeling Chinese laborers whom Nast identifies with long hair queue.
The primary Chinese figures are styled in the same manner as the “John Confucius/John Chinaman” diplomat, however, one holds a fan in front of his face. One diplomat stands in profile and faces the massacre directly, the other crouches behind his colleague and appears to whisper in his ear. The fan emphasizes the secret nature of their conversation.
The detail of the cartoon is centered on the Chinese men, and not on the violence below, which is more crudely drawn. Of all Nast’s images of the Chinese, this depiction, particularly of the Chinese man in profile, are strongly feminized. With some minor costume details, these men could be women. This is an unusual tact for Nast to adopt.
It is the caption, and not the image, which drives the satire and ironic definition of civility. White America repeatedly favored the term “barbarian” in describing the Chinese. The caption reads, “Chinese Satirical Diplomat.”There’s no doubt of the United States being at the head of enlightened nations!””
At first glance, the contrast is quite clear. Who are these white people calling the Chinese heathens, barbarians and a race unfit for American citizenship? Look at how Americans behave! This is quite a spectacle of enlightened behavior. On this score, the cartoon is successful.
With a deeper look, the viewer may realize that these Chinese diplomats do nothing but observe the melee. They watch as their countrymen are murdered and driven out. The Chinese are denied the right to earn an honest living – a living they were recruited for by American business and invited to participate in.
One might interpret the Chinese men are gleeful for this opportunity to make a cultural comparison between East and West. Does Nast suggest the massacre serves a higher purpose – an occasion upon which the diplomats can prove their superiority? If so, they make their point at the expense of their countrymen. Still, Nast portrays the two men as inactive. Shock is absent. They feel no outrage by what they witness. Neither is Nast.
Nast chose the cartoon to be sardonic and sarcastic – and on one level, he succeeds in showing his viewers who the real barbarians are. But Nast could have made his point and at the same time, infuse his Chinese observers with a sense of sorrow or anger. Why did Nast not weigh in on the moral argument, as he had done many times before, by simply adding Columbia to the scene? By standing alongside her Chinese guests, shedding tears, Columbia her fist raised in defiance, the maternal icon of American morality might elicit sympathy from the viewers.
Nast followers knew what Columbia meant in his cartoons. Nast chose not to take her to Wyoming. He did not employ her as a moral agent. Columbia’s values and message are absent in this composition. Nast also refused to demonize or detail reports of a predominately Irish-labor mob as the perpetrators of the massacre. While his drawing depicts white upon Chinese violence, Nast chose not to exploit the Irish nature of the mob. Nast’s infamous Irish ape is not present as instigators at this scene.
In reality, response to the massacre by the Chinese government was immediate and persistent as they complained to Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, and argued for prosecution of the murderers and reparations (Pfaelzer 211-214).
Harper’s Weekly’s brief editorial commented on the outrage, expressed in part:
The massacre of the Chinese laborers in Wyoming is one of the crimes which disgrace a people, because it is due to the jealousy and hatred of a race. In excluding the Chinese from the country by law we have especially stigmatized them, and common decency and humanity should lead us to protect those of them who unfortunately happen to be among us, and whom the law shows that we wish were somewhere else.
Perhaps Nast’s state of mind had grown tired of an issue on which he and the progressive Republican base had repeatedly experienced defeat. As Morton Keller has surmised, Nast’s passions were linked to the utopian principles of the Radical Republicanism he championed. “When that spirit faded, so did the force and fire of Nast’s art” (Keller viii).
In the next issue Harper’s Weekly published a full-page engraving based on a photograph taken at the scene of the massacre. Nast had no part in the illustration.
Nast contributed a full-paged cartoon in the same issue, but it did not address the massacre. Commentary on the massacre was left to others. Nast’s career at Harper’s Weekly was coming to a close.
Historical background on the Rock Creek Massacre
In 1862, the United States Congress authorized an act to construct railroad and telegraph lines connecting East and West. The Central Pacific Rail Road (CPRR) was in charge of construction from Sacramento, California to the East. In order to fulfill the enormous labor demands and meet financial incentives offered by the federal government, Chinese labor was recruited. The principals of the CPPR were known as the “Big Four” Leland Stanford, president; C.P. Huntington, vice president; Mark Hopkins, treasurer and Charles Crocker, engineer (Storti 10).
Despite early reluctance from his partners, Crocker recruited thousands of Chinese as railroad laborers, and due to their experience as miners, hired them as coal miners to support the fuel needed for the rail effort. “Crocker brought them in by the trainload” and by 1868, the Chinese “made up 80 percent of the Central Pacific’s work force.” Crocker happily called them “the best road builders in the world.” They were known derisively as “Crocker’s pets” (Storti 12).
Rock Springs was located along Bitter Creek tributary and in an area rich with coal. The path of the Union Pacific Railroad was slated to go right through the coal-rich area. Coal was “a discovery of almost incalculable value to the company” (Storti 34). On the surface, the land, which the Indians had negotiated away seemed inarable and desolate – the poorest tract of land in Wyoming. What lay underneath the soil made it valuable. Rudimentary mining towns quickly sprang up in the area and by 1871 Rock Springs had become central headquarters to the Wyoming Coal and Mining Company (Storti 54).
The year 1873 began a sustained era of severe economic depression which affected the railroad, and other supporting industries including coal mining towns like Rock Creek.
A Wall Street investor, Jay Gould, “had his hands in virtually every major business undertaking of the day” and this included the coal mines at Rock Springs. Gould ordered a series of wage cuts for coal miners in the region. Various labor organizations and miner’s associations threatened and carried out sporadic strikes across many mining camps in the country that supported the transatlantic railroad effort. As these strike continued to percolate on and off, Chinese miners were used as strike breakers or “scabs.”
In 1875, 150 Chinese workers reported for duty as strikebreakers, under the protection of U.S. troops (Storti 71).
Coal mining was “astonishingly dangerous work.” Storti’s book on the Rock Creek massacre provides valuable insight into the details and dangers of the coal miner’s (or colliers as they were known) exhaustive toils. Storti describes it as a “tightly knit brotherhood” of men who risked their lives – rarely saw daylight or breathed in clean air. They were protective of each other and of their wages. They knew the risks they undertook and expected to be paid well for that sacrifice.
Nevertheless, Storti explains, labor management wanted profits to increase and did not think twice about humiliating their labor force. When Chinese miners arrived, they “were routinely given the most productive rooms and were always allowed first choice of rooms when a new entry was opened” (Storti 83). The Chinese were not above flaunting their privileged position, deepening further resentment and competition.
As in other locations where the Chinese gathered to work, a supporting society was quickly established. A Chinatown near Rock Springs flourished.
With the help of Chinese labor, the Rock Springs mining camp tripled its coal production from 104,000 tons in 1875 to 302,000 tons in 1884.
In the fall of 1884 threats of strikes across the region were instigated by invigorated union interests and new pro-labor affiliations, such as the Knights of Labor. Rock Springs avoided these threats and colliers from Rock Springs did not partake in Knights of Labor meetings. But by the summer of 1885, Chinese -White labor tensions reached a breaking point regarding the continued preferential treatment of Chinese workers, with the Chinese gaining the most concessions.
When disputes arose, the Chinese stood their ground and offered no concessions. The confrontations, which took place deep inside the mines, came to blows. Word of the fights made their way to the surface as white laborers began to collect in the streets, “shouting anti-Chinese slogans” (Storti 108-113).
In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor stood as the most powerful labor union in the nation (Storti 103). The Knights of Labor were strong proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act and their membership was predominately Catholic (Catholic University of America). The Knights of Labor organized 1886 events that led to the Chicago Haymarket demonstration and massacre, though violence was never planned and did not directly involve Chinese laborers.
The white miners had asked the Chinese to join them in a strike. Unwilling to strike, violence erupted. “A force of about 150 Irish-born miners marched to Chinatown armed with shotguns” (Pfaelzer 210).
The mob first fired into the air, demanding that the Chinese leave. As they began to do so, Chinese were shot at directly. Several homes and businesses in Chinatown were burned to the ground. An estimated 400 to 500 Chinese were forcibly driven out, many escaped to the outskirts of town without food, water or shelter where “about 50 died of exposure and starvation as they tried to reach the Green River and escape from the mine” (Pfaelzer 211). The final death toll was put at fifty-one, the highest ever for a race riot in American history” (Storti 142).
After unsuccessful attempts at winning the presidential nomination in 1876 and 1880, James G.Blaine won the Republican nomination for the 1884 presidential elections. The issue of Chinese Exclusion now decided and enacted into law, Harper’s decided to reprise some of Nast’s anti-Blaine cartoons.
Both Thomas Nast and Harper’s editor George W. Curtis could not endorse, nor support Blaine or their beloved Republican party. Nast and Curtis endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland and became “Mugwumps” former Republicans who went over to the Democratic side for reasons of principle. Cleveland won the election.
For details on some of the cartoons featured here see:
Thomas Nast once again borrowed from Bret Harte’s popular 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James ” and the “heathen chinee” character Ah Sin as the focus of this cartoon against Denis Kearney, the leader of the anti-Chinese movement making waves in California.
A gaunt Uncle Sam is seen crawling out of the tapered mouthpiece of a large bull horn with the “UNITED STATES” engraved along its long scrimshaw. The largest part of the opening faces West, where framed by majestic mountains a vaguely drawn figure dances around a campfire.
The horn has additional engraving. “This is the land of Liberty, and the home of the KEARNEY’s.” In between a flourish is another declaration “Kearney’s Equal Rights.” Lengthwise, the tail of the horn is engraved “Declaration of Independence by Kearney.” As Uncle Sam crawls out of the smaller end, he offers up the “Anti-Chinese Bill” to Ah Sin, a Chinese merchant waiting under an umbrella at the edge of Chinatown. Behind Ah Sin, Chinese architecture is visible. His community is under transition. Beyond, the village stores, owned by non-Chinese, are display signs, “American Produce Market Closed” and “No Foreign Devils Wanted.”
Ah Sin appears startled by Uncle Sam’s weakened appearance. Ah Sins’s hands are on his knees, ready to rise. His queue vaults in the air by the surprise. Uncle Sam is unable to stop the fast-moving current of anti-Chinese legislation, and in fact, has become a reluctant courier — a mere delivery boy for Kearney’s orders.
Nast’s message is clear. Denis Kearney has a big mouth. He needs a big horn. Kearney, an Irish immigrant, is the self-proclaimed soldier and leader of the Workingmen’s Party, an organization of white labor fixated on driving Chinese labor competition -— and all Chinese immigrants — out of California.
By 1879, Kearney had been at his anti-Chinese campaign for a solid two years, effectively growing his agitated labor base. His voice still thick with an Irish brogue, Kearney’s charismatic Sand Lot speeches provoked white workers to violence toward the Chinese — and Kearney’s successful lobbying efforts led to the passage of numerous local anti-Chinese laws. National political candidates, most notably presidential aspirant James G. Blaine were eager to please a growing western labor constituency in the West. Kearney and his followers were sought out and courted for their votes.
In this cartoon, Nast attributes Kearney’s loudmouth proclamations as self-serving attempts to remake and rebrand the U.S. Constitution as his own personal instrument to redefine the meaning of civil rights. Nast’s cartoon highlights the hypocrisy of one immigrant ordering another immigrant to leave the country.
Fritz, a German and Pat, an Irishman, discuss what race should be tabooed next. The Germans and Irish were often adversarial rivals for jobs, but by the late 1870s and 1880s were more unified as white men as the “Chinese Question” hovered over their economic future. Increasingly Euro-centric whites affiliated with groups like the Workingmen’s Party, whose goal to drive out all labor competition, particularly from the Chinese Chinese were often viewed incorrectly, as “coolies” workers who were brought to the United States under duress, or tricked into contract labor.
The caption, “Fritz (to Pat). “If the Yankee Congress can keep the yellow man out, what is to hinder them from calling us green and keeping us out too?””
As these men ponder their victory, they also dwell upon the repercussions of their victory over the Chinese and the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which had in place, a 20-year option to renew.
Nast’s square jawed Irishman in top hat and vest had more to worry about than the German. The Irish had long been considered by other white people as not fully white – a separate race of people who sat on the evolutionary scale above the African American, but below Caucasians. By 1882, the Irish American had made great political gains, but this cartoon infers a certain irony, that people hadn’t completely forgotten earlier perceptions. Seventeen years later, Harper’s Weekly published this scientific-based cartoon.
Fritz the German (smoking a Meerschaum styled pipe and holding a mug of German beer) has a good inkling of who might be next in the pecking order. He directs his question and emphasizes it with a slight touch to the Irishman’s arm. We can see the Irishman is considering the implications.
A common Nast technique placed proclamations on walls behind his subjects, in this case language direct from the Exclusion Act, on the wall behind the two men as they reflect their future in America. A looming possibility hovers over their casual moment and invades their enjoyment of a legislative victory against the Chinese in America.
On the eve of the 1880 Republican convention, Nast introduced one of his favorite targets, James G. Blaine, as a”magnetic man “who had attracted many undesirable political features” (Paine 425).
Nast dehumanizes Blaine by removing his human form (with the exception of his face) .
Blaine’s head rests upon a barrel of campaign funds. Nast reintroduces the “Mulligan letters” scandal of 1876 which had cost Blaine the presidential nomination. His personal magnetism draws close to Blaine references of past issues:“A Bloody Shirt Campaign,” Credit Scandal,” “Fort Smith and Little Rock R.R. Bonds,” The Mulligan Letters,” “Machine Politics,” “Grant’s Cast Off Followers.” Center to the drawing, a Chinese man lies lifeless, a metal clip at the end of his queue affixed to the magnet. Next to the Chinese, a man in prison stripes rests his head along a declaration, “For Vice President Denis Kearney” and lastly a silver dollar, acknowledging a controversy about using silver as currency.
As a magnet of dubious attraction, Blaine is also rendered ineffective. His torso is missing. He has lost is manhood – his originality and bravery are neutered. At the end of his magnetic legs, Blaine’s feet are missing, disabling the presidential hopeful to take a moral stand His hands are flat and immobile at his side. Blaine is, in effect, paralyzed by his past positions, and is unable to disassociate or break the hold of his scandalous and immoral past.
As Morton Keller has observed, with Grant no longer in the political arena, Nast lost his sense of passion for Republican personalities and his perception of their shift away from the moral compass where social issues were concerned.
A month after drawing the Martyrdom of St. Crispin, Nast returned with another unflattering cartoon about the Chinese entering the shoe making profession. Here Nast takes advantage of several puns.
A demonic Chinese laborer is at his cobbler’s bench, he has replaced St. Cripin as the cobbler. Western-styled shoes in various stages of progress surround him, but the Chinese man does not wear the product he makes. The Chinese artisan wears his native mandarin jacket and loose pants. Nast will always draw the Chinese in native dress, including Chinese footwear, often with thick grass or straw soles and topped in cloth or hide.
The cobbler is clearly annoyed by the soul or “sole” of the displaced St. Crispin, the Catholic patron saint of shoe cobblers and leather workers. The insect, named St. Crispin, is not happy. He is distressed to see a Chinese take the place of his usual patron, a Christian or Catholic white shoe cobbler. A halo hovers over its head, formed as the heel of a shoe. Its large wingspan is troublesome. Two of its six legs are clenched in fists, ready to attack the foreign cobbler.
The Chinese man cowers at the insect’s arrival. Because his large hat or douli hangs on the wall out of reach, he grabs the closest weapon he has, the end of his long queue to swat or “shoo” the shoe fly away. The shorter hairs on the top of his queue bristle. It is hard to determine if the cobbler is angry or afraid His posture would indicate defeat, but his expression, particularly the raised eyebrow and sideways glance, indicate a determination to get rid of the pest. A partially opened umbrella stands at the opposite end of the bench.
He clearly wants to be left alone to sell his “Cheap Shoes” to the public. In case the message is not clear, “Cheap Shoes” appears twice in the cartoon. Because Chinese workers were considered cheap and often slave or “coolie” labor, they were able to undercut the prices of their competitors. The Chinese were in fact brought in as strikebreakers against the interests of the Knights of St. Crispin labor union. See Martyrdom of St. Crispin. In Massachusetts, threats of violence and rock throwing were thwarted by heavy police protection. Nast’s signature, which varied in its placement and size in his cartoons, was prominently shown on a large rock at the foot of the cobbler’s bench. Nast typically had many options to insert his signature. By placing it upon the rock, does it mean he is willing to throw the first stone?
Harper’s Weekly sided with pro-capitalist positions and therefore consistent as a pro-Chinese publication. Like a the majority of post-Civil War, eastern Republican dailies and weeklies, Harper’s viewed the overall benefit of trade and utilizing a Chinese workforce to benefit progressive American venture capitalists. In their view, the Chinese benefit to business interests outweighed any concerns that Democratic labor might have (Tchen 181).
That summer in the streets of New York City, Mayor Oakley A. Hall, a Tweed associate and inside member of the Tammany Ring, spoke before a rally. Oakley joined many pro-labor speakers who convened a rally to fire up “The Chinese Question” among the workingmen constituency in the city. “Hall opposed the “importation of tawny slaves” by the “wicked combination of capitalists” and “man-stealers” (Tchen 179).
The outcry from these rallies often blurred the distinction between willing competitive labor, cheap labor and coolie labor. Democrat charged the Republican leadership with hypocrisy – a group who fought against slavery, but were too willing to use slave labor in the Chinese.
Other New York papers, particularly the New York Herald, with largest daily readership in the nation, went back and forth on its opinion of the crisis. Its editor, James Gordon Bennett held his finger to the political wind and initially “waffled on the Chinese laborers, but ultimately landed for tolerance on the Chinese question” (Tchen 181).
Disagreements and concerns between labor and capital interests never reached the sustained conflicts that were soon to be stoked in California Sand Lots later in the decade. Capitalists on the West Coast did not have an alliance of local media to alleviate concerns and or suggest positive images on behalf of the Chinese.
But Nast was anything but positive with “The Latest Edition of Shoo Fly.” Nast could be counted on, almost with a knee-jerk reaction, to strongly counter any position or issue that Tammany, its cohorts or white Irish, pro-labor constituents would support. In fact, Nast’s next cartoon on the topic The Chinese Question, issued a strong indictment against Tammany support of white labor positions. The six months that elapsed between the two cartoons shows a significant evolution in Nast’s thinking. This may be a direct result Nast’s developing investigation of Tweed and a distaste for anything that was condoned by the Tammany touch. Nast’s subsequent Chinese cartoons offer a stronger defense of the beleaguered Chinese Americans, though he would occasionally regress into employing crueler stereotypes, Nast kept his pen focused on the hypocrisy of white immigrants, most of whom Nast defined as Irish, who viewed themselves as the definitive Americans charged with protecting the country from a Chinese threat.¹
But in this cartoon, Nast had yet to find conviction with his position. He decided to portray cheap shoes and cheap labor through the eyes of the Chinese’s detractors. If Nast meant to poke fun at white labor, it was a cheap joke, made at the expense of the Chinese. In 1870, as the shoemakers controversy trampled up and down the East Coast, Nast appears to have been swept up in their sentiment and found a use to exercise satire. This example is not representative of his evolved sensibilities that Tweed’s alliance with white labor interests helped only helped to focus.
¹For more explanation on Irish-Chinese conflicts click here.