Timely and Concise Analysis of Politics, People,
World and National Events
by
Dr. Wolf D. Fuhrig Ph.D., 
Professor Emeritus Public Law & Government
Columnist


 

12-01-2013

The Father Of The American Cartoon

His name was Thomas Nast. In 1840 he was born in Landau in Germany's Rhineland Palatinate. His father Joseph Nast served as a trombonist in the band of the 9th Bavarian regiment. Since the elder Nast held convictions frowned upon by the government, he left Landau in 1846, enlisted on an American ship and sent his wife and children to New York City before he joined them there in 1850.

For eight years, Thomas attended school in the city. Then his parents had him pursue his strong interest in drawing under two artists. A year later they enrolled him in New York's National Academy of Design. By 1856 Thomas began working for Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Three years later his drawings appeared for the first time in Harper's Weekly as an illustrated story on corruption among the city's police.

In 1860 he was hired by The Illustrated London News in whose service he joined General Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy to tell and depict the general's campaign to unify his country. Nast's drawings soon captured the American people's popular imagination. One of his most acclaimed cartoons was entitled "Compromise with the South". Published in 1864, it satirized the Northerners who opposed the war against the Southern slaveholders. Thomas became known for his focus on the southern and border states. When his cartoons attracted growing attention, President Lincoln referred to him as "our best recruiting sergeant."

Repeatedly Nast attacked the Catholic Church even though he was a catholic in Lindau. He probably converted to Protestantism when he got married. Later his family became Episcopalians when they attended St. Peter's in Morristown, New Jersey. Nast saw Roman Catholicism as a threat to American values. In one of his cartoons, entitled "The American River Ganges," he portrayed Catholic bishops as crocodiles waiting to attack American school children. He also expressed ethnic prejudices when he depicted Irish people as violent drunks exploited by political bosses. In 1863 he had witnessed the draft riots in New York when a mob of mainly Irish immigrants burned the Colored Orphan Asylum to the ground.

Among Nast's most widely admired creations was a new versions of Santa Claus and the political symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party. He did not invent, however, Uncle Sam as the male personification of an American, nor Columbia as the personification of American values, nor the donkey as symbol of the Democratic Party. He showed sympathy for American Indians and Chinese Americans, advocated an end to slavery, objected to racial segregation, and condemned the Ku Klux Klan. In his cartoons, "Worse than Slavery," he showed a dejected Negro family holding their dead child while a school house is burning and members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League shake hands.

Nast's cartoons strongly denounced Boss Tweed, New York City's public works commissioner and leader of Tammany Hall. Tweed led a cabal that had gained control of the city's government and "a working majority in the State Legislature." The Boss and his associates defrauded the City of millions of dollars by vastly inflating what they paid to their contractor friends. Tweed feared Nast's campaign so much that he offered him a bribe of $100,000, funds from wealthy friends for the cartoonist to go away and study art in Europe. He even refused $500,000 and quipped: "I made up my mind not long ago to put some of those fellows behind bars."

Nast's cartoons in Harper's Weekly succeeded when the cronies of Tammany Hall lost the election in 1871. Two years later Tweed was arrested and convicted of fraud. When he tried to flee to Spain, officials there identified him from Nast's cartoons. He also had a major impact on the election of Ulysses Grant in 1868 and 1872, particularly by satirizing Horace Greeley's attempt to become president. Mark Twain told the cartoonist: "Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant--I mean rather for Civilization and Progress."

In 1873 Nast became a rich man when he traveled throughout the United States lecturing and sketching cartoons. Usually a stalwart Republican, he nevertheless criticized Charles Sumner and Carl Schurz for their opposition to some of President Grant's policies. He ended his association with Harper's Weekly in 1886 with his Christmas cartoons. The journalist Henry Watterson wrote that "in quitting Harper's Weekly, he has lost his forum: in losing him, Harper's Weekly lost its political importance."