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.”
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 I grew up thinking we were just “American” like everyone else. 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 very 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 artist for the eighteenth, Thomas Nast for the nineteenth, and Patrick Oliphant for the twentieth century. My interest in political art and Thomas Nast intensified. As a teenager, I was an amateur pen and ink artist. I fancied myself becoming a cartoonist and envisioned a career in newsprint. I had every intention of selecting art as my major in college – 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 an appreciation for art and the oeuvre of Thomas Nast continues. It coincides well with my curiosity about nineteenth century American history, family heritage, politics in general, and how art influences culture and vice versa.
Thomas Nast is misunderstood. Given my heritage, I claim every right to put Nast on a $hit list. It’s disconcerting to see my ancestors depicted as apes. The simian stereotype originated in Great Britain and migrated to the United States where it continued to surface in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and thrived in the aftermath of the Great Famine and massive Irish emigration to North America. Obviously a multitude of factors beyond an inherited prejudice were at work here. What made Thomas Nast draw images like this? Nast did not invent this stereotype, but he certainly perpetuated it. Did the new Irish-American play any role in how they were perceived? 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. The image was one of many exhibits used as an argument to ban Nast from the Hall of Fame. It is not a flattering portrait of the Irish-American. The image is usually cropped to remove the story below – it is rarely considered in the context of events (Orangemen’s riots) that compelled Nast to create this image and others like it. To fully understand the depiction, we need to understand the back story (which I will elaborate on in a future post).
One of the benefits of being trained as journalist is the responsibility to examine as many diverse points of view as practical and not simply look at the explanations that are plentiful and convenient. To be fair, and I posit to be respected, facts and context must trump mob opinion. It’s easy to stand on a soap box or slip behind a screen and keyboard and rant and rave about policies and positions – bluster on who is right and who is wrong. Put up a cartoon or two and exclaim, “See? Look at this, isn’t it just awful?” It would have been very easy for me to emotionally react to these cruel images and take offense by what at first glance appears as salacious and mean-spirited drawings spewed from Nast’s pen. Those were “my people” he maligned. Few would blame me for jumping on the “outraged” bandwagon.
Instead I am more fascinated by them. 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 Catholic faith he was born into and raised for a time? Is his attitude toward Catholicism merely an Irish thing, or the reverse? In what ways should the Irish be held accountable for their own bad press? Perhaps my trace Bavarian DNA is urging me to look before I leap – lobbying, if you will, to be heard. Nast was born in the Landau, der Pfalz, in the Rhineland-Palatinate or Rheinland-Pfalz, now a state of modern Germany. He is sometimes referred to as a Bavarian or a German, though his hometown was historically linked to Bavaria, his hometown and region was an autonomous in the Nast’s family lifetime. Yet, I felt somewhat of a connection to him through my minority Bavarian ancestry and I wanted to get as many sides of this immigrant-artist as story as I could. As these pages and posts unfold, I will share images in historical context, supported by broad academic research and established differences of opinion, including my own. Fair assessments based on facts. 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 under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln and 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, which Nast felt were best served under the auspices of the new Republican Party, led by his hero, Abraham Lincoln.
Us vs. them politics played a huge role. In Nast’s world, Irish and Catholics were inexorably intertwined with William Meager Tweed, the Tammany Hall Sachem or “Boss” who ran a corrupt “Ring” in New York City. Tweed was a Scots Irish Presbyterian, and as a younger man, no admirer of Irish Catholics. All of that changed when Tweed quickly figured out the political value of this massive immigrant population. Tweed 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 lie at the heart of Nast’s ink and ire.
I maintain that 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. I will demonstrate that the Anglo-American (insert Protestant) prevailing view of the Irish as a lower form of humanity, was indeed quite common and well-established in the consciousness of everyday Americans long before Nast set foot in New York City as a six-year old immigrant.
Nast was raised in an environment and had the talent to visually articulate how typical Americana felt about the Irish. Knobel’s Paddy and the Republic is an excellent source for background and he establishes how prevalent anti-Irish sentiment was in America. 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 abandoned principles or moral code. This blog will take a look at 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.
*It’s hard to deny that until the great Irish famine migration poured into he United States, the vast majority of Americans were white, Euro-centric and Protestant. Protestant-Americans were the ruling class, the elite class, the established class and if you will the definers of America. Catholics and Jews were here also, but were a distinct minority, settling in regions or social pockets where they were more or less left alone. By sheer numbers and force of conviction, it fell to the Protestants, covering the nation under a diverse umbrella of Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, etcetera, to define and establish the American identity, culture and governance. They’ve been called White Anglo Saxon Protestants or WASPS. I prefer the term Anglo-American or Eurocentric-American and will use those terms more often than not to refer to the establishment, the elite, society in general, who was in charge with the day-to-day concerns of conducting business in America.