Ideas and Observations

Roger Starr
Thomas Nast: America's Premier Political Cartoonist
Winter 1994

It certainly did not have the look of a fair fight when, on July 22, 1871, the bulky, menacing figure of William M. Tweed, Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, “Boss” of the Democratic party in New York City and the guiding spirit of the Tweed Ring, found himself challenged by an artist, Thomas Nast, the German-born cartoonist whose work appeared primarily in Harper’s Weekly. As a weapon against Tweed’s sophisticated corruption, Nast’s artistic talent was no more threatening than a peashooter. At first.

Tweed had no way of knowing that the cartoons Nast would draw of him and his partners in crime would be remembered far into the future as among the great products of the cartoonist’s art. With stunning economy of line, they touched with bitter humor fundamental truths of human nature and assured Nast’s reputation as the political cartoonist who probably had a greater effect on the real world than any other.

Although Nast’s work throughout his life was sharply focused on the local and national political scene in America, he was, like many other illustrious citizens of his generation, born abroad. His father played the trombone in a Bavarian military band, and the Nast family lived in the regimental barracks in Landau where Thomas was born in 1840. His father’s habits of free thinking and free speech, which had formerly seemed innocuous, became hazardous during the years preceding the revolutions of 1848; advised that his political views would attract less unfriendly attention in America, he emigrated with his family in 1846.

Eventually the Nasts came to reside on Greenwich Street in New York. Young Thomas attended a school where German was freely spoken, and entertained his schoolmates with the pictures he drew. He joined the studio of an artist, Theodore Kaufmann, enrolled later in the Academy of Design, and by the time he was 15, had sold his first drawing to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. At 18, he was sent to England by the New York Illustrated News to draw the Morrissey-Heenan boxing match, and later, the famous Heenan-Sayers match (a lithograph of Nast’s drawing of that fight hung for years in the Yale Club of New York). When he was 20, Nast embarked on the adventure of his life, joining Giuseppe Garibaldi on his landing in Palermo—the initial move in the liberation of Italy—and accompanying his forces up the mainland. Garibaldi was the embodiment of the romantic liberator who surely helped to stimulate Thomas Nast’s later idealization of such American counterparts as Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman.

After Garibaldi’s final victory, the 20-year-old future cartoonist returned to New York in late 1861. The turmoil surrounding Lincoln’s inaugural trip to Washington and the firing on Fort Sumter at the Civil War’s outbreak gave Nast his chance to achieve national renown by bringing the home folks graphic renditions of the reality of civil war. He contributed freelance drawings to Harper’s Weekly, arguably the most influential magazine in the North. By midsummer of 1862, he had become a permanent member of its staff. His work consisted mostly of campaign sketches of his three heroes, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant, and a series of sentimental pictures upholding the Union in the Civil War, stoutly supporting President Lincoln’s second term, and defying the 1864 peaceniks who were working for a compromise with the South and slavery.

After the war ended, the Republicans in Congress who had insisted on emancipation of the Negroes became convinced that the policies of Lincoln’s successor, President Johnson, would reduce the freedmen and their families to a status approximating what it had been under slavery. Nast and Harper’s Weekly supported these so-called radical Republicans in establishing federal agencies to aid the Negroes, and in the use of Federal troops to protect them from the violence of whites who refused to countenance the very idea of racial equality.

As interest in events in the south waned by the end of the 1860s, Harper’s Weekly turned to local New York affairs. The city was governed by the Democratic party in which Tammany Hall, a Democratic club, wielded great power. Its undisputed leader was William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, a towering figure whose ancestors had been in New York for more than a century.

Tweed’s power enabled him to instruct the vendors who sold construction materials, services, furniture, and stationery to the city to pad their charges liberally, and turn over the receipts in excess of their ordinary prices to Tweed himself for distribution to members of his “ring”. The construction and outfitting of the Chambers Street County Courthouse for which the Tweed ring is most famous was just one of their swindles. The total take has never been accurately measured, but estimates run from $75 million to $200 million on the courthouse and other ripe municipal melons cut up by Tweed and his followers. Those were the days when a dollar’s purchasing power was perhaps twenty times greater than it is today.

In his forthcoming history of Tammany Hall, The Tiger, Oliver Allen points out that Tweed was able to steal from the city with such impunity because of Tammany’s unrivaled organizing ability. In post-Civil War New York, coordinated public and private plans for orderly development were at a minimum, peace and order were easily overturned, and communications remained rudimentary. There was no telephone, no radio, no television, hardly any commercial telegraphs, only a few small newspapers, and a small number of civic organizations and clubs; there was scarcely any of what we now call news.

Moreover, in 1870 the nation was at the beginning of a tremendous industrial transformation, perhaps the greatest the world had ever seen. Details like commercial probity and government incorruptibility tended to be disregarded. New York’s decent people in the 1870s can be described in modern jargon: they had confused their values. New Yorkers cared more about civic growth than they cared about civic virtue. Until Nast’s courage showed itself in his cartoons, the Tweed group was so powerful that when one of its members arranged for an audit of the courthouse accounts by three New York bankers of unimpeachable probity, they reported back that the books were in perfect order.

Nast’s challenge to the Tweed operation was made possible by the New York Times, then a wispy newspaper of no great reputation. Somehow, through a lapsed Tweedite, the newspaper obtained the real figures of what had actually been spent on the courthouse, and what had gone into the ring’s pockets. They revealed that to furnish the new city courthouse with carpets, shades, and curtains, a businessman named Ingersoll and his company were paid $675,534 (which amounts to at least $6 million in today’s dollars). For chairs alone, Ingersoll and Co. were paid $240,564. That approached the amount New York County expected to pay for the entire building, completely furnished. The good people shuddered. Nast turned the shudder into a surprise cartoon uppercut that was not cushioned by the Boss’s flourishing beard.

That first cartoon changed the odds on the contest between good and evil, and raised Nast to an unprecedented new rank of eminence among American (and ultimately European) political commentators. That his comment was transmitted by images made it all the more effective: Tweed is reported to have grumbled that he didn’t care what people wrote about him—most of his supporters could not read anyway. But everyone could get the point of a damned cartoon.

The vital first cartoon consisted of two separate drawings, printed one above the other. In the upper one, Nast gave his readers a tiny self-portrait that showed him holding a copy of the New York Times headlined “Secret Accounts: Frauds of the Tammany Ring.” At the top of the sketch is a quotation from the New York Tribune asking the first of two “great questions”: “Who is Ingersoll’s Co.?” Facing the Lilliputian figure of Nast is the powerful Tweed. Peering out from behind the Boss’s ample haunches, the reader can recognize the faces of the ringleaders. The small figure of Mr. Ingersoll, the vendor, stretches out his right hand as though to introduce Tweed and his colleagues as the “company” that received the excess payments Tweed instructed Mr. Ingersoll to collect.

It’s an effective cartoon, but the companion piece below is the cartoon most students of New York City political history recall first when asked about Nast’s work. That drawing answers the second question, “Who stole the people’s money?” by portraying Tweed and his colleagues standing in a ring, facing outward from the center. The backs of Tweed’s lesser known associates are inscribed with their names and the role they played in the courthouse scam. The four chief leaders face the reader and need no labels; they are readily recognizable through Nast’s unique talent for capturing in a few lines not only the physiognomy of his targets, but a sharp revelation of their characters. Reading from left to right, they consist of the bearded Tweed, the inevitable diamond stickpin flashing on his shirt front; Peter Sweeney, the “brains” of the Ring, whose black hair stands up like the quills of a porcupine; Tom Connolly, the city comptroller, better known as “Slippery Dick,” who cooked the city’s books of account to conceal the depredations; and A. Oakey Hall, mayor of New York, and the one socialite and clubman in the ring, whose quick wit and silk-hatted friends kept him out of jail and exile. He was always identified in a Nast cartoon by the droopy angle of his pince-nez. Each man in the whole circle is, with a finger, designating the man on his right in obvious answer to the question, “Who stole the people’s money?”

The pointing fingers identify a moral failing that Nast invariably invokes as the sign of irretrievable evil: disloyalty to one’s associates. Thus, in the Nast catalogue of offenders, thieves are surely included. But the thief who refuses to incriminate his colleagues is by no means so evil as one who blames his fellows. Others whom Nast found wanting in loyalty were as harshly judged long after the Tweed Ring had been exposed and broken.

Another of the cartoons by which Nast brought down the ring is particularly impressive, not only because of its effect on public perception, but as a portent of the evolution of Nast’s style. The cartoon shows four vultures with human heads—Tweed’s, Sweeney’s, Connolly’s, and Hall’s—perched on a narrow mountain ledge. Below the picture is the caption: “A Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to ’Blow Over.’—’Let Us PREY’.”

Appending the features of miscreants to the bodies of birds, reptiles, and other nonhuman creatures became, through Nast’s productive years, an increasingly effective device. There is a haunting quality in the juxtaposition of human and nonhuman characteristics in a single body. Nast is telling his viewers that the person he is depicting is not merely a man but a monster. Sometimes the juxtaposition of two species in a single body is so deeply troubling that Nast approaches the profoundly mystic response to evil of no less a figure than Hieronymus Bosch.

But that takes us ahead of our story. Nast’s cartoons of the Tweed Ring had the effect of generating public energy as could no other device. Samuel Tilden, a somewhat ambiguous New York figure in the history of the national Democratic party, took up the anti-Tweed cause with vigor after the cartoons appeared. He appointed a notably independent and reliable citizen, Andrew Haswell Green, to review Comptroller Connolly’s books. Green was able to prove that the ring had netted a profit of over $6 million through the figures of a single bank. His report led to the arrest of some members of the ring and the flight of others. Tweed himself was arrested, and later escaped from his New York prison, fleeing to Cuba and ultimately to Spain, where he was captured as a direct but wholly unintended consequence of yet another cartoon by Nast, from whose reach he was apparently fated never to escape.

At the time of the Democratic convention of 1876, Nast had published a cartoon depicting Tweed as a gigantic figure in convict stripes dragging two small figures of thieves to court for a judgment, with the intention of later allowing them to escape—a strategy Nast believed Tweed had once proposed to his colleagues. A copy of the cartoon found its way into the hands of the Spanish police, who mistakenly thought it was a wanted circular, and that Tweed, easily recognizable by his size, his beard, and his diamond, had kidnapped two children. They arrested him and shipped him back to the United States where he was imprisoned in the Ludlow Street jail and, shortly afterward, died.

The artistry of Nast, the cartoonist, grew with improvements in reproduction technology that allowed pencil drawing to retain a sharpness of line that could not faithfully have been reproduced earlier. What he did not find again was a subject that consistently aroused in him the venom that Tweed’s character and criminal achievements did.

In 1868, the New York State Legislature passed a bill that allowed state funds to be granted to private institutions, including schools run by the Roman Catholic church. This action raised an intense public controversy over church-state relations that echoes down to the present day. The 1868 action roused in Nast a latent anti-Catholicism that probably reflected his liberal Protestant German upbringing as well as a distrust of the Irish, predominantly Catholic in number and almost all of them Democratic opponents of Nast’s Republican party. The subject inspired some of his most bitter non-Tweed cartoons, characterizing prelates and nuns as the enemies, even the carnivorous enemies, of the state’s children. One such drawing portrays human bodies with alligator heads fashioned from bishops’ miters attacking children on a beach.

After 1870, President Grant was the last of the great heroes to inspire Nast’s impassioned allegiance. An untiring supporter of the Republican party and of Grant’s reelection not only to a second but even to a third term, Nast regarded the onetime supporters of Grant who accused the president of tolerating financial corruption during his second term as disloyal. Ultimately he accepted Grant’s own judgment not to run for a third term, but four years later he briefly took hope that a third term was a possibility.

Instead, it soon became clear that neither his wishes nor his drawings would have the effect he wanted. The 1876 election turned out to be the closest in American history, and was finally decided, amidst rumors of corruption on both sides, by a Congressional commission in favor of Rutherford Hayes. Nast was bitterly disappointed by what he considered Hayes’s softness towards the South and the continued oppression of the Negro. That feeling, in turn, caused Nast to experience his first lasting friction with the management of Harper’s Weekly.

There had always been a certain amount of tension between Nast and George Curtis, the editor of Harper’s, who was more likely to take a temporizing view of politics rather than the fervent positions with which Nast felt comfortable. The difference between them over President Hayes grew quite serious, and was made worse by the death of Fletcher Harper, one of the original Harper brothers and effectively the magazine’s publisher, who supported Nast strongly.

Meanwhile, Nast had prospered, not only through his relationship with Harper’s Weekly, but from book illustrations, foreign rights, work for other magazines, and lucrative speaking tours which, as a family man, he detested. He enjoyed an income of $25,000 a year, regarded as a rich man’s emolument in those days, and bought a comfortable house in Morristown, New Jersey, where many illustrious political figures, writers, and artists visited the Nast family.

Unfortunately, as a result of the changes at Harper’s Weekly, Nast had concluded that he could only be free from artistic and political compromise if he had a magazine of his own. Recognizing that he lacked sufficient capital to start a magazine, he sought more speculative investments, all but one of which—the purchase of a lot in Harlem years earlier—turned out badly. Worst of all was his investment in the firm of Grant and Ward, the railroad financing firm in which the former president was a partner, though Grant, who lost all of his own capital, was not considered responsible for the firm’s ultimate bankruptcy and the loss of most of Nast’s assets.

The last issue which inspired in Nast something of the fervor of his earlier years was the reinstallation of silver as backing for the United States dollar. He regarded this proposed policy, fostered by the western states where silver was mined and where the agricultural interests suffered from their usual shortage of capital, as a device for paying off debt with far less valuable dollars. Actually, when a bill was passed establishing the value of a dollar at 412 1/2 grains of silver, the markets took this step in stride and the dire forecasts made by Nast were shown to be mistaken.

Nast continued to work at illustration and drawing, earning enough to support his family, but in 1902 he was offered a consulship in Guayaquil, Ecuador, by President Theodore Roosevelt and accepted it. He died there, alone, before the year was out, presumably of a fever. He was only 62 years old.

Though many of Nast’s judgments were sound, and his art was capable of great strength and of a vivid and individual pictorial sense, it is hard to avoid the feeling of sadness that he never again found a subject that aroused his spirit and talent with the force of insight that Boss Tweed and the City of New York inspired in him.

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