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Thomas Nast: America's Premier Political Cartoonist

from the magazine

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.

Up Next
from the magazine

A Stroll Through Battery Park City

Roger Starr

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