Biting Wit in the Gilded Age

I have always suffered serious art envy. I would love to be able to put ideas on paper or canvas, but alas I do not have the artistic talent. It is especially frustrating when I observe our tumultuous political landscape. Often an idea for a political cartoon pops full blown into my imagination, but without the talent to put it on paper, the idea dies inside my head. Fortunately, the same cannot be said for the subject of today’s post. He was the most prolific and is the best remembered political cartoonist of his day. His political commentary communicated truth to the reading public through biting wit and easily recognizable caricature. His pen became the enemy of graft and corruption and the champion of the downtrodden. It exposed and brought low those who enslaved others, abused power, and stole from the public. He also had a lighthearted side for he gave us one of the most iconic images of Santa Claus. He was Thomas Nast, gadfly upon the conscience of the Gilded Age.

Nast was born in Landau, Germany in 1840, but moved at age six to New York with his mother and sisters. His father joined the family some years later. Young Thomas proved a poor student. He preferred drawing and doodling to studying. After quitting school at age 13, he studied for awhile at the National Academy of Art until the money ran out. No longer able to pay his tuition, Nast found work as an illustrator for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855. By 1856, he moved on to the New York Illustrated News and in 1860 started freelancing for Harper’s Weekly. By 1862, he was full-time there.

Before and during the Civil War, Nast is credited with influencing support for the Union cause. His vivid, compassionate drawings gave a public hungry for information a firsthand look at battles and encampments. After the war, he lambasted President Andrew Johnson, Congress, and the defeated South for the continued oppression of former slaves during Reconstruction.

Union soldiers imprisoned at Andersonville
Commentary on Reconstruction Acts, 1868

National crises were not Nast’s only interest. The campaign that ensured his place in history was localized to his home city. During Nast’s years of productivity, the Democratic Party machine in New York City was closely aligned with Tammany Hall, a political organization that held power from 1789 through the 1950’s. Originally formed in opposition the Federalist Party, Tammany Hall evolved into an organization that held power through graft and corruption, as well as, by providing assistance to the poor and to immigrants. In 1817, Irish immigrants forced Tammany to admit them to its ranks, forging a bond that lasted through to the 1950’s. Tammany earned the devotion of the city’s poor and working class when it successfully fought to extend the franchise to propertyless males. Its power in local politics did not diminish until Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s tenure (1935-1945) and managed to cling to life until John Lindsey took office in 1966.

Tammany’s most infamous leader was William M. “Boss” Tweed, who gripped New York City politics and Tammany Hall by the throat from around 1856 until his conviction for fraud and corruption in 1873. Tweed started his professional life as a bookkeeper and volunteer fireman. He worked his way to the top of Tammany Hall through various positions in city government and even served a term in Congress. Using his growing political power, he managed to have many of his cronies appointed to positions, as well. Once he consolidated his hold, his candidates were elected as judges, mayors, governors, and state assembly speakers.

Headline reads Secret Accounts Fraud of the Tammany Ring

A cycle of votes exchanged for favor developed from the lowest petty criminal to the highest political office. In addition, voter fraud and intimidation coupled with rigged elections kept the Tammany machine well oiled and running. When Tweed needed his rule reenforced, he turned to violent street gangs like the Dead Rabbits to get his points across. In 1870, he achieved his greatest and most lucrative act of corruption. He forced through a new charter for the City of New York that created a board of audit. Tweed’s cronies, of course, were appointed to the board, giving Tammany control of the city treasury. Through the audit board, it is estimated Tweed and Co. embezzled between $30 million and $300 million.

It became Thomas Nast’s mission to bring down the Tammany machine and Boss Tweed. Nast’s Harper’s cartoons in tandem with the New York Times investigation did not meet with much success until the election of 1871 when the public finally turned on Tweed and Tammany. Boss Tweed was convicted of multiple criminal charges in 1873, but only served 2 years. He was convicted on civil charges, managed to escape to Cuba and Spain, and was extradited back to New York where died in the city jail in 1878.

At the national level, Nast’s cartoons influenced the outcomes of no fewer than six presidential elections between 1864 and 1884. He was an ardent Republican and supported causes and candidates that he thought best. He is credited with creating the symbols of the elephant and the donkey that are still used today by the Republican Party and the Democratic Party respectively. One might wonder why the Democrats still use the donkey as a symbol when Nast’s depictions and the attendant connotations seem less than flattering, but the association has endured.

Nast is less well remembered for his lighthearted work, but he left a lasting impression on one of our most cherished traditions. His drawings of Santa Claus have become the definitive depiction of the jolly ole elf.

As his contributions to Harpers began to taper off in the 1880’s, Nast made a series of bad investments and found himself in dire financial difficulties. Hoping for a consular position, he applied to the US State Department in 1902. Fortunately, Theodore Roosevelt was a fan and appointed Nast as Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast arrived to begin his new position on July 1, 1902. Sadly, he contracted yellow fever shortly after arrival and died 5 months later. His body was repatriated to the US where he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

In addition to Christmas, Nast had something to say about Thanksgiving, as well. Next Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the US. In the best tradition of Thomas Nast, Becky and I would like to wish you and yours a happy, safe, and blessed Thanksgiving!

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Resources (Full sets of Nast cartoons available from the Library of Congress)