Today, a cartoonist fights City Hall -- and wins.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Thomas Nast, the father of American
political cartoons, was born in Germany in 1840. He
came to New York when he was six. At 12, Nast quit
public school to study art. By the age of 20, he
was working for the New York Illustrated
News. They sent him off to cover a prize
fight in England. From there he went to Italy and
did free-lance drawings of Garibaldi's Revolution.
Harper's Weekly Magazine made Nast a
Civil War correspondent in 1862. Now his peculiar
art began taking shape. He strongly supported the
Union cause. But his pictorial reporting
transcended side-taking. He began showing the
carnage and sadness that follows war, more than
horse and cannon in battle.
Still, Ulysses Grant later said that Nast had done
as much as anyone to preserve the Union, and
Lincoln called him his "best recruiting sergeant."
Great artists like Winslow Homer were also out in
those fields of slaughter, but Nast began doing
what they didn't. His art was becoming a vehicle
for commentary. His pictures reflected, more and
more, what he felt -- rather than what he saw.
Nast underwent a transformation. He'd gone out as
an illustrator. He'd come back as a political
cartoonist. Cartoons were an English weapon that
America had yet to master.
Of all Nast's causes, America can best thank him
for what he did in 1871. An old patriotic
organization called the Tammany Society controlled New
York. It was run by the infamous William Tweed and three shrewd
No one did business without paying bribes to
Tweed's gang. They bled huge sums of money from
citizens. Their theft ran up a debt New Yorkers
were still paying well into this century.
So Nast went to work. Tweed wasn't worried about
what the papers wrote. Few of the people he was
robbing could read, anyway. But Nast created a
whole new visual vocabulary of political assault --
Tweed's thumb lowered on New York City, Tweed with
a sack of money for a head, Tammany underlings
portrayed as slaves.
A Tammany agent finally showed up and offered Nast
$100,000 for a long art-study trip to Europe. Nast
refused, and the offer rose. When he turned down a
half million dollars, they threatened his life
instead. Nast held on. He succeeded in bringing
legal processes to bear on Tweed and his gang.
Within months they were all either in jail or on
A man of conscience had forged a new tool. Now he
applied it to other causes -- like equal rights for
freed slaves. He'd written a new language of visual
simplification. That language would not only
transform politics. It was, for better and for
worse, on its way to transforming the American mind
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
St. Hill, T.N., Thomas Nast: Cartoons &
Illustrations. 117 Works, New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1974.
Keller, M., The Art and Politics of Thomas
Nast. New York: Oxford University Press,
Paine, B.A., Thomas Nast: His Period and His
Pictures. Princeton: The Pyne Press,
facsimile of the 1904 edition.
Two books illustrated in part by Nast:
Shaw, H.W., The Complete Works of Josh
Billings. New York: M.A. Donohue & Co.,
Pullem, C.H., Miss Columbia's Public
School. New York: Books for Libraries
Press, 1969, reprinted from the 1871 edition.
(This book continues the attack on Tweed and
I am grateful to S. Dileep and N. Shamsundar for
calling Nast to my attention as the possible
subject of an episode and for providing a copy of
the St. Hill source.
Images courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
Click on the thumbnails for full-size images of
Civil-War era Nast cartoons
Illustrations by Thomas Nast for Inside: A
Chronicle of Secession, 1866.
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
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