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Thomas Nast

Page history last edited by Howie Good 15 years, 3 months ago

         Thomas Nast (1840-1902)


     Thomas Nast was born in Germany in 1840. Six years later, Nast's parents moved their family to the United States in hopes of better economic opportunity and personal freedom. From an early age Nast showed great artistic promise. He attended the National Academy of Design and got his start at age 15 drawing cartoons for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. By 18, Nast had secured a position at Harper's Weekly, and during his 20-year-long career there, he published over 3,000 cartoons and proved himself to be one of the most honest and passionate political commentators of his time. 

     Before his death in 1902, Nast had left Americans with some of their most iconic and recognizable figures, such as the Republican Elephant, Democratic Donkey, and the classic image of a rotund and rosy-cheeked Santa Claus. It has been said that Nast's best work was filled with "a flaming sense of righteousness" and that he never mastered "delicacy and indirection." It is all the more fitting, then, that Nast is best known for his crusades for Union victory during the Civil War and against the municipal corruption of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed.

     Nast started his career as a political cartoonist at Harper's Weekly in 1862, just after the start of the Civil War. During that time, there was such a demand for illustrations that Nast was hired more to help Harper's keep up with the demand than for his talent. It was there that Nast began his career as a social commentator, starting with a cartoons supporting the Union. Nast's early cartoons for Harper''s often depicted what Nast believed to be atrocities of the Confederate Army. Nast focused much of his work on the emancipation of slaves, which he ardently supported. Nast was one of the first artists to publicly depict African-American soldiers in battle and create images of a self-supporting African-American family. These positive images and his harsh depictions of the human cost of war led Abraham Lincoln to call Nast "our best recruiting sergeant." Lincoln also said "his emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism." 

     In 1869 Nast began the crusade against Tammany Hall for which he became most famous. Nast focused most of his criticisms of the corrupt municipal system on William Marcy Tweed, better known simply as Boss Tweed. Tweed's underhanded dealings ate up  New York taxpayers' money. In one example, under Tweed's supervision, the County Courthouse, which was supposed to be built for $250,000, was appraised at $3 million and cost a grand total of $12 million to construct. Tweed was able to keep the politics of New York in his pocket by exchanging jobs and favors with the destitute and immigrants for votes.

     Though the corruption of Tammany hall was widely known, it was not until Nast's created critical cartoons that people started to take real notice. When Nast first started his campaign against Boss Tweed, Tammany Hall seemed to be unbreakable. Because Tweed was such a public figure, accepted by all the "right" circles because of his charitable donations, and also because he owned much of the press, it was extremely difficult to bring his fraudulent dealings to light. Nonetheless, Nast continued poking fun at Tweed's llarge size and exorbitent spendings, even depicting him once with a bag of money for a head.

     Nast's cartooons did not sit well with Boss Tweed, and in 1870 he rejected all Harper Brother's bids for schoolbooks. Similarly when The New York Times, following Nast's lead, started to run articles critcizing Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed attempted to buy a third of the paper's shares made available by the death of Times publisher Henry J. Raymond. The new publisher, George Jones, declined Tweed's offer and found a new buyer.

     The action against Harper's was a big blow to the publisher, who almost crumpled under the financial loss, yet Flectcher Harper, one of the Harper brothers, was determined to continue the battle against Tammany Hall. Through his cartoons Nast not only helped bring about public outrage, but also made it popular to criticize and laugh at Boss Tweed. And as Tweed famously said, "I don't care what the papers say about me––my constituents can't read, but damn it, they can see the pictures!" 

     Nast's crusade against Tammany Hall remains one of the greatest triumphs of American journalism and catapulted Nast to fame. Nast spent much of his career following along the lines of the work he did on the Tammany scandal. He criticized dirty politicians, called for public reform, and supported six successful presidential nominees. During the later years of his life, however, Nast became dissatisfied with the growing climate of public apathy. The passion for politics had waned over time and people simply cared less about the  type of work that fueled the fire of Nast's pen. An artist through and through, Nast blamed his talent rather that public sentiment for his growing obscurity. Nast began to fight with the publishers of Harper's Weekly and his last few years at the publication were neither pleasant nor productive. Nast left the magazine in late 1886. 

     In 1902 Nast was appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to serve as United States Consul General in Guayaquil.  He stayed there helping to fight against an outbreak of Yellow Fever, which he contracted and died of at age 62.



                    A sampling of Thomas Nast's work 

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Read about other topics in Crusading and Investigative Journalism





1."Thomas Nast." Encyclopaedia Brittannica 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 27 Oct. 2008 <


A short entry about the general life and times of Thomas Nast, from his birth in Germany, his immigration to the United States and his later prominence and acclaim in political cartooning.


 2.  Johnston, Patricia. Seeing High & Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture. Berkley, CA.:University of California Press, 2006.

     Explores the repesentations of minority groups in the visual culure of the United States press and other dominent visual media forms.


 3. Morton, Keller. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

     Mostly reprints of Nast's work, the text does more to provide actual images of Nast's cartoons that shed any sort of criticizm or comment by way of literature.


4. Paine, Albert B. Thomas Nast, His Period ans His Pictures. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1904.

     A detailed history of the career of Thomas Nast, foucsing on his 25 year employment with Harper's Weekly. Much of the book is dedicated to reproductions of cartoons done by Nast that are numbered and referred to in the reading.


5. Rodibaugh, Jennifer J. "When Donkey and Elephant First Clashed." American Heritage 58 (2008): 14-?.

This article discusses the origin and early significance of the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant, the     political party symbols created by Thomas Nast.


6. Streitmatter, Rodger C. Mightier than the Sword. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, 51-67.

The chapter "Attacking Muncipal Corruption: The Tweed Ring" offers an extensive look at the press criticism of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. It examines how Thomas Nast's cartoons helped influence public opinion and expose the corruption of Tammany Hall.




Comments (1)

Howie Good said

at 1:58 am on Nov 30, 2008

Excellent entry. Exemplary work. Thank you.

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