Thomas Nast

Political Cartoonist Influenced Politics in the Late 1800s

Engraved portrait of cartoonist Thomas Nast
Thomas Nast. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Nast is considered the father of modern political cartoons, and his satirical drawings are often credited with bringing down Boss Tweed, the notoriously corrupt leader of the New York City political machine in the 1870s.

Besides his scathing political attacks, Nast is also largely responsible for our modern depiction of Santa Claus. And his work lives on today in political symbolism, as he is responsible for creating the symbol of the donkey to represent Democrats and the elephant to represent Republicans.

Political cartoons had existed for decades before Nast began his career, but he elevated political satire into an extremely powerful and effective art form.

And while Nast’s achievements are legendary, he is often criticized today for an intensely bigoted streak, especially in his depictions of Irish immigrants. As drawn by Nast, Irish arrivals to America’s shores were ape-faced characters, and there’s no obscuring the fact that Nast personally harbored a deep resentment toward Irish Catholics.

Early Life of Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast was born September 27, 1840, in Landau Germany. His father was a musician in a military band with strong political opinions, and he decided the family would be better off living in America. Arriving in New York City at the age of six, Nast first attended German language schools.

Nast began to develop artistic skills in his youth and aspired to be a painter. At the age of 15 he applied for a job as an illustrator at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a very popular publication of the time. An editor told him to sketch a crowd scene, thinking the boy would be discouraged.

Instead, Nast did such a remarkable job that he was hired. For the next few years he worked for Leslie’s. He traveled to Europe where he drew illustrations of Giuseppe Garibaldi, and returned to America just in time to sketch events around the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, in March 1861.

Nast and the Civil War

In 1862 Nast joined the staff of Harper’s Weekly, another very popular weekly publication. Nast began to portray Civil War scenes with great realism, using his artwork to consistently project a pro-Union attitude. A devoted follower of the Republican Party and President Lincoln, Nast, during some of the darkest times of the war, portrayed scenes of heroism, fortitude, and support for the soldiers on the home front.

In one of his illustrations, “Santa Claus In Camp,” Nast portrayed the character of St. Nicholas dispensing gifts to Union soldiers. His depiction of Santa was very popular, and for years after the war Nast would draw an annual Santa cartoon. Modern illustrations of Santa are largely based on how Nast drew him.

Nast is often credited with making serious contributions to the Union war effort. According to legend, Lincoln referred to him as an effective recruiter for the Army. And Nast’s attacks on General George McClellan’s attempt to unseat Lincoln in the election of 1864 was no doubt helpful to Lincoln’s reelection campaign.

Following the war, Nast turned his pen against President Andrew Johnson and his policies of reconciliation with the South.

Nast Attacked Boss Tweed

In the years following the war the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City controlled the city government’s finances. And William M. “Boss” Tweed, leader of “The Ring,” became a constant target of Nast’s cartoons.

Besides lampooning Tweed, Nast also gleefully attacked Tweed allies including the notorious robber barons, Jay Gould and his flamboyant partner Jim Fisk.

Nast’s cartoons were astoundingly effective as they reduced Tweed and his cronies to figures of ridicule. And by portraying their misdeeds in cartoon form, Nast made their crimes, which included bribery, larceny, and extortion, understandable to nearly anyone.

There is a legendary story that Tweed said he didn’t mind what the newspapers wrote about him, as he knew many of his constituents wouldn’t fully comprehend complicated news stories. But they could all understand the “damned pictures” showing him stealing bags of money.

After Tweed was convicted and escaped from jail, he fled to Spain. The American consul provided a likeness which helped to find and capture him: a cartoon by Nast.

Bigotry and Controversy

An enduring criticism of Nast’s cartooning was that it perpetuated and spread ugly ethnic stereotypes. Looking at the cartoons today, there is no doubt that depictions of some groups, particularly Irish Americans, are vicious.

Nast seemed to have had a deep distrust of the Irish, and he was certainly not alone in believing that Irish immigrants could never fully assimilate into American society. As an immigrant himself, he was obviously not opposed to all new arrivals in America.

Later Life of Thomas Nast

In the late 1870s Nast seemed to hit his peak as a cartoonist. He had played a role in taking down Boss Tweed. And his cartoons depicting Democrats as donkeys in 1874 and Republicans as elephants in 1877 would became so popular that we still use the symbols today.

By 1880 Nast’s artwork was in decline. New editors at Harper’s Weekly sought to control him editorially. And changes in printing technology, as well as increased competition from more newspapers that could print cartoons, presented challenges.

In 1892 Nast launched his own magazine, but it was not successful. He faced financial difficulties when he secured, through the intercession of Theodore Roosevelt, a federal post as a consular official in Ecuador. He arrived in the South American country in July 1902, but contracted yellow fever and died on December 7, 1902, at the age of 62.

Nast’s artwork has endured, and he considered one of the great American illustrators of the 19th century.

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McNamara, Robert. "Thomas Nast." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Thomas Nast. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Thomas Nast." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).