Saturday, February 27, 2010

Let’s hear it for Thomas Nast – that’s him, as he drew himself.

Thomas Nast (1840 – 1902) never graduated from any traditional high school, was never elected to anything and never made much money -- although he ended his short – 62 years – life in heroic fashion, dying in a yellow fever epidemic in Guayaquil, Ecuador where as an appointee of Teddy Roosevelt, he’d stayed, worked to the end, trying to help visiting missions avoid the contagion.

Yet Thomas Nast was without question one of the most influential people of his age. Born in Landau, Germany, son of a trombonist, he immigrated to New York with his family in 1849. Almost singlehandedly in the beginning, Thomas Nast took on the infamous “Boss Tweed” ring in New York, gained control of the city government, and installed instead a working majority in the state legislature. Fearlessly, he went after corrupt and self-serving politicians with the only tool he had – his drawings.

One after another, he took them down – with ridicule, humor and common sense as his weapons. In addition to Boss Tweed & Co, Nast brought down any number of other politicians -- Horace Greeley, Thomas Blaine – while helping others -- Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland -- get elected. He was a kingmaker, no question about it.

Nast created as well as destroyed – he was the one who initiated the symbol of the elephant to depict the Republican Party and the donkey to representing the Democrat Party. He created Santa Claus in the vision we now recognize – before Nast, Santa was tall and skinny. Nast drew “Columbia” as a female figure in flowing robes, He created Uncle Sam as the figure we now recognize, top hat and beard.

In New York City – a bastion of corruption at the time – Nast and his cartoons became so feared that Boss Tweed tried to bribe him, to get him to stop. Tweed offered Nast a “gift” of $100,000 (an incredible sum, at the time) which Nast then bargained up to $500,000 – before saying, “No, I don’t think I’ll do it”.

After that, he really went after Tweed, who was ultimately vanquished when he was convicted of fraud in 1873. In 1875, when Tweed tried to flee to Cuba and then on to Spain to escape justice, he was stopped because Spanish officials were able to identify him by using one of Nast’s cartoons.

Nast was utterly fearless – he portrayed Catholic bishops as crocodiles, waiting to prey on American’s schoolchildren. His hatred if Irish immigrants (who supported Tweed) was legendary – he drew them as violent drunks with ape-like features, which surely wouldn’t win any political correctness applause today.

On the other hand – pun intended – he engendered vast popular support for American Indians, Chinese immigrants and the abolition of slavery. His opposition to segregation and his battles against the Ku Klux Klan were instrumental in forming the way Americans thought -- and most importantly, voted.

For all of it, Thomas Nast never wrote anything at all – other than the words in his cartoons. He let his drawings express what he thought – proving that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Robert Bonham summed it up nicely:

Society, as we know, has a lot of problems, not helped by the fact that the majority of society is in denial about most of those problems. Cartoons have a way of getting through that denial, so the readers, and I like to think, 'sane' people can see all this and think: "Yeah! This cartoon/idea/observation is so right!"

Cartoons appeal to a much more common denominator than, say, political rally would. Take, for example, the trouble Viz comic (a British humor publication) got into, when it ran a comic strip featuring Harold Shipman and Fred West (two notorious serial killers in England) living as neighbors, AND made light of it all. This upset a lot of people, understandably so. But a lot of people it would have upset would have been those who liked to live in denial that such a thing existed in our society.

Art Spiegelman's "Maus", a re-telling of the Holocaust from HIS point of view, where Nazis are represented by cats, and Jews, by mice, is another example. The intent was not to make light of the holocaust, but rather to let us see it in a way that entertains (without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter) and will leave us with mental images that will stick with us. It's also a way of 'standing back' from the whole thing, and seeing it through the 'looking glass' point of view; how bizarre and absolutely unbelievable it is that such a thing could happen, in 'civilized' society.

A cartoonist is saying, “Sorry if you find this offensive, but as long as society lets things like this happen, they must be brought to society's attention, or we all just slip back into denial.”

To paraphrase the immortal words of Star Trek, as a cartoonist, Thomas Nast boldly went where no one else dared to go. He took on the political rulers of the day when everyone else stepped back. And he won the battle – not with words, but with pictures.

With all that said, many cartoonists today – thank Gd – are doing the same thing: mocking the Community Organizer and his Merry Men, saying things in drawings other in the ‘State Run Media’, as Rush calls them, dare not speak – or if they dare, wouldn’t get heard, anyway.

Take a look at Yaakov Kirschen, who draws the ‘Dry Bones’ cartoons I sometimes reprint. Kirschen frequently “says” things that drive both Israeli and US officials bonkers – not to mention the Arabs. But in doing so, he speaks for most Israelis – who’d like to say the same things, but don’t have the audience. See his blog --

So do any number of other brave artists. Here are my four favorites of the moment – with thanks to my friend Manis for sending them.


  1. Baglenosher it is interesting to know that Thomas Nast came up with the image of Uncle Sam.
    As a youth,it must be confessed that I was born and bred in Troy NY. For inquiring minds who just want to know, Uncle Sam (Wilson) was a real person. Uncle Sam (Wilson)was a meat packer who supplied meat to the US troups during the War of 1812.

    There is a historic marker for Uncle Sam where he was burried in Troy's Oakwood Cemetary.

  2. Didn't know that about "Uncle Sam" -- very interesting. And really, B.D., if I'd posted more than four, you all would have been rolling around on the floor so long you'd have missed Purim.....