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Stars of Political Cartooning – Thomas Nast

While doing Month of Art Stars, I was going to feature a current political cartoonist that I dig, but then it occurred to me that it would be more fun to do a whole month devoted just to political cartoonists, so here you go – a month of some of the greatest political cartoonists who ever put ink to paper!

If you’re doing a stars of political cartooning feature, there’s really one name you MUST start with, so I did.


Thomas Nast might not just be the most famous political cartoonist of all time, he is one of the most famous cartoonists PERIOD of all time.

Born in 1840, Nast immigrated to the United States from Germany as a young boy.

By his teenage years, Nast was involved in the blossoming periodical scene in New York City, which consisted of a number of newspapers and magazines.

In his early 20s, the Civil War became, naturally, the biggest thing in his life, and some of his earliest great cartoons detailed the devastating effects the war had back in New York, hunger-wise.

Soon, though, Nast would turn his pen towards the idea of civil liberties, with some beautiful work regarding the Emancipation.

It was Nast’s coverage of the Reconstruction after Civil War that is most associated with Nast’s legacy.

Nast drew attention to the plight of the disenfranchised blacks…

Columbia. -‘Shall I trust these men, and not this man?'”

…Native Americans….

“Has the Native American no rights that the naturalized American is bound to respect,”

and Chinese immigrants…

Columbia. -‘Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men.'”

But his most famous series of cartoons were when he went after William “Boss” Tweed, who held control of the New York Democratic Party (they were headquartered at Tammany Hall on 14th Street in New York City), and was certainly a major figure of corruption during the late 1860s/early 1870s.

Here are two of his more famous depictions of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall (the Tammany Tiger)…

“The Tammany Tiger Loose- ‘What Are You Going to Do About It?’

Tweed was to have said about Nast’s drawings – “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”

While for many years, Nast was a bit of an idealist and a fervent follower of the Republican party, as time went by, he became more and more disenchanted with politics, which led to his famous depiction of the Republican Party as a lumbering elephant and the Democratic Party as a donkey (Nast likely originated the donkey symbol in a piece he did years earlier, but the elephant image actually preceded Nast – he did popularize it, though).

Around the same time, Nast began to take a highly cynical look at the blacks and the Irish in America, as he looked at them as idiots who were being used by the respective parties…

Pretty harsh stuff considering some of his past work.

By his death in 1902, Nast was out of the political cartoon arena altogether.

Speaking of outside political cartoons, here is a great Nast cover of Harper’s Weekly (the magazine he worked for for years) featuring that new-spangled sport, baseball…

And, as you may have heard, Nast also was the guy who came up with the popular visual for Santa Claus (the jolly old elf look).

Here is Santa Claus’ first appearance, in a piece Nast did for Christmas during the Civil War…

And here is a much more detailed piece almost 20 years later…

As you can see, Thomas Nast was an important figure in American history, and certainly in comic history.

Thanks to Ohio State University for their great exhibit on Nast from a few years ago where most of these images came from.


The prefix “re-” means ” back”; therefore it’s redundant to say “revert BACK” or “reflect BACK”.

Thanks for this Brian… I haven’t seen very many of the American political cartoonists. Really interesting profile – and I love Tweed’s comment!

It is sad that so much corruption continues in politics, though, and you can see how he became more and more disenfranchised as time went on… He had obviously been pointing things out for years, and no-one took him seriously… I guess even then there was the attitude of “But it’s just a cartoon, you can’t take it seriously…”

This is probably my favorite Nast illustration.
Here’s a couple of posts from MetaFilter about Nast and old timey political cartoons that you may find helpful, Brian.

He didn’t draw enough superheroes!

Kidding, of course. Thomas Nast was terrific. I remember, as a kid, checking a book of his cartoons out of the library and having my mind blown.

Come on, Brian, how can you leave out the best part? When Tweed was eventually indicted, he fled to Cuba, and then Spain. Officials wired ahead to Spain to arrange for Tweed’s arrest. The Spanish authorities, however, had no photographs of Tweed to identify him by, so they used one of Nast’s cartoons. Sure enough, Tweed was arrested as soon as he stepped off the boat.

Awesome. This will be exciting and educational! Always good to branch out into other areas of this great beast called comics.

Nast is the only way to start off this month right. Kudos for such a thorough history lesson!

While they’re not Olyphant, please remmeber Gary Trudeau and Berkeley Breathed this month, too!

*Snark* And Judd Winick, too. * Snark*

[The prefix “re-” means ” back”; therefore it’s redundant to say “revert BACK” or “reflect BACK”.]

Actually in classic texts of Latin and Greek (from which we borrow these words and style) redundant use of directions was part of the style. To say I go out in Attic Greek for example is: ek ekebaino, literally “I outgo out”
Unrelated to comics but whatevs

Yeah, and ancient Romans didn’t leave spaces between their words either. I hope we’ve progressed since the Empire fell.


Great subject, although I’d suggest that Hogarth: http://www.tate.org.uk/images/cms/12508w_hogarth_ginlane.jpg

or perhaps Gillray is a better starting point: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Caricature_gillray_plumpudding.jpg

Nast clearly followed in their footsteps, while adding an American twist.

Among current cartoonists, you might want to consider Steve Bell. His cariacture of John Major: http://www.artthrob.co.za/03nov/images/bell01a.jpg is the most effective I’ve ever seen in skewering a politician’s public image.



[…] and museum admission is required. » Brian Cronin over on the Comic Book Resources blog has presented several pieces of Thomas Nast cartoons – some you’ve probably seen, some you may not have. » E&P report that Andrews […]

Darnit, Nick, now it will be less of a surprise when those folks come up! :)

But yeah, both are clear picks for a list like this.

amazing post, Brian. As a student of american culture this was a great eduction on the history of political cartooning in the U.S.

I hope Steve Bell gets a nod. Not always the most subtle of artists but a good draftsman and often very cutting, whether you agree with his politics or not. Take this one on the retirement of Fidel Castro:


Don’t forget Dr. Seuss

[…] Price Kevin Huizenga at SPX Go See Osbert Lancaster Kenny Penman Delighted By Ignatz Nom History On Thomas Nast Cyclops Hates Ads On Honore Daumier Presidents In Comics On Raymond Macherot On Raymond Macherot […]

Jeremy Cresswell

October 9, 2008 at 3:19 am

Harper’s runs a site dedicated to Nast’s works.


The anti-irish imagery is fascinating. Aside from the political reasons mentioned there were two other reasons why Nast was so hostile towards the Irish. Firstly as a Protestant German migrant the Irish migrants were a direct economic threat to other migrant groups and were Catholic in the main (19th C America was very anti-Catholic). Secondly Nast actually traced many images drawn by Sir John Tenniel of ‘Punch’ in London, which was well known for its hostile representation of the Irish.

Thanks for the link, Jeremy.

Yeah, Nast’s hatred of the Irish is not too surprising, given the times, but man, to see a guy who kept preaching tolerance most of his career to not even realize the hypocrisy of his actions…it’s quite sad.

Jeremy Cresswell

October 9, 2008 at 3:48 am

In the cartoon ‘Move On’ (above) there is a good pairing of a German and Irish migrant. The Irishman is stuffing the ballot box with a handful of ballots while the German has just one and wags his finger at the Irishman in an admonishing way. Another reason Nast was so hostile to the Irish was that he was militia-man during the 1867 St. Patricks day riot where many Catholic Irish were killed by the militia protecting the Protestant Irish. His cartoon of the event ‘The day we celebrate’ has some of the most hostile cartoon images of the Irish that I have seen.

[…] que si, es un mito urbano (mas informacion en el link. por cierto, si quieren saber mas de Nast ACA hay mas) Quiero creer que esa imagen fue para que no te chorees el link, y no que Papá Noel era […]

[…] que si, es un mito urbano (mas informacion en el link. por cierto, si quieren saber mas de Nast ACA hay mas) copado Originalmente publicado por Buddy Baker (si ya se, si tengo un leon le voy […]

very interesting. i’m learning about Thomas Nast and his political cartoon “Move On!” in history right now and i have to analyze it and figure out the story behind it. it was easier to understand it when i saw some of his other cartoons from around that time. thanks. :)

[…] Thomas Nast,  the 19th century political cartoonist who gave Harper’s Weekly enough political influence to topple Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall and to sway the election of two presidents, Grant and Cleveland, has been nominated for the New Jersey Hall of Fame’s class of 2012. […]

[…] of Jesus was one of these, mocking his followers. Dr. Seuss got his start there, and names like Thomas Nast continue to live on for good […]

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