Presidents, Politics, and the Pen: The Influential Art of Thomas Nast

Explore the election art of "The Father of the American Cartoon"

An introduction to Thomas Nast, by Steve BrodnerNorman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

Portrait Photograph of Thomas Nast (1888) by Unknown PhotographerNorman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

Harper's Weekly

Known as the “Journal of Civilization,” "Harper’s Weekly" was an American political magazine published in New York from 1857-1916. The magazine was hugely popular thanks to its extensive use of illustrations and its broad editorial content. By the end of 1861, "Harper’s" had a circulation of 120,000, and was one of the leading magazines of the Civil War period. A liberal, progressive paper, "Harper’s" supported President Abraham Lincoln, the preservation of the Union, and the Republican Party, perspectives that editorial cartoonist and caricaturist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) also held strongly. Nast joined the staff of "Harper’s" in 1862, and rose to prominence for his Civil War battle front depictions.

General Hancock Gulliver, How do You Like it as Far as You’ve Got? (1880) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

With "Harper’s" as his platform, Nast effectively used satire and masterful caricatures to hold candidates accountable for the issues of the day, which included the economy, political corruption, immigration, and civil rights. Although Nast lacked formal education, he was extremely adept at incorporating allegorical, symbolic, and literary references into his detailed pictures as a way to explain complex, political issues to "Harper’s" readers. His representations of the donkey and elephant helped to solidify these images as enduring symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.

Any Thing to Get In (1872) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

Known as “The President Maker,” Nast’s persuasive, and sometimes scathing cartoons proved crucial in influencing the nation’s vote and affecting the outcomes of six presidential elections between 1864 and 1884. His illustrations supported the causes he believed in and the candidates he thought were best. As these works reveal, though the names on the ballots have changed, the issues that Nast brought to light remain surprisingly similar and relevant more than 100 years later.

Compromise with the South (1864-09-03) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

1864: Abraham Lincoln (R) v. George McClellan (D)

The presidential election of 1864 was one of the most important in American history. It took place in the Union states during the fourth year of the Civil War.  Lincoln’s bid for re-election was in doubt due to huge Union war losses and opposing conservative party opinion regarding the Emancipation Proclamation and the abolition of slavery.   In an effort to broaden its party’s appeal, Republicans began calling themselves the “National Union” Party and invited War Democrats—members of the Democratic Party who wanted a more aggressive policy towards the Confederacy—to join them in the new alliance.  Lincoln’s running mate, Andrew Johnson, was a southern War Democrat who broke with his party to join the National Union Party.  Since eleven southern states had seceded from the Union, only 25 states participated in the 1864 election.  Lincoln was victorious, but sadly, was assassinated just seven weeks into his second term.

Emancipation (1863-01-24) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Emancipation," 1863
"Harper’s Weekly," January 24, 1863
pp. 56-57
Wood engraving on paper

Following Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Nast created this large illustration depicting an optimistic view for the future of free African Americans in the United States. In the illustration, Columbia (the female representation of America) presides over a scene imagining the difference that emancipation would have on slavery and former slaves in the South. Images on the left show the recent past, slaves being sold, hunted down and whipped. Images on the right show freed black children being educated in public schools, and black farmers receiving payment for the work. In the center, a family celebrates their life together in front of a stove labeled “Union.”

Compromise with the South (1864-09-03) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Compromise with the South," 1864
"Harper’s Weekly," September 3, 1864
p. 572
Wood engraving on paper

This is one of Thomas Nast’s most powerful and effective illustrations, which was reprinted widely by the Republicans in their effort to have Lincoln re-elected. It was widely considered to have played a crucial role in turning the tide of the campaign toward Lincoln’s favor and simultaneously propelled Nast to widespread fame.

Nast was a fierce supporter of the Union cause and this illustration is a classic example of his skillful use of allegory and melodrama to express his opinion and to support the cause he believed in. The image criticizes the Democrats’ party platform, and its proposed cease-fire and negotiated settlement with the South. The scene shows Columbia weeping at the grave of a Union soldier. A disabled Union soldier shakes hands with Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy while in the upper left, the American flag is hung upside down as a signal of distress.

The Blessings of Victory (1864-09-24) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The Blessings of Victory," 1864
"Harper’s Weekly"
September 24, 1864
p. 616-617
Wood engraving on paper

This illustration prominently features symbolic figures Columbia and Lady Liberty, and further depicts Nast’s support for the Union cause. Columbia holds a sword, signifying war, while Liberty holds a palm branch, signifying peace.

In a style used often by Nast, a series of vignettes show the positive outcomes of a Union victory. In the upper left is an image showing Union prisoners being released and returned home, and the upper right image shows a family reunited as a Union Soldier returns to his wife. The lower left image is captioned, "The Traitors," and shows Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in prison.

How the Copperheads Obtain their Votes (1864-11-12) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"How the Copperheads Obtain their Votes," 1864
"Harper’s Weekly"
November 12, 1864
p. 725
Wood engraving on paper

Published a week before the 1864 presidential election, Nast continued his attack on the Democrats with an illustration that portrayed the alleged corruption of the Democratic “Copperheads,” a derogatory term for southern sympathizers. Its dual message points to Democratic corruption—in this case, voting fraud—and the party’s callous disregard for the sacrifices made for the Union cause.

Under the cover of night, two men are shown sneaking around the grave sites of Union soldiers. Their names are written down on a democratic ballot as a vote to be cast for George McClellan. Hovering above the two interlopers is the ghost of a Union soldier who has risen from his grave in protest.

Fraud allegations notwithstanding, votes of Union army soldiers went overwhelmingly to Lincoln. This was due in large part to recently changed laws in twelve states which, by 1864, allowed soldiers to cast absentee ballots instead of having to travel to their home states to vote in person.

Lead us not into Temptation (1868) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

1868: Ulysses Grant (R) v. Horatio Seymour (D)

Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln after his assassination but did not receive the Republican nomination.  His sympathetic views towards the south and failure to support Reconstruction efforts outraged radical Republicans and led to impeachment proceedings.  Johnson survived the proceedings and remained in office by a margin of one vote.   Instead, the Republicans chose as their nominee, war hero General Ulysses S. Grant. Thomas Nast idolized and revered Grant, which was reflected in his illustrations. Grant was also viewed by his party as a trusted, loyal, candidate with moderate leanings who would support the Reconstruction effort. The Democrats chose former New York governor, Horatio Seymour, who shared Johnson’s view of leniency towards the south.  During the campaign, Republicans accused Democrats of voter fraud and intimidation, particularly in New York City and across the South where the Ku Klux Klan was active.  Nonetheless, Grant won the election by a large margin, and for the first time in American history, an estimated 500,000 black men exercised their right to vote.              

King Andy I (1866) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"King Andy I," 1866
"Harper’s Weekly"
November 3, 1866
p. 696
Wood engraving on paper

Nast’s foray into caricature and satire developed in earnest during the lead up to the 1868 election. This is one of several illustrations by Nast depicting the intense strife between President Johnson and radical Republicans over Reconstruction and other government policies. Playing up the rumor that Johnson had monarchical designs, he is portrayed as a King on a throne. He and Secretary of State William H. Seward as his grand vizier send critics to their execution while Lady Liberty sits before them in chains, defeated.

In line for the chopping block are numerous enemies of Johnson. Thaddeus Stevens, Johnson’s principal adversary in the House of Representatives, is first on the block. Not far behind are abolitionist Wendell Phillips, Johnson’s principal adversary in the Senate, Charles Sumner, General Benjamin Butler, and orator Anna Elizabeth Dickinson. At the very end, Thomas Nast appears with a sketchbook under his arm.

Grant in Chicago (1868) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Grant in Chicago," 1868
"Harper’s Weekly"
June 6, 1868, cover
Wood engraving on paper

In this illustration, General Ulysses S. Grant is heralded by Thomas Nast as the Republican presidential nominee. Nast revered and idolized Grant and only portrayed him in the most flattering light. Nast’s opinion of Grant was shared by the party who described him as “a man whose fidelity, simplicity, sagacity, honesty, and persistence have all been displayed in the most illustrious career of the time.”

This is a White Man's Government (1868) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"This is a White Man's Government," 1868
"Harper’s Weekly"
September 5, 1868
p. 568
Wood engraving on paper

Though slavery had been abolished, racial prejudice continued to flourish in post-Civil War New York. Nast vehemently represented Republican views with an illustration that conveys one of his recurrent messages: the Democratic Party both suppresses the rights and threatens the safety of African Americans.

The image caption informs the viewer that Nast is specifically criticizing the Democratic Party’s opposition to Reconstruction legislation. The three standing figures represent what Nast considers to be the three wings of the Democratic party: Irish immigrants, white supremacists (represented by Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest), and Northern capitalists. Nast portrays the Democratic Party as a party of oppressors of black citizens, represented by a black Union soldier felled while carrying the American flag and reaching for a ballot box.

In the background, Nast adds the burning Colored Orphan Asylum and a lynched figure to remind viewers of the Irish-American and Democratic involvement in the Civil War draft riots in New York City.

Lead us not into Temptation (1868) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Lead us not into Temptation," 1868
"Harper’s Weekly"
September 19, 1868
p. 600
Wood engraving on paper

Using biblical references, Nast explicitly depicts Democratic nominee Horatio Seymour as Satan, complete with horns formed by tufts of hair, cloven hooves, and a tail. With his trademark style of repeating themes and symbols, Nast portrayed Seymour as the devil in numerous illustrations relating to the 1868 election.

The choice placed before the voters is a stark one in Nast’s portrayal: a vote for Grant and the Republicans leads to prosperity and the promise of tranquility, while a ballot cast for Seymour and the Democrats leads to war, violence, and ruin. The scene behind Seymour includes the figures of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Frank Blair, Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, and lynched African Americans. In contrast, the setting behind Columbia includes the Capitol building, a statue of Lincoln, and a Union war memorial.

The New Organ (1872) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

1872: Ulysses Grant (R) v. Horace Greeley (R)

President Grant was easily re-elected to a second term in office. This was achieved in spite of a split within the Republican Party that resulted in a third party of Liberal Republicans nominating Horace Greeley to oppose Grant.  This action caused the Democratic Party to cancel its convention and support Greeley without nominating a candidate of its own.    The campaign deteriorated into a mudslinging fiasco, as exemplified in many anti-Greeley cartoons by Thomas Nast, published in "Harper’s Weekly." Despite depictions to the contrary, Greeley, the long-time editor of the "New York Tribune," was a supporter of Reconstruction and equality for freed slaves.  Nast, and factions loyal to Grant, depicted Greeley as a traitor and an ignorant farmer while Greeley supporters called Grant a dictator and a drunk.   On November 29, 1872, after the popular vote was counted, but before the Electoral College cast its votes, Greeley died.  His wife had died just a month earlier. Some thought that the abuse suffered at the hand of Nast and "Harper’s" contributed to their untimely demise.  Greeley received three posthumous electoral votes, but they were disallowed by Congress. 


What I know about Horace Greeley (1871) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"What I know about Horace Greeley," 1871
"Harper’s Weekly"
January 20, 1872, p. 52
Wood engraving on paper

Thomas Nast was relentless in his attacks on the Democratic nominee and created a series of disparaging cartoons called “What I Know About Horace Greeley.” Greeley lived on a farm about 35 miles north of New York City, where he applied experimental scientific methods to agriculture. In 1871, he published a book called "What I Know of Farming." Nast played on the title to mock Greeley’s perceived pretense of being an expert on various subjects.

In this illustration, Greeley “The Traitor” bows humbly to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis while presenting bail in a Richmond courtroom. The image serves to remind readers of Greeley’s controversial action, in 1867, to secure a bond for Davis’ release from federal prison. Alternatively, Greeley “The Patriot” prepares to sling “Tammany Mud” at President Grant, who sits on the White House porch.

The New Organ (1872) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The New Organ," 1872
"Harper’s Weekly"
June 8, 1872, p. 448
Wood engraving on paper

This provocative illustration portrays Horace Greeley as a pawn of Liberal Republicans, including his former assistant at the "New York Tribune," Whitelaw Reid. Shortly after his nomination by the Liberal Republicans, Greeley gave editorial control of the "Tribune" to Reid for the duration of the campaign. The "Tribune" announced that it would cease to be a “party organ,” however the newspaper continued to promote the Greeley candidacy.

The potential play on words was an immediate source of inspiration for Nast. The result was a picture of acting editor Whitelaw Reid as an organ grinder who is using Greeley as his trained monkey to beg for votes. The “organ” theme became a favorite of Nast’s and he used it liberally for the duration of the campaign. Nast continued his “What I Know…” theme with a pamphlet in the monkey’s coat pocket. Greeley's vice-presidential running mate, Governor Gratz Brown of Missouri, was reduced to insignificance by depicting him as a name tag on Greeley's coattails.

Any Thing to Get In (1872) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Any Thing to Get In," 1872
"Harper’s Weekly"
August 10, 1872, cover
Wood engraving on paper

Taking a cue from Greek mythology, Thomas Nast depicts Horace Greeley as a Trojan Horse filled with Democratic invaders seeking to gain entrance to a walled a moated Washington, D.C. Frequent Nast target, Senator Carl Schurz is in the driver’s seat while Klu Klux Klan members and other ill-intentioned collaborators climb aboard. After presumably gaining access to Washington, the Democrats will open the capital gates to admit their associates, who will proceed to wreak havoc and take over the government.

We Are on the Home Stretch (1872) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"We Are on the Home Stretch," 1872
"Harper’s Weekly"
November 2, 1872, p. 848
Wood engraving on paper

The most controversial image of the 1872 campaign was published two weeks before the election. A recent editorial in Horace Greeley’s former newspaper the "New York Tribune" had projected triumph for the candidate, proclaiming, “We are on the home stretch, with every prospect of success.” Nast seized the opportunity to create yet another witty but ironic play on words. The result was an illustration that re-imagined the "Tribune" front page, including a parody of the newspaper’s masthead. Greeley is depicted arriving at his Chappaqua, New York farm the day after the election, carried on a stretcher. A boy on the left is trying to return the Gratz Brown tag, which has fallen off Greeley’s coat.

While the cartoon achieved its intended result of lampooning Greeley, Nast could not have foreseen the unfortunate events that would soon follow. Greeley’s wife died of tuberculosis a week after the cartoon hit the newsstands, and Greeley himself died less than a month after the election.

No Rest for the Wicked (1876) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

1876: Rutherford B. Hayes (R) v. Samuel Tilden (D)

The 1876 election was one of the most controversial in United States history. Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate, won the popular vote, but with only 184 votes, was one short of an Electoral College majority. Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes collected just 165 electoral votes, and the 20 remaining votes were in dispute. One vote was from Oregon and 19 were from the three southern states, which still retained a federal military presence under Reconstruction governments: South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana.   The Constitution did not provide for the unprecedented scenario of a disputed presidential election, so a 15 member bipartisan commission was created to resolve the conflict. The commission commenced meeting on February 2nd and continued until March 2nd.  In the end, Hayes received all 20 contested ballots, allowing him to win the presidency by one electoral vote. It has been widely speculated by historians that Hayes negotiated a deal with Southern Democrats who traded their votes for promised concessions on Reconstruction and other civil rights issues.   Following his inauguration, Hayes withdrew the remaining federal troops from the South. Reconstruction officially ended and African American people were again deprived of many civil and political rights. The results were the one-party "Solid South," increasing racial strife and inequity.

The Democratic Tiger (1876) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The Democratic Tiger," 1876
"Harper’s Weekly
July 22, 1876, cover
Wood engraving on paper

The tiger originated as a symbol of the New York City Tammany Hall Democrats, but Nast appropriated the image to represent the National Democratic Party. In this instance, he used the tiger to highlight the Democratic ticket’s conflicting positions on monetary policy, the primary issue in the 1876 election. Presidential nominee Samuel Tilden is the hard-money "Contraction," and his Vice Presidential nominee, Thomas Hendricks, is the soft-money "Inflation."

Nast also associates Tilden and the Democrats with the corruption of New York City's Tammany Hall. John Morrissey, former Tammany associate, is depicted as fixing the presidential race by buying votes.

Still Hunt-ing (1876) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Still Hunt-ing," 1876
"Harper’s Weekly"
September 23, 1876, cover
Wood engraving on paper

“Governor Tilden has for years, like a hound on the scent followed the members of the Ring patiently, secretly, and diligently.” – Abram Hewitt, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee

Nast seized on the above quote to create an image mocking New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden’s “so-called” reform of the Democratic Party and Civil Service policies. Tilden is depicted on a hobby-horse surrounded by toy dogs leading a “Still Hunt” which means to stalk secretly or pursue undercover. Nast uses the hobby horse to make reference to Tilden’s nickname “Old Usufruct,” meaning a cheat or thief. It is a less than subtle jab about Tilden’s suspected non-payment of taxes on a $20,000 legal fee.

The Solid South (1876) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The Solid South," 1876
"Harper’s Weekly"
October 21, 1876, cover
Wood engraving on paper

The wolf was a symbol frequently used by Nast throughout the 1876 election to depict the Democratic Party. Here, the wolf’s sheepskin “disguise” has dropped away while Uncle Sam pursues it. A fallen lamb is used to represent the Republican Party, which has fallen victim to the Democrats ruse.

The Political Lottery (1876) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The Political Lottery," 1876
"Harper’s Weekly"
November 11, 1876, p. 913
Wood engraving on paper

“And here choose I. Joy be the consequence!” – Shakespeare

Showing uncertainty over the disputed election returns, Columbia prepares to spin the “Wheel of Fortune.”

No Rest for the Wicked (1876) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"No Rest for the Wicked," 1876
"Harper’s Weekly"
December 2, 1876, cover
Wood engraving on paper

With the election results still in dispute, Nast depicts himself preparing for more toil in support of the Republican Party.

The monument in the upper-right refers to the failure of Charles Francis Adams to be elected Governor of Massachusetts. During the Civil War, Adams had loyally and effectively served as President Lincoln's minister to Great Britain. He earned the scorn of Republicans by leaving the party in 1872 and supporting Samuel Tilden in 1876. "Adams Fall" is a pun on the folk saying about the biblical Adam and the doctrine of original sin: "In Adam's fall, we sinned all."

A Tail Praising It’s Head (1880) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

1880: James Garfield (R) v. General Winfield Scott Hancock (D)

When creating political cartoons, Nast faced the dilemma of maintaining his personal integrity. In this case, he admired General Winfield Scott Hancock’s service in the Union Army. Though he did not support Hancock’s party, Nast preferred not to malign the General’s reputation. When asked about his relationship with Hancock, Nast replied “The man, yes; his party, no.” Conversely, Nast felt that it was hypocritical to endorse Garfield, although he still supported the Republican Party. He had depicted the presidential hopeful in a disapproving cartoon related to the 1873 Credit Mobilier scandal. The charge accused congressional members of exchanging political favors for undervalued Union Pacific Railroad stock.  In the end, Nast’s drawings lacked passion for either candidate. His renderings defended the Republican platform by drawing negative images of the Democratic Party, avoiding direct attacks on Hancock. With fewer than 2,000 popular votes separating the candidates, Garfield won the Electoral College and became the 20th President of the United States. Tragically, he was assassinated six months after taking office, and was succeeded by Vice President Chester A. Arthur.

The “Magnetic” Blaine; Or, A Very Heavy “Load” (1880) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The 'Magnetic' Blaine; Or, A Very Heavy 'Load'," 1880
"Harper’s Weekly"
May 8, 1880, p.300
Wood engraving on paper

A master at symbolism, Nast creates this caricature of presidential hopeful, Blaine. The artist personifies him by using his press dubbed nickname, “Magnetic Man.” The moniker was given due to Blaine’s charismatic personality, and control of the floor as Speaker of the House. — James Blaine (1830-1893)

In this image, Nast reminds readers of the political positions and scandals associated with Blaine—his magnet-torso attracts negative metaphors instead of positive votes. The most damaging to Blaine’s reputation is the “Mulligan Letters.” These letters were supposed to implicate Blaine in giving political favors to Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad in exchange for personal profit. As a result, Blaine failed to garner the votes he needed to become the Republican presidential nominee in 1880.

General Hancock Gulliver, How do You Like it as Far as You’ve Got? (1880) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"General Hancock Gulliver, How do You Like it as Far as You’ve Got?" 1880
"Harper’s Weekly"
July 31, 1880, p. 484
Wood engraving on paper

"Harper’s" readers would have instantly recognized Nast’s literary reference to the satirical work, "Gulliver’s Travels," by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). In Swift’s narrative, Gulliver washes ashore on the island of Lilliput, finding it populated with tiny citizens who are arrogant and self-righteous.

In Nast’s cartoon, the Democratic presidential candidate Hancock is being tied down by members of his own party. By comparing Hancock to Gulliver, Nast does not attack Hancock directly but implies he is under the control of corrupt Democrats.

A Tail Praising It’s Head (1880) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"A Tail Praising It’s Head," 1880
"Harper’s Weekly"
August 21, 1880, cover
Wood engraving on paper

Portrayed as the head of a lion, Hancock guards Fort Columbus on Governor's Island, New York, where he is stationed as commander of the U.S. Army's Atlantic Division. His vice-presidential running mate, William English, is at the tail. Playing on the word “democrats,” Nast fills the waters below Hancock with rodents, an unattractive characterization.

Hancock looks sternly at English who holds his formal acceptance letter for his party’s nomination. In it, he praises Hancock, “Not only a brave soldier, a great commander, a wise statesman and a pure patriot, but a prudent, painstaking, man of unquestionable honesty….”The Democratic Party selected English, a wealthy man from Indiana, with the hope that he would secure votes in the swing state, and provide financing for the campaign. Unfortunately for the Democrats, English did not deliver either.
William English (1822-1896)

A Change is Necessary – Who Should Withdraw? (1880) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"A Change is Necessary – Who Should Withdraw?”
"Harper’s Weekly"
November 6, 1880, p. 712
Wood engraving on paper

Nast’s drawing reveals to "Harper’s" readers the division within the Democratic Party, North versus South. The “Solid South”, white southern confederates, was for fair trade and a low tariff for federal revenue only. Vice presidential nominee English, embodied the northern view, businessmen wanting tariff to protect American goods against foreign imports. The walls are filled with accusations being pointed against each side regarding political favors, voter fraud, and currency standard.

On Hancock’s back, the sign “Taffy is a local question…” hints at him not grasping a major political issue of the 1880 election. The rag baby he holds is Nast’s symbol for “greenbacks,” or paper money. The analogy links the idea that a rag baby is not alive, just like paper money is not “real,” unlike gold or silver coins. The tag around the doll’s neck refers to the Greenback Party presidential candidate James Weaver (1833-1912).

The Compliments of the Season - March 4 (1885) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

1884: Grover Cleveland (D) v. James Blaine (R)

In 1884, the Republican Party divided into three major factions: Stalwart, Half-Breed, and Reform. The Stalwarts, including ex-President Grant, favored political machines and the spoils system. Half-Breeds, like former Secretary of State Blaine, supported civil service reform and a merit system. The Reformers, nicknamed Mugwumps, vehemently opposed the nomination of Blaine, due to his record of corruption, and left the party.   Long-time Republican Nast faced a moral decision, to support Blaine’s candidacy or join the Mugwumps. In the July 21st  "Harper’s Weekly," its publishers featured the Nast cartoon “Death Before Dishonor,” a dramatic visual on the Reformists’ position, and an editorial stating that “to support nominations which the moral judgment of the voters rejects, for the sake of the party, is to accept moral slavery….”  Consequently, Nast and "Harper’s" were highly criticized and denounced as traitors.

The Sacred Elephant (1884) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The Sacred Elephant," 1884
"Harper’s Weekly"
March 8, 1884, cover
Wood engraving on paper

Nast’s self-caricature leads an elephant, his iconic symbol for the Republican Party, to the White House. Looming on the page, the elephant carries the Presidential Chair held by a “Civil Service Reform” belt. Nast fears that the unethical front-runner Blaine will fill it, and warns delegates not to nominate a candidate who is corrupt, but rather “pure and clean."

The belt signifies the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act which was limited in scope. Nast strongly believed that the next president needed to expand the law. Blaine was implicated in many scandals, and his misuse of political office is the reason Nast deemed the need for reform, and why he would not support the candidate for president.

Death Before Dishonor (1884) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Death Before Dishonor," 1884
"Harper’s Weekly"
June 21, 1884, p. 396-7
Wood engraving on paper

"Speaking for myself, I positively decline to support Blaine, either directly or in directly, even if the Democrats should nominate the Devil himself." -Thomas Nast

Nast draws upon a literary metaphor to express his strong feelings against the Republican candidate, Blaine. In "The History of Rome" by historian Titus Livius (64? BC-17 AD), Appius Claudius desires Virginius’s beautiful daughter, who would rather die than be with him. When faced with no other choice, Virginius respects his daughter’s wish, and murders her so she would not be dishonored by Appius Claudius.

In Nast’s drawing, Blaine is Appius Claudius and Virginius represents the Free Republicans or Mugwumps. Nast, "Harper’s Weekly," and other former steadfast Republicans felt it was better to place Nation before Party and preserve their honor, than to support a questionable candidate.

The “Great American” Game Of Public Office For Private Gain (1884) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The 'Great American' Game Of Public Office For Private Gain," 1884
"Harper’s Weekly"
August 9, 1884, p. 523
Wood engraving on paper

Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight, James G. Blaine from the state of Maine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of every traitor to his country and every maligner of his fair reputation. -Robert G. Ingersoll

During the 1876 Republican Convention, Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), a prominent member of the party, gave a speech nominating Blaine as the Republican presidential candidate. Blaine failed to win his party’s nomination but did earn the nickname “Plumed Knight.” Throughout 1884 campaign, Nast literally incorporated Ingersoll’s vivid statement into his caricatures of Blaine. Nast’s cartoon still maintains that Blaine has used his political position for personal financial gain.

Is This The “True American Policy?" (1884-12-26) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"Is This The 'True American Policy?'" 1884
"Harper’s Weekly"
July 26, 1884, cover
Wood engraving on paper

The Plumed Knight Blaine pleads for votes from Nast’s Irish-Catholic thug character, who is linked to Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall, the powerful Democratic Party political machine known for corruption controlled New York politics, and their support was crucial in winning the close election. Blaine hoped to gain their votes since the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, had alienated the machine as New York Governor.

In the text, Blaine promises to protect Ireland from Great Britain even “after you’ve killed innocent women and children with dynamite.” This citation refers to the Fenian Dynamite Campaign of 1881-1885, a terrorist operation aimed at disrupting the daily life of the British through the planting of explosives in England’s urban areas. The Fenians, political revolutionaries wanting an Irish self-government, included Irish-American members contributing to these horrible acts. In this cartoon, Nast skillfully associates Blaine with the insurgents.

The Spread of American Ideas (1884) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The Spread of American Ideas," 1884
"Harper’s Weekly"
July 1884, p. 526
Wood engraving on paper

Thomas Nast's wood engraving depicts Blaine as the Plumed Knight warmly hugging Nast’s Irish-American thug character who appears to be staggered by the gesture. Nast reinforces the imagery by drawing his July 26th "Harper’s Weekly" cover with the same figures on the wall.

The accompanying caption refers to a large gathering of Irish-American Independents on July 29th, held in Chickering Hall, New York City. The Speakers endorsed the Blaine and Logan ticket rather than the Democratic Party.

That Boodleful Dinner At Delmonico's Before the Election (October 29) (1884) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"That Boodleful Dinner At Delmonico’s Before the Election (October 29)," 1884
"Harper’s Weekly"
November 15, 1884
p. 758
Wood engraving on paper

On the evening of October 29th, Blaine held a fundraising dinner at Delmonico’s, a luxurious New York City restaurant. Among the wealthy businessmen in attendance were Jay Gould and John Jacob Astor. The audience heard Blaine and the Republican Party’s agenda on creating economic prosperity for the city and the country. Unfortunately, the event backfired on Blaine because it implied to the voters that he championed the rich rather than the working class.

Nast characterized the affair with the Plumbed Knight Blaine seated at the table with Jay Gould, an American Financier, who was involved in unscrupulous railroad stock deals, and traded favors with Tammany Hall. Blaine hangs on to the arm of William M. Evarts, the Republican nominee for New York Senator. Surrounded by dollar signs, the men dine on soap to cleanse their soiled reputations.

The Compliments of the Season - March 4 (1885) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902)Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

"The Compliments of the Season – March 4," 1885
"Harper’s Weekly"
March 7, 1885, cover
Wood engraving on paper

"It is, indeed, his honor and his praise that he leaves the Presidency with a higher political consideration than when he entered it…"- "Harper’s Weekly" editorial

This March 7, 1885 "Harper’s Weekly" cover, marks the first time a Democratic President will be entering the White House since James Buchanan left office in 1861. In the 1884 election, the incumbent president failed to receive the Republican Party’s nomination because Arthur favored civil service reform; the Stalwart faction upheld the spoils system. Arthur leaves with hat in hand after Cleveland’s inauguration, and in 1886, dies of kidney disease.

Mr. Thomas Nast (1867) by Mathew Brady (1822-1896), photographer / W.L. Thomas (1830-1900), engraverNorman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA

Thomas Nast

(September 27, 1840 –
December 7, 1902)

Thomas Nast was a political cartoonist considered to be the "Father of the American Cartoon.” Born in Landau, Germany, Nast’s family immigrated to New York City when he was six. Nast showed an interest in drawing from an early age, but much less so in school, dropping out at the age of 14. He briefly studied at the National Academy of Art, and in 1885, went to work for "Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper."  The start of the Civil War created an increase in the public’s demand for illustrated news from the war front. In 1862, Nast joined the staff of "Harper's Weekly," and earned recognition for his vivid, compassionate battlefield and camp scenes. Nast’s drawings reflected his staunch support of the Union, and his liberal, progressive Republican views. After the war, Nast penned highly-opinionated editorial cartoons exposing political corruption and controversial social issues, which earned him many enemies. In 1872, concerned for his family’s safety, Nast and his wife, Sarah, relocated from New York City to Morristown, New Jersey to raise their five children.  By the mid-1880s, Nast's contributions to "Harper's" dwindled and he left the magazine in 1886.  Soon after, due to bad investments, Nast fell heavily into debt. In 1902, he applied for a job in the State Department, hoping to secure a consular position.  President Theodore Roosevelt, a fan of Nast’s work, offered him an appointment as the Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast accepted and traveled to Ecuador on July 1, 1902 where, sadly, he contracted yellow fever and died just five months later. His body was returned to the United States where he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

Credits: Story

"Presidents, Politics, and the Pen: The Influential Art of Thomas Nast" has been organized by Norman Rockwell Museum.

The Museum would like to acknowledge the generous gift of original "Harper’s Weekly" wood engravings from Stephen K. Yasinow and Bill Cormier, local collectors of 19th century prints.

Special thanks:

Venus Van Ness, exhibition curator
Barbara Rundback, exhibition curator
Stephanie Plunkett
Jeremy Clowe
Rich Bradway
Steve Brodner
"Berkshire Eagle," media sponsor

For more info:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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