Power to pencil

Power to pencil

Over centuries, cartoons and caricatures have brought smiles to millions of readers and viewers. They have also occasionally given rise to controversies and caused political and social upheaval.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) who, according to many, was the ‘Father of American Caricature’, not only created the modern image of Santa Claus in 1863, but also popularised the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party in 1870 and the elephant for the Republicans in 1874.

He is also credited for adding a goatee to Uncle Sam. All these images have endured to this day.At the height of his powers, Nast produced many influential pieces that unnerved the high and mighty of American establishment.

His sharp pictures and biting caricatures took on many social issues. They affected the electioneering process in America, and even influenced the contours of presidential politics of the country.

In 1864, when Abraham Lincoln was running for presidential re-election, Nast’s cartoons came to his aid. Many of his drawings supported Lincoln and virulently attacked his opponent. Lincoln later hailed Nast as his ‘best recruiting sergeant’.  

 Nast also played a significant role in the election of Ulysses S Grant (1822–1885) as the President in 1868 and 1872. Grant attributed his success to ‘the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Nast’. (Philip H Sheridan was a General who played a key role in the Civil War.) According to Grant, Nast “did as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the (Civil) war to an end.”

Humble beginnings

Nast was born in Landau, Germany in 1840 and came to New York as a young boy. He was forced to drop out from school because of financial problems. His first drawings were made out of reject crayons gifted by a neighbour.

He was still in his teens when he started working as an illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The story goes that Nast virtually gate-crashed into the editor’s office and demanded work; more as a prank, Leslie gave him an “assignment” to draw a picture of the crowd at the Ferry house in lower Manhattan during rush hour.

 When Nast returned the next morning with the completed drawing, Leslie was impressed by the young man’s drive and talent and hired him. Nast worked for Leslie’s from 1855 to 1858, learned (among others) the art of wood engraving but was eventually laid off with several others when the newspaper ran into rough weather financially.

Nast later joined the Harper’s Weekly and it is there that he really cut his teeth in political cartooning. His association with Harper’s lasted for more than 25 years in two phases: initially in 1859-1860, and later from 1862-1886.

More than 2,200 of his cartoons were published, hoisting Nast into a national icon. He became the first cartoonist in the country who published on a weekly basis in a magazine with national circulation. It is said that Nast could draw backwards, directly on the boxwood printing blocks with a soft pencil, and send them for printing.

Nast’s tenure at Harper’s Weekly ended with his Christmas illustration of December 1886. “In quitting Harper’s Weekly, Nast lost his forum,” observed well-known journalist Henry Watterson. “In losing him, Harper’s Weekly lost its political importance.”
Political intuition
Nast was known for his immense talent, commitment to causes and professional integrity. With his liberal and progressive views, he expressed freely and forthrightly on any issue of political and social significance.

He refused to draw cartoons he did not believe in. Like Grant, he too condemned slavery, criticised segregation and detested Ku Klux Klan. He was also sometimes seen to be a dogmatist, content to view the world as a struggle between good and evil. “The harshness of his heavy black line and the severity of his crosshatching mirrored his angry politics,” observed a critic.


Many of Nast’s cartoons were dramatic in both form and content; they were often designed to look like a scene from a play. Critics observed that it was he who introduced into American cartoons the practice of modernising scenes from Shakespeare for a political purpose.

 According to Wendy Wick Reaves, Curator of Prints at National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Nast excelled “at creating cartoons, combining keen political intuition, deftly exaggerated but identifiable portraits, and apt literary analogies or humorous situations.”

There are many Nast-drawn cartoons which became famous and are remembered to this day. In ‘Worse than Slavery’, he portrayed a black couple holding their dead child while members of Ku Klux Klan and White League congratulate themselves.

One of his finest and hard-hitting cartoons, ‘Amphitheatrum Johnsonian – Massacre of the Innocents at New Orleans’, showed President Andrew Johnson as Emperor Nero, impassively watching blacks being slaughtered by the New Orleans police on July 30, 1866.

‘Compromise with the South’, published in Harper’s Weekly on September 3, 1864 — another influential engraving of the Civil War — was a poignant image of a sad Columbia mourning at a grave marked “Union Heroes in a Useless War”.

Nast was an active illustrator of books; he illustrated more than a hundred books. In 1867, he unveiled an extraordinary set of 33 huge paintings. The Grand Caricaturama featured allegorical pictures — each measuring eight feet by 12 feet — which were rolled across a stage, accompanied by piano music and a satirical narrative presented by an actor. The project was a critical success, but a financial disaster.

The tweed episode

Nast ran many important campaigns in his career. But the one which became legendary was his crusade against the corrupt New York City’s political boss William Magear Tweed who was depicted as a sleazy criminal. “Stop them damn pictures,” thundered Tweed to his companions. “I don’t care what the papers write about me.

My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures.”
Voters ousted Tweed and his compatriots in November 1871. He was arrested, but managed to escape from jail and flee to Spain in 1876. Interestingly, he was recognised and arrested by a customs official who did not read English but had seen Nast’s Harper’s Weekly caricatures of Tweed!

Nast’s own fortunes dipped after he left Harper’s. His final years were troubled. He was made Consul General to Guyaquil, Ecuador but shortly after arriving in Ecuador, he contracted yellow fever and died after a protracted illness on December 7, 1902.


“Nast is often spoken of as the first great American cartoonist,” wrote critic William Murrell in his article titled ‘Nast, Gladiator of the Political Pencil’. “In a very real sense, he was the last. For while it is true that many of his symbols and devices have become part of the cartoonist’s stock-in-trade… his attitude was a complete flowering of the older tradition — a tradition of ruthless, two-fisted attack.”

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