Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thomas Nast Cartoons

Thomas Nast is one of our favorite artists. He is among the most famous illustrators of all time, often called the ‘father of American political cartooning.’ Nast was born in Bavaria in 1840 and at six years immigrated with his family to the United States. His father, a musician, had enrolled the artistically precocious child in an art school by age 12. Three years later Nast was forced to leave his training to help support the family, fortunately gaining work as an illustrator at Frank Leslie’s Weekly. Five years later Nast had traveled abroad to cover the Heenan-Sayers fight, later joining Garibaldi’s forces in Italy as a war correspondent. He had been employed by the New York Illustrated News for these assignments, but by early 1862 he had become a war correspondent again, this time for Harper’s Weekly. His patriotic themes created such attention that President Lincoln cited Nast as his “best recruiting sergeant”.

During the first 25 years following the War Between the States, Nast became the most significant illustrator of American political and social issues. His pointed cartoons exerted a great impact on public opinion. Every presidential candidate to gain his support won and his stature increased with the successful campaign in 1870-71 to bring down “Boss” Tweed of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall and his political machine. More than a mere cartoonist, Nast was an innovator of images, popularizing or instituting many now familiar subjects such as the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, John Bull, Uncle Sam, and Columbia. Nast’s Santa Claus, modeled from Clement Moore’s St. Nicholas in his Twas the Night Before Christmas, serves as our present-day jolly old elf. Harper’s Weekly was Nast’s principal forum, and those prints hold a significant place in our American past.

On January 9, 1875, Nast produced a cover illustration for Harper’s Weekly applauding the proposed Specie Resumption Act which Grant had introduced to Congress and which passed just five days later. This had to do with the debate between “hard” and “soft” money proponents. In order the finance the Civil War, the federal government had begun to circulate paper money, “green backs,” which was not backed by gold specie. When the war ended, some wanted to continue with this policy, while others wanted to resume the use of a specie backed currency.
Most Democrats were soft-money advocates, hoping that inflation would be encouraged, so easing to some extent the extensive debt of their constituency, mostly farmers. Most Republicans, including Grant, were hard-money advocates, as were most of their capitalist supporters, and they believed that gold-backed currency would stabilized the money supply and sustained a prosperous economy. In the 1874 elections, the Democrats won enough seats that they were gong to take control of the House of Representatives, so the lame duck Republicans pushed through the Specie Resumption Act in early January, returning U.S. currency to a gold-based system.

Nast’s cartoon strongly backed this Act. Grant is shown standing on the “Ark of State, depicted as a Noah figure reaching out to the Dove of Peace, shown flying over a rainbow entitled “Our Credit.” Strewn behind the ark, floating in a sea of inflation, are the soft-money proponents.

Though the Act passed, the time-table for the retirement of the “green backs” was to take place over an extended period. The Democratic led Congress was not able to kill the act, but they were able to pass the Bland-Allison Act in February 1878, which succeeded in raising the amount of paper money not backed by gold allowed to be in circulation, thus diluting the Resumption Act.

The Republicans and Nast continued to be against this move, so Nast reissued his “Ark of State” cartoon, but this time reinforced his point by adding his own picture and titling the print with "Our Artist Indorsing the Above Cartoon.” Nast is shown sitting by the solid rock of “Sound Specie Basis,” with the quote “I, Th. Nast, A Fellow Workman Want 100 cents on a $ You Bet. Not 90 or 92 cents on a $ in silver, gold greenbacks of soft soap.”
This is all a rather obscure, and now the conflict seems totally out-of-date, but it is interesting to see Nast step into his own cartoons to reemphasize his position. He was a great innovator and print is a fascinating example of his work.

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