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.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Terra Australis Incognita

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia, my visit "down under,” and so I am inspired to write about the mapping of the first “Australis,” Latin for ‘southern,’ to appear on maps, the mythical “Terra Australis Incognita,” that is ‘Unknown Southern Land.’


If you look on many maps of the sixteenth century, you will see a very large land mass covering the southern pole, looking much like the continent of Antarctica. This is really strange, as that continent was not actually discovered until 1820. If that is so, how did what looks to be Antarctica appear on maps from four centuries before? This anomaly has been explained by some (most famously Charles Hapgood in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings) as being the result of an ancient advanced civilization or by others (such as Erich Von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods) as evidence of a visit to Earth by space visitors in the distant past. The truth, though more mundane, is still of considerable interest.


During the Renaissance, as scholars were trying to get a handle on their world in a period of discoveries of new lands, there were many who supported a theory that there had to be an as-yet-discovered continent in the southern-most part of the globe. This was based mostly on the supposition that there had to be a large land mass in the south to balance all the land in the north.


If you look at a modern map of the world [such as the one above by Daniel R. Strebe] and look all the land other than Antarctica, it is clear that the majority of the land mass is north of the equator. It was thought that if there were not a large, balancing land mass in the southern hemisphere, the globe would wobble or perhaps tip over.


Gerard Mercator was a proponent of this theory and so he included this continent on his world map.


Once one accepted that there must be a hitherto undiscovered land in the south, one tended to read any information about the southern regions as giving shape to this land. So Marco Polo’s report of “Greater Java” was seen as confirmation of this southern continent, and Polo’s “Locac” became the region of Lucach located there, as well as two other locations based on a misreading of Polo, “Beach” and “Maletur.”


The existence of this great southern land was then further confirmed when in 1520 Magellan sailed through the straits thereafter named after him. Magellan sailed between South America and what he called “Terra del Fuego,” which naturally was assumed to be the shore of Terra Australis. Thus it was that maps began to give a firmer shape to that continent.


However, Tierra del Fuego is an island, not part of Terra Australis, as was proven in 1616, when Jacques Le Maire and Willem Corneliszoon Schouten sailed from the Atlantic Ocean, south of Tierra del Fuego, and into the Pacific.


This did not get rid of the notion of Terra Australis Incognito, however, it just necessitated a modification of the shape of that putative continent. Map makers, not wanting to have to re-engrave entire new plates for their maps which had hitherto shown the continent including the northern shore of Tierra Del Fuego, simply erased the shoreline connected to the now-known-to-be island, ending the coast vaguely somewhere in the oceans to the east and west.


Through much of the seventeenth century, as explorations were being made in the southern oceans, new discoveries of land were often initially assumed to be part of Terra Australis-—for instance this was thought at one time for the New Hebrides and Australia—-until this was shown to be incorrect. As these discoveries were reported, parts of the coastline of Terra Australis, which had appeared on maps since the sixteenth century, were more and more erased, so that by the end of the seventeenth century, people were beginning to doubt its existence.


It was one of the greatest scientific cartographers of all time, Guillaume Delisle, who finally decided—-given the total lack of any evidence—-that he would completely remove the continent from his maps. Quite ironic that the person who was most closely following good, scientific principals in mapmaking, ended up making maps which were the furthest from reality.


The hope for a great southern continent continued into the eighteenth century, with James Cook having secret instructions to search for it during his 1768-71 voyage supposedly just to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti. On his second voyage, of 1772-73, Cook sailed around the seas so far to the south that he proved that if there were any southern continent, it was much smaller than the original theories suggested. It wasn’t until 1820 that the continent was first actually sighted, with the last of the known continents finally making it onto maps of the world legitimately, rather than as a matter of speculation.