Thomas Nast was a German-born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon”.
He was the scourge of the Tammany Hall Democratic party political machine. Among his notable works were the creation of the modern version of Santa Claus (based on the traditional German figures of Sankt Nikolaus and the Weihnachtsmann) and the political symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party.
Nast was born in military barracks in Landau, Germany (now in Rhineland-Palatinate), as his father was a trombonist in the Bavarian 9th regiment band.
Nast attended school in New York City from the age of six to 14. He did poorly at his lessons, but his passion for drawing was apparent from an early age. In 1856, he started working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. His drawings appeared for the first time in Harper’s Weekly on March 19, 1859, when he illustrated a report exposing police corruption; Nast was 18 years old at that point.
One of his most celebrated cartoons was “Compromise with the South” (1864), directed against those in the North who opposed the prosecution of the American Civil War. He was known for drawing battlefields in border and southern states. These attracted great attention, and Nast was referred to by President Abraham Lincoln as “our best recruiting sergeant”.
Public support for religion
When Tammany Hall proposed a new tax to support parochial Catholic schools, he was outraged. His savage 1871 cartoon “The American River Ganges”, depicts Catholic bishops, guided by Rome, as crocodiles moving in to attack American school children as Irish politicians prevent their escape. He portrayed public support for religious education as a threat to democratic government.
However, in 1871 Nast and Harper’s Weekly supported the Republican-dominated board of education in Long Island in requiring students to hear passages from the King James Bible, and his educational cartoons sought to raise anti-Catholic and anti-Irish fervour among Republicans and Independents.
Anti- Irish propaganda
Nast expressed anti-Irish sentiment by depicting them as violent drunks. He used Irish people as a symbol of mob violence, machine politics, and the exploitation of immigrants by political bosses.
Despite Nast’s championing of minorities, Morton Keller writes that later in his career “racist stereotypes of blacks began to appear: comparable to those of the Irish—though in contrast with the presumably more highly civilized Chinese.”
Nast introduced into American cartoons the practice of modernizing scenes from Shakespeare for a political purpose.