C . A . R . I . C . A . T . U . R . E . S
Gary L. Bunker
Historical Research and Narrative
If William Hogarth, James Gillray, and George Cruikshank set the early lofty standard for political caricature in England, Thomas Nast was one of the craft's seminal pioneers in nineteenth-century America. Paradoxically, Nast's Civil War contribution for the genre is still substantially undervalued. This study of Nast's obscure Lincoln caricature symbolizes and documents his neglected work, but it only scratches the surface of his broader untapped portfolio for the period.
This preeminent nineteenth-century popular artist cut his professional teeth on the primitive edges of Abraham Lincoln's emerging pictorial image. Although Nast's full-blown reputation came later, while exposing Tammany Hall's corrupt "Boss Tweed" for Harper's Weekly, his precocious talent for political caricature was manifest as early as 1861 in the fledgling New York Illustrated News and throughout the Civil
War in the tart comic magazine Phunny Phellow. For several reasons, Nast's cogent caricature, especially in Phunny Phellow, eluded both the gaze of Lincoln scholars and art historians. This was due in part to his not signing his Phunny Phellow drawings. Moreover, this rare humorous magazine was not as easily accessible as the abundant copies of Harper's Weekly or even the New York Illustrated News. Finally, scholars sometimes groundlessly assumed that the known corpus of cartoons and caricature was representative of the unknown, that it was somehow safe to generalize from separately published prints or even the cartoons in Harper's Weekly, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, and Vanity Fair to the larger universe of comic illustrations such as those found in rare illustrated periodicals like Phunny Phellow. In short, all of these factors and more conspired to conceal a significant segment of Nast's splendid Lincoln caricature.
Thomas Nast's tender age, just twenty when he became the leading illustrator for the New York Illustrated News, lured some scholars into the beguiling web of stereotypic thinking. Could such a young upstart compete on the same level with seasoned domestic and foreign illustrators like Henry L. Stephens, Frank Bellew, William Newman, John Tenniel, and Matt Morgan? Following such logic, one writer prematurely and erroneously conjectured: "In truth, Nast was very young and not particularly active during the Civil War." But to the question of whether Thomas Nast was ready to enter the competitive world of popular art at the outset of the war, the answer can now be documented as a thunderous yes! After all, well before the Civil War, Nast—as a gifted teenager—already had paid his dues in
an apprenticeship for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. This early exposure to competent peers and the burgeoning culture of American popular art accelerated the development of his raw talent.
Actually, no sooner had Nast assumed his position as the principal illustrator for the New York Illustrated News than the accolades for his drawings appeared as spontaneously as dew on the morning grass. To one of his earliest illustrations, a peer instinctively gushed, "It is full of life and character, as every thing is which comes from Mr. Nast's pencil." His first Lincoln caricature also betrayed the stereotype of youthful naivete; it was an instant tour de force on the differential responses of Union and Confederate attitudes toward Lincoln's first inaugural address (March 23, 1861, New York Illustrated News, 320 [Illustration 1]). According to Nast's comic vision, the South interpreted his message coming from the lips of a bellicose, blustering dictator, insensitively trampling on their just rights. His militant garb, including sword and a helmet adorned with a squawking eagle, conjured up the portent of inevitable war. In contrast, Nast portrayed the North's reception of the "President's Inaugural" as a harbinger of unqualified pacifism. Nast's northern Lincoln version, which fairly oozed with the good faith of compromise and equity, symbolically dressed the neophyte president in feminine attire and crowned him with a wreath of laurels, the personification of peace. Gently waving a palm leaf in one hand and firmly holding the scales of justice in the other, Lincoln deftly balanced northern and southern political differences as if he were prepared to juggle and resolve any conflict that might come his way. As a caricaturist of any age, this was an auspicious debut.
But there was also a sense in which Thomas Nast's cartoons and caricature were not exemplary. Nast was smitten with the epidemic of the period, a penchant for ethnic and religious derision. African Americans, Native Americans, Irish, Jews, Catholics, and Mormons were targets. So pervasive was this cultural malaise that few escaped the affliction, but it was a special occupational hazard for cartoonists. To be sure, the artists of the era must be judged on their own terms in the prevailing context of their own time and culture. Nevertheless, their prejudicial frailties beg definitive identification. Two Lincoln cartoons
by Nast were blemished with anti-Semitism (August 19, 1861, New York Illustrated News, 256; August 26, 1861, New York Illustrated News, 272). The latter, "John Bull and the American Loan," showed Lincoln falsely condoning anti-Semitism: "No Shylock—we did not come about the loan—we have money enough, and to spare, at home," declared Lincoln in the cartoon's caption. "But we thought, since our English brethren had come to be ruled by such as you, and your hirelings, yonder, that we had better keep an eye on you." As a matter of fact, Lincoln's treatment of Jews belied Nast's gratuitous image. Later, when Lincoln granted the full rights of chaplaincy to Jews and rescinded General Grant's exclusionary policy, the president refuted any uncertainty about his resolute position against anti-Semitism.
In April 1862, after Lincoln proposed gradual, voluntary, and incentive-based emancipation, Thomas Nast used a medical metaphor to praise the policy. He represented "Doctor Lincoln" dispensing the antidote of emancipation, his "new elixir of life for the southern states," to an ailing black American, an apt, if condescending, symbol for slavery. Ostensibly, Lincoln's dose of medicine treated the social ailments of the nation, while rejuvenating the hopes and dreams of those directly afflicted by the malady (April 12, 1862, New York Illustrated News, 368 [Illustration 2]). That was Nast's last Lincoln cartoon before leaving the employment of the New York Illustrated News for Harper's Weekly. Although Harper's Weekly did not immediately capitalize on Nast's native gift for classic political caricature (i.e., distorting facial and physical features for comic effect), his creativity and propensity for the genre were fulfilled by a parallel magazine opportunity as a comic artist for Phunny Phellow.
Later in 1862, Nast revisited Lincoln in caricature, this time in the context of the war (November 1862, Phunny Phellow, front page [Illustration 3]). Again historians underestimated Nast's Civil War presence as an illustrator, particularly on the war theme. Allan Nevins and Frank Weitenkampf mistakenly concluded: "Nast made his real emergence only near the end of the conflict, and published but one really
remarkable war cartoon." They were woefully wrong on both counts. Using the time-worn cliche, "jumping from the frying pan into the fire," Nast simultaneously praised Lincoln as he warned General "Stonewall" Jackson: "Honest Old Abe,—"I s'pose it does burn a little [the Virginia frying pan], my dear Stonewall, but you'd better try to bear it. If you jump [to Maryland], you will only be out of the frying pan into the fire." To be sure, "Stonewall" Jackson had been a painful thorn in the Union side, but when General Robert E. Lee was temporarily dispatched at Antietam and "Stonewall Jackson's troops arrived too late to turn the tide," Nast's confidence surged for the Union. Parenthetically, note the effective comic distortions of Lincoln's countenance, especially his huge ears, nose, and lips, as well as the president's subtle smirk of satisfaction. This was the type of morale-boosting caricature that endeared Lincoln to Nast, leading to his reputed complimentary observation: "Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant.... His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come when these articles are getting scarce."
Though arguably a statistical anomaly, Nast could also skewer and roast Lincoln on the slowly revolving spit of caricature. In December 1862, "Stonewall" Jackson's rout of General Burnside at Fredericksburg provided the impetus for the denunciation. At least from a psychological standpoint, that was the most humiliating defeat of the war. Swiftly, like never before, cartoonists were roused to action against Lincoln, his cabinet, and military associates. Even the typically friendly Harper's Weekly cartoonists imputed general blame to Lincoln for the military disaster. In Phunny Phellow, Nast's penetrating and cutting caricature pierced Lincoln, then systematically worked its way through his Secretary of the War, Edwin Stanton, his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, and Generals Halleck and Burnside (February 1863, Phunny Phellow,
8-9 [Illustration 4]). As General Burnside, commanding general of the forces at Fredericksburg, received his personal reproof from Columbia, Nast portrayed a lethargic and indifferent Lincoln, and Stanton, Welles, and Halleck in various degrees of disorganized stupor. Shown snoozing on a set of volumes labeled "Bull Run I.," "Bull Run II.," "7 Days Battle Before Richmond," "Lives Wasted," and "Retreats of 1861 and 1862," Lincoln is mauled by Nast for failing to pass the litmus test of expectations demanded by the role of commander-in-chief. The belated implementation of Lincoln's emancipation policy is also assailed: "Emancipation—One of These Days." Stanton, Welles, and Halleck are also reproached for their alleged incompetence in the military tragedy.
Inspired by the fiasco at Fredericksburg, the Copperhead movement surged forward. As Nast sensed this political development, he sketched Fernando Wood, Copperhead Congressman from New York, coveting Lincoln's presidential chair (January 1863, Phunny Phellow, 8). Nevertheless, Thomas Nast's fundamental loyalty to Lincoln and the Union was punctuated by his compelling graphic attack on the Copperheads in a stinging caricature, "A Hint to Father Abraham." (July 1863, Phunny Phellow, 8-9s [Illutration 5]). For Lincoln, the hint was reassuring: "Purge the country [of Copperheads], and the North will stand by you. —Phunny Phellow." Nast displayed Lincoln showing Copperhead sympathizers—"Clement Vallandigham," James Gordon Bennett's "New York Herald," "The New York Daily News—Ben Wood, editor and traitor," "Fernando Wood," "The New York World," "J. Brooks," and George B. McClellan—'The Road to Dixie."
In 1864, when aspiring candidates for the presidential election were jockeying for position, Nast's penchant for politics was piqued. He portrayed Uncle Sam "reviewing the army of candidates for the presidential chair," democratically wishing them all well with the phrase, "May the Best Man Win!"(April 1864, Phunny Phellow, 8-9 [Illustration 6]). Curiously, among the hopeful field of contenders, only Lincoln and George B. McClellan, the democratic front-runner, were smiling. Moreover, Nast pictured the president wistfully glancing at McClellan as if the artist already had a hunch that only these two would be vying for the lead in the final furlongs of the race.
In May, as if to emphasize his premonition, Nast ignored the other candidates, exclusively pitting "Little Mac" against Lincoln (May 1864,
Phunny Phellow, 8-9 [Illustration 7]). The clever caricature gave the impression that this was Lincoln's political battle to lose, not McClellan's to win. Nast injected condescending humor by drawing Lincoln as a hairy ape and McClellan as a dog. Nevertheless, Lincoln seems to be toying with McClellan. Securely tantalizing his former army general with the tempting morsel of the "White House," the President restrains his political adversary with a firm grip on his tail and taunts, "Don't You Wish You May Get It?"
In June, Nast featured Lincoln, Edwin Stanton, and Gideon Welles with Ulysses S. Grant, "Lincoln's New Servant Girl," the recently appointed commanding general of the Union armies (June 1864 Phunny Phellow, 8-9 [Illustration 8]). Lincoln's quest for competent military leadership was finally resolved when General Grant assumed responsibility. Characterizing the sweeping organizational transition, Nast gave General Grant a broom to dispense with any lingering incompetence. The caption of "Miss Grant from the West" explained the commanding general's confident intentions: "I'll have to clean this place out first, Mr. Lincoln, before I can commence to work properly." A hopeful, if apprehensive, Lincoln, Stanton, and Welles look on with considerable interest from the sidelines.
Yet the bulk of Nast's drawings for 1864 were committed to getting Lincoln elected. In Harper's Weekly, his political strategy resorted to grand, patriotic designs. He left the small cartoons and caricature to his artistic peers. But in Phunny Phellow, his caricatures supported Lincoln by ruthlessly attacking McClellan. In these adroitly conceived cartoons, negative campaigning was the order of the day (November 1864, Phunny Phellow, 8-9). Even after the election, Nast succumbed to a bit of gloating: "The Peace-War Eagle Brought to Grief—Old Abe is the Boy for Us" (December 1864, Phunny Phellow, also "Election Day", December 1864, 8-9).
Now that Lincoln's landslide created an overwhelming political mandate, Nast used his artistic leverage to concentrate on Jefferson Davis's growing plight. Tongue-in-cheek, Nast sent "Lincoln's Christmas Box to Jeff Davis" (December 1864, Phunny Phellow, [Illustration 9]). Well Jeff, asserted a self-confident Lincoln, will it be "More War" or "Peace and Union?" Will it be "extermination" or unconditional "surrender?" Will it be "death to all traitors" or "obey the laws of the United States?" These austere, straightforward alternatives posed to Jefferson Davis did not equivocate; either he toed the mark or the dire consequences inexorably would follow.
Yet, as the war was winding down, Nast's pragmatic temperament displayed Lincoln in a
more conciliatory, pacifist mood (March 1865, Phunny Phellow, back page [Illustration 10]). Here was Lincoln conducting "The Grand Peace Overture to 'Our Wayward Sisters,'" trying to lure them back into the fold with the lyrics: "O Johnny, we have missed you; we are coming Father Abraham; and United we stand divided we fall." Incredibly, the principal instrumentalists, now notably playing the same melodic tune in conspicuous harmony, consisted of formerly controversial and polemical, political lightning rods. Francis Blair, the latest advocate of peace, was the concert master. Editors James Gordon Bennett (Herald), Horace Greeley (Tribune), and Henry Raymond (Times), along with other New York newspapers—the World, News, Express, and Post—were on the same symphonic media page, and Edwin Stanton, Gideon Welles, and William Seward, representing the cabinet, blended their talents with the others to produce a remarkably consonant symphony of peace.
Barely a month later, the anticipatory euphoria for the end of war, the commencement of the healing of deep national wounds, and forging the bands of union were abruptly interrupted by the tragedy of presidential assassination. Setting his tools of caricature aside, Thomas Nast drew a final sad tribute for the normally comic Phunny Phellow. "We Mourn Our Country's Loss" (June 1865, Phunny Phellow, 8-9).
Craig L. Pfannkuche
Thomas Nast's rare Lincoln political caricatures present a superb chance for students to make a fresh, historical examination of the political history of the American Civil War. Additionally, they give students an opportunity to improve the skills needed to analyze issues presented through political caricaturizations in current newspapers. William Marcy Tweed's often quoted statement about Nast's cartoons shortly before his arrest, "I don't care what they print about me,... but them damn pictures!" has as much validity today as it did during the Civil War and in Tweed's day. Today's students are confronted by a wide variety of "commentary" cartoons. It is essential that they learn the skill of analyzing such materials. Using cartoons like Nast's allows students to learn more, and more thoughtfully, about the past and to acquire important citizenship skills.
Connection with the Curriculum
This material could be used to teach U.S. history, American studies, and political science
classes. The activities may be appropriate for the Illinois Learning Standards 14.C.5; 14.D.4; 14 D.5; 14.F.4a; 14.F.4b; 14.F.5; 16.A.4a; 16.A.4b; 16.A.5a; 16.A.5b; 16.B.5b(w); 16.D.4a (US); 16.D.4b(US); 18.A.4; 18.B.5; and 18.C.5.
Materials for Each Student
• A copy of the narrative portion of the article
Objectives for Each Student
• Understand the importance of political
cartooning in shaping citizen views of history
and political affairs, both national and local.
Opening the Lesson
Besides assigning the narrative portion of the article for reading, the teacher should set the scene by discussing two themes. The first should mention that opinions about the causes of the Civil War were not, in that day, monolithic. Many in the North were not supporters of emancipation, and many in the South sincerely believed that the issue of "state's rights" was the only serious issue causing the war. Many Northerners opposed Lincoln's presidency as strongly as numerous Southerners opposed the leadership of Jefferson Davis. Contemporary issues should be considered in a similar way.
The second theme is where citizens obtain information to make judgments about the various events of the day. Political cartoons abound. Some people draw their views of life from movies and music videos. The teacher should ask students where they obtain information to evaluate the meaning of today's events.
Developing the Lesson
• Handout 1 provokes a discussion as to
whether listeners perceive in the same way
what a speaker is saying. It may be helpful
to provide students with photocopies of
relevant sections of Lincoln's First Inaugural
Address at the beginning of the discussion.
References should be made to a current
polarizing issue on a national or local level.
Concluding the Lesson
The instructor and students should discuss alternative views of Lincoln that arose in response to Handouts 2 and 3. The discussion leader ought to cover the issues of how people see and hear information in both historical and current contexts. The discussion might conclude with questions about how people process information in relation to the current issues raised Handout 4.
Extending the Lesson
Ask some students to volunteer to draw a political cartoon following the message in any of Handouts 1-4. (Drawing skills are NOT the issue. Even stick figures are acceptable.) Transfer those cartoons to overhead transparencies or scan them into a classroom computer and show them to the class. Ask class members to explain the meaning of the cartoons without the cartoonist saying anything. Then ask the cartoonist why class members either did or did not understand the cartoon.
Assessing the Lesson
Grades can be given based on summary essays concerning the nature of historical analysis, alternative views of Lincoln as a leader, or a dual-sided analysis of a local problem. Student-submitted cartoons or collections of contemporary political cartoons on specific issues submitted (in photocopy only) by the students can be graded for insight and thought-fulness. Individual student essays stemming from the activities related to Handouts 1 - 4 can be used for grading. Extra cartoons or essays by individual students can be used as additional credit.
Illustration plus relevant section of First Inaugural speech Complete one of the following:
A. Write a five-paragraph theme in response to one of the following questions.
1. Was Lincoln really an "abolitionist"?
B. Write a five-paragraph editorial either supporting or denouncing Lincoln's First Inaugural.
C. Write a five-paragraph editorial titled "Why Can't Nast Figure It Out?"
40 Courtesy, author's collection
1. Go to your school or community library and photocopy or print four political cartoons that show President Bush just before Desert Storm or President Clinton on the Kosovo military action in the same light as Lincoln is shown in the accompanying Nast cartoon. Books, magazines, newspapers, and on-line resources are all possible locations for cartoons.
2. Write a five-paragraph theme showing why your choices are clear parallels to Nast's cartoon in this handout.
Courtesy: C. Fiske Harris Collection on the Civil War and Slavery, Providence Public Library
Draw your own political cartoon following Nast's theme. Choose one of the following:
1. What would an upcoming presidential primary lineup including all major parties look like?
2. What would an upcoming state governor's primary race lineup including all major parties look like?
3. What would a local nonpartisan political lineup look like?
42 Courtesy of the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1. Bring a videotape of a television ad or public service announcement (cigarettes, drugs, etc.) that portrays the issue just as Nast did and show it to the class.
2. Redraw Nast's cartoon to illustrate a contemporary issue that is important to you as a teenager.
Source: Phunny Fellow, December 1864, Special Collections, Gettysburg College