Born September 27, 1840
Died December 7, 1902
Northern newspaper artist
Drew sentimental pictures and harsh editorial
cartoons that increased public support for the
Union cause during the Civil War
Thomas Nast. (Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.)
"Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism. . . .
In the days before photography enjoyed wide use, American newspapers hired artists to draw pictures to accompany news stories. Thomas Nast was one of the best-known and most influential newspaper artists of this period. He produced over three thousand pictures during his career, ranging from sentimental paintings to harsh editorial cartoons. His work inspired public support for the Union cause during the Civil War, and helped end government corruption in New York City in the years afterward. "For nearly a quarter of a century, through the pages of Harper's Weekly, Nast gave his strength to the American people," Albert Bigelow Paine wrote in Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. "He was profoundly moved by every public question, and his emotions found expression in his pictures. Such a man can but awaken a powerful response."
Shows artistic talent from an early age
Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, on September 27, 1840. When he was six years old, his family moved to the United States and settled among other German immigrants in New York City. Nast showed an interest in art from an early age. Since he could not speak English when he first came to America, he communicated with his friends and classmates by drawing pictures. During Nast's early school years, his teachers praised his drawing ability. But they also noticed that he did not perform so well in other subjects. As a result, Nast ended his regular schooling as a teenager and began taking art classes at New York's Academy of Design.
When he was fifteen, Nast took some of his drawings to the offices of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Leslie recognized that Nast had talent, but doubted whether someone so young would be responsible enough to hold a job as a newspaper artist (in those days, photography was a new and complicated process, so newspapers used artists to provide illustrations for news stories). Leslie decided to test the young man with a difficult assignment—he told Nast to go to the ferry dock and bring back a picture of a crowd boarding a boat. When Nast returned the next day with a first-rate picture, Leslie gave him a job.
For the next few years, Nast traveled to various news events around New York City and drew pictures of the people and places involved. In 1857, he began expanding his role at the newspaper to include drawing cartoons that expressed his opinion about certain issues. One of his first cartoons was a satire (a work that uses sarcasm or wit to comment on social problems and other issues) about an ongoing police scandal in New York. In 1860, Nast traveled to Europe, where he covered political events in England and Italy and visited the town where he was born in Germany. He returned the following year and married Sarah Edwards, the daughter of a theater family for whom he had designed sets. They eventually had four children and bought a house in Morristown, New Jersey.
Pictures inspire support for the Union during the Civil War
By the time Nast returned to the United States in 1861, long-standing disagreements between the Northern and Southern sections of the country had erupted into war. The two sides had been arguing over several issues—including slavery and the power of the national government to regulate it—for many years. Growing numbers of Northerners, like Nast, believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
This ongoing dispute came to a crisis point when Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) was elected president of the United States. Lincoln was a Northerner who opposed slavery, although he wanted to eliminate it gradually rather than outlaw it immediately. Following Lincoln's election, many people in the South felt that the national government could no longer reprnesent their interests. Several Southern states decided to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But it soon became clear that Northern leaders were willing to fight to keep the Southern states in the Union. The Civil War began a short time later.
Upon his return, Nast briefly covered the war for New York Illustrated News and for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. In 1862, he accepted a position as an artist at Harper's Weekly—the best paper of its time—which he would hold for the next twenty-five years. Nast felt intense loyalty toward the Union and expressed his feelings through his skillful drawings and witty cartoons. Both his scenes of battle and his cartoon commentaries on political issues inspired Northern support for the war effort. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln once declared that "Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic [symbolic] cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come just when these articles were getting scarce."
One of Nast's most famous works from the war years was "Christmas Eve," published in the winter of 1862–63. The two-paneled picture showed a woman at home praying for the safe return of her husband, and a soldier sitting by a campfire looking longingly at a picture of his family. This picture inspired hundreds of Northerners to write letters of thanks to the paper, and even encouraged some young men to volunteer to join the Union Army.
But not all of Nast's wartime pictures were sentimental. He also produced many satiric cartoons that showed exactly what he thought about Southerners, as well as certain generals and politicians. "They were not works of art—Nast did not so consider them," Paine said of the cartoons. "War is not a time of culture and discrimination, but of blows, and those dealt by Thomas Nast were swift and savage and aimed to kill." In fact, some of his cartoons were so harsh that he received death threats from offended Southerners.
Becomes a social reformer and statesman
The Civil War ended in a Union victory in 1865. Nast became a vocal critic of President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry) during Reconstruction (1865–77)—the period in American history immediately following the Civil War, when the country struggled to settle its differences and bring the Southern states back into the Union. Nast believed that Johnson's lenient (easy) policies toward the South would allow Confederate leaders to return to power and prevent former slaves from gaining equal rights. He drew caricatures (portraits in which the subject's features are exaggerated or distorted) of Johnson in order to call attention to these concerns.
In 1869, Nast turned his attention to New York City politics. A powerful man named William Marcy "Boss" Tweed (1823–1878) led a ring of officials that controlled all business dealings in the city. Tweed's government was corrupt and used trickery and deception to steal millions of dollars. After investigating the situation, Nast produced numerous cartoons criticizing the Tweed ring. For example, one cartoon showed Tweed wearing a king's robes and sitting on a throne. For a while, Nast was one of the only people who dared to say anything bad about the powerful political leader. But as he increased public awareness of the situation, more and more citizens of New York became outraged. His work helped cause Tweed's fall from power in 1872.
In 1874, Nast used an elephant as a symbol of the Republican political party in one of his cartoons. The idea caught on, and the party still uses an elephant as its symbol today. In the late 1870s, Nast's contributions to newspapers lessened as he spent more time painting and illustrating books. In 1886, he broke off his long relationship with Harper's Weekly. A few years later, he tried unsuccessfully to start his own paper. In 1895, Nast completed one of his best-known paintings. It showed Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) surrendering to Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) at Appomattox, Virginia, to end the Civil War.
In 1902, some of Nast's old friends in the U.S. government offered him a position as consul (an official government representative) to the South American nation of Ecuador. Nast did not feel qualified for the job, but he wanted to serve his country and also needed the money. Unfortunately, he became ill shortly after his arrival in Ecuador and died there on December 7, 1902.
Where to Learn More
Hoff, Syd. Boss Tweed and the Man Who Drew Him. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1978.
Keller, Morton. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
Shirley, David. Thomas Nast: Cartoonist and Illustrator. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.
Thomas Nast Homepage. [Online] http://www.buffnet.net/~starmist/nast/main.htm (accessed on October 15, 1999).