Sunday, January 15, 2012


"Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion" - Nast, 1/15/1870
One hundred forty-two years ago today, Thomas Nast published a political cartoon in Harper’s Weekly, the first depiction of the Democratic Party as a donkey, kicking the stuffing out of a dead lion. The lion represented the recently deceased Edwin Stanton, a staunch Republican who served as Secretary of War under Lincoln and Johnson. Stanton’s depiction as a lion was unerring: he was highly prominent and influential, and brought dogged determination and unswerving stubbornness to American politics of the day. The passing of this major political opponent was undoubtedly celebrated by many Democrats.

The donkey had been used previously and specifically during the 1828 presidential campaign to represent Andrew Jackson, as an insult (his opponents called it - and Jackson - a jackass). Jackson took the icon to heart and used it on his campaign posters. Nast’s use of the icon encompassed the whole Democratic Party.

Nearly five years later, the donkey was joined by the Republican elephant, in a cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1874. Again, this was the first notable use of this symbol for the Republican Party. In this cartoon, the elephant (labeled “The Republican Vote”) rampages against the donkey (which is wearing a lion skin labeled “Caesarism,” after the fable of the donkey terrorizing the other animals by disguising itself as a lion), because the Democrats were crying “Caesarism” at the prospect of President Grant trying to run for a third term, which went against protocol. (Grant did not run for a third term.)
"Third-Term Panic" Nast, Harper's Weekly, 1874

(This “third-term panic” is interesting, considering that it happened in the middle of Grant’s second term, two years before the next election. We really don’t see people starting a presidential campaign that early in those days, especially not sitting presidents. We don’t even see sitting presidents mount an aggressive campaign that early these days. But I digress … )

Nast, a German immigrant born in 1840 who became famous for his illustrations in such periodicals as Harper’s Weekly, the New York Illustrated News, and The Illustrated London News, had erratic schooling. Overall, the discipline of school did not come easily to him, and he always just managed to avoid flunking. He managed to spend about a year at the school of the National Academy of Design in New York City. Finances came too tight after that, and he dropped out at age fifteen, when he began working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. He worked there for three years, then moved on to Harper’s Weekly.

Thomas Nast
More than just an illustrator (although his work earned him the title “Father of the American Cartoon”), Nast used his drawing skill to promote or demote current political issues. His opinions were strong, and he expressed them without hesitation in his artwork. He fought Tammany Hall and the Tweed Ring with such a power that not only did Tweed try to buy Nast’s allegiance (unsuccessfully) for half a million dollars, but Nast’s artful campaign against him was instrumental in the downfall of Tweed and his Tammany Hall machine. Nast's support of presidential candidates was equally influential.

Nast’s cartoons rooted for the underdog. He joined Garibaldi in the Italian’s efforts to unite the Italian provinces. He illustrated the plight of the American Indians in desperate straits, the result of poor federal policies, and of the Chinese immigrants against whom Congress passed many restrictive laws, despite the Chinese’ status as currency in what in effect was a new slave trade, many brought here against their will. He advocated for civil service reform. He supported abolition and integration, and denounced the violence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Other famous works of his include the depictions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam with which we are so familiar today. Later in his artistic career, he turned to oil painting and book illustration, for which he is hardly remembered today.

Nast’s political contributions over the years finally led to a service position, after his political visibility had dimmed. In 1902, when Nast was 62, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as the US Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Not long after he arrived, yellow fever broke out, threatening every system and life in the region. Nast remained at his post, assisting diplomatic missions and businesses to escape the contagion. He finally contracted the disease, however, to which he succumbed on December 7, 1902. His body was sent home, and he is buried in The Bronx.

HarpWeek Cartoon of the Day: “Third-Term Panic” (Republican Elephant shown)

Wikipedia: Republican Party This Day in History: January 15

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