The Mighty Pen of Thomas Nast

We have all read or heard that the “pen is mightier than the sword”.  At no time in life has this been more true than when Thomas Nast’s pen touched paper.  The German-born American caricaturist is responsible for much of what has become synonymous with American culture.  Through his pen, he breathed life into fictional characters.  He inspired me to ponder political thoughts, even sways opinions and brought down a powerful political machine.  Nast gave us symbols that today are so much a part of daily life.  His pen was mightier than the sword.



When most people first hear of Thomas Nast, it is in an American History classroom when they are studying political machines.  However, without even realizing it, their lives were long before impacted by his work.  Did you know that it was Thomas Nast who first put the image of Clement Clarke Moore’s description of the modern day Santa Claus on paper in 1881?


He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.

A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.


His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.


The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.


Nast played a major role in depicting the image most Americans know as Uncle Sam, the symbol of patriotism and pride in our nation.  It was Nast and a British caricaturist named John Tenniel who first gave the tall, lanky form known as Uncle Sam his famous goatee.


Nast, who was born in Landau, Germany in 1840, was the son of a trombonist in the 9th Regiment of the Bavarian band.  His father had strong political convictions of a socialist nature which caused him trouble with the German government.  His father left the homeland in 1846 and enlisted with a French man-o-war and then later signed on with an American ship. Young Thomas immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and siblings in 1849 at the insistence of his father who joined them after his enlistment was up.


The young lad’s childhood may have had quite an impact on his editorial cartoonist career.  Nast, who had always had a talent and strong passion for drawing, was said to have been a terrible speller who hung by a thread from flunking out of school.  He began public school at age six and continued his education until he was fifteen.  No, he didn’t finally flunk out.  It was family financial woes that drove him from the classroom.  However, his studies did not end there.  Nast studied under Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann at the National Academy of Design in New York City.  All of this might not be very important except for the fact that Nast’s political cartoons were published at a time when many in this nation could not read nor write.  With the large number of non-English literate immigrants entering the nation, cartoons were an ideal way of telling a story to them.  He entered the employment field in 1855 as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.  Three years later, he accepted a position with Harper’s Weekly.  After a year, he traveled to Great Britain to work but soon returned to the states and eventually back to working for Harper’s Weekly again.


It was in the publications of Harper’s Weekly that Thomas Nast drew his pen as a sword against the powerful Tammany Hall political machine and its leader Boss Tweed.  Week after week, Nast drew out the corruption on the pages of the publication.  The “Tammany Tiger” exposed the dangers of the Tammany Hall corruption.  In a drawing captioned “The Brains”, the driving force behind the decisions of Boss Tweed were exposed to the people.  “Blow Over, Let Us Prey” illustrated the political leaders as preying vultures.  Who would have ever thought that being a cartoonist could be so political, so impacting, and yes, dangerous.  No doubt, Boss Tweed and his ring feared Nast’s pen each week.  With these criminals in charge and many high ranking police and politicians in their pockets, Nast must have been a brave man, as were the publishers of the paper.  Nonetheless, Nast’s exposure of these corruptions soon broke up the Tweed Ring and brought Tammany Hall down.Nast’s cartoons were not only damaging to corrupt leaders.  His drawings also fostered dislike and distrust of Catholics.  As many immigrants flooded into the nation, the number of Catholics was on the increase.  While the famous caricaturist did not seem to draw Chinese nor Native Americans in a negative light, he did however, sketch evil ideas about Catholics.  One such cartoon depicted Catholic bishops as alligators coming ashore to attach the young minds of America.  Nast’s cartoons showed his support for an end to slavery and an utter dislike for supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.


Aside from his political and religious views and his crime fighting with his pen, Thomas Nast drew an image that has become synonymous with American pride:  Columbia.  He often drew Lady Justice and other images of women to tug at the hearts of men and women alike.


However, of all the symbols Nast created, the elephant and the donkey have been embraced by the Republican and Democratic political parties of the nation.  While drawing political cartoons, Nast, a staunch Republican, drew his party as an elephant.  Why and elephant?  From the days of Hannibal and the Carthaginian Wars, the elephant has been a symbol of strength. Nast also chose the elephant because it was a symbol of intelligence.  The elephants size signaled power.


He depicted the opposing party, the Democrats, as donkeys.  Though the donkey had been used before to depict the Democrats, Nast first used the animal in a January 15, 1870 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  He used the donkey as an editorial comment on Northern Democrats, also called Copperheads, in describing their dealings with Edwin M. Stanton who was Secretary of War under President Abraham Lincoln.  Today, both parties embrace these symbols.


As time passed, Nast’s political cartoons lost some of their popularity.  He tried several other ventures even purchased his own publication.  However, none returned to him the success of his earlier drawings.  In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to serve as the United States’s Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador in South America.  While serving in the capacity, the famous artist contracted yellow fever during an deadly outbreak.  Nast could have returned to the States, but chose instead to remain in Ecuador to help.  He was instrumental in many diplomatic missions and in helping businesses escape the area.  While doing so, he contracted the disease.  Thomas Nast died in December of 1902.  His body was returned to The Bronx, New York, where it is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery.


And just for the record, his political cartoons are not where the word “nasty” came from.  Do a little research and learn the origin of that word for yourself.

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