Politics in Graphic Detail

Exploring History through Political Cartoons

The First 150 Years of the American Political Cartoon

By Richard Samuel West


Photograph of political cartoonist Walt McDougal at work

Photograph of political cartoonist, author, and illustrator Walter H. McDougal (1858-1938)

The first great American political cartoon is also perhaps the best known: Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die." He published it, a wood engraving, in the May 9, 1754, issue of his Pennsylvania Gazette to rally the colonies to support the Crown's war against the French on the American frontier. After the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, the motif of the segmented snake reappeared and took on a new meaning, becoming the iconic symbol of the American Revolution. Despite the undeniable influence of Franklin's cartoon, few followed in its wake. That was because most of the cartoons that appeared in the United States during the next 75 years or so were copperplate engravings, an expensive and time-consuming medium.

The best known of America's earliest cartoonists were James Akin and William Charles, the first working mainly in Massachusetts and the second in Philadelphia. Neither of them produced more than a few dozen cartoons. Akin was the better draftsman, but Charles the more productive, especially during the War of 1812. They received little recognition and even less remuneration for their seminal efforts.

The lithographic cartoon print made its first appearance in the United States in the 1820s with the establishment of lithographic printing firms in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In comparison with copperplate engravings, lithographic prints were cheaper and faster to produce, suddenly making the publishing of political cartoons a viable business opportunity. And the artistic freedom lithography afforded prompted several talented draftsmen to take up the art.

For at least the first half of its 50-year dominance, the lithograph was the preferred medium of American visual satirists. It has been estimated that between 800 and 900 such prints were produced during their heyday from the 1820s to the 1870s. During Andrew Jackson's presidency, cartoons appeared frequently and commented on all sorts of news items, consequential and inconsequential. After 1840, however, most lithographic cartoons were produced to influence opinion during political campaigns.

Whigs ran the lithographic firms of the 1830s and '40s. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of cartoons from this period are pro-Whig and anti-Democrat. In 1848, the firm of N. Currier—later to become Currier and Ives—joined the ranks of cartoon publishers. The firm had Whiggish sympathies as well, but commerce, not passion, drove its business model. It published cartoons supporting the spectrum of candidates and issues.

During the Civil War, the pace of cartoon production quickened. From 1860 to 1865, close to 200 lithographic cartoons were published, covering all aspects of the conflict. About half were issued by Currier and Ives and the rest from dozens of different publishers based in New York City and elsewhere.

While a number of competent artists tried their hands at political cartooning from the Jacksonian Era to the Civil War, three stand out: David Claypoole Johnston of Philadelphia and Boston, E. W. Clay of Philadelphia and New York, and Louis Maurer of New York. Johnston was a clever and talented artist who devoted himself to a variety of artistic endeavors, comic drawing being just a part of his oeuvre. Clay, on the other hand, is known today almost entirely through his political cartoons. Maurer was the most prolific of the three but the least recognized, because his work for Currier and Ives was published anonymously.

The history of American humor magazines stretches back to the 18th century, when satire was a dominant strain of mainstream journalism. But none of the early comic periodicals were illustrated. While the 1830s saw a proliferation of illustrated comic almanacs, magazines, and newspapers, the comic images they printed were usually borrowed from other sources and included primarily to break up columns of type. They were not central to the humor.

This changed in the 1840s. In London, Punch was launched in 1841, and its success as a comic weekly, in which artwork played an important, often primary, role in the humor, caught the attention of the English-speaking world. The first American attempt at a comic weekly came one year later, in August of 1842. The Pictorial Wag, as it was called, featured full-page political cartoons by John Manning, all wood engravings like Franklin's "Join or Die." It lasted, it is believed, 13 weeks. Many other humor magazines followed—scores, in fact—but most lasted less than a year. Many of them resembled Punch in format and did little to distinguish themselves from their famous progenitor. Others appeared monthly and resembled the comic almanacs of the period. Still others published in a folio format, making them visual equivalents of the newsweeklies of the period, led by Harper's Weekly.

During the Civil War, Harper's Weekly dominated the pictorial periodical landscape. Though it was a newsmagazine, it did publish small political cartoons on its back page, many of which were drawn by Thomas Nast. Nast, a war artist, also began contributing a series of finely wrought, full-page, emotional appeals to Northern patriotism—which, broadly speaking, were political cartoons. His work became more obviously partisan when in 1864 he contributed cartoons that supported Lincoln's reelection. From then on, Nast was recognized as America's first great political cartoonist. His work was featured prominently in Harper's Weekly for more than 25 years. In 1871, his drawings played a central role in bringing down the Tweed Ring of New York City and, in 1872, helped reelect his hero Ulysses S. Grant to another term as president.

Even as Nast secured his place in history, the flood of ill-fated comic periodicals continued. America's first successful humor magazine was Puck, cofounded by the Austrian cartoonist Joseph Keppler in 1876. Keppler's work stood in stark contrast to Nast's. Whereas Nast's cartoons were wood engraved in black and white, Keppler's were lithographed in colors. Whereas Nast's cartoons were dogmatic, Keppler's were satiric, reflecting the motto of his magazine: "What Fools These Mortals Be!"

Puck and its stable of artists were credited with denying Grant a third term in 1880 and helping to elect Grover Cleveland president in 1884. Puck's success ushered in 20 years' worth of colorful imitators and inspired aggressive newspaper publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal to co-opt Puck's audience with colorful comic pages of their own. Meanwhile, advances in printing technology finally made it possible for them to print political cartoons created the day before on their front pages.

By the end of the 1880s, American newspapers began employing political cartoonists full time. A dozen years after that, every self-respecting newspaper in America boasted its own cartoonist. The best of this new breed were national celebrities, their services vied for, their salaries considerable, and their work reproduced so large it sometimes filled up an entire newspaper page. Leaders in the field included Homer Davenport and Fred Opper of the New York Journal, C. G. Bush of the New York World, Charles Nelan of the Philadelphia North American, Fred Morgan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, John McCutcheon of the Chicago Tribune, and Clifford Berryman of the Washington Post and then the Evening Star. Later, wielding similar dominance were Jay "Ding" Darling of the Des Moines Register, Rollin Kirby of the New York World, Daniel Fitzpatrick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Edmund Duffy of the Baltimore Sun, and Herblock of the Washington Post.

Linking the American political cartoon to the American newspaper was a natural and mutually beneficial development. Whereas no one was able to make a living as a political cartoonist in the United States in 1800, more than 1,000 men (and, later, a few women) were professional political cartoonists in 1900. As for the newspapers themselves, they benefited having a graphic editorial to go alongside their invariably more complex (and ponderous) written editorial. But cartoonists soon realized that they had become domesticated and now played but a small part in a very big machine. Looking back, we can identify the period between the Civil War and World War I as the golden age of the American political cartoon, when the cartoonist was king. Generations of artists have continued to ply the profession of the 19th-century titans, but none of them has been able to exert the degree of influence of Nast, Keppler, and the pioneers of the newspaper editorial cartoon.

Richard Samuel West is a political cartoon historian who has written five books on the history of cartoons, his latest being What Fools These Mortals Be! The Story of Puck (IDW Publishing, 2014), co-authored with Michael Alexander Kahn.