Politics in Graphic Detail

Exploring History through Political Cartoons

Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast was perhaps the greatest American political cartoonist of the nineteenth century. He is credited shifting the focus on cartooning from text to imagery and with popularizing the symbols of the donkey and the elephant for the Democratic and Republican Parties. He also is responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus. Thomas Nast was born in Bavaria in 1840 and moved to New York City with his parents in 1846. There Nast studied art, and in 1855 he was hired as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Three years later he became a freelance artist for Harper’s Weekly and New York Illustrated News. In 1860, Nast traveled to Europe, where he covered subjects such as Garibaldi’s campaigns in Italy and English boxing. He returned to New York in 1861, where he married Sarah Edwards and sketched for the Illustrated News and Leslie’s before rejoining Harper’s Weekly in 1862. During the Civil War, Nast’s most influential work captured the political issues dividing the nation and used domestic scenes to bolster the Union cause. After the war, Nast used his pen to comment on Reconstruction, black rights, and party politics. In the 1870s, he used his cartoons fight the corruption of New York’s Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. In politics, Nast was a Republican, and he supported the Grant administration and the need for federal intervention in the South. Nash was at the peak of his popularity and power during the postwar years. His influence declined in the latter years of the nineteenth century. He left Harper’s Weekly in 1886 and failed in his attempt to establish his own journal. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt appointed him a consul to Ecuador, where he succumbed to yellow fever in that same year.
“Nast, Thomas.” American National Biography.
Lewin, J. G., and P. J. Huff. Lines of Contention: Political Cartoons of the Civil War. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. p. 199