Thomas Nast: An Innovative Political Cartoonist



Those who have heard of Thomas Nast know that he was a political cartoonist in the mid 19th century, famous for bringing down the corrupt “Boss” Tweed and the Tammany Ring. But he did so much more than that. According to Allan Nevin and Frank Wettenkampf, the three requirements of a good cartoonist are “wit and humor, truth, at least one side of the truth, and moral purpose.” 1 Nast, the “father of American political cartoons” certainly had all of those qualities when he touched pen to paper. By bringing down Boss Tweed, creating symbols still used in modern times, and helping with Republican campaigns, he changed the way America would view political cartoons: showing that a picture really can be worth a thousand words.


Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840 in Landau, Germany. 2As a young boy, he worked at a paper called Leslie’s Weekly, and his work there showed that a journalist could play an important role in addressing social problems.  His drawings were a good addition to the paper. His talent was evident and rival newspapers offered him delicious sums to come and work for them, where he eventually stopped submitting to Leslie’s Weekly.3 He is considered the father of American political cartooning. His cartoons expressed what he truly felt about every national issue and some local issues as well. Before his time, there were no major political cartoonists, and he made a huge impact in the cartooning world by making bold, sometimes controversial ideas in cartoons.  He was a definite republican, and his work with Harper’s Weekly, a newspaper, was a type of fortification for the Republican Party through various issues that took place from 1861-1884. 4“Nast more than any other man demonstrated that a cartoon is not necessarily a humorous caricature, but a powerful weapon of good or evil.” Remarked C.G. Bush on the artist. 5


              Political cartoons are pictorial, editorial, and artistic commentary. Social concerns and political views can be creatively expressed by mixing art with politics and journalism. They expand social commentary beyond just words and are visually appealing.6 Political cartoons have helped develop and shape the opinion of the public since Thomas Nast’s time in the mid 1800s. They can demonstrate debate and help people understand politics with the use of symbols and caricature. Political cartoons can be used in several ways, whether to promote the status quo, raise social concerns about a specific topic, or inspire a want to strive for change.7 The artwork of Thomas Nast certainly did stir up the public about several issues and got society thinking. After Thomas Nast, political cartoons went through a tremendous change of style. Older political cartoons had elaborate messages and great detail using fine artist technique. They seemed to be a bit wordier than modern cartoons are. Eventually, however, cartoonists stopped using sophisticated literary references and complicated art. Instead, mainly just figures were used to cover and express national and international issues. In order for political cartoons to make any sense at all, one must have a good general knowledge of culture, custom, convention, and current events in order for the cartoon to provide its greatest impact on the reader. 8 The purpose of cartoons like Nast’s is to influence opinion on a present-day issue of that certain time period. 9.There is always a certain bias or point of view when it comes to political cartoons, there can never really be a political cartoon that can please all.10 Trying to make Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals all happy would be an impossible task. It is difficult to apply quantitative measurement techniques to human behavior, which is very unpredictable. 11 Thomas Nast definitely showed his Republican beliefs through his political cartoons. He never held back and always felt it necessary to represent his beliefs.


Thomas Nast began to gain recognition when it was realized that his work was important in the progress of events at the time. His work had a feeling that appealed to the reader’s emotions, making him an artist in high demand.12  In his later work, he traded in his sentimental, inspiring work and turned to sarcasm and confrontational style of drawing. He started using a new technique that became known as caricature. Caricature exaggerated traits or physical features of a person to make a comic or sentimental affect on how the person looked. Nast wanted to humiliate those he portrayed when using caricature.13 The difference between caricature and cartooning is simple. A cartoon is a drawing that uses a current trend of thought in pictorial form, often humorous or derisive, unlike a ludicrous exaggeration or one’s physical traits, as mentioned above. 14 The two are very different, but Nast was masterful and seemed to combine the two, using caricature as a style of drawing to use or sway a current trend of thought in picture form. Nast was very skilled and able to keep characteristics of those he caricatured into retaining their identification. He emphasized characteristics to establish their identity instead of going overboard with exaggeration. 15 Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his cartoons were so influential; he could draw a caricature of a person and most of those who saw the drawing could easily recognize the identity and understand the message Nast was trying to send. At first, his caricatures seemed startling and often left the beholder either slightly disturbed or amused. 16 These caricatures added to Nast’s popularity for sure.  His work spread reform and demonstrated how powerful pen and ink could be when published into a newspaper for all to see. 17

During the Civil war, newspapers were given the chance to give the public a visual account of the events taking place that many took interest in. Artists from both the Northern and the Southern sides of the conflict could express their sentiments and demonstrate their feelings of the war through drawings. 18  Illustrations of the war included battle scenes, military leaders, and maps to help trace the movement of troops, and sketches of the aftermath of a battle.  19 Nast drawings in 1863 “Hero of Vicksburg” and “Unconditional Surrender” convinced many of the American people that the Union general Ulysses S. Grant was a hero and ended the war. 20. Nast’s detailed, large drawings of the civil war such as these helped shape attitudes of many Americans about the war. 21. His dramatic drawings stirred up much emotion, and he could tell stories through his drawings.  He portrayed southern sympathizers as traitors towards the Union cause.  His one sided drawings to some were considered too controversial. 22 However, Nast did not care and continued to draw what he truly felt in his heart. He was even responsible for bringing some Northern volunteers into battle for the Union cause. 23 Nast saw Lincoln as a heroic figure in America and a symbol of national unity. He supported Lincoln every step of the way with his cause in the war, and in his pictures drew Lincoln as a brave, strong leader. 24“Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant. His emblemic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come just when these articles were getting scarce.” 25  Lincoln acknowledged about Nast’s Civil War work. Ulysses S. Grant also admired Nast for the help to the Union cause. “Who is the foremost figure in civil life developed by the Rebellion? I think, Thomas Nast. He did as much as any one man to preserve the union and bring the war to an end.” 26 Nast at the end of the Civil war had become a nationally known artist. 27


Of all of his work throughout the Civil War, his most influential drawing of the Civil War was titled “Compromise with the South”. Depicting a cocky, rebellious southern soldier shaking hands with a weak, crippled northern soldier over the graves of dead soldiers, the success of this cartoon was monumental.28.  The men are shaking hands over the grave which reads, “In memory of Union Heroes who fought in a useless war”. Columbia, the symbol of America, is in the middle of the men, mourning the loss of the men over the grave.  29This cartoon was a campaign document for Abraham Lincoln, and believed to gain more votes for the Union cause and help Lincoln get reelected for another term. 30  An article from Harper’s Weekly stated, “Prodigious batteries whose influence upon the glorious results of the campaign was undeniable.” 31 Lincoln was not the only President that Nast helped with the election. His drawings of Ulysses S. Grant were very influential and helped him get elected. Nast drew pictures of Grant’s opponent, Horation Seymour, who opposed Lincoln’s policies. Nast portrayed Seymour as a devilish figure, turning his tufts of hair into little horns. 32 After his victory, Grant said, “Two things elected me, the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.” 33 Nast’s drawings were obviously very influential on public opinion and noteworthy. Not many can say that had ever been credited with helping someone win an election by drawing like Thomas Nast.


Thomas Nast is also known for popularizing many of the symbols used in cartoons today. He popularized the use of Uncle Sam, the Democratic Donkey, the Tammany Tiger, and even the image of Santa Claus, and created the elephant as the Republican symbol. All of these symbols are considered standard symbols now. 34 Whenever there is a donkey, the reader knows it represents the Democratic Party or democratic sentiments, likewise with the Republican elephant. The symbols that he used became widely popular and are still recognizable today because of the impact they had, becoming part of the American iconography. 35 They also changed cartoons even to this day by allowing cartoonists to simplify backgrounds and concentrate on fewer characters. Because many Americans have knowledge of these symbols, it is easier for modern political cartoonists to express ideas with less complication.

grant third term

The donkey was first considered democratic during Andrew Jackson’s campaign in the 1820’s; however Nast popularized it as a symbol for the Democratic Party. The Donkey was first used by Thomas Nast in his cartoon, “A live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion”.  This cartoon portrayed the reactions of democrats to the death of Republican Secretary of War Elwin Stanton. 36 On the side of the donkey says “Copperhead papers” and it is kicking a dead lion, which reads “Hon. E. M. Stanton” in its mane.  The cartoon is captioned, “And such a lion and such a Jackass!”37 Ever since then, it has represented the Democratic Party and their beliefs when put into a political cartoon.


The Elephant as a Republican Party symbol was Nast’s creation; derived from the supposition that Grant was considering running an unheard of third term for President, denounced as “Caesarian” by the New York Herald. There was also a false story that wild animals escaped from central park zoo and were hunting the city for prey. In 1874, Nast decided to combine these two stories into a cartoon that showed rampaging animals, including an elephant with “The Republican Vote” on it, and a donkey is frightening away all of the animals. 38 This cartoon’s message was, “If you believed the zoo story, you’ll believe this one too.” The elephant actually represented the Republican voters instead of the actual party, however eventually the elephant transitioned into the symbol for the party. 39


Another widely used symbol of Nast’s was the Tammany Tiger. It was originally the symbol of Americus, or Big Six Fire Company, which William Tweed used to be a fireman for. Nast used the Tiger as a Tweed trademark to identify the Tammany Ring. Using this symbol, Nast brought attention to the Ring. 40 Although political cartoonists such as Keppler and Tenniel first used the Tiger as a symbol, Nast was the cartoonist who made it into an animal that represented the Tammany Ring and corruption. 41


William Murrel in 1935 had a prediction about Nast’s symbols. “Those who hold that the Republican Elephant, the Democratic Donkey, and the Tammany Tiger are permanent features in political circus take but a myopic view of our history, brief though it may be. We had politics and cartoons before any of these symbols was conceived and we may confidently expect the future will bring forth other singular graphic figurations born of the exigencies of the times and the imagination of the artist.”42 Murrel was wrong, the Democratic Donkey and the Republican Elephant are still widely used today and are not going anywhere. Nast did leave an impact on society with his symbols, never had anyone created a symbol before Nast that was able to sustain through time and the public’s memories, and over 140 years later, his symbols he made famous are still being drawn into political cartoons everywhere.

What Thomas Nast is most noted for of all his cartoons is his involvement of bringing justice to New York and removing the corruption of “Boss Tweed”. William “Marcy” Tweed, also known as “Big Bill” or “The Boss” was the leader of the Tammany Ring in New York City. Other members of the Ring consisted of Peter Barr Sweeney, also known as “Brains” or “Pete”, Richard B. Connolly, “Slippery Dick”, and A. Oakey Hall, also known as “O.K. Hall” or as Nast called him “O.K. Haul” 43The government of New York City was in the hands of these men, and they defrauded millions of dollars from the treasury and public debt, none of it belonging to them. Tweed controlled New York City’s politics and created the most corrupt group of political opportunists in the history of America. 44 In 1860 the Tammany Ring controlled almost all of the politics and used their power to steal money from New York City. They would give fake contracts for buildings and roads that were never constructed and gave themselves very generous salaries. Thomas Nast was very angered that these men would use their power and privilege to steal money and affect all of New York City. 1870-1871 he concentrated on eradicating the corruption of the Tammany Ring with his political cartoons. 45 He didn’t find any humor in issues that irritated him greatly, such as this Tweed corruption. He liked working at Harper’s Weekly because he was not entitled to overwhelming responsibilities, and could draw whatever he wished from the comfort of his own home. He refused to draw anything that he did not personally agree with, making the situation ideal. 46


Nast decided to put his caricature to use in bringing down Boss Tweed. Tweed was the easiest member of the Ring to caricature because his features were most menacing and grotesque. 47 In every one of Nast’s Tammany Ring cartoons, there is much emphasis on Tweed’s protruding stomach, large nose, and round eyes, making him appear to be an unpleasant and unappealing man to the public. Nast’s political cartoons of Boss Tweed have been called the “defining moment” of American cartoon history in 1871. 48 Thomas Nast’s cartoon “That’s What’s the Matter” shows Boss Tweed leaning against the ballot box that reads “In counting there is strength” 49 and in the caption it says, “Boss Tweed: ‘As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it? Say?” 50 Another famous Nast cartoon, “Two Great Questions” consists of two pictures. The top cartoon shows enormous Tweed and his cronies standing behind him, small in comparison. Tweed says, “Mr. Ingersoll, allow me to introduce you to my Co.”51 In response to the question, “Who is in Gersoll’s Co?” The bottom half of the cartoon, the more famous one, shows Boss Tweed with other members of the ring, standing in a circle all pointing at one another in response to the question, “who stole the people’s money? Do tell.” 52 And to the right it says, “’Twas him.”  This cartoon was considered a peak in Nast’s attacks against Tweed. 53 It was thought provoking that shed a light upon the Tammany Ring and corruption, giving the public a visual. People tried to persuade Nast to stop the attacks against Tweed, calling it a useless fight that he would never be able to win, and it was dangerous. 54 However, Nast wanted to see an end to this corruption.

In his cartoons, Nast often referred to Tweed as “William Marcy Tweed” when in fact; his middle name was actually Magear. He chose Marcy because Marcy had been a Jacksonian Democrat from New York in the 1830s, and took the U.S. senate floor saying, “To the victor belong the spoils.” This alteration of the middle name such a success, that encyclopedias and history texts still identify tweed with the middle name of Marcy when that is not even his true middle name. 55 Nast’s cartoons had the Tammany Ring in fear, and they were having an effect on public opinion. Responding to the constant caricatures, Tweed said, “Let’s stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me- my constituents can’t read; but damn it, they can see pictures!”  56 The New York Times was on Nast’s side in this fight to end Tweed’s corruption. “The sketches of New York life under Democratic rule may not be entirely welcome to Tammany chiefs, but the great body of citizens will sorrowfully admit that they are not in the least exaggerated. Mr. Nast ought to continue these satires on local and national politics.” 57In response to his political cartoons of Tweed and the Tammany Ring, Harper’s weekly wrote an article on Thomas Nast, and on his cartoons they remarked, “His caricatures of Tweed, Sweeney, Connolly, and Hall are admirable in their grotesque fidelity. Each one is so marked that if you catch only the glimpse of an eye glass, the tip of a nose or a straggly bit of hair, you recognize it.”  They also remarked on the Ring’s attempt to stop Nast’s powerful pen. “…they have tried to buy him off. To their astonishment, they found they were dealing with a man who was not for sale…” 58

Nast’s most powerful political cartoon about the Tammany Ring was “The Tammany tiger Loose-What are you going to do about it?”  Depicting a tiger on top of Columbia, set in the coliseum in Rome, and Tweed and the Ring members are among the audience, the bystanders watching the tiger preying upon Columbia.59 This cartoon had a huge impact on those who viewed it. Its emotion and strong symbolism was very powerful and moving. The demolishment of the Tammany Ring was a national story, and Thomas Nast was very famous from his cartoons of the events.  As depicted in the cartoon, “That’s what’s the Matter” the Tammany Ring had often used repeaters to cheat votes and remain in office.  However, when the next election came, the Ring was so fearful that Nast might publish a political cartoon of them cheating votes again; they decided to honestly cast in votes and desist from using “repeaters”.  They did not get enough votes, finally throwing them out of power.60.Thomas Nast had helped rid New York City of its corrupt Ring members through the power of his political cartoons. He was a great citizen and patriot for his work. The Vice President Schuyler Colfax acknowledged his achievement with a letter, saying, “…With a heart full of joy over the magnificent results of last Tuesday…to recognize the large share you have had in its achievement week by week I have looked at and studied your telling and speaking pictures…everybody I have heard speak of the campaign concurs with me that nothing has been more effective…”61


Pictures in general were seen to have a large impact on newspapers in the country.  Editors realized the selling value that illustrations added to newspapers. 61.They increased the circulation of most newspapers, therefore providing enough funds for the editors to experiment with illustrations further. Pictures throughout the paper grew in size and importance. By the 1920s, it was clear that pictures helped the reader better understand the accompanying article. 62 Thomas Nast’s pictures were no exception to this.  “Nast was a dogmatist, content to view the world as a struggle between good and evil. Consequently, his work was caustic and lecturing. The harshness of his heavy black line and the severity of his crosshatching mirrored his angry politics.” Said Richard Samuel West, a historian. 63

Nast left a huge imprint on American political cartoons. He was one of the first to ever use caricature, making it a very popular style of drawing and humiliation to the subject in political cartoons.  He was the master of caricature from his ability to represent a certain character by exaggerating the right features to where the person was still recognizable. After his use, it became a much more widely used method for cartooning.  Also, he created and popularized many of the symbols that political cartoonists use today, such as the democratic donkey and the republican elephant. These symbols are still used and changed political cartoons, making it easier for political cartoonists to convey ideas that made sense to the beholder. His cartoons were so effective because all audiences could be reached. People of all classes, adults and children, literate and illiterate could understand the political message that Nast intended to send through his illustrations. J. Henry Harper praised, “Nast was one of the great statesmen of his time. I have never known a man with a surer political insight. He seemed to see approaching events before most men dreamed of them as possible. His work was entirely his own, and done in his own way.” 64

Thomas Nast is most remembered by his relentless caricatures bombarding the Tammany Ring and Boss Tweed with embarrassment and ridicule. However, he did more than bringing down the Boss to achieve the title “The father of American Political Cartoons”. In 25 years and over 3,000 cartoons and drawings, he brought new methods to the art of political cartoons, adding sarcasm, wit, and controversialist ideas and kept to his true believes, sharing them with the world. 65



End Notes


  1. St. Hill, Thomas Nast. Thomas Nast: Cartoons and Illustrations, 117 works. (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1974.) 1. Print.



  1. Shirley, David. Thomas Nast: Cartoonist and Illustrator. (Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Publishing, 1998.) 11. Print.



  1. Ibid., 19.

4.St. Hill, Thomas Nast. 1.

  1. Paine, Albert B. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. Chelsea Publishing House, 1980.580. Print.



  1. “American Political Cartoons : An Introduction”. American Political Cartoons: An Intro. 12 April 2000. Net Objects Fusion. 8 Nov 2009.


7. Ibid

  1. Sloan, David W. and Parcell, Lisa Mullikin. American Journalism- History, Principles, Practices. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2002. 348. Print.


9.Steinberg, Charles S. , The Communicative Arts: An Introduction to Mass Media. (New York :Hastings House Publishers, 1970. 103.) Print.


10 Ibid., 103.

11.Ibid., 103.

12.Paine, 77.

  1. Shirley, 44.
  2. St. Hill, 5.
  3. Shirley, 116.

16.Paine, 116.

  1. Sloan,344.

18.Sloan, 328

19.Ibid., 328

20.Shirley, 40.

21.Ibid., 40.

22.Ibid., 40.

23.Paine, 88.

24.Shirley, 39.

25.Ibid., 42.

26.Ibid., 42.

27.St. Hill, 5.

28.Paine, 99.

  1. Dewey, Donald. The Art of Ill Will : The Story of American Political Cartoons . New York and London: New York University Press, 2007. 89.

30.Paine, 98.

31.Ibid., 98.

32.Shirley, 42.

33.Ibid., 42

34.Sloan, 328.

  1. Ibid., 328.

36.Dewey, 10.

37.Ibid., 199.



  1. Paine, 196.

41.Dewey, 11.


43.Paine, 140.

44.Shirley, 45.


  1. Dewey, 9.

46.Ibid., 27.

47.Ibid., 27.

48.St. Hill, 21.

49 Ibid., 21.

50.Dewey, 200.

51.Ibid., 200.

52.Ibid., 200.

53. Paine, 142.

54.Dewey, 27.

55.Paine, 179.

56.Ibid., 145.

57.Ibid., 185.

58. Ibid., 183.

59.Ibid., 153.

  1. Paine, 203.

61.Sloan, 330.

  1. Ibid., 330.

63.Dewey, 7.

64.Paine, 578.

65.Paine, 582.







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