It appears some New Jersey lawmakers are upset at the idea that Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the godfather of political cartoonists, has been nominated for a spot in the N.J. Hall of Fame. Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and David Rible have asked that Nast’s name be removed from consideration because many of his cartoons depict Irish-Catholics in a demeaning light. Though Nast is celebrated for his crusade to expose Boss Tweed and his ring of thieving Tammany Hall cronies in the early 1870s, the legislators are more concerned with his penchant for ethnic stereotypes, particularly one infamous cartoon depicting a brutish Irish drunkard touching off a powder keg.
As it turns out, DeAngelo and Rible have this much right: Nast was a German Protestant who despised the Catholic church, and he saw parochial schools as dens of indoctrination and spiritual corruption. (One of his most famous cartoons, “The American River Ganges,” depicts Catholic bishops as crocodiles preying on American children.) Nast was not alone in this suspicion: anti-Catholic sentiment lingered well into the twentieth century. When Al Smith became the first Irish-Catholic presidential candidate in 1928, postcards of the Holland Tunnel construction were distributed in the Midwest, with notes warning that the Pope was having a tunnel built that would connect the White House to the Vatican. Nast wasn’t the only cartoonist to depict Irish immigrants with simian features, but the quality and detail of his draftsmanship made the slur all the more wounding.
Nast’s bigotry went hand-in-hand with that of many political reformers of the era. While Boss Tweed was as crooked as they came, there’s also no question that many of his critics were more offended by his background than his venality. Urban political machines were seen as bringing the unwashed immigrant rabble into the halls of power, where the reigning Protestant establishment had plenty of dirty laundry of its own to hide.
On the other hand, Nast was also an opponent of slavery and racial segregation whose work earned the praise of President Lincoln, and during Reconstruction he attacked the Ku Klux Klan as fiercely as he’d opposed the Tweed Ring. Nast was also a man of action. At an age when most men would be enjoying retirement, Nast sought an appointment from President Theodore Roosevelt, who made him Consul General to Ecuador. Nast’s work during an epidemic of yellow fever saved many lives, but cut short his own at age 62.
Even without his good works, Nast is simply not to be denied as a landmark figure in American culture. He invented the donkey and elephant symbols that remain the badges of the Democratic and Republican parties to this day, and those images he did not invent outright — e.g., the classic depictions of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus — he perfected to such a degree that no one since has seriously attempted to change them.
It is the easiest thing in the world to indict our predecessors for not having attained the apex of virtue and wisdom that we represent in the present. If you want to beat up on Thomas Nast for ethnic prejudice, then have at it — his body of work supplies all the ammo you need. But if Thomas Nast was a bigot, he was a lot else besides, and our lawmakers judge him at their peril.
It’s easy to use history to certify our own virtue, but it’s far more revealing — far more interesting — to use it to see if we are as virtuous as we like to think. If even as towering a figure as Thomas Nast could be tripped up by the grimy prejudices of his time, that’s a warning for us all. For the claims that were being made about the Irish in Nast’s day — they will never assimilate, they will degrade society, they flout our laws, they’re born lawbreakers who will always be a burden on society — are now being laid at the feet of Latino immigrants, with allowances for contemporary obsessions. America was a much less populous country in the 1870s, but we seem to have assimilated the Irish just fine — in fact, each year we devote a portion of spring to pretending we’re all chips off the Auld Sod. I look forward to something similar happening with Mexican and Latin American transplants. If Cinco de Mayo ends up becoming a bigger deal than Columbus Day, so much the better.
Thomas Nast’s place in history is unassailable. Leaving him out of the N.J. Hall of Fame — the what? — will do nothing to diminish his stature, but it will certify the organizers as very small people indeed.