Return to Article Details The Major Influence of Thomas Nast’s Political Cartoons on 19th Century American Politics

“…the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward.”
(Theodore Roosevelt 1906)



Muckrakers were investigative journalists of the Progressive Era (1890-1920) who exposed corruption in politics and the public sphere and worked not only for the sake of sensation but also to call the public’s attention to serious social issues and push the government into reforms. President Theodore Roosevelt first mentioned muckrakers as a pejorative description of those journalists working for the yellow press who focused only on the negative sides of society rather than looking at the advantages of the era. Accordingly, muckrakers were those writers and journalists who, instead of discussing nobler and loftier topics, “rake muck,” i.e., wrote about the filth of politics and business life such as corruption, exploitation, and dishonesty (Bollobás 2015, 194). In my interpretation, Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was a forerunner of the muckrakers – ahead of his time – since he had already fought against the interconnection of political and economic life in the 1870s, at the peak of the Gilded Age, using his humorous drawings as a weapon in his crusade against corruption.

The Library of Congress made 421 drawings by Thomas Nast available for the public in a digitalized form entitled “Illustrations and Political Cartoons by Thomas Nast” ( ). These prints are wood engravings with the size of 42 × 58.5 cm or smaller, vertical and horizontal orientation (Call Number: LOT 14012 (H) [P&P]). As a part of my research, I have selected three of his political cartoons, representing the versatile character of Nast’s oeuvre at the top of his carrier before the Hayes Compromise of 1877, which are the following: (1) Nast as a proto-muckraker journalist (2) Nast as a fallible human being, who harshly criticized Victoria Woodhull for advocating free love, finally (3) the role of animal symbols in his political cartoons and his “invention” of the political party animals.

The Gilded Age, a term coined by the book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) – a satire of greed and corruption in America – with the same title written about the period by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, led to the Progressive Era with different reform-minded initiatives and coincided with the U.S.’ transformative age of industrialization, expanding wealth, inequality, and social change. The characteristic features of the era included the problematic situations of the freedmen, the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the temperance movements, and overall, the segregation resulting from the Jim Crow system.

After President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) became president. Roosevelt was an impulsive, energetic man with a preference for what he called the “strenuous life” of manly adventure. According to Eric Foner, in many ways, he became the role model for the twentieth-century president, an official actively and continuously involved in domestic and foreign affairs as “the steward of the public welfare” (707). His administration marked a new period in the era of Progressivism, which meant a series of reform initiatives, including the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the Hepburn Act (1906), acts that gave more power to the Interstate Commerce Commission. President Roosevelt transgressed the boundaries of the Jim Crow laws by inviting Booker T. Washington to a presidential breakfast in the White House and appointing several African-Americans to federal offices (Foner 2007, 744).

Moreover, Roosevelt launched the “Square Deal” program, which aimed to break away from the government’s laissez-faire policy and break the monopoly of trusts, and implemented the regulation of railroads in tandem with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. His program tried to confront the challenges due to economic consolidation by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” corporations. The “good” ones served the public interest; meanwhile, the “bad” ones were operated by those financiers who were interested only in profit (Foner 2007, 708). The emergence of the modern industrial economy, the efficiency of production, and the division of labor led to the spoils system, the age of political corruption, financial speculation, and wide gaps in wealth. The primary goals of the Progressive movement were to solve the challenges caused by the time-space compression of modernity and the increased rate of (1) industrialization, (2) urbanization, (3) immigration, and (4) political corruption.

This era was the period of the rise of political machines. These machines formed organized groups of people led by a boss that supervised the activities of a political party by offering voters certain services; the machine obtained their vote by bribery and intimidation and controlled the municipal government. An example in this regard was William “Boss” Tweed, who ran the Tammany Hall, the Democratic Political Machine in New York City. The boss supervised jobs in the police, fire, and sanitation departments and agencies that granted money and licenses to fund businesses and large construction projects. The power of the bosses and the political machine has been a dominant characteristic feature of the American urban milieu since the second half of the nineteenth century. The interconnection of the logic of business and politics was apparent in the mechanics of machine politics (Szélpál 2006). According to urban historians Charles N. Glaab and A. Theodore Brown, Tweed was not the first who fostered the boss system; the system was a direct consequence of the intense urbanization and industrialization in the 19th century (203-204).

Bosses and clubs were the center of political machines. The Tammany Hall, for example, originates from a Jeffersonian political club established in the 1790s as the Society of St. Tammany, with the name traced back to a Delaware Indian chief. Many such clubs appeared in the U.S. during this period and aimed to gain the power of the Federalist elite. The club had a famous political role from the 1820s and 1830s by supporting proposals like abolishing imprisonment for debt. During the Depression era of 1837-42, the organization participated in charity work for populist reasons to obtain votes and distributed fuel, clothing, and food in the city’s poorer districts (Glaab & Brown 1967, 203-204). With the heyday of the modern national party system, the Tammany grew into the primary agency in New York City for the Democratic Party, which gave it increasing popularity; its charitable activities and patronage system among people experiencing poverty and the newly arrived Irish immigrants also contributed to its power (Szélpál 2006).

Thomas Nast, as a supporter of the Republican Party, depicted the corrupt politician William M. “Boss” Tweed as a defeated Roman soldier in one of his 1871 caricatures published in Harper’s Weekly (Nast, Thomas 1871, 1069). As a journalist for the New York City-based, mostly Republican-oriented Harper’s Weekly, Nast openly criticized Boss Tweed. Harper’s Weekly, the country’s leading illustrated newspaper with an extensive readership. The subtitle of Harper’s Weekly was “A Journal of Civilization,” and was a general-interest illustrated magazine (Culbertson 2008, 280) circulating in 300,000 copies by the second half of the 19th century. Nast’s cartoons were seen by approximately a million subscribers, which was a critical factor in his influence and so he earned the reputation as the “Father of the American Political Cartoon” (Halloran) and the “President Maker” (Vinson). Nast’s critical caricatures of “Boss” Tweed were published regularly in Harper’s Weekly and contributed to ending “Boss” Tweed’s corrupt leadership of the Tammany Hall political machine. To gain attention and moreover, to convince his readers, Nast effectively reached a humorous effect through exaggeration and caricature while producing a new visual language full of repetitive symbols, allegories, satire, puns, and repetitive slogans in a naturalistic way (Adler 2022, 7). His humor helped to generate change within politics by influencing the thinking of millions of people with his cartoons.

Literary naturalism emerged in American literature in the last decades of the 19th century. As a general tendency, it became explicit that the writer was no longer interested in the distant past but rather in scrutinizing the problematic present. This naturalistic and deterministic-realist literature form showed the dark sides of reality and was rooted in the social-historical context of the Progressive Era, when new journalistic and sociographic methods, free of illusions and sentimentalism, emerged in the form of muckraking literature (Bollobás 2005, 428). Above all, the social context then meant the rapid industrialization of the American economy, its modernization, implying the advance of mammoth companies (i.e., Big Business), the disappearance of the border region(s), the development of the railway and telephone network covering the country, as well as population explosion, which was primarily caused by the appearance of millions of economic immigrants. Enikő Bollobás mentions Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, David Graham Phillips, Ida Tarbell, and Gustavus Meyers, among others, as muckraker writers, an umbrella term for writers and journalists who focused, investigated, and publicized the unsolved problems of politics and business, such as corruption and exploitation, plus social and economic injustices instead of exploring more noble topics and failed to detect and report on the positive changes (443).

As mentioned before, Theodore Roosevelt actually coined the pejorative term of the muckrakers in his Washington, D.C. speech on April 14, 1906, entitled “The Man with the Muck-rake.” He said that

"[I]n Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand, who was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor" (Roosevelt 1906).

Thus the expression “Man with the Muck-rake” referred to a different writing tradition of exposing and disclosing reportorial literature created in the public interest “in the factual revelation of malfeasance and criminal behavior in politics and business” (Henderson 1992, 3). Despite being a progressive reformer, President Roosevelt warned people of those writers who threatened the social order with their writings that, according to him, were harming society by focusing only on the vices and problems, that is, “whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things” (Roosevelt 1906). Therefore, the term muckraker was originally a derogatory word depicting a new type of writing and journalism born in the spirit of Progressivism. This investigative journalism shed light on the social evils not only for the sake of sensation but for pushing the government for social reforms. The muckrakers were surprisingly successful by forcing the government into reform programs, for example, the New York State Tenement House Act, and, as a result, the previously derogatory term muckraker soon became praised in certain areas. In his autobiography published in 1913, Roosevelt does not mention the muckraker movement per se, which also demonstrates that the term itself began to be associated with his name in later times. He only refers to the name of Jacob A. Riis (a muckraker) in several places. Riis was a progressive reformer and journalist with whom Roosevelt had a long working relationship and participated in many joint progressive works (Roosevelt [1913], 2001, 30).

The muckraker movement’s legacy is still visible in the 21st century as well. For example, an Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley, the Elaine and Gerald Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, or the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University can be mentioned here (Lewis 2008, 11) as an outstanding example of the muckraker influence. As Cecelia Tichi argues, the muckraker movement is experiencing a renaissance during what is now labeled as the second Gilded Age of the 2000s (3), when a new generation of muckrakers emerged. Currently, the movement is enjoying a revival of the Gilded Age, but now it is ruled by tycoons as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk (O’Donnell 2018) and the current muckrakers react to unsolved social problems of our era through publishers such as Houghton Mifflin and Random House (Tichi 2005, 3-4).

But what lies behind the success of muckrakers? The emergence of the muckraker writers reflected a conscious need for the informed middle and working class, which shows that people’s reading habits changed with more people affording to buy newspapers, which also affected the mentality of people and their interest in political reform movements. The modern city and its discontents were the first targets of the muckrakers (Sellers 1999, 263). With the technological advancements of the 19th century, a new type of journalism emerged with authors who were no longer passive reporters or wrote articles for the sake of mere entertainment. On the contrary, the muckrakers were active participants in the Zeitgeist, in the spirit of the age and wanted to show contemporary processes using “reportage as a weapon, as a means to change and influence reality” (Henderson 1992, 15) emerging in the era of intense industrialization, urbanization, technological revolution, parallel with the new waves of immigration (Gandal 1997, 8). Therefore, as Henderson argues, the muckraker journalist realized the possibilities of the press as an instrument of influence and pressure, and they used these tools to expose, challenge and transcend previous social tendencies and writing practices (16). Consequently, muckraking has had a broad and lasting influence on American society, becoming a movement of social reportage not limited to magazines and newspapers but manifested itself in different genres as well, including documentary novels, photojournalism, or political cartoons. In other words, muckraking became an expression of the particular ideological-political activity of social criticism manifesting itself in a naturalistic style (Henderson 1992, 17-18).


Thomas Nast was a child when his family immigrated to the United States from Bavaria, Germany. As a self-taught, self-made man, he started his career at age fifteen at Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1855 and published his last work in the same journal in 1901. He joined Harper’s Weekly in 1862 at twenty-two after a trip to Europe and some months of service in Garibaldi’s Legions of Liberty achieving his first national fame during the 1864 presidential election campaign. Since Harper’s Weekly was the first newspaper to have national circulation, Nast’s works were essential to Lincoln’s success and marked the beginning of Nast’s influence on the American political scene. President Lincoln even argued that Nast’s drawings had made him the Union’s “best recruiting sergeant” (Vinson 1957, 338-339). This spirit of crusade and harsh criticism became Nast’s trademark contributing to the American political scene with his active participation as an “unreconstructed Unionist-unforgiving and defiant” (Vinson 1957, 339). At the beginning of his career, the New York Illustrated News sent several of his cartoons to Europe in the 1860s (Burns 1999, 9-10). Nast’s early experiences were decisive in his emblematic language and rhetoric of violence, through which he powerfully fostered his political view and developed his later cruel political satirical cartoonist style (Jarman 2010, 166). After Nast became associated with Harper’s Weekly, he left his signature and artistic aura, becoming an emblem of this political magazine that had avid readers waiting eagerly for the drawings bearing the familiar signature of “Th. Nast” (Monaghan 1944, 205). Nast reached the peak of his career as a cartoonist when he launched and won his crusade against the political machine of the Tweed Ring in the 1870s. The Ring wanted to bribe him and offered him a “scholarship” to pay the costs of a study of art trip to Europe but he rejected the offer and continued his work. Due to his cartoons, the circulation of Harper’s Weekly tripled; his crusading aspiration and recognizable cartoons made his work popular (Vinson 1957, 339, 340-341).

Nast’s famous political cartoon “The Tammany Tiger Loose”, for example, was published two days before the city elections depicting the final attack upon Tammany. This drawing is heavily endowed with symbolism presenting the feminine allegorical symbol of Liberty as a Christian martyr, attacked by the Tammany Tiger in a Roman amphitheater controlled by Boss Tweed, adorned as emperor (Jarman 2010, 167). Since most of Boss Tweed’s supporters could not read, they saw these powerful drawings, so Nast’s offensive on Boss Tweed could reach its goal (Coupe 1969, 84). Nast’s cartoons could reach more people through the power of visual images as cultural representations. Contemporary audiences could also comprehend and interpret these images without words since these images belong to the cultural memory of people as fables and myths. Moreover, rumors about these cartoons spread quickly, which also increased the popularity of these cartoons.


Figure 1: The Tammany Tiger Loose – What Are We Going to Do About It? (Tiger in coliseum tearing apart Liberty and The Republic while Tweed, other Tammany Hall figures, and crowds look on), wood engraving, Thomas Nast, 1871. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.


This image of the political machine represents Nast’s fight against social injustice and his crusade against “Boss Tweed” presenting him as a muckraker journalist using satirical images. Nast’s caricatures depicting the vices of the “Tweed Ring” and the corruption of the political machine fostered increased press attention and led to the investigation of the financial affairs and decline of Boss Tweed in New York City. Hence, Nast’s satirical cartoons served social justice.

During Rutherford B. Hayes’ presidency, Nast’s popularity and influence declined, coinciding with his personal crisis of political faith in the 1880s. The political climate changed completely after the President Hayes’ Compromise of 1877 that ended the Reconstruction period, and the Southern states received a free hand in their legislation that finally led to the infamous Jim Crow Era segregation laws. Following the 1876 election, Nast lost his direct relationship with the White House. With the change in the political climate, the ground rules for graphic political humor also altered, and caricatures focusing on national politics became rather genteel. Consequently, Nast’s violent rhetoric, alongside with his ardent criticism, and harsh attacks on political rogues that were once a hallmark of Harper’s Weekly (Jarman 2010, 187), seemed increasingly inappropriate for further publication. So Nast was forced to leave the magazine in 1886. At the end of his carrier, he became disillusioned by the Republican Party (while pictures of Nativist and anti-Catholic stereotypes crept into his drawings). His strivings to launch his magazine failed. In 1902, he died in Ecuador while serving as an American consul (Culbertson 2008, 282). As for Nast’s legacy, his political cartoons demonstrated a new robust vitality and created a certain mentality of American political cartooning. His legacy remains in persistent symbols that he advocated, established, or fostered, including the Republican elephant, Uncle Sam, Miss Columbia, Santa Claus, and Boss Tweed.


Generally, the political cartoon expresses an opinion by exaggerating extensive symbolism and analogy with the help of irony while magnifying the exposed problem. The term cartoon covers a multitude of graphic forms divided into two main categories: cartoons of opinion and joke cartoons (Kemnitz 1973, 82). As Thomas Milton Kemnitz states, cartoons of opinion are mainly visual tools for communicating opinions and attitudes about certain situations; as a distinctive feature, humor can be present but is not a necessary part of cartoons of opinion (82). Therefore, cartoons of opinion can break down into three thematic categories: first, those dealing with domestic politics; second, social themes, and third, foreign affairs. Political cartoons are more specific since their interpretation confides in the viewer’s understanding and recognition of the subjects and events depicted (Kemnitz 1973, 83).

In this context, Thomas Nast’s oeuvre is the most prominent example of an American political cartoonist since his cartoons “were imparted with a scornful humor directed toward sardonic laughter” (Kemnitz 1973, 91). Based on John Morreall and Simon Critchley, Zsofia Anna Tóth claims that humor as such creates, among many other sentiments, a sense of surprise in the viewer, and as a result, by not meeting our expectations, it changes our perspectives and produces new actualities (Tóth 2019). Moreover, applying humor within cultural interactions help the viewer recognize issues related to class, race, and gender (Tóth 2015).

Nast’s political cartoons were created to increase political opinions as well as awareness about problematic issues, humor helped to highlight political issues while also providing criticism showing that a change is needed. Nast’s oeuvre highlights that political cartoons with the tool of humor can be a powerful means of manipulating public opinion with the potentialities of visual images (Culbertson 2008, 278). With his political cartoons, Nast indeed challenged and reworked the established models of exaggerated, grotesque humor with highly intensified naturalism and animal symbolism (Burns, 1999, 18) discussed later in this paper.

As for the technological background of the development of political cartoons, illustrated publications appeared in the second half of the 19th century with the advancement of printing technology. Culbertson argues there was a reluctance on the part of the publishers to include visual images in newspapers and magazines since some of them believed illustrations were not worthy of serious journalism and tended to argue that words were for the educated and pictures were for the illiterate masses. Until the fin-de-siècle, political cartoons were generally published in New York City-based newspapers (Culbertson 2008, 278-279). Earlier in the nineteenth-century political cartoonists had more time to elaborate on their high-quality drawings. However, with the technological advent of the photoengraving process in the 1890s, newspapers could publish cartoons daily since the fin-de-siècle was when the technical reproduction reached a level that allowed the faithful and mechanical reproduction of works of art (Cristian 2008, 8). Consequently, the political cartoonist had to meet deadlines in a strict timeframe and the cartoon drawings became less elaborate and detailed and were printed mostly in black and white (Culbertson 2008, 279).

According to Tom Culbertson, political cartoons have certain common characteristic features; firstly, the political cartoonist gained inspiration from various sources “including the Bible, Shakespeare, classical literature, mythology, fables, art, sports, and other contexts and allusions that would have been understood by even moderately educated readers” (287). Secondly, political cartoons of the 19th century usually depicted problematic issues or social evils rather than people. Thus, the most common means to present danger or a threat was to illustrate it as a monster or a menace. Thirdly, political cartoonists used symbols such as animal symbols for immediate identification. Finally, political cartoons flourished during presidential elections by attacking the opponent candidate with humor (Culbertson 2008, 291-292).

As for the history of political cartoons, Isabel Simeral Johnson states that it has a greater tradition and general usage in the United States than in any other country (32). The earliest cartoons focusing on American colonial problems appeared in England during colonial times. The very first American cartoon is considered to be Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” political drawing that was published in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754 (Johnson 1937, 32-33). The first cartoons appeared in the U.S. as engravings, later as lithographs but from the 1860s, cartoons were also published in illustrated magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s, Vanity Fair, Puck, Judge, and the Wasp (Johnson 1937, 35).

Thomas Nast followed the above mentioned tradition established by Benjamin Franklin, and his most striking work was connected with his acclaimed offensive on the Tweed Ring in New York (Johnson 1937, 38). Apart from political issues, Nast focused on social concerns, and despite his progressive ideas in politics and social issues, he showed a relatively conservative attitude to specific problems. The 1871 Victoria Woodhull’s public lecture at Steinway Hall in New York City caught his attention. Shocking the audience, Woodhull declared herself fostering free love by arguing that her right to change partners as often as she wanted is “a constitutional right with which no institution or law should interfere” (Prados-Torreira 2017, 38). In his 1872 response, Nast depicts Woodhull as the incarnation of evil and his drawing referring to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress shows Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan,” propagating the morality of the average wife raising children and caring for the husband and contrasting it with Woodhull’s ideas to establish women’s liberation by free love (Prados-Torreira 2017, 38). Woodhull was a divisive figure even among feminists with her views since the right to divorce and sexual partner changes were considered taboos then. Woodhull herself believed in monogamy but argued that the right to divorce was constitutional. She was the first woman who ran for the presidency in 1872, long before women’s suffrage was legalized in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. However, the public did not take her presidential campaign seriously, and she became a target of harsh public criticism (Brandman 2022).


Figure 2: “Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan!” wood engraving, Thomas Nast, 1872. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.


In his sharp visual criticism of Woodhull, Nast followed the ideology of the era. Since his political satires were aimed at presidential campaigns, he was able to catch on to Woodhull’s most divisive statement on free love, which was just an excuse to ridicule her as a woman. However, this extreme example does not diminish Nast’s merits in the muckraking movement. As Fiona Deans Halloran states, Nast’s cartoons were not merely satires but also expressions of heartfelt conviction (44), which contributed to his success. In other words, Nast worked on his cartoons not only as a professional artist for business and money, but his drawings were the expressions of his political views and opinions of contemporary problems with social responsibility that contributed to his aura of authenticity.


Notable animal symbols related to Thomas Nast’s name are the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, alongside that of the Tammany Tiger, which appeared in drawings by Nast in Harper’s Weekly in the 1870s (Weitenkampf 1952, 372). Nast first used the elephant to represent the Republican vote power in the 1874 by-elections. For Harper’s Weekly, Nast drew his idea from Barnum’s Jumbo from the Barney and Bailey Circus, a colossus crashing through the planks of his party. The prophecy of a crisis did not come true, as Jay Monaghan argues, since the Republicans did not lose the subsequent election (206). Meanwhile, the elephant symbol became associated with the Republican Party and it soon became an emblem of the G.O.P. However, it is a misbelief that Nast was the first to symbolize the elephant in political cartoons. The Republican Party already used the emblem of an elephant in Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign (Monaghan 1944, 206). The depiction of the elephant as a symbol originates in western visual arts from the Roman Period; it was found on Roman coins to commemorate the victory over Pyrrhus in 275 B.C. In the Era of Discoveries, the elephant was a symbol of the Indies and merged into the image of the “New Continent” of America. William Hogarth, an English painter and engraver, was the first to represent the elephant as the symbol of the British colonies in America during the first half of the eighteenth century present on the walls of London’s most popular coffee houses and thus the image of the elephant and America became synonymous (Monaghan 1944, 208).

As another political symbol, the donkey represents a modest beast of burden jackass known for generations as the poor man’s companion. In the United States, the donkey as a political symbol is associated with the 1830s, the populist age of Jacksonian democracy when most states insisted on property qualifications for voting. Many of the new voters were illiterate, which entailed that they could comprehend only images but now written texts; therefore, the role of cartoons became an increasingly important political force in the United States. Jackson himself was depicted in newspapers, brochures, pamphlets and journals as the poor man’s companion, generally presented riding on a donkey (Monaghan 1944, 210). Then political cartoons delivered an exaggerated reality with one of the preferred techniques of political cartoonists being the ridicule (usually, they placed the aspirant’s head on an animal’s body). This method was used from Jackson’s administration into the first decade of the twentieth century (Monaghan 1944, 212) and Nast created a reputation as the nation’s foremost cartoonist by employing satire and ridicule (Winberg 2015, 127) in this sense.

After the Panic of 1873 and the Reconstruction Period in the U.S., the political corruption and the economic recession, the political climate reached a devastating disruption. In such an atmosphere favorable for even more parody and protest, Nast had proper conditions for satirical expression with the connotations of animal symbolism in his cartoons (Burns, 1999, 8). According to Sarah Burns, the depiction of the era’s spirit as a menagerie, circus, or zoo was a characteristic feature of the period and represented the disorder pointing to a crisis when the old system and rules disappeared without a new order to supersede them (8). The symbolism of the modern menagerie originates from the institution of P.T. Barnum (1810-1891), whose American Museum, Circus, and Hippodrome made the menagerie an urban spectacle. Following the tradition, from the end of the Civil War through the 1870s, Nast used animal symbolism in an impressive number of his cartoons, e.g., lions, dogs, wolves, foxes, giraffes, jackasses, pigs, and geese, in addition to elephants and tigers, representing human political and social absurdities (Burns 1999, 10). Using animal symbolism in visual art was not Nast’s novelty; as shown above, it thus had a long aesthetic tradition.

Nevertheless, Nast is considered to be one of the modern fabulists in the Aesop and La Fontaine tradition in the United States. Animal symbolism in Nast’s political cartoons represents society’s irrational social and psychological forces, repressed by the dominant ideology and showing an indirect expression of these emotions (Burns 1999, 11). On this model, soon cartoonists in France, England, and the United States often portrayed politicians and other public figures-heroes or rascals as foxes, geese, or rats (Burns 1999, 11). Therefore, in such a climate of anxiety and chaos, the urban menagerie became a master trope of the era, projecting visions of a deep crisis and representing the out-of-control wilderness in the middle of a civilized world (Burns 1999, 18) as the following cartoon presents:


Figure 3: The Third-Term Panic. “An ass, having put on the lion’s skin, turned about in the forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met in his wanderings” – Shakespeare or Bacon, wood engraving, Thomas Nast, 1874. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.,


The animals in the cartoon above represent specific newspapers, such as a giraffe (N. Y. Tribune), a unicorn (N.Y. Times), and an owl (New York World); the braying donkey in a lion’s coat, symbolizes the editor of the Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., braying about Caesarism and accusing President Ulysses Grant of thinking about running for a third term of his presidency.

Since the Election of 1876 was decisive in the future of the Reconstruction, the visual representations had to be very powerful. The elephant stands for the Republican Vote; meanwhile, an ostrich with its head buried represents “Temperance.” The wild elephant, “The Republican Party,” balances broken planks, representing Inflation, Repudiation, Home Rule, and Re-construction, respectively, are put over a pit labeled “Southern Claims. Chaos. Rum.” This placement means that the elephant of the Republican Party Vote is uncertain of its weight, striving through planks representing its party platform (Adler 2023). Surprisingly, here a fox represents the Democratic Party by standing on the plank entitled “Reform. (Tammany. K.K.)” and referring to the corruption of the political machine (Adler 2023). Later in the 1870s, Nast repeatedly presented the Democratic Party as a donkey, following the tradition of the Jackson administration that associated the donkey symbol with the Democratic Party. However, in the political cartoon “Third Term Panic,” the Democratic Party takes the shape of a fox. Later, a cartoon from 1879 illustrates the stubborn donkey symbolizing the Democratic Party holding by the tail on the edge of a rock and saving the donkey from falling into an abyss of “financial chaos,” with an image in the background of the White House, referring to the origin of the crisis (Arn November 3, 2020).


The present study contextualized the role of humor in Thomas Nast’s political cartoons and his works in the muckraking movement as a social reformer, investigating the journalist, his drawing style, and the animal symbolism of political menagerie. To comprehend Nast’s political cartoons, I have selected three of his notable political cartoons, representing the versatile character of his oeuvre: the first cartoon depicts William M. “Boss” Tweed as a defeated Roman soldier in one of his 1871 caricatures published in Harper’s Weekly, which illustrates Nast’s prominent role in the muckraking movement, his fight against the political machine, and his incorruptible and honest character. The second political cartoon I have chosen shows Nast, the fallible human being, as he followed the dominant ideology of the era about female emancipation by attacking Victoria Woodhull and addressing her as an incarnation of evil in his drawing for her propagation of free love. This cartoon is also part of the complex image created about Nast. However, it does not diminish Nast’s merits in the muckraking movement, his honest and incorruptible character, and his ardent crusade against social injustice and political corruption. The third cartoon in focus demonstrates that Nast first used the elephant to represent the Republican vote in the 1874 by-elections and presents the development of his drawings by incorporating more animal symbolism.

Nast’s passionate love of the Union, his opposition to slavery and his identity as an independent political thinker expressing his ideas to shape public opinion are explicit in his cartoons. He thus investigated and mediated social and political equality and truth through his humorous drawings by depicting certain symbols, tales, riddles, and parables in comic ways to serve social justice and initiate social and/or political change. Following Fiona Deans Halloran’s argument, Nast’s public legacy includes primarily three things: first, the destruction of the political machine Tweed Ring; second, the popularization and “invention” of the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant with the elephant as a symbol he might have claimed as his own; and finally, as a third component, his collection of chubby, jolly, and magical Santa Claus drawings – which is not the topic of the current paper – of which Nast was incredibly proud (289-290). Many of his illustrations are still present in our everyday life as illustrations with little explanation of the artist’s character and ideas. Nast’s personality and artistic style needs to be addressed in more depth. The present study aimed to only sketch his artistic oeuvre, by focusing on the role of humor in his political cartoons by tracing the personality of the artist that impacted his works by filling the gap in this uncharted field of study.



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