Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Occasionally ‘Nast-y’

Inventor of editorial cartoon helped define America

Thomas A. Nast, cartoonist extraordinaire, spent his school years on the verge of flunking out and never learned to spell correctly. Nonetheless, before his death from yellow fever at age 62, he helped elect two presidents and almost single-handedly destroyed the Tammany Hall gang, and Spanish authorities used his cartoons to identify and arrest a fugitive Boss Tweed.

Thomas Nast, self-portrait

Thomas Nast, self-portrait: In this case, the pencil may be mightier than a sword...
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So adroit were Nast’s caricatures that they have now become an indispensable part of US political culture: The Uncle Sam and Santa Claus we know today were his inventions. So were the elephant and donkey that stand as emblems of the Republican and Democratic parties. No wonder Nast is now called “the father of the American cartoon.”

Nast was a staunch Republican (in the Civil War era, when the party stood for rather different values than it does today); an abolitionist; an acidulous critic of Andrew Johnson’s Southern Appeasement — er, Reconstruction — policies; an enemy to slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, and a friend to Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. But he was also capable of xenophobia, and his portrayals of Irish immigrants and the Roman Catholic Church were far from sympathetic.

Over his life, Nast made many prominent friends, including President Ulysses S. Grant and author Mark Twain, with whom he shared many political opinions. He also made many enemies, particularly among those stung by his less friendly caricatures. And this is perhaps why there are some who still believe that the adjective “nasty” was derived from his name; this is obviously untrue, but like many such apocrypha, it has been slow to die.

Originally published as a review of a Wikipedia article on Thomas Nast.

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