Christmas season has arrived at last, although no one has told the weather here in north Texas yet. Never mind. My granddaughter makes it Christmas for me all by herself as she imagines Santa Claus and helps with all the decorations around her house. Her idea of what Christmas means and how it feels is likely very different from my own expectations at her age. But we have pretty much the same idea of what Santa looks like and that is because of Thomas Nast.
Nast was a cartoonist at Harper’s Weekly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His portrayals of Saint Nick were so popular that soon everyone in the U.S. took his jolly old elf as the standard. Today you can see Nast’s influence even in the robust, and much safer, Coca-Cola version.
Nast’s power as a caricaturist and the voice of a nation’s conscience was without parallel. He went to war against the most powerful and corrupt political machine in American history: Boss Tweed’s gang at Tammany Hall. Tweed’s people used bribery, beatings, and booze to keep things at a constant boil. They controlled the city’s entire political apparatus and most of the politicos at the state level. Thousands of thugs and bankers and bureaucrats sat poised and ready to spring into action at Tweed’s command.
Nast had a pencil, a pen, and a courageous editor. That’s it. Other publishers, like Horace Greeley of “Go West, young man” fame, were snug in the pockets of Tweed.
According to Paine‘s biography of the cartoonist, at one point, supporters of Tweed came to Nast with a straight proposal to fund his further schooling and study in Europe for a cool hundred thousand dollars. Nast negotiated with them and got them as high as half a million bucks before he told them he’d have to pass. That would be approximately $8,770,000 in today’s money. That isn’t like bribing Anderson Cooper to back off a news story. Cooper makes too much money compared to what Nast made. It is more like offering $8,770,000 to the guy at the 7-11 to forget that he saw you. Who today has that kind of integrity?
Nast was an abolitionist, and a fierce opponent to the abuses of the Reconstruction era. He is the man who first used the elephant to represent the GOP.
For those who are appalled at the Tea Party and GOP response to the reelection of Obama, here is the “Tilden or Blood” cartoon. Democrats of the time were so dismayed at the Electoral College and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes they refused to accept it and kept trying to engineer a reversal. Their slogan was “Tilden or Blood,” implying a return to civil war. Nice. Face it, we Americans have a gift for over-reacting.
Nast did much to inspire the style of American political cartooning and consequently our advertising and illustration. Art historians discuss at length his influence on both Edgar Degas, who was an enormous fan, and Van Gogh. It was not until Nast that Americans began to understand the real power of an image, its ability to move a person or a whole nation to tears or to laughter.
Or to action.
Thank goodness we don’t have these kinds of problems now.