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The doodler who defied crooks and democratized donkeys

Thomas Nast (111-B-3036)

Thomas Nast (111-B-3036)

There are few artist in America who so greatly affected the popular landscape as Thomas Nast who was born 170 years ago today. Jolly old St Nick? Not so jolly before the Harper’s Weekly cartoonist plumped him up. The Grand Old Party elephant? Popularized in 1874 by the staunch Republican when talk of a third term by Ulysses S. Grant threatened to sink the Republican Party.  The Democratic donkey? Originally introduced as a jackass kicking over a great lion in 1870 and meant to symbolize the Democrats and their harsh treatment of the “great lion” Edwin M. Stanton.

The son of a German trombonist, Nast may seem an odd character to have a dramatic sway over U.S. politics, but the man had influence in spades. Being the most popular illustrator at a time when 20 percent of American adults were illiterate made Nast’s pen a powerful weapon.

Abraham Lincoln called the cartoonist “our best recruiting sergeant.” The Great Emancipator’s 1864 reelection campaign was significantly boosted by a single drawing done by Nast implying that Lincoln’s loss would mean a lost war for the Union. Ulysses S. Grant attributed his 1868 reelection campaign to Nast. Nast’s cartoons were so influential (and accurate) that when Boss Tweed—the scammer politician of Tammany Hall fame—fled prison, he was picked up in Spain after  a border agent identified the crook from one of Nast’s drawings.

For more political cartoons drawn by another influential ink slinger, visit our collection of  Clifford Berryman cartoons. To learn more about the affect of cartoons on our political landscape, check out our online exhibit, Running for Office.

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