Thomas Nast was born September 27, 1840 in military barracks at Landau, Germany.
His father was a trombonist in the Bavarian 9th regiment military band.
Then in 1846, his father enlisted on an American ship and sent his wife and children to New York City. Then joined his family at the end of his enlistment in 1850.
Thomas found a passion for drawing at an early age and ended up taking art classes from Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann before enrolling at the school of the National Academy of Design.
Then in 1856, Thomas started working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
Thomas Nast’s drawings appeared for the first time in Harper’s Weekly on March 19, 1859 when he illustrated a report exposing police corruption.
By 1862, he had become a staff illustrator for Harper’s Weekly.
During the American Civil War, Thomas became known for drawings that appealed to the sentiment of the viewer. He recreated battlefields in border and southern states that attracted great attention.
President Lincoln even referred to Thomas Nast as “our best recruiting sergeant.”
One of his most celebrated cartoons was “Compromise with the South,” directed against those in the North who opposed the prosecution of the war in 1864.
After the war, Thomas strongly opposed the reconstruction policy of President Andrew Johnson.
His personal political views began to depict in cartoons “Nast’s great beginning in the field of caricature.”
Thomas Nast became instrumental in real life politics, playing a role in the election of Ulysses Grant as President of the United States.
After President Grant’s reelection victory in 1872, Mark Twain wrote Thomas Nast a letter saying: “Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant—I mean, rather, for Civilization and Progress.”
Thomas even became a close friend of President Grant and the two families shared regular dinners until Grant’s death in 1885.
Thomas Nast showed that he could also effect politicians in a negative way by promoting the downfall of New York City public works commissioner Boss Tweed.
Tweed so feared Nast’s drawings that he sent an emissary to offer the artist a bribe of $100,000, which was represented as a gift from a group of wealthy benefactors to enable Nast to study art in Europe.
Feigning interest, Thomas negotiated for more before finally refusing an offer of $500,000 with the words, “Well, I don’t think I’ll do it. I made up my mind not long ago to put some of those fellows behind the bars”.
Thomas Nast pressed his attack in the pages of Harper’s, and the Boss Tweed Ring was removed from power in the election of November 7, 1871 and convicted of fraud in 1873.
The Republican Elephant
Thomas Nast was for many years a staunch Republican.
At this time, the usual symbol of the Republican Party was the bald eagle, usually opposing the Democratic party rooster.
Then during the mid-term elections of 1874, President Grant was accused of “Caesarism” by the New York Herald due to a rumor that he was planning to run for an unprecedented third term.
The New York Herald also involved itself in another circulation-builder in an entirely different, nonpolitical area. This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, a delightful hoax perpetrated by the Herald. They ran a story, totally untrue, that the animals in the zoo had broken loose and were roaming the wilds of New York’s Central Park in search of prey.
Thomas Nast took examples from the Herald and put them together in a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly he named “The Third Term Panic.”
Thus, in response to the Herald‘s editorials, Harper’s Weekly published this cartoon by Thomas Nast titled “The Third Term Panic” on November 7, 1874.
At the center of Nast’s image is a donkey disguised as a lion. The donkey symbolized the Herald wearing a lion’s skin (the prospect of Caesarism) frightening away the other animals in the forest (Central Park).
Most of the other animals in the cartoon are running from the menacing donkey, but the elephant–wearing the label of “the Republican vote”– remains standing at the edge of a pit labeled “Southern Claims Chaos.”
The caption quoted a familiar fable: “An ass having put on a lion’s skin roamed about in the Forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within his wanderings.”
To Nast, the elephant represented the Republican vote – not the party, the Republican vote – which was being frightened away from its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism.
In a subsequent cartoon on Nov. 21, 1874, after the election in which the Republicans did badly, Nast followed up the idea by showing the elephant in a trap, illustrating the way the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance.
Then other cartoonists picked up the symbol, and the elephant soon ceased to be represent the Republican vote and became the Grand Old Party itself: the jackass, now referred to as the donkey, made a natural transition from representing the Herald to representing the Democratic party that had frightened the elephant.
By 1890, Thomas Nast’s mode of cartooning had come to be seen as outdated.
Health problems, which included pain in his hands which had troubled him since the 1870s, affected his ability to work.
In 1892, Thomas took control of a failing magazine, the New York Gazette, and renamed it Nast’s Weekly.
Thomas used the Weekly as a vehicle for his cartoons supporting Benjamin Harrison for president. The magazine had little impact and ceased publication seven months after it began, shortly after Harrison’s defeat.
The failure of Nast’s Weekly left Thomas with few financial resources. He received a few commissions for oil paintings, and drew book illustrations.
In 1902, he applied for a job in the State Department, hoping to secure a consular position in western Europe. Although no such position was available, President Theodore Roosevelt was an admirer of the artist and offered him an appointment as the United States’ Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador in South America.
Thomas accepted the position and traveled to Ecuador on July 1, 1902.
During a subsequent yellow fever outbreak, Thomas Nast remained on the job, helping numerous diplomatic missions and businesses escape the contagion.
Thomas contracted the disease and died on December 7, 1902.
His body was returned to the United States, where he was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
Now WE know em