Thomas Nast: Father of The American Political Cartoon

By | September 23, 2020

test article image
German-born American cartoonist and caricaturist Thomas Nast (1840–1902). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is true that oftentimes, a picture is worth 1,000 words. It is also true that sometimes, the antics of our elected officials are so ridiculous that they are almost laughable. With both of these thoughts in mind, a German-born artist made a major impact on the political scene of New York City and the entire United States in the last half of the 19th century. Thomas Nast can rightfully be called the father of the American political cartoon as well as the symbols that define politics to this day.

Who Was Thomas Nast?

Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840 in the German town of Landau, but he didn't stay in Germany long. When he was six years old, he and his family immigrated to the United States, settling in New York. From a young age, Nast showed his talent as an artist, taking art classes at the National Academy of Design in New York City. When he was only 15, he took a job as a draftsman for a publication called Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, and a few years later, he landed at Harper's Weekly. 

test article image
(Thomas Nast/Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Nast's Political Cartoons

When the American Civil War broke out, Nast used his artistic ability to voice his support for the Union cause. He was so good at depicting the complexity of emotions in one simple drawing that President Abraham Lincoln called him "our best recruitment sergeant." Nast wasn't quite as friendly with Lincoln's successor, however, depicting Andrew Johnson as a power-hungry autocrat who was determined to take away the rights of citizens.

Nast went on to shine a light on the corrupt and illegal dealings of New York City Democratic Party leader William Marcy Tweed, also known as "Boss Tweed," and his Tammany Hall political machine with powerful cartoons like "The Tammany Tiger Loose" and "Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to Blow Over," both released in 1871. One cartoon, depicting Tweed fleeing the country ahead of corruption charges, was even used to identify Tweed in his hideout in Spain, where—yes—he had fled the country.