Nast & Reconstruction, understanding a political cartoon

Thomas Nast, “The Union As It Was—Worse Than Slavery,” 1874, wood engraving, illustration in Harper’s Weekly (October 24, 1874, Library of Congress) A conversation between Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott and Dr. Beth Harris

Warning: this video includes violent and racist imagery

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re looking at an 1874 political cartoon by Thomas Nast. It doesn’t have an official title, but it’s often called “The Union as it Was” or “Worse Than Slavery.”

Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott: [0:17] Political cartoons can be hard because we’ve lost the visual language that they refer to and that everyone at the time would have easily recognized.

Dr. Harris: [0:27] Contemporary viewers would have seen this in context in “Harper’s Weekly” magazine, a northern newspaper that supported Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.

Dr. Kutz Elliott: [0:39] At its most basic, we’re seeing two figures, one facing us on the right, one with his back to us on the left, reaching out to one another and shaking hands above a skull and crossbones, which sits at the top of a shield, in which we see a Black family and scenes of violence behind that family.

[1:01] The figure on the left is clearly labeled as being from the White League, and he holds a weapon, as does the figure on the right, who’s clearly labeled KKK. We can also recognize him from his uniform.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] Smaller details here also tell us a bit about what’s going on. We can see that at the bottom of that shield, there’s an open book that has the alphabet in it, and we see a schoolhouse that’s got smoke rising from it. They represent efforts by formerly enslaved people to get an education in the years after the Civil War.

[1:37] Then behind the kneeling woman, we see a man who’s been lynched. When we see these two figures shaking hands above this scene of terror, it looks like a conspiracy between the White League, which was an 1870s paramilitary group that openly crushed Black political participation in the South, and the KKK.

Dr. Kutz Elliott: [2:02] The federal government has been able to some degree to quash the activities of the KKK, but the White League and similar organizations were born during this period. We see the figure from the White League from behind, but he’s not disguised in the way that the figure from the KKK is.

[2:23] The White League was acting more in the open. People knew the names of, in many cases, Confederate veterans who were taking part in the White League and similar organizations.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] We see in the upper left corner a bayonet, a weapon that is fixed to the end of a rifle. That suggests that this man is a Confederate veteran. He has a weapon that would have been issued by the Confederate Army and has both the equipment and the training to continue the fight to disenfranchise Black voters in the South.

[2:58] This cartoon is drawn about a year after the Colfax Massacre, which took place in Louisiana, in which more than 100 Black militia members were slaughtered by the White League.

[3:11] This moment in the 1870s is a critical moment for Reconstruction. It’s been eight-plus years since the end of the Civil War. There’s a question of whether the federal government, whether the North, is going to turn away from its commitment to African American equality in the South and allow white supremacy to re-emerge.


“[3:34] This is a White Man’s Government” was a statement from the 1868 Democratic platform. Remember, at this time, the Democratic and Republican Parties espoused different positions than they do today.

[3:47] The Democratic Party, for the most part, was associated with slavery, states’ rights, and white supremacy in the South. The Republican Party was associated with national and federal government and African American rights.

[4:02] In showing “This is a White Man’s Government,” Thomas Nast is trying to make a connection between the Democratic Party [and] racial violence in the South and encourage his viewers to vote for the Republican Party.

Dr. Kutz Elliott: [4:16] These figures are represented sympathetically, and not at all like the kinds of caricatured images of Black figures that we would see normally in so many political cartoons and other images from the period, where they’re represented with prominent jaws and wide eyes. We often see these figures dressed in rags, with bare feet.

Dr. Harris: [4:40] Women are often depicted wearing kerchiefs on their head, which was a symbol of Black female subservience. You think of Aunt Jemima, for example. Even though Nast is trying to create a sympathetic image, he’s still drawing on elements typical of racist 19th-century depictions of Black people.

Dr. Kutz Elliott: [5:01] When I look at this cartoon from an art-historical point of view, I see two figures on either side of a shield. If we go back in art history, we can see that this was a common motif.

[5:14] Sometimes they could be allegorical figures on either side, sometimes putti, and those Renaissance images get drawn on for one of the early designs for the Great Seal of the United States of America, where we see two figures representing war and peace on either side of a shield with stripes, and, above, stars, representing the United States.

[5:35] We can follow this imagery to a print which depicts on one side, Abraham Lincoln, and on the other, George Washington, each with their hands on a shield representing the United States.

[5:47] This is a print made shortly after Lincoln’s death, commemorating Lincoln and aligning him with George Washington, an image that represents the idea of national unity. In Nast’s cartoon, that idea of unity is conspiracy to commit violence and to disenfranchise and control the labor of formerly enslaved people.

Dr. Harris: [6:10] Viewers of the cartoon would immediately have recalled an earlier Nast cartoon from during the war called “Compromise with the South.” This became nationally famous in 1864. At that time, some Democrats opposed Abraham Lincoln, and they wanted to make peace with the South to allow the Confederacy to go its own way and slavery to continue.

[6:38] Nast drummed up considerable support for Abraham Lincoln with this image showing how US soldiers would have died in a useless war had the United States decided to make peace with the Confederacy. That slavery would continue, as we see with the image of the Black family kneeling once again.

[7:02] We can see that this is something that Nast thinks is tragic by the figure of Columbia, an allegorical figure representing the United States, kneeling and weeping before this grave.

Dr. Kutz Elliott: [7:15] Once again, an agreement between white people that will have this terrible impact on a Black family. We see this in other Nast cartoons. For example, one called “This is a White Man’s Government,” where again figures are shaking hands and a formerly enslaved person is being trampled on on the ground beneath their feet.

Dr. Harris: [7:37] In some ways, we could see these cartoons as a continuation of the same story. In 1864, the Democratic Party suggesting compromise with the South. In 1868, the Democratic Party working with Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK, to enact the platform, “This is a White Man’s Government.”

[7:58] In 1874, the White League and the KKK working together to create a society “Worse Than Slavery,” to this cartoon, in 1876, which shows a Black man being forced to vote the Democratic ticket because this white supremacy and violence has gone unchecked in the South.

[8:22] For me, the tragedy of Reconstruction is that it didn’t have to end the way it did. Didn’t have to end with another 100 years before the Voting Rights Act. History is not a straight upward line of people getting more and more rights, becoming more and more free and equal. Those rights and that equality must be actively maintained.

[8:47] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott, "Nast & Reconstruction, understanding a political cartoon," in Smarthistory, March 17, 2021, accessed May 19, 2024,