Nast and Reconstruction: understanding a political cartoon

American Art in Context

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

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Nast, The Union As It Was

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Key points

  • Political cartoons are an essential source for the visual language of a particular historical moment. Because of their contextual specificity, they can be difficult to understand by viewers who didn’t live during that time or in that cultural context, but through comparison with other sources, political cartoons can yield rich understanding of beliefs, perspectives, and issues of the day. 
  • Thomas Nast’s 1874 cartoon was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine, a northern publication that was politically aligned with Abraham Lincoln and the northern Republican party during the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction. The image promotes support for the Republican party by condemning Democrats. Details in the cartoon link Democrats with the conspiracies among white-led organizations to use violence and intimidation to disenfranchise and suppress formerly enslaved African Americans during Reconstruction. 
  • Visual precedents for this image reinforced the power of its symbolism; notably, the motif of figures shaking hands above a shield was widely understood at the time to reflect national unity.

Go deeper

Why Reconstruction Matters by Eric Foner, The New York Times, March 28, 2015

Life After Slavery for African Americans (Khan Academy)

Black Officeholders in the South (specifically during Reconstruction), Facing History and Ourselves

Presidents, Politics, and the Pen: The Influential Art of Thomas Nast (Virtual Exhibition created by the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2016, hosted by Google Arts and Culture)

Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies, edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo, 2021 (exhibition catalog from Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture)

150 Years and Counting: The Struggle to Secure the Promise of the 15th Amendment (Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture)

Capitan Hannibal C. Carter: Businessman, Civil War Officer, Reconstruction Politician, Freedom Fighter (blog post by Museum Specialist of Oral History, Kelly P Navies, at Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

More to think about

Why do you think political cartoons like Nast’s are effective? What images do you see today that critique politics most effectively and why?

Research project ideas

  • Explore a selection of political cartoons from the period of Reconstruction or from a range of time periods you have studied (be sure you feel comfortable with the historical context so you understand the issues being addressed in each cartoon). Focus your exploration on defining the way political cartoons serve as a particular kind of visual source. The following prompts may help shape your research.
    • Consider how political cartoonists use particular visual strategies to offer pointed opinions on specific topics and for specific audiences. 
    • Try to answer the question, “What can political cartoons tell us about the time they were created that we cannot learn from other types of sources?”
    • Consider how viewers judge or identify the bias of a political cartoon, by answering the question “what makes a cartoon successful?” Note: there is research that suggests that satire can sometimes backfire, being read as positive by the very people it strives to critique. For this line of inquiry, see if you can find any present examples of such unintended consequences in political cartoons—and consider what lessons they might provide for political cartoonists today.
    • In light of more recent events (e.g. Charlie Hebdo cartoons), we are familiar with debates about the line between satire and slander. How have political cartoonists navigated this line?

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