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Nast, Thomas (September 27, 1840 - December 7, 1902)

Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, and immigrated with his family to America in 1846. His father was a musician who played in theaters, so young Nast was exposed to the plays of Shakespeare and other dramatists at an impressionable age. As an adult, he would integrate those characters and themes, especially Shakespearean ones, into his work. His first illustration for Harper’s Weekly appeared in 1859 and his last one in 1896. Most of his 2200-plus cartoons for Harper’s Weekly were drawn between 1862 and 1886, an average of almost two per week.
Nast originated many symbols including the Republican Elephant and the Tammany Tiger. He popularized the Democratic Donkey and the image of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly old man. During the Civil War, Nast’s depiction of Southern guerrilla raids and atrocities reportedly led Abraham Lincoln to call him the Union’s best recruiter. Two of his 1864 cartoons were used effectively as campaign posters in Lincoln’s re-election bid. In fact, Nast’s cartoons played an important role in the election of Republican presidents from Lincoln through Garfield and in the "Mugwump" (renegade Republican) campaign for Democrat Grover Cleveland. Nast, however, is probably best remembered for his influential series of political cartoons that helped bring about the 1871 downfall of New York City’s villainous Tweed Ring, led by "Boss" William Tweed.
Nast drew over fifty cartoons on the "Chinese Question" for Harper’s Weekly. His illustrations urged the acceptance and incorporation of Chinese immigrants into American society. He assumed that the granting of citizenship and voting rights would be a powerful force leading to their assimilation. He dismissed arguments that they represented a threat to the American labor force, and he often favorably contrasted the Chinese with Irish Catholics (whom he saw as blind followers of a corrupt Democratic party and Pope). Nast depicted Denis Kearney and James Blaine as the prime political movers behind the exclusion and maltreatment of Chinese immigrants. Kearney was, indeed, a leader of the California anti-Chinese movement. Blaine, a supporter of Chinese exclusion, was singled out by Nast because of the cartoonist’s animosity toward the Senator’s alleged corruption and opposition to political reform.

The presidential election of 1884 was Nast’s last major political battle, and it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. He used his artistic talents to denounce Blaine, the Republican presidential nominee, and endorse Grover Cleveland, the Democratic nominee. Cleveland was elected by a narrow margin, but Nast and Harper’s Weekly lost popularity that they would never fully regain. Although only 44, Nast’s work went into decline. In 1885, he lost most of his savings in a Wall Street swindle, and he stopped cartooning regularly for Harper’s Weekly the next year. He died of yellow fever in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where President Theodore Roosevelt had appointed him consul in 1902.


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