Thomas Nast and the 19th-Century Influence
Thomas Nast is one of the most influential cartoonists in American history and is often called the "Father of the American Cartoon." Born in Germany, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 6; by age 15, he had begun drawing for Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Today, Nast is best remembered for creating the modern image of Santa Claus and the Republican elephant, and popularizing the Democratic donkey through his iconic illustrations.
Nast also drew a score of political cartoons, the most famous of which were published in Harper's Weekly and exposed the illegal dealings of Tammany Hall, a political machine in New York City headed by politician William M. Tweed. Using his connections as a member of boards and commissions in New York City, Tweed exerted enormous control over the city through the creation of city-related projects and jobs. The Nast vs. Tweed campaign began in 1870 with sporadic cartoons satirizing Tammany Hall and Tweed's campaign for the New York State Senate during the 1871 November elections. By August 1871, the cartoons came on a weekly basis, and each cartoon was more pointed than the previous one.
Readers in New York followed the campaign closely, especially as economic conditions deteriorated. In 1871, city workers were denied their wages because the city did not have enough money to pay salaries. On September 30, 1871, there was a strike and a riot. In October of 1871, Nast used the escalating economic tensions to critique the Tammany Hall ringleaders, suggesting that they were responsible for stealing the workers' wages. The cartoon's caption pointedly asks voters, "What are you going to do about it?"
Despite Nast's campaign against Tweed and the Tammany Hall ring, Tweed was re-elected to the New York State Senate. There were enough opposition candidates (from both parties), however, than an effective investigation of Tweed could be accomplished, ultimately resulting in a conviction.
Tweed appealed the conviction, and in June of 1875 it was overturned. Tweed was released from Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary on June 21 at midnight. He had dinner at Delmonico’s Steakhouse. Then he was remanded to the Ludlow Street Jail to face more charges that were filed against him. At the time that this cartoon was published, Tweed was still in jail facing numerous civil suits.
Nast suggests that even though Tweed was in jail, he was not treated the same as the less connected prisoners. While he stands around, well-fed and smoking cigars, other inmates are immobilized and denied necessities. The refrain, “What are you going to do about it?” is a taunt that originated with Tweed when he was at the height of his power as the head of Tammany Hall and was openly stealing from the public treasury. Nast includes the refrain in many of his cartoons satirizing Tweed.