Historians have asserted that Nast, who grew up in New York City in the 1840s and ’50s, was ferociously bullied as a child. Indeed, the two themes that run through his career are his sneering disdain for bullies of all shapes and sizes, and his compassion for their victims. At Harper’s, he moved back and forth between these two poles. In one famous cartoon, “Worse Than Slavery” (1874), a defenseless black family cowers before a grinning Klansman; in another—a blistering parody of the KKK’s alliance with New York’s political machine, captioned “They Are Swallowing Each Other”—there are no victims, only two bloated, bug-eyed men depicted as ouroboroi.
Nowadays, “editorial cartoons” might bring to mind spare, deliberately simplistic images—the kind you can process in half a second while reading the news. By contrast, Nast’s dense, meticulously labeled cartoons were news: not just images but arguments, meant to be analyzed and discussed point-by-point.
Take “Third Term Panic,” the 1874 cartoon often credited with popularizing the elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party. In the months leading up to the midterms, the New York Herald, at the time backing several Democratic candidates, had spread the rumor that President Ulysses Grant, a Republican, was contemplating running for a third term in 1876—not illegal in the days before the 22nd Amendment, but definitely frowned upon. Nast, a proud supporter of the Party of Lincoln, drew the Herald as a donkey wrapped in a lion’s skin, frightening the other animals with wild stories of a Grant dictatorship. Among these animals are an enormous, oafish elephant labeled “the Republican Vote,” which looks as though it’s about to tumble off a cliff.