The Life And Death Of Thomas Nast

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Earlier that year, when the Civil War had broken out, my grandfather had considered enlisting; but those who knew of his talents convinced him that he could better serve his country with his pencil than with a sword. Thus it was that the young bridegroom began covering the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly . Then in July, 1863, he went to the front as artist on the scene for that magazine. His Civil War drawings attracted nationwide attention, and the young artist’s reputation grew.

For the 1862 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly Nast drew a picture of Santa Claus, inspired by a poem composed forty years earlier by Clement Clarke Moore. Professor Moore had made up “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” for the amusement of his six small children and hadn’t even thought of publishing it. But his wife had recorded the poem in the family Bible; subsequently it had made its way into print. Nast apparently read the poem sometime in 1862 and drew Santa Claus, with sleigh and reindeer, much as Moore had described him.

This Christmas drawing marks the first appearance of Santa Claus as we know him today. So it may be said that Clement Clarke Moore, a learned American professor of Biblical languages, and Thomas Nast, a young German-born artist, gave the world a new image of St. Nicholas and one that would live in the hearts of children for generations to come.

Thomas Nast covered the Civil War for Harper’s for its entire duration, and his cartoons so stirred the hearts of Northerners that President Lincoln referred to him as the Union’s best recruiting sergeant. When the fighting was over, General Grant was to say that Thomas Nast had done as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end, a remarkable tribute to the young cartoonist.

Nast’s relationship with Harper’s was firmly established by 1865, and in the twenty years to follow, the magazine and the artist would become champions of honesty in government and bulwarks of Republicanism.

In 1870 Nast launched an attack on New York’s corrupt Tweed Ring. While his campaign against Boss Tweed is familiar to students of American history, it is less well known that in 1871 my grandfather refused a bribe of a half million dollars to call off his attacks and go abroad to study art. Tweed did not so much mind what the papers printed about him, he said, because most of his constituents couldn’t read but they could see “them damn pictures.”

Failing in its attempt to bribe Nast, the Tweed Ring next threatened the publisher of Harper’s by throwing all of the company’s textbooks out of the city schools and ordering the Tweed-controlled board of education to reject all future Harper & Brothers bids for school books. Harper’s board of directors almost capitulated, but Nast’s loyal friend Fletcher Harper stood by him and the fight went on. Nast continued his campaign against the Ring despite threats against his life, vowing that he would see them all in jail before he stopped. When suspicious-looking characters were observed loitering about his home in upper Manhattan and the friendly police captain in the neighborhood was suddenly transferred to another precinct, Nast decided that it was time to move his family out of the city. It was at this time that he bought Villa Fontana in suburban Morristown, New Jersey, which was to be my grandparents’ home for the next thirty years.

Thomas Nast’s cartoon The Tammany Tiger Loose , which appeared as a double-page spread in Harper’s just before the fall elections in 1871, is considered one of the most powerful cartoons of all time and was principally responsible for the defeat of the Tweed Ring at the polls a few days later. It was printed from a wood engraving, and all of Tweed’s gang are clearly identifiable.

After being prosecuted for having looted the city of over thirty million dollars in the course of thirty months, members of the Ring were jailed, but Tweed himself managed to escape to Europe. There he was captured and returned to the United States. Ironically Tweed was apprehended in Spain on a charge of kidnapping, though this was one crime of which he had never been guilty. Authorities in this country, at a loss to understand the charge, later learned that Tweed had been recognized from a Nast cartoon that showed Tweed in prison garb with two little ragamuffins in tow. This was a cartoon that my grandfather had drawn some years earlier to illustrate Tweed’s expressed willingness, when seeking the governorship of New York State, to bring all manner of minor thieves to justice.

 
 
 
 

When Tweed died in New York City’s Ludlow Street Jail in 1878, every one of Nast’s cartoons attacking him was found among his effects.

Thomas Nast’s part in overthrowing the Tweed Ring added to the nationwide prominence he had gained during the war. He had become a political power, every Presidential candidate that he supported having been elected. Even General Grant, upon assuming the Presidency, attributed his election to the “sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.”