Thomas Nast redrew the lines of American politics and popular culture during the 19th Century, creating our partisan symbols, distilling the modern image of Santa Claus, refining Uncle Sam – and he did much of that while based in New Jersey.
Through June, Macculloch Hall in Nast's adopted hometown of Morristown presents an exhibition of some of its vast collection of the artist's work. The Spirit of Thomas Nast: His Life and Legacy, features some well-known works and two that are seldom seen, the museum's pair of 8-by-12-foot "grand caricaturamas."
Originally a series of 32, only eight are still known to exist today. One of Macculloch's features a joust, with knightly Ulysses S. Grant decapitating a startled Robert E. Lee. In the other, President Andrew Johnson sheds crocodile tears while getting the support of crocodiles.
Nast was still in his teens when his father, a sometime military musician and full-time socialist, uprooted the family from Germany and sent them to the presumed safety of New York City.The young man soon found work as a draftsman, then as a full-fledged artist covering Giuseppi Garibaldi's liberation struggles in Italy. Returning to the United States – which were anything but – Nast found himself riding the political upheaval as the country moved toward Civil War.
Given his radical background, it was no wonder that the young man turned to political cartoons, and embraced the new Republican Party.
In the years leading toward the Civil War, the old National Whig coalition, the not particularly successful opposition to the dominant Democrats, splintered under their own contradictions.
For a time, it seemed Whig mantle would fall to the viciously nativist American Party, whose members oddly decided to declare "I Know Nothing" when asked about partisan activities. But with the union splintering, the Know Nothings were out-competed by a faction focused more on stopping the expansion of slavery while promoting business, the Republicans.
The new party's first president, Abraham Lincoln, called Nast "our best recruiting sergeant" as he rallied public opinion in the North to support the war effort. After the victory, Nast lent his hand to the so-called radical Republicans opposed to President Johnson's lenient attitude toward former Confederates.
Nast found his best target close to home, the New York City politician William Tweed, who rose to become the leader of the Democratic political club known as Tammany Hall. In the same period, Tweed also managed to become a director of a bank and railroad, owner of a hotel and printing company, and the third largest landowner in the city.
Like others in both parties, Nast was appalled by Tweed's corruption. Harper's Weekly gave him a chance to do something about it. Nast's cartoons turned the political machine into a rapacious "Tammany Tiger," savaging the body politic.
Like his father before him, Nast moved his family for safety reasons. Based in New York, the cartoonist feared the revenge Tweed might exact. Next stop for the Nast family was La Fontana, a graceful manse in Morristown situated catty-corner from the mansion of his friend George Macculloch, builder of the Morris Canal.
Nast played a major role in driving the Tweed Ring from office, which led to the Boss' conviction for corruption. When Tweed fled abroad, Spanish authorities used a Nast drawing to identify and arrest the fugitive.
At the height of his fame and influence, Nast was as prolific as ever. But like many true believers, he was about to be disappointed by his own political faction.
Nast stayed loyal to Grant, even when the victorious general presided over a corrupt, incompetent national administration. While triumphing over Tweed, Nast also flayed the country's first woman presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull, and Republican reformer Horace Greeley.
In the hotly contested presidential election of 1876, Nast passionately supported Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, although the better known Democrat, Samuel Tilden, had actually helped bring down the Tweed Ring and other malefactors.
Tilden easily won the popular vote and stood just one electoral vote shy of victory. With the results from three southern states disputed, a congressional commission voted along party lines to award them all to Hayes.
But alas, that outcome reflected a backroom deal between the parties. The Republicans turned their basks on southern Blacks, and Hayes ended Reconstruction.
Increasingly, Nast found himself out of step with public opinion. Always virulently anti-Catholic, he caricatured Irish immigrants with ape-like features, even as they had supplied firepower for the victorious North and manpower for its industries.
Nast was much more reasonable toward other immigrants. Although he employed a "John Chinaman" stereotype like many cartoonists of the day, Nast called his "John Confucius" and gave him a more dignified appearance and sensible statements. But after Hayes, Republicans outbid Democrats in their racism toward Chinese.
Nast's support helped Democrat Grover Cleveland win a narrow presidential victory in 1884. Two years later, the cartoonist left Harper's Weekly. While he continued to work, both his influence and his finances declined.
Trying to recoup, Nast sought a consular appointment in 1902 from President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow progressive Republican. Nast wanted France. He got Ecuador, and kept at his new post in a deadly yellow fever epidemic, which killed him. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.
Nast's elegant home is part of Morristown's historic district, but is still a private residence and not open to the public. But there's plenty to see from the cartoonist across the street at Macculloch Hall, which is worth a visit for its own history and gardens.
Macculloch Hall is open for tours on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 1-4 p.m. (although the last tickets for tours are sold at 3 p.m.). Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students. Members and children under 12 get in free.
For Morris County residents, May 16 is "Be Our Guest Day" in cooperation with the Morris County Alliance for Tourism. Admission is free, although a non-perishable food donation for the Interfaith Food Pantry is suggested.