Visual satire -- or to use a less elegant term, political cartoons -- came of age during the American Civil War. Increasingly sophisticated, increasingly popular, published cartoons reflected the bloodiest episode of American history in a light at once humorous, tragic, and disquieting. Beyond the political and economic dynamics that underlay the war, the Gordian knot of race provided cartoonists with their richest source of material. Abolitionist, proslavery and apolitically racist sentiments alike found expression in the representation of African Americans.
A number of overlapping developments of the antebellum years combined to elevate both the currency and influence of political cartoons. Educational advances, especially in the North, had raised the literacy rate among whites to 89 percent by 1850, making the textual content of cartoons accessible to a great number of people. At the same time, improved printing technology -- for instance, the steam press -- allowed for tremendous growth in the number of American newspapers, which quadrupled between 1825 and 1860, to approximately 3,300. Although a few of these newspapers were owned and operated by freed blacks (including Frederick Douglass), the vast majority of publishers, editors, writers and readers were white. Along with political pamphlets, these newspapers served as the primary forum for political cartoons. Finally, the cartoons represented a maturing art form whose cultural significance was growing in proportion to the worsening sectional and racial animosities that were pushing the country toward the brink of war.
Meanwhile, the nascent art of photography had made its appearance, allowing a new generation of visual artists to capture a greater degree of "reality" than ever before in their work. Despite the not uncommon practice of "staging" photographs, the camera did not lie when it showed black Union soldiers aboard a battleship, or when it captured the lineaments of an African American's face. On the other hand, cartooning, an art form based more fundamentally on the imagination, allowed for a higher degree of misrepresentation, of distortion, of caricature. The distinction between photography and drawing is suggestive of the gulf between the actual experience of black Americans during the Civil War and the representation of their experience by whites. This faultline forms a major theme of the visual satire that the period produced.
But perhaps the extant cartoons reflect more accurately than we might suppose the state of American race relations during the 19th century. In the satire, as in the society, blacks essentially operated as pawns in a power matrix dominated by whites. The propagandistic nature of many of the cartoons, whatever the political motive, relegated blacks, free or not, to the status of tools or levers in a conflict between whites; in so doing, they both reflected and reinforced the racial stereotypes that most whites continued to hold. That a war ultimately resulting in emancipation should have produced a corpus of satire that continued to confine blacks in their predefined roles is an irony of history that deserves to be more fully explored.
The images included in this project can only begin to suggest the great variety of viewpoints and media of all the political art that appeared during the Civil War years. Nor do they form a perfectly representative cross-section of the era's political art. Most of the satire of the period was published in New York City, the nation's financial and journalistic capital, which provided both a thriving newspaper and lithography industry and a readership market that could support the work of independent artists. The South, on the other hand, did not produce much visual satire at all, even regarding such pivotal issues as nullification and secession, until the 1870s and 1880s. Finally, one should bear in mind the many different channels available to political artists: broadsides, pamphlets, individual prints, alamanacs, campaign banners, and even envelopes and stock certificates.
The images were chosen for their relevance to major issues and episodes relating to the Civil War, including sectional controversy during the 1850s, the election of 1860, and the place of emancipated blacks in a white society. In general, I have attempted to recapture the era's diversity of opinion, in which abolitionists and slaveholders, moderates and radicals, racists and nonracists, all participated. At the same time, I chose only those political prints dealing with race because they provide the most compelling images of a war that set the stage for the gradual, and ongoing, racial integration of American society. The images resemble touchstones allowing us to study the ways in which the Civil War, while transforming the status of African Americans, was itself transformed in the minds and by the pens of political cartoonists.