Racial Satire and the Civil War


American visual satire-- or to use a less elegant term, political cartoons-- embarked on the road towards artistic maturity during the Civil War. Increasingly sophisticated, extremely popular, published cartoons reflected the most wrenching episode of American history in a light at once humorous, tragic, and disquieting. Beyond the political and economic dynamics that underlay the war, racial issues provided cartoonists with a rich and easily accessible source of material. Abolitionist, proslavery, and just plain racist sentiments were expressed and disseminated in popular images of African-Americans.

A number of overlapping developments in the antebellum years combined to elevate both the currency and influence of political prints. The rising literacy rate among Northern whites (89 percent by 1850) meant that cartoons' textual content became a viable element of the overall criticism. At the same time, improved printing technologies such as the steam press sparked a tremendous growth in the number and distribution of American newspapers: the number of active publications quadrupled between 1825 and 1860, to approximately 3,300. Along with the numerous propaganda leaflets circulated in this era, these newspapers served as the primary setting for political satire.

Meanwhile, the nascent art of photography was gaining acceptance; a new generation of visual artists began to capture a greater degree of "reality" than ever before. 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 emaciated frame of a prisoner of war. In contrast to this fascination with reality, cartooning was a meduim based more centrally on the imagination. This foundation allowed for a higher degree of distortion and misrepresentation than could be found in a daugerrotype. 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.

However, it would seem that the extant prints reflect the state of American race relations during the nineteenth century more accurately that we might suppose. In the satire, as in the society, African-Americans essentially operated as pawns in a power matrix dominated by whites. The propagandistic nature of many of the cartoons, whatever the political motive, relegated freedmen and slaves alike to the status of tools in the conflict between Northern and Southern whites. The wide distribution of these prints both reflected and reinforced the racial stereotypes that most Anglo-Saxons 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. Unfortunately they do not 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, where a thriving newspaper and lithography industry-- as well as a large market of readers-- that could support the work of full-time artists. The Southern states, on the other hand, did not produce much visual satire at all 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, envelopes (see image at left) 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.

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