I) A Brief History of Political Cartoons

Political cartoons are for the most part composed of two elements: caricature, which parodies the individual, and allusion, which creates the situation or context into which the individual is placed. Caricature as a Western discipline goes back to Leonardo da Vinci's artistic explorations of "the ideal type of deformity"-- the grotesque-- which he used to better understand the concept of ideal beauty [1]. Over time the principles of form established in part by Leonardo had become so ingrained into the method of portraiture that artists like Agostino and Annibale Carracci rebelled against them. Intended to be lighthearted satires, their caricaturas were, in essence, "counter-art" [2]. The sketch of "A Captain of Pope Urban VIII" is representative of the new genre in that it is a quick, impressionistic drawing that exaggerates prominent physical characteristics to humorous effect. At its best, it brings out the subject's inner self in a kind of physiognomical satire-- as the example presented here seems to be a comment on some facet of the Captain's masculinity. Caricaturas became popular with collectors, but they perceived the "fanciful exercises" as curiosities rather than viable artistic productions [3]. As a result, they were not displayed publicly, and so one of the earliest modes of established graphic satire remained in the parlor and drawing room.

While caricature originated around the Mediterranean, cartoons of a more editorial nature developed in a chillier climate. The Protestant Reformation began in Germany, and made extensive use of visual propaganda; the success of both Martin Luther's socio-religious reforms and the discipline of political cartooning depended on a level of civilization neither too primitive nor too advanced. A merchant class had emerged to occupy positions of leadership within the growing villages and towns, which meant that a core of people existed who would respond to Luther's invectives and be economically capable of resisting the all-powerful Catholic Church. In regards to the physical requirements of graphic art, both woodcutting and metal engraving had become established trades, with many artists and draughtsmen sympathetic to the cause. Finally, the factor which probably influenced the rise of cartoons more than any other cultural condition was a high illiteracy rate. Luther recognized that the support of an increasingly more powerful middle class was crucial to the success of his reforms, but in order to lead a truly popular movement he would need the sheer weight of the peasantry's numbers. The distribution of simple broadsheet posters or illustrated pamphlets throughout population centers proved to be an effective strategy because the images would reach a large amount of people and enjoy the greatest possible amount of comprehension. [4]

An excellent example of Luther's use of visual protest is found in two woodcuts from the pamphlet "Passional Christi und Antichristi", originally drawn by Lucas Cranach the Elder. These two images contrast the actions of Jesus with those of the Church hierarchy; the hegemony of religion at the time ensured that when someone drew a Biblical episode like that of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple, everyone would recognize it. The artist juxtaposed the first scene with a contemporary tableau that many people would also understand: the Pope writes indulgences while common folk pay their hard earned money in tribute. The two pictures clearly intend to raise public consciousness by illustrating the premise that changes must be made within the Church for life to ever become more Christlike. "Passional Christi und Antichristi" also demonstrates the artist's use of the second element of political cartoons-- the context of a widely-recognized story or setting-- to get his point across.

As time went on, Germanic art assimilated the Italian caricatura and established the conventions practiced on a wide basis by cartoonists of the eighteenth century. The cartoon became a substantial medium of commentary which took serious issues and presented them in a manner which was not only funny, and therefore more socially acceptable, but also designed to affect the viewer's opinion. As Western culture diversified from its original religious foundation, new subjects became available for discussion and subsequent ridicule; as such the appeal and influence of cartoons on public life grew in proportion. Although there will never be empirical evidence which can relate the production of graphic satire to the course of history, the fact that the medium of visual protest has remained healthy since 1517 must be some indication of its position in the social order. [5]

Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die", which depicts a snake whose severed parts represent the Colonies, is acknowledged as the first political cartoon in America. The image had an explicitly political purpose from the start, as Franklin used it in support of his plan for an intercolonial association to deal with the Iroquois at the Albany Congress of 1754. It came to be published in "virtually every newspaper on the continent"; reasons for its widespread currency include its demagogic reference to an Indian threat as well as its basis in the popular superstition that a dead snake would come back to life if the pieces were placed next to each other [6]. Franklin's snake is significant in the development of cartooning because it became an icon that could be displayed in differing variations throughout the existing visual media of the day-- like the "Don't Tread on Me" battle flag-- but would always be associated with the singular causes of colonial unity and the Revolutionary spirit. In the same way that Biblical stories are an element of shared culture, "Join or Die" became a symbol to which all Americans could respond. Even though the Albany Congress was a failure, Franklin's snake had established a connection between a drawing and a specific political idea in the American imagination.

The effect of cartoons after the Civil War can be found in an anecdote whose components have elevated it to the stature of myth. Much of the legend surrounding Thomas Nast's 1871 Harper's Weekly cartoons on the corrupt "Boss" Tweed does not hold up to rigorous scrutiny, but as Roger A. Fischer writes in a recent collection of essays,

The Story of William "Marcy" Tweed and his bete noir Tom Nast is known to most students of American history, and familiar to every aficionado of the history of American political cartooning. . . This confrontation is credited by consensus with establishing once and forever a fledgling craft. . . as an enduring presence in American political culture. In its telling is exemplified those salient themes dear to the collective scholarship of the medium, such as it is-- the power of the giants of the genre to fuse creative caricature, clever situational transpositions, and honest indignation to arouse the populace and alter for the better the course of human events. [7]
The tale of Nast and Tweed is one of the most celebrated specimens of graphic social protest in American history, but a number of circumstances contributed to restrict Nast's impact to this his most famous battle. Undoubtedly the greatest popular artist of the Civil War, Lincoln is frequently quoted as saying Nast was his best recruiting sergeant, and his scenes of once-thriving southern cities like Richmond did much to convey the magnitude of destruction to Northern audiences [8]; however, the fiery baptism of photography as documentary tool in the war has done much to overshadow his efforts. Furthermore, after he became the featured cartoonist at Harper's much of his art was focused on the local New York scene, and once the Tweed Ring fell his own professional career began a slow process of deterioration. The primary shortcoming of Nast's work overall is that the quality of his satire never matched the quality of his art. Cartoons such as "Let Us Prey" are typical of his work because they are "devastating in effect" [9], i.e. they overwhelmingly achieve the goal of ridiculing their subject, but as a measure of sophistication they are more akin to base insults than the kind of deft criticisms found in more subtle satire. In a veiled comparison of prominent Gilded Age cartoonists, Allan Nevins characterized Nast's satirical approach to assault with a club rather than a rapier [10]; although he conveyed his point to the viewer with unmistakable clarity and intensity, the very simplicity of this approach failed to endear him to the more discerning Harper's subscriber. Nast could raise the ire of those immigrants who sustained the Tweed machine, but the crudity of his art did not suit the more reserved middle and upper classes of society.

Joseph Keppler filled the vacuum left by Nast's popular decline to become the most commercially and critically acclaimed cartoonist of the Gilded Age. Born in Vienna in 1838, to a pastry maker forced to flee the country because of his participation in efforts to create a unified German nation, Joseph followed his father to America in 1867 and settled among the large German-speaking community in St. Louis. By the time he left his homeland at age twenty-nine, he had graduated from the Austrian Academy of Fine Arts, appeared as featured actor at a Viennese theater, and in 1864-65 contributed to the popular illustrated humor magazine Kikeriki!. Shortly after his arrival Keppler "fell in with a distinguished crowd of journalists, writers, and artists"-- including a young reporter named Joseph Pulitzer-- from the German quarter who would engage in discussions about political events or literary and philosophical matters [11]. It is important to note these early experiences in Keppler's life in the United States, for they ensured that many of the liberal views he had grown up with would not wither after their transplantation into American soil. Thomas Nast came from Bavaria at a very young age, later married into a respectable New England family, and the maturation of his personal values during the Civil War made them inseparable from orthodox Republicanism; by contrast, Keppler emigrated after the war's end and never divested himself from his Austro-Germanic heritage. In short, he was probably never fully Americanized, and never lost sight of the kind of idealistic social activism which had characterized many German intellectuals since Martin Luther.

While living in St. Louis, Keppler co-founded a handful of illustrated humor magazines-- Die Vehme in 1869, Frank und Frei in 1870, and both German and English versions of Puck in 1871. None lasted very long, the most successful being the eleven month run of the German Puck. Despite these commercial failures, Keppler and his associates had established an important connection with the local populace. Printed almost entirely in German, their subject matter relied heavily on international affairs and German-ethnic comedy. Unlike Nast's coarse etchings, Keppler's cartoons reflected "a grace of artistic approach" derived from his exposure to popular Austro-German styles of the day [12]. As a result, his work struck a resounding chord with a community raised "on a heavy satiric dose" of illustrated humor in the Old Country [13]. The most educated and economically prosperous of non-native Americans, Germans constituted a powerful bloc of magazine buyers and, more importantly, voters; when Keppler brought Puck back in New York it would also be initially geared towards a Germanic audience.

During the same early years in which Keppler provided his countrymen with a beloved piece of their homeland, he came to understand their political perspective through the work of one of their outstanding compatriots. The most famous German immigrant of the nineteenth century was Carl Schurz, who had arrived in St. Louis to co-edit the Westliche Post only months before Keppler [14]. Schurz had distinguished himself as a dedicated liberal due to his role as a student leader in the failed unification of German states in 1848-49. Captured by Rhenish authorities in a conservative backlash, he escaped the country only to return and secure the freedom of his mentor Gottfreid Kinkel. Schurz gained additional fame in America as a supporter of Republican anti-slavery policies, and both politicians and the general public recognized his talent as an orator. He toured the South throughout the Reconstruction years, and reported to Congress on the deplorable state of racial relations as well as the corruption of the military governments in his official capacity as a Senator from Missouri. He continued his work as President Rutherford B. Hayes' Secretary of the Interior, and after this tenure he expressed his opinions as editor of the New York Evening Post. An object of both admiration and ridicule throughout his life, Schurz came to be one of the most well known reformers of his day; furthermore, his career fostered an impressive network of correspondents and acquaintances across partisan lines, making his influence one of the most widespread in Gilded Age politics. [15]

As a representative of social reform, Carl Schurz is in many ways a descendant of Martin Luther: both men came from an intellectual background and attempted to incite popular movements in order to loosen the hold of a debased authority. Luther's use of visual imagery to further his agenda was an innovation which capitalized on inconsistent levels of education as well as the power of the common people to enforce social change through economic power and the sheer weight of their masses. Thomas Nast's crusade against Boss Tweed demonstrates that, even three hundred and fifty years later, forms of graphic protest continued to have an effect on the body politic; unfortunately, reformers with national aspirations like Carl Schurz relied on words and not pictures to convey issues to the general public. Until the arrival of Joseph Keppler, someone who both subscribed to Schurz's opinions and appreciated the specific role of art in national affairs, social movements in late nineteenth century America would not be as successful as those in Medieval Germany.

Go On


Introduction | A Brief History of Cartoons | Mainstream & Elite Political Culture | A Popular Medium
"Our National Dog Show" | The Campaign Against Grant | Caricature and the Carte-de-Viste | "Inspecting the Democratic Curiosity Shop"
End Notes | Cartoon Archive | Bibliography