Happy birthday to Thomas Nast, born 172 years ago today – he gave us, among other things, Uncle Sam, the modern Santa Claus and the Republican elephant, though he is most associated with his political lampooning of Tammany Hall.
Oh wait – he wasn’t really an American; Nast was born in Landau, Germany to – and I love this – a trombonist in the Bavarian regimental band.
But his father was a socialist, not a good thing in 19th century Germany, so he sent his family to New York City and joined them eventually.
Nast seems to have inherited his father’s politics. After nearly flunking out of school, he graduated from the National Academy of Design and went to work for Frank Leslie’s newspaper, then Harper’s Weekly.
After depicting the battlefields of the Civil War, Nast returned to NYC and took on Tammany Hall and ‘Boss’ Tweed, devoting himself to ridiculing and exposing the corruption of the Tweed Ring over the course of 1870 and 1871.
Nast so stirred up public opinion that Boss Tweed offered him a bribe to cease and desist – no less than $100,000. Nast toyed with Tweed until the offer was upped to half a million dollars (in 1871!), but then said, No, I don ‘t think so.
Eventually, the Ring fell apart and Boss Tweed fled to Spain to escape prosecution, but the Spanish authorities – using a Nast cartoon for identification purposes – caught him and returned him to the US,
Nast continued to fight the good fight, opposing segregation and the Ku Klux Klan and was one of very few political cartoonists to champion Native Americans and Chinese Americans.
He left Harpers in 1886 and instantly lost much of his clout. Theodore Roosevelt named him Consul to Ecuador in 1902, but shortly after his arrival he died during a yellow fever epidemic, He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
And now, let’s review, just for the hell of it, the sonnet by Emma Lazarus that became a policy – though it’s not often honored:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”