n the November 23, 1872 issue of Harper’s Weekly, Nast offered up a
self-caricature in a lament to the end of the campaign. The disgruntled
cartoonist wonders, “What am I to do now?” Nast stands isolated in the
foreground, while behind him a crowd rejoices in front of The New York Times
building, where placards proclaim Grant’s “Grand Victory,” the destruction of
“The Senatorial Cabal,” “Sham Reform Exposed,” and in tiny characters, “H. G.
Gone West,” an allusion to Greeley’s famous advice to enterprising young
Americans: “Go west, young man, go west.” At the upper-left, an announcement
on the Tribune office building reads “The Greeley Triumph Postponed.”
After two years of intense professional exertion during the anti-Tweed and
anti-Greeley campaigns, it is hardly surprising to learn that Nast was
exhausted. He would take a six-month leave-of-absence from Harper’s Weekly
Greeley arrived at the Tribune office on November 6, 1872, the day
after the election, to resume his old job as editor. The next day, he published
a “card” announcing his return and declaring that the newspaper would henceforth
be independent and nonpartisan. That statement was Greeley’s final contribution
to the journal he had founded 31 years earlier. He was eased out of the
editorship by interim editor Whitelaw Reid, a fact predicted in a Nast cartoon of October 12, 1872 (note the center image in the bottom panel).
Reid’s action was motivated as much out of concern for Greeley’s deteriorating
mental and physical health as for the disastrous effect his presence was feared
to have on the newspaper’s future.
Horace Greeley died on November 29, 1872, and his funeral on December 4 was
attended by a large gathering of national, state, and local leaders, including
President Ulysses S. Grant and Chief Justice Salmon Chase. Harper’s Weekly
editor George William Curtis delivered one of the eulogies. Nast, however,
found himself the object of another round of editorial abuse for having
allegedly added to Greeley’s woes and accelerated his demise. In a typical
commentary, the Philadelphia Evening Telegram of December 6 chastised
Nast for “recklessly slandering Horace Greeley” with “cruel satire” and “savage
personal attacks which went far beyond the bounds of harmless fun and not
infrequently plunged into downright indecency and blasphemy.”
Not all the final reviews, though, were negative. Among his personal papers,
Nast preserved an unidentified, undated clipping from a Boston newspaper, circa
mid-November 1872. It characterized him the equal of the great 18th-century
British illustrator William Hogarth, singling out the American cartoonist’s
“amazing fertility” combined with “his brilliant execution.” At the modest age
of 32, Thomas Nast had reached the pinnacle of his career.
Nast continued working for Harper’s Weekly for 14 more years, drawing
cartoons on a plethora of often-controversial subjects and thereby leaving an
insightful chronicle of politics in late-nineteenth-century America. Among
other causes, he used his pen to agitate against the ill treatment of American
Indians, the ban on Chinese immigration, the alleged threat to public schools
from the Roman Catholic Church, and the feared under-funding of the American
military. Some of the caricatures would be memorable, but Nast would never
again attain the level of artistic achievement generated in 1871-1872 during his
battles against Boss Tweed and Horace Greeley.
Ironically, it was Nast’s own bolt from the Republican Party that proved his
professional undoing. In 1884, he and editor George William Curtis broke with
the GOP when it nominated the supposedly corrupt opponent of reform, James
Blaine, for the presidency. Together, they backed the candidacy of Democrat
Grover Cleveland. Their action undermined Harper’s Weekly base of
Republican support and lost popularity for Nast himself. The cartoonist was
only 44, but his work thereafter went into decline. In 1885, Nast lost most of
his savings as a victim in a Wall Street swindle, and the following year he
stopped cartooning regularly for Harper’s Weekly. In 1902, he was
appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to be the U.S. consul in Ecuador.
Less than five months after arriving there, Nast died of yellow fever on
December 7, 1902.