In 1872, Thomas Nast, the premier cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, waged a scorched-earth assault against the presidential campaign of Horace Greeley, the famous and influential founder and editor of the New York Tribune.  During a career of over three decades as one of the nation’s leading journalists, Greeley had taken a wide spectrum of often controversial, sometimes contradictory, and eminently quotable positions on major issues of the period.  He then became the presidential nominee of one of the most incompatible political coalitions in American history:  reform-minded, dissident Liberal Republicans and a Democratic Party populated by ex-Confederates and urban machine politicians.  The motley alliance did share one ambition:  preventing President Ulysses S. Grant from securing a second term. 

In 1871, Nast (who turned 31 on September 27 of that year) had contributed significantly to the destruction of the Tweed Ring and its corrupt domination of New York City government and the Tammany Hall Democratic organization.  Nast’s prominent success in that battle brought fresh and admiring attention to the profession of political cartooning in general and to its newly demonstrated effectiveness in particular.  That accomplishment garnered the young cartoonist widespread public acclaim at home and abroad, accompanied by an invitation to visit Washington, D.C.  From January 28 through February 16, 1872, Nast spent three dizzying weeks in the nation’s capital, where he was celebrated, praised for his Tammany victory (already a huge morale booster for Republican election prospects), and cultivated as an important potential force in the upcoming presidential campaign.   

In a letter to his wife, Nast wrote, “it [is] funny how all the Senators are in a flutter about my being here and all are afraid that I will do them up [in caricature]… Darling the Power I have is terrible[,] it frightens people, but darling you will keep a good look out for me, and will not let me use that Power in a bad cause.”  While in Washington, Nast was wined, dined, and flattered by President Grant and his inner circle.  It was conceivably a considered attempt to ensure the cartoonist’s commitment to the president’s reelection effort.  However, Nast had been a devoted admirer of General Grant since the Civil War and an influential propagandist for his presidential campaign in 1868, so there was never a likelihood that his loyalty might stray.   

On Saturday evening, February 3, 1872, Horace Greeley observed his 61st birthday with a glittering party held at the friend’s home in New York City.  The event essentially marked the possible conclusion of his journalistic career and the anticipated opening of his participation in national politics.  Both Nast and Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis were among the several hundred who received an invitation (it bore a suitably dignified, steel-engraved portrait of the honoree, which Nast preserved for reference).  This was perhaps the first, and certainly the last, attempt by Greeley to reach out to the cartoonist.  Both Nast and Curtis were in Washington, D.C., and were unable to attend.  Curtis sent polite regrets; if a letter of regret from Nast was written, it has not survived. 

On March 20, 1872, The New York Times published a column-length tribute to Thomas Nast on its editorial page.  It was an appreciative survey of his achievement and impact since 1864, and was likely a preemptive defense of the political cartoonist in anticipation of the torrent of criticism to issue forth from the anti-Grant press.  The Times noted: 

The artist, like the singer, has the opportunity of gaining almost instant recognition of his genius, when the genius is of a high and rare order.  People are brought face to face with him, and soon form an admiring audience around him if he is worthy of their attention.  In this way Mr. Nast has achieved a reputation which many men of twice his age might well envy, and which will probably outlast the reputations of most men who profess to form and direct public opinion.  His drawings are stuck upon the walls of the poorest dwellings, and stored away in the portfolios of the wealthiest connoisseurs.  A man who can appeal powerfully to millions of people, with a few strokes of the pencil, must be admitted to be a great power in the land.  No writer can possibly possess a tenth part of the influence which Mr. Nast exercises.  He addresses the learned and the unlearned alike.  Many people cannot read “leading articles,” others do not choose to read them, others do not understand them, when they have read them.  But you cannot help seeing Mr. Nast’s pictures, and when you have seen them you cannot fail to understand them.  When he caricatures a politician, the name of that politician ever afterwards recalls the countenance of which Mr. Nast has made him a present.  An artist of this stamp—and such artists are very rare indeed—does more to affect public opinion than a score of writers. 

Nast was able to apply his immense talent during the 1872 presidential campaign to the eccentric figure of Horace Greeley, a caricaturist’s dream, with his chin whiskers, eyeglasses, work boots, and white coat and hat.  The pictorial onslaught serves as the model for antagonistic graphic commentary in American presidential elections.  Near the end of the race, Greeley reportedly reacted by observing ruefully that he could not tell whether he was running for the presidency or the penitentiary.  President Grant, though, could have said much the same thing, having been a similar target of character assassination at the hands of cartoonist Matt Morgan in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.  Morgan was a fine, classical draftsman and a capable, realistic portraitist with a grim, apocalyptic imagination.  As a caricaturist, however, he was never a match for his Harper’s Weekly rival. 

Nast’s cartoons frequently developed interdependently with one building upon or emerging out of another.  Consequently, one of the rewards of close study of his work is being able to understand the cartoonist’s mind at work.  The cartoons with explanatory commentary, which are the core of this website, begin with a look back at how Thomas Nast portrayed Horace Greeley from 1859 through 1871.  For most of that period, the two men were in political agreement, with both supporting the Union cause during the Civil War and the Republican agenda during early Reconstruction.  Even in those years, though, the cartoonist liked to poke fun at the Tribune editor.  The turning point came in 1871, when Greeley became increasingly vocal in his criticism of the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Nast’s hero, and when the editor seemed too ambivalent about the corrupt Tweed Ring in the cartoonist’s estimation. 

The majority of the cartoons focus on Thomas Nast’s depiction of Horace Greeley in Harper’s Weekly during the 1872 presidential campaign.  The sections begin with the rise of the Liberal Republican movement, which culminated in the surprising nomination of Greeley for president, and then advance to the adoption of the former abolitionist by his erstwhile enemies in the struggling Democratic Party.  Next, the cartoons and commentaries examine how Nast cleverly incorporated a Greeley statement—“Let us clasp hands over the bloody chasm [of Civil War]”—along with themes from the Bible, myth, and fable into devastatingly memorable images of the candidate.  The final commentary sections consider the decline and fall of the Greeley campaign and include some of the most spectacular and controversial political cartoons of any presidential election in American history. 

Besides Nast’s mastery of caricature, knowledge of classic literature and mythology, inventive mind, and impish sense of humor, the incorporation of slogans and symbols into his cartoons was one of his most effective, and sometimes devastating, techniques.  That skill is nowhere on better display than in his images of Horace Greeley.  This website features Nast’s Greeley cartoons organized by four slogans—“What I Know About…”; “Clasp Hands over the Bloody Chasm”; “Anything to…”; and “Go West, Young Man, Go West”—along with two symbols—the Gratz Brown nametag and the organ that was not an organ.  Nast’s relentless use of these epithets and emblems merged into a negative public image that helped bury the candidacy of Horace Greeley.



Website design © 2001-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to