Editorial Cartoonist Thomas Nast: Anti-Irish, Anti-Catholic Bigot?

Biased. Disrespectful. Offensive. All sterling job qualifications for any good editorial cartoonist. But “racist”? Woah!

Thomas Nast was the granddaddy of the American political cartoon. And having lived in New Jersey, he’s been nominated for induction into the state’s 2012 Hall of Fame. But last month, legislators of both political parties fought to take his name off the ballot.



Caricature is oversimplification, a type of dehumanization for speedy communication. It’s also a tool of Nast’s trade which he vigorously practiced during the 1800s, most notably for Harper’s Weekly. For him, party Democrats were stubborn jackasses and murderous tigers. William “Boss” Tweed was a bloated bag of ill-gotten gains and his Tammany Hall cronies were predatory vultures. But some of Nast’s lesser known works have been singled out as evidence that he was anti-Catholic and anti-Irish.

And while some of those images have been disseminated in the press, hardly any of Nast’s opponents have meaningfully dealt with their content in context.


Let’s look at one of the supposedly anti-Catholic Nast cartoons. “The American River Ganges” depicts an army of bishops crawling onto our shores. Their miters have transformed into crocodile mouths, as they prepare to devour young children.

As a Catholic… okay, ex-Catholic, I don’t see any problem here. “Ganges” isn’t anti-Catholic, it’s anti-Roman Catholic Church. Briefly stated, Nast was opposing state aid for parochial schools, and calling for church-state separation. And I consider his attack as justified as, for instance, contemporary editorial cartoons that condemn the Church’s countless pedophile priest cover-ups.


The other cartoons in question – and there are several – portray the Irish as a bunch of drunken, violent apes. As an Irishman, if I saw such stereotypes today, isolated from any explanatory indicators, I’d be highly insulted. But typically, Nast was criticizing specific groups of Irishmen, and for a variety of specific reasons. For one thing, he felt that their majority support of Tweed’s corrupt political machine in New York was foolish at best and downright stupid at worst.

As another example, in “The Chinese Question” he’s drawn a noose and a burning building behind an ugly Irishman leading a gang of ruffians. This was to reference the riots in which predominantly Irish American mobs protested President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by lynching blacks and setting fire to a Colored Orphan Asylum. That’s not racism on Nast’s part, that’s rage.


I’ve expressed my admiration for Nast in the past. And I really don’t know the depth of his alleged anti-Irish prejudice. His flattering depiction of an Irishman at his “come one come all, free and equal” table [see image below] is certainly cause for reflection. But I do know about his admiring and highly compelling portrayals of Chinese immigrants and other minorities. And his depictions of blacks, whether courageous Buffalo Soldiers or emancipated slaves, rank among the most exemplary graphic representations of a woefully underacknowledged part of our country’s history.

I also know that when many Southern blacks voted for corrupt administrations during post-Civil War Reconstruction, the same way the Irish had been voting for Tammany gangsters, Nast didn’t hesitate to savagely ridicule both those groups [see top image]. Totally unacceptable by today’s standards, most certainly, but typical of the visual parlance one and a half centuries ago.

And speaking of voting, let’s return to New Jersey. When the Hall of Fame winners are announced this month, I seriously doubt Nast will be mentioned, much less inducted. And it’s not just that his chances were undermined by negative publicity. It’s also that he was competing with names like Alexander Calder, Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothy Parker, Joyce Carol Oates, and even another cartoonist, Charles Addams. Woah!

Nevertheless, as a fellow former resident of New Jersey and a believer in counterbalancing what I feel was unfair treatment, I decided to cast my vote this year for the disrespectful and distinguished Mr. Nast.


Note the Irish couple at the right end of the table. Click to enlarge.



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14 thoughts on “Editorial Cartoonist Thomas Nast: Anti-Irish, Anti-Catholic Bigot?

  1. Pingback: Susie Cagle on Opinion Reporting and and the Death of Editorial Cartooning

  2. Michael Dooley Post author

    Thanks for your thoughts, O’Meara. You are correct that the majority of Irish back then were Catholics with loyal allegiance to the Pope. But that’s not what Nast’s “River Ganges” cartoon is about. And to pretend that Irish thuggishness, which, as I noted, extended to lynchings and burning orphanages, didn’t exist is its own form of narrow mindedness.
    Now, I’m not sure what you mean by “he and american were totally biased against the irish” but yeah, the animosity and violence against the Irish, certainly in New York, was also shameful. Neither side is saintly in this sordid and unenlightened chapter of our nation’s history.
    And as I stated in my column, I don’t know whether Nast hated all Irish people. But since you have ironclad proof that he was irredeemably prejudiced against them, contrary to his “Come on, come all” cartoon portrayal, I’ll look forward to seeing your follow-up.
    And take your time. I’m not going anywhere.


  3. O'Meara

    Boy are you splitting hairs on your interpretations of the anti catholic cartoons. in the 19th century, when Nast drew ‘american ganges’ there was only roman catholic, not other forms of catholicism. and the vast majority (by a landslide) of catholics in america was irish. you missed the point: the irish were seen as anti-american because they’d naturally owe allegiance to a ‘foreign power’ (the pope). interestingly, there’s never been an irish pope but that’s another argument. you’re just bending over backwards to try and find a degree of objectivity in Nast’s work. he and american were totally biased against the irish – there’s reams and reams of proof, none of it obscure or esoteric, easy to find. the irish were NOT wanted here, simple as that.  and your name’s Dooley? as Yeats said ‘if you put an irishman on a spit, you can always find another irishman to turn it.” this is why the english had such an easy job of keeping us as second class citizens in our own country – we do their dirty work for them.

  4. Michael Dooley Post author

    Thank you for taking the time to respond, BIG. It’s good to know we’re on common ground about not wanting to oversimplify (as in: generalizing) or mis-contextualize (as in: making faulty assumptions).

    I’d like to respond by reiterating three comments from my column:

    “As an Irishman, if I saw such stereotypes [of the Irish as drunken, violent apes] today, isolated from any explanatory indicators, I’d be highly insulted.”

    “I really don’t know the depth of [Nast’s] alleged anti-Irish prejudice.”

    “… many Southern blacks voted for corrupt administrations during post-Civil War Reconstruction, the same way the Irish had been voting for Tammany gangsters…”

  5. Black Irish Girl

    It seems to me you are oversimplifying or perhaps mis-contextualizing these cartoons. Anti-catholic, anti-Irish sentiment meant depicting Irish as buffoons and ape like, very similar to the way in which blacks were depicted at the time. Are you saying then that it is not racist to depict humans as apes? That the equally disturbing cartoons where blacks are seen as a threat to the American government, American people are not racist?  Nast is not saying “some Irish” are debased or “some Catholics” are untrustworthy, but specifically Irish immigrants at the time were. Especially in the 19th century when the Irish were not considered white, at home, in England, and in America, it’s very hard to understand how degraded the average “Native” American–not referring to the indigenous population of Americans but white/European Americans who had not recently immigrated–felt by having the Irish people assimilate into mainstream American society. And yes, I recognize some of Nast’s cartoons as promoting positive images of the Other, what I don’t understand is how you can deny many of his drawings as bigoted. Simply calling black Republicans (depicted as a pickaninny) and Irish Democrats (depicted as a leprechaun) “the ignorant vote” where “honors are easy” is incredibly dishonorable and worth condemnation not commendation. 


  6. Michael Dooley Post author

    Thank you for your response, Mr. Noonan. To address your two “utterly fails to understand” points…

    A more fair and accurate analogy for Nast than “Muslim/Islam” would be: “I MAY (qualifier) not hate Irish Catholics, but I do hate what the Irish and the Church have been doing,” followed by, “AND, here are my editorial cartoons, complete with contexts, to show why.”

    As for your other point: I’d be very much interested in reading where Thomas Nast himself compared Catholicism to slavery. Without that, your generalized accusation is a groundless and unfair contextualization.

  7. Al Noonan

    What Mr. Dooley fails to understand is that in the nineteenth century Irish Catholics did not want to be American, they wanted to be Irish American. Trying to seperate their Catholicism as if it were the largely secular twenty-first century America is willfully ignorant of the fact that for Irish Catholic immigrants, their culture, their religion and their identity were inseperable facets of who they were as people. Let us use a modern comparison ‘I don’t hate Muslims, but I hate Islam’. You are simply trying to excuse your own bigotry. Something Nast might have been doing, but I doubt it. Every so often I hear people say ‘I’m not a racist, but…’, which is inevitably followed by something racist.
    Mr. Dooley shows a real lack of contextualization by looking at the final picture and seeing ‘equal and free’ an an inclusive and happy message. He utterly fails to see does not mean what he thinks it means for the Irish couple, it means not Catholic. Protestant Nativists like Nast compared Catholicism to slavery, or more often a slavery of the mind. You might get a better understanding of the ideas in nineteenth century American society if you read David M. Emmon’s new book, Beyond the Pale.

  8. Karl Himmler

    Yes okay, so Thomas Nast was a bigot and a racist, but he did many good things too.  Just like Hitler, you have to take the good with the bad  You have to make allowances for the times and type of environment people grew up in.

  9. Joan Crosby Tibbetts

    Kudos to Michael Dooley!  An excellent analysis of Thomas Nast in the face of New Jersey’s intent not to name Nast in their Hall of Fame, alleging that he was anti-Catholic and anti-Irish. Hogwash!  I seriously doubt that the New Jersey politicians have any knowledge of the meaningful effect Nast had in satirizing Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed and his corrupt hold over New York politics.  Nast was greatly credited with Tweed’s shameful end, broke and in prison, because his stunning political cartoons exposed the rank corruption of that era—which is still with us today on Wall Street, and its bankster vultures.  Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread nationally, I have no doubt that many of them would be cheering Nast for his wonderful art and political cartoons that spoke truth to power.  Nast’s portrayal of Boss Tweed as a vulture perched over the canyons of Wall St. with blood dripping from its beak is one of the most powerful political cartoons ever published, and it is timely today.
    Joan Crosby Tibbetts