From Santa to the Civil War: Fiona Deans Halloran on the Political Cartoons of Thomas Nast

Image courtesy of Rowland Hall—St. Mark’s School.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Fiona Deans Halloran.  Dr. Halloran teaches U.S. history at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Prior to her arrival at Rowland Hall, she spent four years teaching 19th-century American history at Eastern Kentucky University, as well as several years in the history departments at Bates College and UCLA, where she earned her PhD in 2005.  Dr. Halloran is the author of Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons (UNC Press, 2013).  She is the recipient of fellowships from the Huntington Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, and has served as an Associate Fellow of the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.

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1864 political cartoon by Thomas Nast, “Compromise With the South.” Image courtesy of the Huntington Library.

CWI:  Who was Thomas Nast?  What are some of his most famous illustrations and political cartoons?  How did Nast’s personal background, motivations, and ideals influence his work?

Thomas Nast. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

HALLORAN:  Thomas Nast was America’s first famous political cartoonist. Famous for his cartoons in support of the Republican Party and for his attacks on William M. “Boss” Tweed, Nast was celebrated for the force and wicked wit of his artistic commentary on American politics. The son of a politically-active father and a man who hated hypocrisy in public life, Nast’s fun-loving, idealistic personality infused his cartoons with a sense of fun that appealed to a deeply politically active generation of Americans.

CWI:  Why was Nast so popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries?  What does a study of Nast reveal about the broader complexities of Civil War and Gilded Age politics?

HALLORAN: Nast’s popularity rests in part on his talent he knew how to twist faces, quotes, and references to literature creatively in order to mock and celebrate the leaders and ideas of the 19th century and in part on the novelty of illustrated news. Innovations in printing technology made possible an explosion of pictures to entertain and inform Americans from the 1860s forward. That change catapulted Nast to celebrity by capturing the imaginations of citizens across the nation. In a time when ordinary people consumed a great deal of news, and when American politics seethed with tension, Nast focused American opinion with insight and humor. He was a man of his age and yet able to observe it with a clarity denied to many others.

Nast is also famous for his illustrations of the big man himself:  Santa Claus. “Caught” by Thomas Nast, via Library of Congress.

CWI:  What are some of the long-term impacts of Nast’s legacy on American political culture?  How might a study of Nast’s work and its cultural significance inform contemporary understandings of political rhetoric and modern political culture?

HALLORAN: Nast blazed a trail for cartoonists who came after him. He fought for a greater role at his paper, for editorial independence, and for recognition of his influence on national affairs. Though he more often competed with other cartoonists than supported them, his work helped to pave the way for generations of artistic commentary on politics. Our love of satire from Jon Stewart to The Onion  reflects a long-standing American affinity for politics made funny. Nast is, in many ways, the father of that strand of American politics.

If you are interested in hearing more from Fiona Deans Halloran and other distinguished historians, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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