Thomas Nast: One of the Most Influential Figures During the Gilded Age

February 7, 2010
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During the Gilded Age, for the general American city population, life was treacherous. Horse manure and garbage were littered throughout the cities and fires raged wildly. Streets were overwhelmed with so many horsecars, stagecoaches, carriages, and wagons that it was, in fact, dangerous for a pedestrian to even cross the street at times. Furthermore, due to the abundance of factories and coal-heated houses, the city was constantly enveloped in black fumes (Pflueger 5). This is not even mentioning the low pay, unsafe working conditions, and lack of general rights that the majority faced and, most importantly, the shady politics that played its hands throughout (Deitch). The rich and wealthy were more focused on their own personal wealth rather than the common good of the people.

Thomas Nast, a heroic American cartoonist, improved society to an extreme and hence enormously influenced the development of America as a nation during the Gilded Age. Nast used freedom of the press, his relentlessness for reform, and his public influence to help change the world to what he believed to be a better place. He could not stand corrupt politicians and “took it upon himself to harass the Tweed Ring continually with his drawings in an attempt to bring the ring down” (along with other corrupt officials) (Pflueger 6).

Thomas had little sympathy for public figures that did not focus on public concerns. So, it is by no coincidence that he was so quick to hurl his persuasive cartoons at his soon-to-be political enemy, William Tweed. The Tweed Ring had the corrupted city under its control. “Its members granted favors for a fee, awarding city jobs to their followers, and bought votes. The police, election officials, and even criminals were bribed by the ring to do its bidding. The city’s advertising budget was used to muzzle and control the majority of New York’s newspapers,” (Pflueger 52). Six weeks before the election of 1868, the ring ran “what was probably the most crooked election in New York City’s history,” where it gave voting privileges to as many as it could reach out to and these new voters gained five dollars for each vote they cast. “8 percent more votes were cast than the entire voting population of the city” (Pflueger 8). Tweed’s corrupt system was thriving and one can begin to understand the power that William Marcy had. Tweed was almost unstoppable and could easily sway elections drastically and unfairly so that such elections no longer represented the will of the people but his personal wishes instead.

Luckily, over time Nast managed to expose Tweed and his political corruption through the one primary right that would lead to Tweed’s downfall. Nast used freedom of press or, more importantly, freedom of pictures. Joined by Louis Jennings, an editor of the New York Times, the two harassed Tweed so much through their publications, which openly displayed the corruption of the Tweed Ring and Boss Tweed, that William, after attempting to threaten Nast, even offered Thomas 500,000 dollars to study art in Europe, which the cartoonist immediately refused (Pflueger 10). Tweed understood that his constituents were unable to read and so did not care as much about the actual writing, but he also understood that his voters could comprehend the pictures that Nast drew and has been quoted for saying, “But they can’t help seeing them damned pictures” (Pflueger 8). So, when the city bookkeeper, Mathew J. O’Rourke, had “undeniable proof of the ring’s source of wealth”, he came to Nast and Jennings, who immediately published the findings (Pflueger 56). Soon afterwards, Tweed and the members of his ring were voted out of office and had charges pressed against them (Pflueger 66). Without freedom of press, Thomas Nast would not have been able to break the Tweed Ring reign. William Tweed, with his enormous power, would have been able to block Thomas’ opinion and information completely from reaching those voting for him. Freedom of press, as shown through this scenario, in essence provides checks on corruption. With it, Nast managed to beat Tweed and was getting closer to the world that he fought for where the common good is the ultimate goal of politicians and other powerful men, not simply their own personal wealth.

Besides Nast’s use of freedom of press, out of the many things that made Thomas Nast who he is now known to be, Thomas’ persistence to reform the world he lived in is in essence what ensured that the change Nast tried to provoke was to become a reality. This is not only shown in Nast’s brutal beating of William Tweed, but in many of Nast’s other opponents as well. Nast’s relentlessness first emerged after Lincoln’s death, when Thomas opposed Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s Vice President) and “castigated him for his failure to secure for the liberated slaves the privileges to which their newly won freedom entitles them.” Then, in the election of 1868 Nast “continued to espouse the Northern cause as vigorously as he had during the war” (Nast 30). One can see that Thomas Nast was a very large supporter of the Republican beliefs and was willing to stand for them without hesitation, making him a very difficult obstacle to overcome.

Sometimes, Nast was even believed to go a little too far as in the presidential election of 1872, where Nast depicted Horace Greeley (the presidential opponent of Grant) ruthlessly through his cartoons that the many voters of Greeley could see. He continued to do so even after the death of Greeley’s wife, which later may have led to the death of Greeley himself as he succumbed to illness (Shirley 70, 69). It is clear that Thomas Nast did not stop until his point was made.

However, Nast was still very well respected among many. The American humorist Mark Twain even wrote, “Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant-I mean, rather, for Civilization and Progress. Those pictures were simply marvelous, and if any man in the land has a right to hold his head up and be honestly proud of his share in the year’s vast events, that man is unquestionably yourself. We all do sincerely honor you and are proud of you.” However, these words were meaningless to Nast, as he felt an increasing amount of guilt for what he believed to be his hand in Greeley’s illness and later death (Shirley 72). This shows one that Thomas Nast was persistent in the attempt to display his beliefs not simply to gain popularity or praise. Although many disliked Thomas’ constant attacks on Greeley, he believed they were necessary therefore continued to publish his spiteful cartoons. When Nast later realized that he went too far, the praise he received for his help in the promotion of Grant became meaningless to him. Therefore, one can conclude that Thomas Nast could not be bribed and therefore immensely progressed society as, no matter what, Nast published what he believed.

Throughout his time, Thomas Nast had influence that extended to a large percent of people and, therefore, played a power role on elections. Every presidential candidate whom he supported was elected (Nast 1) and his cartoons were considered “a vital factor in every presidential campaign between 1864 and 1884” (Nast 30). Republican, Ulysses S. Grant, gave Nast a large amount of credit for his presidency (Shirley 69), as his drawing had a “devastating impact on the attitudes of readers-and voters-toward the Democratic candidate” (Shirley 45). During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called Nast, “our best recruiting sergeant” (Orleans 318) due to his exceptional and truly inspiring cartoons that “never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism” (Pflueger 40). Nast used this power to sway many election outcomes in his interest including the reelection of Lincoln (Pflueger 40), both elections of Grant (Nast 30-31), and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes (Shirley 74). This allowed for Nast to directly change the Gilded Age and influence it to become what he wanted it to be. Nast soon became one of the most important figures during the Gilded Age.

As one can see, Thomas Nast was the figure of his time. Presidents counted on his support. Through freedom of press, his relentless effort to secure the world he wished to see, and his influence among large populations Nast influenced the development of America during the Gilded Age by an amount that cannot be fully comprehended. Thomas Nast will be remembered for years to come and is by far one of the most influential figures during the Gilded Age.

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TheSkyOwesMeRain This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Dec. 20, 2013 at 4:05 am
Very helpful and informative! Great work :)
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