|Nast’s fawning view of Grant from
an 1866 Harper’s Weekly cartoon.
My vote for the meanest ever baseless attack against a presidential candidate goes to Thomas Nast, the brilliant cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly whose satires helped destroy New York City’s notorious Boss Tweed. (Click here for some of Nast’s famous Tweed cartoons.) In 1872, Nast, a staunch Republican, turned his pencil against Horace Greeley, the brilliantly eccentric publisher of the New York Tribune who that year had won the presidential nominations both of the Democratic Party and the Liberal Republicans, a splinter group of Republicans who opposed incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant.
The irony, of course, was that Greeley had been an original founder of the Republican Party in 1856, an early abolitionist and harsh critic of rebels during the War, but he bolted in 1872 over Grant-era scandals, Grant’s reconstruction policy against the South, and Greeley’s own unique combination of vanity and ambition.
|Thomas Nast, circa 1870.|
Thomas Nast adored Ulysses Grant, considered him a national hero for winning the Civil War, and detested anyone who questioned Grant’s honest. By 1872, Nast’s fame over helping to topple Boss Tweed had given him an enormous national following. Senators, Congressmen, and Presidents all courted him, knowing that literally a million Americans could be swayed by a single Nast cartoon.
For Nast, Greeley made an easy target. Just seven years after the Civil War, resentments ran deep. They called it “waving the bloody shirt,” and nobody did it better than Tommy Nast. Over 600,000 soldiers had died in the Civil War, touching almost every American family North and South, and bitter memories lingered. By accepting the nomination from Democrats, Greeley had hitched himself to Southern diehards, and Nast had no problem using guilt by association to paint Greeley’s hands bloody. Greeley himself virtually invited the charge by making reconciliation with the South central to his campaign — “grasping hands across the bloody chasm,” as he put it. Greeley had also contributed bail money to former Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
|Greeley shaking hands with a Confederate murderer stepping on a dead Union soldier. The dead soldier is identified as from the Massachusetts 6th Regiment, four of whose members were killed in April 1861 by a street mob in Baltimore, the same site as the 1872 Democratic Convention that chose Greeley. Harper’s Weekly, July 3, 1872.|
Greeley was easy to draw as a cartoon. His rumpled clothes, wispy beard, wire glasses, and shifting politics all played into Nast’s talent for caricature. One critic called him “a self-made man who worships his creator.” What Nast did to Boss Tweed, he now did to Horace Greeley.
Greeley lost in a landslide. (Click here for results.) Even worse, his wife Mary died just a few days before the vote, on October 30. The pressure was too much, and Greeley himself passed away on November 29, just three weeks after Election Day. “I thought I was running for the presidency, not for the penitentiary,” Greeley told friends when asked about the Nast cartoons. More than a few people pointed fingers at Thomas Nast’s attacks as one factor driving Greeley to the grave.
Thomas Nast’s legacy runs deep in American journalism, his ability to use cutting-edge technology (back then it was mass-produced wookcuts) to drive a hard-edged partisanship of personal attacks. It’s good that he used this talent to help drive Boss Tweed from office. But not-so-good that he used it to destroy the reputation of Horace Greeley. For more Nast cartoons from the 1872 campaign, click here.