Cartoonist’s patent racism — disqualifier for New Jersey Hall of Fame?

What, exactly, are the requirements to be elected to the New Jersey Hall of Fame?

Thomas Nast is the great cartoonist whose pen launched crippling blows to the institutions of corrupt politicians including Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed.  Nast generally gets the credit for inventing the symbols of the two major national parties, the donkey for the Democratic Party (or jackass, as in the first cartoon), and the elephant for the Republican Party, the party Nast favored.

Santa Claus’s commonly-accepted image owes a lot to Nast, who drew Santa Claus supporting the Union efforts in the Civil War.  Between 1855 and 1900, Nast supported the winning cause in at least seven presidential elections, illustrated the effects of America’s industrialization and rise as a world power, fought political corruption and campaigned for equal legal rights for immigrants and ex-slaves.

Thomas Nast's tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation in Harper's Weekly, 1863 - Ohio State University image

Thomas Nast’s tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation in Harper’s Weekly, 1863 – University of Michigan, Clements Library image; click image for a larger version

Lady Liberty?  Columbia?  An invention of Nast.  Nast’s image of Columbia was more than minor inspiration to the French friends of America who created the Statute of Liberty.  New Jersey is guarded, literally, with one of Nast’s creations.

Through it all, he clung to biases that, amplified by 1870s and 1880s politics, some people find less-than-acceptable today.  When Catholics raised money from Europe to establish schools in America so Catholic children would not undergo Protestant indoctrination, Nast sided with the public schools (and, perhaps, with the Protestants).  When immigrants, whose rights he defended, blindly turned the control of their votes over to corrupt political machines, he depicted those immigrants as louts, thugs and oafs.  On the issue of temperance, he sided with those who wanted to restrict alcoholic beverages, in opposition to German and Irish brewers and distillers.

Through it all, his pen brilliantly and clearly stated his positions, in images.  Nast’s work inspired Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh.

What should we make of the late-to-the-table complaints about Nast’s induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame?  Opponents say Nast lampooned Catholics.  True.  Nast lampooned anyone whose policies he opposed.

Zeno presents a very good case that the opposition is wrong-headed, and ironic, coming from the voluble-and-usually obnoxious Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (a self-proclaimed name that many people find inaccurate), a guy who might well be a target of Nast had Nast and Donohue occupied the same place in time.  (Though I quote Zeno at length here, go to his site to read the full piece.)

It was a theme to which the cartoonist returned whenever he wanted to inveigh against Romish influence (the Church was on record in opposition to the separation of church and state) or Irish immigration (Nast had decidedly nativist tendencies). Today we can look at Nast’s cartoons and see them as over the top. In high dudgeon, however, Bill Donohue cannot help but demonstrate once again his unerring instinct for avoiding le mot juste in favor of the words least apt:

[H]e demonized bishops by portraying them as crocodiles with miters for jaws; and he also depicted them as emerging from slime while prowling towards children.

Really, Bill? You had to go there? Silly man.

You just depicted Thomas Nast as a prophet.

Nast’s work provides us with a conundrum.  On one hand he ardently and fervently supported the Union against the Confederacy, especially with regard to emancipation of slaves.  On the other hand Nast ideologically opposed the Democratic Party — perhaps an easy thing to do in those days when the Democratic Party was on record supporting slavery — and portrayed anyone with Democratic links as a beast or thug.

Should Nast’s biases against Catholics and Irishmen who unthinkingly gave their poll power to Boss Tweed disqualify Nast from a spot in New Jersey’s Hall of Fame?

Here is a list of people elected to the New Jersey Hall of Fame over the past four years:


Buzz Aldrin
Clara Barton
Yogi Berra
Bill Bradley
Thomas Edison
Albert Einstein
Malcolm Forbes
Robert Wood Johnson II
Vince Lombardi
Toni Morrison
Norman Schwarzkopf
Frank Sinatra
Bruce Springsteen
Meryl Streep
Harriet Tubman


Bud Abbott & Lou Costello
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Althea Gibson
Jon Bon Jovi
Jerry Lewis
Guglielmo Marconi
Shaquille O’Neal
Phil Rizzuto
Paul Robeson
Carl Sagan
Walt Whitman
William Carlos Williams

Unsung Hero:
Captain Brian Brennan


Count Basie
Judy Blume
Justice William Brennan
Danny DeVito
Larry Doby
Michael Graves
Carl Lewis
Jack Nicholson
Alice Paul
Les Paul
Phillip Roth
Susan Sarandon
Wally Schirra
Frankie Valli
President Woodrow Wilson

Unsung Heroes:
Marc DiNardo & James D’heron


John Basilone
Tony Bennett
Governor Brendan Byrne
Mary Higgins Clark
Admiral William Halsey
Franco Harris
Leon Hess
Queen Latifah
Bucky Pizzarelli
Martha Stewart
Joe Theismann
John Travolta
Bruce Willis

Unsung Heroes:
9/11 Victims & First Responders

Generally a well-deserving group of heroes, don’t you think?

Careful students of history may blanche a bit at one name there, in consideration of the flap against Nast.  Woodrow Wilson had his own biases — he resegregated the White House as president.  He opposed civil rights for African Americans.  He invited the racist, pro-Ku Klux Klan movie, “Birth of a Nation,” into the White House and praised it for its accuracy and advocacy.

Wilson led the nation into World War I (after promising he would not), and he campaigned unsuccessfully for a peace treaty that might have prevented World War II, had he been listened to.  Wilson campaigned to create an international peace-keeping organization, the League of Nations, an agency doomed to failure because the U.S. Senate rejected Wilson’s every imprecation to ratify the treaty that ended the Great War and created the agency.

Can Bill Donohue actually make a case that the great cartoonist, Thomas Nast, does not belong in a pantheon that includes Frank Sinatra, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, and ex-con Martha Stewart?  Is Nast not at least as deserving as Woodrow Wilson, on the same grounds?

Nominations for the class of 2012 include Aaron Burr, the vice president candidate whose overweening ambition nearly derailed the nation’s Constitution in 1800, the man who shot Alexander Hamilton fatally, and a man who plotted the overthrow of the government of the U.S.

Nast is nominated in the “General” category.  The others nominated there are Alexander Calder, Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Addams, Doris Duke, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Porter Wesley, Joyce Carol Oates, Milton Friedman, and Gov. Tom Kean.

Uh, Bill?  Did you see Milton Friedman there?  Yeah, he was a great economist and he made popular television and book explanations of economics (that Republicans eschew today, to the detriment of free markets and political freedom) — but should he be there considering his work for the Pinochet regime in Chile?  I mean, Bill, can we be consistent?  Chile is a chiefly Catholic nation, you know, and surely the murders of 10,000 Catholics should weigh in here, shouldn’t it?

(New Jersey’s ability to produce such a body of notables is, itself, notable.  Probably each of those people deserves commemoration in the New Jersey Hall of Fame.  Second place, two spots in the New Jersey Hall of Fame.)

Is this really what Catholics are reduced to, today — a pointless, silly campaign against commemorating a great cartoonist?  May we assume Donohue and the Catholic Church oppose Nast across the board, in Nast’s campaigns against corruption, his work against slavery and support for the Union, and his support of the rights for immigrants?

Perhaps Donohue should review the situation, like Fagin.

And you, Dear Reader, should go vote for Thomas Nast’s inclusion, warts and all.


15 Responses to Cartoonist’s patent racism — disqualifier for New Jersey Hall of Fame?

  1. Bill Gardner says:

    Nast should have been in the first class inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. His work stands the test of time, let’s see if people still rock Bon Jovi in 2210. The artistry of his work is not only in the details he applied with his pen but with his mind before putting pen to paper at all. He stood up to threats and refussed bribes and like any true hero he refussed to change his positions when his employer Harpers Weekly demanded it and got fired, what’s more Jersey than standing up for what you believe in and being willing to pay the price…… His emancipation tribute engraving is the best illustration of civil war art I have seen. Give the man his due, let him in!


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Tom Nast was a bigot, hated the Irish, was anti-catholic, and was a Nativist supporter, (who burned down catholic churches

    Actually, Nast didn’t hate Irish or Catholics particularly. He was opposed to heavy drinking lifestyles, and he didn’t think religions should opt out of the public schools wholesale and get financial support from the government for schools that indoctrinate kids in one religion versus another. Nast supported rights for immigrants — the opposite of most “nativist” groups — and he opposed burning churches and all other mob actions. He stood for rule by law.

    So, if Irish and Catholics tended to be drunks, or worked against the separation of church and state, it would be accurate to say he was bigoted against Catholics — as were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, many Irish Catholic women, and many others.

    Not bigotry that most people would consider out of place, considering the times.

    Do you think Mr. Donohue is defending drunkenness intentionally?


  3. Mr. Wilson says:
    Nast also supported the Orange Order, who killed innocent Irish Catholics in Ireland.

    And some Catholics killed innocent Protestants in Ireland. Sorry, neither side gets to claim victimhood there, they were both as bad as each other.

    Oh and before you stupidly claim I’m being anti-Catholic…I am Catholic.

    Whitewashing history accomplishes nothing other then creating an ignorant populace that is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.


  4. And I notice that Mr Wilson’s site is the Irish Anti-Defamation League – which is fine, as nobody should be denigrated for national origin, race or ethnicity – but it seems to be an organisation which entirely ignores Northern Ireland, the Northern Irish and Irish Protestants.

    That seems somewhat bigoted to me, to ignore nearly a third of the Irish simply for not being Catholic or residing in the Republic…


  5. Actually ignore the question regarding Mr. Donouhue as I would oppose him being elected to any hall of fame. But one is able to apply modern day sensibilities to a modern day person/event. That becomes more nebulous when applying modern day sensibilities to people from the past or past events.

    Here’s the question I should have asked:
    If someone was compiling a list of the top 100 examples of American literature would you oppose the inclusion of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer stories?

    Was Nast anti-Catholic? Yeah. So were a lot of people.

    Hell, John Adams once said “Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?” in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Should that automatically disqualify him from something? And it’s not like Jefferson thought different as he routinely railed against not only Catholicism but the entirety of Christianity. Should that disqualify him?

    Anti-Catholicism existed back then and it’s safe to say that at least some Catholics were virulently anti-Protestant back then. People back then were anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-other things.

    Just as some people are anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-homosexual, anti-Latino, etc now.

    Was Mr. Nast wrong for being anti-Catholic? Yeah. Just as Mr. Donohue is wrong for being anti-gay, anti-Muslim and whatever else he routinely spouts fear and hatred about. But Nast has historical context to explain his beliefs. What does Mr. Donohue have?

    Whitewashing our history only gives the modern day cockroaches of hate, fear and intolerance cover to exist.


  6. To quote:
    Tom Nast was a bigot, hated the Irish, was anti-catholic, and was a Nativist supporter, (who burned down catholic churches

    We’d have to bar pretty much anyone that was Protestant back then, Tim, including the Protestant churches of Philly, just for one.

    If you sweep things under the can’t teach about it nor can you learn from it.

    Whitewashing history serves no purpose other then creating an uninformed and ignorant society.

    But tell me, if Mr. Donohue was going to be elected into a Hall of Fame you’d oppose him on the same grounds as you oppose Mr. Nast right?


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Serious charges against Nast, Mr. Wilson — but I think you’ve misstated the case.

    Nast on the Klan, for example:

    Thomas Nast cartoon on Klan holding down freed slaves

    (From a site at the University of Wisconsin)

    See also here:;;

    Not quite as you portray it. Nast opposed the Klan, as he did most corrupt political organizations, or any organizations that leaned Democratic.

    If you’ve got evidence to support your claims, how about sharing it?


  8. Tim Wilson says:

    Tom Nast was a bigot, hated the Irish, was anti-catholic, and was a Nativist supporter, (who burned down catholic churches, and eventually evolved into the KKK.) Nast also supported the Orange Order, who killed innocent Irish Catholics in Ireland. Just because the New Jersey Hall of Fame already inducted a racist (Woodrow Wilson) into the Hall of Fame, doesn’t mean that they should also induct a bigot. Nast put a black mark on all of his achievements when he treated our ancestors that way. I will vote AGAINST Tom Nast, and vote for someone who really deserves it.


  9. flatlander100 says:

    As Mr. Kessler’s post illustrates, what we should not do is assume the endlessly whining and eternally offended Mr. Donohue represents or speaks for the Catholics in general or for their church.


  10. Jim says:

    I very much appreciate the argument here offered by Gawiman, who suggests that we meet each character in history on his or her own terms…with the understanding that they are men and women of their time. They are not given to understand matters of race, culture, creed and even common courtesy as we do. Our time; the early 21st century; is quite different. In many ways, perhaps most — it is a better and more enlightened time. In some respects, quite probably, it could stand to be informed by the past.

    I value that argument and I think…as far as it goes…it is vital we keep it in mind.

    But only as far as it goes.

    What do I mean?

    It is quite possible a Mayan warrior who knows nothing of life outside his culture circa 1300 knew no better than to sacrifice newborn children to his god. (Please forgive any inaccuracies — I am no student of ancient Central American culture or religion; I use this merely for example’s sake.) Do I excuse such murder? Not by my standard. But I recognize the Mayan had no other perspective.

    To that extent, I think gawiman makes a useful point.

    But shall Woodrow Wilson’s abject racism be excused because he was “a man of his time”? Will the Southern gentleman planter be pardoned for his enslavement of other human beings because that’s the only culture he knew? Shall we exonerate those bent on westward expansion at the cost of a Trail of Tears?

    It depends.

    One would presume a man with the intellectual heft of Wilson (to say nothing of his theological training) would have been exposed to ideas of social justice, brotherhood and racial equality well before the time he ascended to the White House. The elite Southern slaveholder must have known of the existence of both the Abolitionist movement and the slightly less militant anti-slavery movement. (Perhaps the poor, white Southron was entirely clueless…I don’t know.) Surely they were acquainted with the sermons of George Whitefield and Charles Finney. And as for the slaughter of and theft from First Americans, we had heard the prophetic voice calling for justice for our brothers at least as early as Roger Williams and David Brainerd. (Indeed, one might even reasonably expect certain Spanish Conquistadors to have tempered their brutality based on the witness of certain clerics who pled for mercy on behalf of South and Central American Indians.)

    I remember a scene from The Soprano’s. Carmela seeks the advice of a therapist about how she can balance her guilt over the way in which her mob-boss husband brings home the bacon and her love of all the nice things his ill-gotten gain can purchase. The counselor tells her she must leave him. She must take the children, leave and take not one more penny of his money. No, not even child support in this case. It was “earned” not by mere law-breaking, but by bone-breaking. By murder and drug dealing and prostitution. The therapist then refuses to charge her for the session, for he will not take blood money. And he ends the session with this: “You can’t say you haven’t been told.”

    Perhaps the Mayan high priest could honestly say he was never told it was wrong to cut out the heart of a newborn in a religious ceremony. (I rather think he knew innately, but oh well. That’s an entirely different theological and metaphysical conversation.) Perhaps he can say he had never been told.

    Can Wilson? Can the slave owner? Can the scorched-earth settler who built his homestead on stolen land? Can the “good German” of 1940? I rather doubt it.



  11. Ellie says:

    Choosing Nast over Dorothy Parker and/or Charles Addams was painful, but I did it, just to spit in Donohue’s (virtual) eye.


  12. gawiman says:

    I think we should carefully exclude from historical celebration anyone who, in their time, was not aligned with today’s most enlightened consciousness. Of course it would reduce history class to about two hours in the course of a high school career, but sacrifices have to be made.

    Or, I suppose we could celebrate historical figures who made real contributions to progress, while taking care to see them realistically as products of their time (which in a way makes them all that much more remarkable).


  13. Ed Darrell says:

    So, poke Donohue in the virtual eye, and take that link at the bottom of the post and vote for Nast. (It’s a ballot of a lot of deserving people who cannot all be elected.)


  14. Then there is the fact that Mr. Donohue complaining about anit-Catholic bigotry is tantamount to Hitler chiding Stalin for the number of people he killed.

    After all, Mr. Donohue is a regular font of hatred, fear, prejudice and intolerance.


  15. Speaking as a Catholic, I don’t care. There was anti-Catholicism at that time. Pretending that it didn’t exist, As that moron Donohue would do, serves no one. Whitewashing it doesn’t teach anything.

    It’s like trying to ban Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer for certain words in those texts.


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