I have spent most of the morning attempting to understand “reform” during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, focusing on women and contraceptive issues mostly, only to find that some historians think reform as a concerted effort by “Americans” was nonexistent.
Oh don’t get me wrong, all sorts of reform groups existed including Liberals, Socialists, Muckrakers, Know Nothings (nativists) and others, but as Mark Twain famously said, “Nothing needs reforming more than other people’s habits.” And, that just about sums up what most historians think of the Progressive Era today. (Big corporations during this period thought that many cartoonists needed cleaning up!!)
Image via Wikipedia
I don’t wish to be cynical, but I stumbled across a political cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast over 100 years ago, and once again it stuck me that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The tiger in the cartoon represents “political corruption, i.e., Tammany Hall in New York City, and the poor victim is guess who? Of course, this is one perspective. Tammany Hall was Democrat, Irish, and Catholic and did not lose power until FDR ended it. Did you know that? I didn’t. The film The Gangs of New York was a distortion of the truth. It shows the nativists running Tammany Hall against the Irish. Oh no, could Hollywood possibly get things wrong?
Thomas Nast was a political cartoonist during the Gilded Age, and the inventor according to some of the venue, although plenty of political cartoons existed in Europe before Nast began his career. Some think the origin of the word nasty is taken from his name, however. Depending on your politics, most political cartoons are nasty. And, nasty is what most political cartoons are and always have been.
Image via Wikipedia
Take this Nast cartoon, an attack on the Catholic Church and the resistance of Catholic Bishops to public education. Certainly different segments of the American population had different opinions about this topic. Did you know the public school system grew out of the moralizing reforms of Protestant Evangelicals who wanted Catholic immigrants to behave like “Americans”?
I wouldn’t understand many of the political cartoons in the magazine Punch, if I hadn’t read so much British history. They always skewer somebody. So did the cartoons that appeared in newspapers across Europe during the unrest in 1848 (think Les Miserable), as well as the French Revolution. Political cartoons often skewer people unfairly, but sometimes they get it right. The First Amendment guarantees their right to skewer.