Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008
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Robert J. Lewis
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Charles Lewis
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Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Charles Nelan (1858-1904) was a native of Akron, Ohio. He was hired as the cartoonist for the Cleveland Press in 1888, and his work was soon distributed by the Scripps-McRae League. He is considered the nation’s first syndicated editorial cartoonist. In 1897 Nelan began work at the New York Herald and the cartoons he drew for this newspaper during the Spanish-American War were compiled into his only book, Cartoons of our War with Spain. He went to the Philadelphia North American in 1901 where his caricatures of Samuel Pennypacker motivated the Pennsylvania legislature to pass an anti-cartoon law. Nelan was hired by the New York Globe in 1903, but illness forced him to retire shortly thereafter.

Generations of school kids have been taught to celebrate Thomas Nast as the slayer of corrupt New York City political dragon William (Boss) Tweed. Nast’s 1871 Harper’s Weekly cartoons portraying Tweed as a beady-eyed, bulbous glutton feeding off the city have also stood as the most conspicuous claim that editorial cartoonists can be decisive in bringing about significant political and social change.

All this makes for a reassuring story about the influence of the press. But it is also history as half-truth and nowhere near as accurate a gauge of the impact of political cartooning as was a farcical set-to between newspaper artists and a governor of Pennsylvania.

The governor was Samuel Pennypacker, who took office in January 1903 with a vow to stamp out what he called “worthless” newspapers that practiced “the kind of slander which is closely akin to treason.” The threat was directed most immediately at the Philadelphia North American and its cartoonists Charles Nelan and Walt McDougall. Nelan’s favourite graphic vision of Pennypacker had been as a parrot that could only mouth words given to him by state Republican boss Matthew Quay. A week after the inauguration, the Republicans introduced a bill that made it a crime to publish cartoons “portraying, describing, or representing any person . . . in the form or likeness of a beast, bird, fish, insect, or other non-human animal.”

McDougall’s response was to depict the hapless Pennypacker as a stein of beer, adding a warning that the legislation should have “included more than the animal kingdom alone, for we have an ample field in the vegetable, if not even the mineral kingdom . . . What chances of caricature lie in the tomato, the string bean, the cucumber, the onion, and the leak cannot be guessed.” When Pennypacker signed the bill anyway, he was deluged with hundreds of newspaper editorials from around the country describing the measure as, in the words of one newspaper, “the most reactionary that has passed any legislature in recent years.”

It took some years for the law to be taken off the books, and there were no prosecutions of note under it. But for those arguing the influence of editorial cartoonists, Pennypacker’s manoeuver was evidence enough of the fear stirred in venal breasts by the artists. Why else would not just Pennsylvania, but New York, California, Indiana, and Alabama politicians resort to the same heavy-handedness in roughly the same period? And didn’t Nast’s earlier destruction of Tweed make the case all by itself?

In fact, though, the would-be clampdowns said a lot less about the cartoonist’s influence than many have wanted to admit. Start with the small particular that the legislative bills were all the work of parties or individuals that had secured or maintained power despite the opposition of the targeted cartoonists. That might have made Pennypacker and his similars in the other four states personally vindictive and institutionally repressive, but it didn’t make them electoral losers. As Richard Nixon would demonstrate many decades later, it was possible to be the favourite mockery target of cartoonists around the country for years and still be voted into the White House twice.

Not even Nast has really made the case for the political significance of editorial cartoonists. What is undeniable even after close to a century and a half is the antagonistic power of his depiction of Tweed as the biggest pig at the public trough. Similar representations today would undoubtedly have politicians reaching for a Rolodex for an attorney’s number. Tweed himself settled for the first few pages of the Thug Handbook, first trying to bribe Nast into taking a long European vacation and then, after that failed, seeing to it that New York’s public schools stopped purchasing textbooks issued by the Harper company.

The good news for Tweed was that not even the sustained attacks from Nast prevented him from being re-elected in 1871. The bad news was that he was soon afterward found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to a 12-year prison term. But what actually brought him down was not Nast, but a series of articles in the New York Times (predating the cartoons) in which a repentant Tammany Hall bookkeeper spelled out how too many municipal dollars had taken detours to private pockets.


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