This Is A White Man's Government

September 5, 1868, page 568

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"We regard the Reconstruction Acts (so called) of Congress as usurpations, and unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void." - Democratic Platform


This Thomas Nast cartoon appeared during the presidential election campaign of 1868. The contest pitted Nast’s hero, General Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican candidate, against former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, the Democratic nominee. This cartoon presents one of Nast’s continual themes: that the Democratic party suppresses the rights and threatens the safety of black Americans. The caption lets the viewer know that he is specifically criticizing the Democratic party’s opposition to Reconstruction legislation. The three standing figures represent what the cartoonist considers to be the three wings of the Democratic party. Nast incorporates into the picture several symbols and stereotypes that he uses frequently.

The figure on the left is an Irish-American man. He wears working-class clothing, has an alcohol bottle in his hip pocket, a pipe and a cross in this hat, and holds a club in a striking position. "5 Points" refers to a neighborhood in New York City, populated at the time primarily by poor Irish immigrants. The man’s features are ape-like, a common way the Irish were portrayed in nineteenth-century illustrations.

In the background Nast adds the burning Colored Orphan Asylum and a lynched figure to remind viewers of the Irish-American and Democratic involvement in the Civil War draft riots in New York City. As New York governor, Seymour had vigorously opposed the draft and notoriously addressed the rioters as "My friends."

In sum, the Irish-American is depicted as a brutish, pugnacious, heavy-drinking, lower-class Catholic; a foreign element in the American electorate. Nast, an immigrant himself, usually celebrated America as a land of immigrants from many (including non-European) nations. Irish-Catholics were his one consistent exception.

The middle figure is Nathan Bedford Forrest, who represents the influence of former Confederates in the post-war Democratic party. He wears his Confederate uniform, with a lash—symbolizing slavery—in his back pocket, and stands ready to plunge a knife—symbolizing the Confederate war effort, "The Lost Cause"—into his black victim. On Forrest’s coat is a medal honoring his command at Fort Pillow—symbolizing Confederate atrocities against black soldiers. In the background, Nast includes a burning freedmen’s school, representing the violence resistance of many white Southerners to the freedom and advancement of blacks in society. Forrest was one of the organizers of the Ku Klux Klan.

The figure on the right is August Belmont, a Jewish financier who served as the national chair of the Democratic party. His apparel is upper-class, and the "5th Avenue" medallion on his coat lapel refers to the wealthiest neighborhood in New York City where he lived. Republicans often charged Democrats with various types of vote fraud, so Nast pictures Belmont holding aloft a packet of money designated for buying votes. One could infer that by contrast with the symbolic figures of Belmont and the Irish-American, that the Republican party is, in Nast’s estimation, the party of the honest, hard-working middle class.

Underneath the three Democratic figures is a black Union veteran, holding an American flag and reaching for a ballot box. Again, Nast felt obliged to emphasize the fact that black men had earned the right to vote through their participation in the Union war effort. In having the Democrats trample the American flag, as well as the black man, the artist implies that they are attacking basic American principles and the entire nation, not merely one minority.


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