Reconstruction And How it Works

September 1, 1866, pages 552, 553

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In this and other cartoons, Thomas Nast uses the Memphis and New Orleans riots as symbols of the sustained and egregious violence against blacks committed by Southern whites. The scene of the slavery auction and the lashing underlines the continuity between the pre-war and post-war South. The artist intends to generate opposition to President Andrew Johnsonís lenient Reconstruction plan and, by implication, to build support for the Radical Reconstruction objectives of Congressional Republicans.

Nast applies a Shakespeare motif, as he often did, to cast Johnson as the evil Iago plotting against the heroic and innocent Otello, the Moor (African). Once again, Nast portrays the central black character as a wounded Union veteran who is being denied his just and earned place in the American polity. The artist reminds viewers of the presidentís past promises, vetoes of Reconstruction legislation, and pardons of former Confederates.

In the bottom-center picture, Johnson-the-snake-charmer is joined by his top cabinet officials (l-r), Secretary of State William Henry Seward, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. (Johnsonís later attempt to oust Stanton for working behind the scenes with Congressional Radicals would lead to the presidentís impeachment.) The bottom side-panels contrast the situation in New Orleans during the Civil War and during the Johnson administration. On the left (1862), a humbled Confederate soldier must bow to Union General Benjamin Butler; on the right (1866), General Philip Sheridan is forced to submit to the same former Rebel.


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