Humor With a Message
Political cartoons have a deep root in American media and have provided humor as well as critique of politics and government for generations. The era of American History known as the ‘Gilded Age,’ following the end of the Civil War, saw a growth in the usage of political cartoons. The idealism of the post-war period gave way to cynicism, as America became an economic and industrial powerhouse. Artists and intellectuals from major magazines and newspapers in the country created regular cartoons criticizing the growing corruption and inequality they saw in political and everyday life.
Artists like Thomas Nast, who pioneered labeling and personifying objects, helped turn the cartoon into a simple and effective means of communicating political messages. The popularity of political cartoons continued into the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th Century, with entire magazines appearing based around political cartoons. One of the first of these magazines, Puck,became successful as not only a publication but a voice for advocacy of good government. Like most publications of the time,Puck advocated for a particular political party, the camp of Grover Cleveland. A later offshoot of Puck, the magazine Judge, also featured political cartoons and was intimately involved with the GOP. A third magazine, The Verdict, was established to combat the re-election campaign of William McKinley in 1900. Before the advent of television or radio, these political cartoons played a large role in helping shape the American political discussion. Below are selected famous political cartoons from the Gilded and Progressive Eras.
The Cartoons of Thomas Nast
This cartoon done for Harper’s Weekly, illustrated the powerful influence of Tammany Hall on the Democrats of New York. Tammany Hall was a center for Irish Catholic politics, a point emphasized by the use of a Roman Coliseum. Here lady liberty stands in for the traditional Christian victim.
Nast uses the images of a recently emancipated slave and an Irishman to illustrate votes that might have had a role in tipping the balance in the disputed elections of 1876.
A critique of money in political elections, this cartoon shows department-store magnate “Pious John” Wanamaker giving a large donation to support the campaign of candidate Benjamin Harrison. The oversized hat he is wearing is that of his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison.
Gordon Moffat in The Verdict
America is shown in this cartoon as a ship being boarded by pirates. Uncle Sam is made to walk the plank by the ‘money trusts’, the captains of industry and robber barons of the day.
This cartoon is likely making a distinction between American ideals and society and those of the people of the Philippines and other areas that were under the ‘imperial’ influence of America.
Moffat shows us that what news we get from correspondents reporting on the Philippine -American war from Manila, has been controlled by the McKinley administration.
Here Moffat asks what is more valuable, American Imperialism or the lives of Filipino’s lost in the war with America?
Horace Taylor in The Verdict
Another critique of the influence of the money trusts in Washington, Nelson Rockefeller is shown here toying with the White House in the palm of his hand. In the background, Washington D.C. has been transformed into a series of factories.
Cartoons from Puck Magazine
A reproduction of a famous painting of the same name, this satirical cartoon shows banker J.P. Morgan as helping Uncle Sam steer the boat, a representation of America.
This famous cartoon depicts the influence of money trusts and other powerful interests on the US Senate.
Cartoons From Judge Magazine
This cartoon is intended to show the growing power of the Republican Party, of whom Judge magazine were strong supporters.
This famous image shows Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as a snake bent on destroying the Democratic Party. His nomination had caused divisions between him and other party members, including Grover Cleveland, who accused him of pandering to the ‘populist’ elements of America.
Other Famous Political Cartoons
Lady Liberty is depicted wielding a sword and being launched over the Pacific towards Asia. A playful and colorful criticism of the growth of American imperialism.
- JS Pughe – When McKinley is President, 1896
Uncle Sam is seen dejected on the steps of the capitol building, as McKinley strolls into office wearing the hat of monopoly, another critique of the role of powerful business interests on American politics.