The drawing that turned Thomas Nast into the most powerful political cartoonist in American history wasn't the least bit funny. Published in Harper's Weekly in September 1864, it showed a triumphant Confederate soldier shaking hands with a peg-legged Union veteran as a woman wept over a grave of Union heroes from a "Useless War." Titled "Compromise with the South," the cartoon blasted the anti-Civil War peace platform adopted by the Democrats.
Facing Democrat George McClellan in that fall's election, Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party printed up millions of copies of Nast's cartoon and distributed them everywhere. Nast's popularity skyrocketed, and his cartoon was credited with helping turn the tide in favor of Lincoln, who called Nast the Union's "best recruiting sergeant." Three years after Lincoln's assassination, Nast struck again. Ulysses S. Grant attributed his own presidential victory to "the sword of Sheridan"—a top Union general—"and the pencil of Thomas Nast."
For much of the 19th century, political cartoons wielded tremendous influence in presidential races because they, along with more-respectful hand-drawn portraits, were the only candidate pictures voters had. "Nast was working in a media environment with virtually no other images," says Kevin Kallaugher, a political cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun and the Economist.
The clout of editorial cartoons has waned, but their ability to capture complex issues inside a single box makes them some of the most accessible and revealing documents from 200-plus years of presidential campaigns. And now two exhibits, one newly opened at the National Archives and one at the Newseum, which is scheduled to open in April, in Washington, D.C., highlight their importance and intrigue. "When you go back through history and try to get the simple essence of what is going on in each campaign," says Sandy Northrop, curator of the forthcoming "Penning the Presidents" exhibit at the Newseum, "you look at political cartoons."
Although political cartoons were popular in Europe in the 1700s, their evolution in the United States began with a drawing by Ben Franklin published in 1754. Advocating a unification of the colonies against French and Indian aggression, Franklin drew a snake chopped into eight segments, one for each colony, with the caption "Join, or Die."
But it wasn't until 1828 that political cartoons really took off in the United States, thanks to the widespread adoption of lithography, a reproduction process that was quicker and cheaper than engraving. The same year, Andrew Jackson made his successful bid for president and became a popular target. Cartoonists often portrayed the fiery populist as a ruthless strongman.
Biting criticism. Jackson survived their criticism and won the race, but in some cases cartoons were indeed the deciding factor. For the most part, they were distributed on broadsheets—single-sheet handouts carrying news and illustrations—that were hung in taverns or men's clubs. "For an audience that wasn't going to sit down and read a text-laden newspaper, these charged images were created to give a visual opinion," says Sara W. Duke, curator of popular and applied graphic art in the prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress. "The better the artist was, the better the chance they could sway public opinion."
By Lincoln's time, broadsheets had given way to weekly magazines, which only increased the cartoons' power. "You could share the weekly with your friends, and the whole town would have shared it until it completely fell apart," says Duke.
In the last decades of the 19th century, the birth of daily newspapers and cartoonists' mounting disgust for Gilded Age greed gave rise to populist-themed comics. Days before the 1884 presidential election, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World ran a front-page cartoon mocking a lavish dinner held by wealthy donors for Republican nominee James G. Blaine. "The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings" pictured a ragged family begging for a morsel from Blaine's spread of "lobby pudding" and "monopoly soup." Borrowing Lincoln's tactic from 1864, the Democrats distributed thousands of copies of the cartoon throughout New York State. The Republicans had already been circulating cartoons lampooning Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland for fathering an illegitimate child. But when Cleveland's narrow victory in New York gave him the electoral votes to win the White House, "The Royal Feast of Belshazzar" was widely seen as a major help.