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.
Populist cartoons were used again by William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, this time to oppose presidential candidate William McKinley in 1896. The Journal latched onto his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, a wealthy Midwestern industrialist. Artist Homer Davenport drew, over and over again, a grossly overweight Hanna in a suit covered with dollar signs.
The spots reportedly brought Hanna to tears, but McKinley still won, partly because rival William Jennings Bryan was even more widely caricatured by cartoonists as a backward Bible thumper. Cartoons from the McKinley-Bryan race caused enough of a stir to inspire legislation in New York and other states to make it easier to sue cartoonists and their bosses for libel. The legislation failed, but it underscored the potency of these singular drawings.
In the early 20th century, the advent of photographs pushed cartoons off front pages to the editorial pages—and cartoonists watched their sway slip. With their future uncertain, many of them opted for less-offensive images. For example, the most popular cartoonist of the era, the Washington Star's Clifford Berryman—the subject of a current National Archives exhibit called "Running for Office"—invented the teddy bear as a tribute to Theodore Roosevelt.
The birth of television in the 1950s and the spread of color photographs in newspapers and magazines gave political cartoons even more competition. This time, artists struck back with bolder, angrier, and more-irreverent work. Leading the fledgling movement was Herbert L. Block—better known by his pen name, Herblock—who was so out front in combating Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunt that he coined the term "McCarthyism" in a cartoon that showed a reluctant GOP elephant being pushed toward a "McCarthyism" platform.
The brash new cartoonists questioned Richard Nixon's ethics and John F. Kennedy's youth in the 1960 election. Even with Kennedy's assassination still fresh during the 1964 race, they refused to hold back on Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. "I wanted to be humorous without being lightweight," says Pat Oliphant, who arrived in the United States from Australia during the Johnson-Goldwater race and joined the new breed of hard-edged cartoonists. "A legitimate political cartoon has to draw blood."
During Nixon's 1968 and 1972 races, cartoonists drew plenty of his blood. "He was an absolute gift," says cartoonist Draper Hill. "He was stylized in a way that epitomized evil." Long before Nixon became president, Herblock began drawing him with a house burglar's five o'clock shadow. "It's more enjoyable to deal with people you don't like, because it's a critical medium," says Tony Auth, a Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist who joined the paper during the Nixon administration. "Nice cartoons aren't very good."
Limited influence. But Nixon's landslide re-election was a stark reminder of the form's limits. "Watergate had already slipped out, and the cartoons were having a field day with him," says Northrop of Nixon's 1972 race. "People loved those cartoons, and Nixon still won 49 states."
And yet the avalanche of brilliant anti-Nixon cartoons—one of Auth's pictured National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger carrying the world on his back, while the president himself struggled under an equally large tape reel—ushered in a new golden age. Former President Gerald Ford once remarked that the three ways for Americans to keep abreast of the news out of Washington were through "the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury, and not necessarily in that order."
The mostly liberal cartoonist corps had a field day with Ronald Reagan, but his immense likability made him harder to caricature than Nixon. "Editors said to just draw Reagan as a wrinkled prune," recalls Hill. "But it was a much subtler operation to deal with his charisma, individuality, and toughness." Reagan was the last president to invite political cartoonists to dinner at the White House. Oliphant sat far from the president to avoid being charmed by him. He continued his avoidance in the '90s with Bill Clinton because "he can apparently seduce anyone." Despite Clinton's charm, Kallaugher drew one of the most prescient cartoons of the 1992 race when he showed a woman's silky legs and a martini glass emerging from Clinton's blow-dried hair.
When it comes to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, cartoonists weren't seduced. "Eight years ago, Bush was depicted as the lightweight frat boy and Cheney as the grownup designated driver," Kallaugher says. "Now Bush is still regarded as a lightweight, while Cheney has evolved into the Dark Lord."
Currently, there are fewer than 100 full-time political cartoonists, down from 2,000 at the turn of the last century. But just like nearly all his predecessors, Kallaugher considers election season his favorite time to draw. "The cartoon-consuming public is paying attention to the news, so you can assume much more knowledge from the audience and do more-sophisticated work," he says. Kallaugher has yet to identify his least favorite candidate this year. In other words, the one he wants to win the White House to ensure four years of pitiless cartoons.