Fiona Deans Halloran: Thomas Nast, Horace Greeley, and the Gift of Gaffe

Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons, by Fiona Deans HalloranWe welcome a guest post today from Fiona Deans Halloran, author of Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons. Here, Halloran explores some of the great sources for Nast’s pictorial imagination.


Willy Wonka claimed, at least in the 1971 film, that invention is “ninety-three percent perspiration, six percent electricity, four percent evaporation, and two percent butterscotch ripple.” (Mrs. Teevee replied, “That’s a hundred and five percent!”) For Thomas Nast, those proportions might have been the same amount of perspiration plus six percent news, four percent Shakespeare, and two percent bile. He loved to absorb ideas and provocations from his environment and spit them back out twisted into wry, winking satire.

Where did he find his inspiration? Frequently in what we would call gaffes. Those little slips that so reveal the true character of any politician helped to inspire Nast’s pencil to new heights. When newspaper editor Horace Greeley claimed to know enough about farming to write a book (What I Know of Farming, 1871), Nast satirized his hubris in a series of imaginary tomes: What I Know About Telling the Truth, What I Know About Eating My Own Words, What I Know About Stooping To Conquer.[1]

Thomas Nast - What I Know about Eating My Own Words
“What I Know about Eating My Own Words,” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 13 July 1872.

Social activity and casual conversation provided another source of inspiration. As a young man Nast frequented Pfaff’s beer cellar. There he learned to listen to the talk of journalists, editors, and writers who circulated among New York’s papers and printing houses. Once married, he brought the news into his home and made it a family pastime. Nast and his wife spent their evenings reading widely. They might real aloud from a volume of stories or plays (often Shakespeare) or from one of the many newspapers Nast enjoyed. A clipping service sent any mention of Nast to the family home so he knew whenever another newspaper commented on or criticized his work.

For Nast, drawing inspiration from the environment meant looking around. His home, in Morristown, New Jersey, boasted suits of armor, battle-axes, knives from across the globe, and a wide array of curious, rare, and interesting objects. Should Nast require an idea he need only look around. Here was the classical world, there the medieval. Here an animal, there a goddess. His visual alphabet, used so often to mock the powerful, drew upon the world around him.

And, of course, there was his personality. Aroused by competition, hypocrisy and admiration, Nast wound himself up like a spring when circumstances demanded it. Presidential elections and political scandals were special favorites. At those times Nast’s pencil seemed more like a hammer and less like an artistic tool.

But that pencil produced art, nonetheless. For all Nast’s pugnacious, aggressive qualities, his cartoons expressed his formal artistic training in every line. Like Willy Wonka, Nast was a master of his trade. He dominated mid-nineteenth century cartooning in part because his particular, personal brand of inspiration so perfectly suited his talents.

Fiona Deans Halloran teaches history at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is author of Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons. Read her previous guest blog post, “The Literacy of Thomas Nast.”

  1. [1]All in Harper’s Weekly: 27 April 1872, 13 July 1872, 27 July 1872.