Monday, March 23, 2009

"Gross and Uncomplimentary Exaggerations"

Thomas Nast’s impression of Rep. James B. Weaver’s struggle to get the House to vote on his Greenback financial resolutions as reprinted in A Call to Action.

As Rep. James B. Weaver struggled in the winter of 1880 to get a vote on his Greenback financial resolutions in the House, the matter suddenly became fodder for mirth.

Harper’s Weekly, the influential magazine of news, opinion and literature, featured a cartoon caricature of Weaver on the House floor making the case for the Greenback program to a chamber full of uninterested and unhappy lawmakers.

The sketch by Thomas Nast elevated the legislative battle into a topic of national conversation, but not in a way Weaver liked.

Nast portrays Weaver as an ass in Roman garb. Bored and disconsolate lawmakers cover their ears. The speaker’s back is turned. The caption, “I shall sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid,” comes from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” and is uttered by the comic character Bottom the Weaver. At Weaver’s feet is a book entitled “A Midwinter’s Night Dream.”

The drawing was not flattering. It was not intended to be.

Ridicule was Nast's stock in trade, art historian J. Chal Vinson has written. Nast employed it with tremendous effectiveness during as the United States emerged from the trauma of civil war. An ardent Unionist who rose to fame with his war-time caricatures, Nast remained a loyal servant of the Republican cause until 1884.

Nast made the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey famous symbols of the two parties, helped bring down Boss Tweed in New York and mercilessly lampooned Horace Greeley in the editor's ill-starred 1872 presidential campaign. By 1880, Nast stood at the height of his influence and built a fortune totaling $125,000.

Nast’s rendering of Weaver as an asinine buffoon braying about Greenback monetary policy reflected the conventional wisdom of the day – and immediately became a topic for discussion on the House floor.

Weaver tried to turn it to his advantage by pretending to defend the honor of House Speaker Samuel Randall of Pennsylvania.

“A gross misrepresentation is going all over the country through the figures of a cartoon by Nast, which represents the speaker with his back toward me,” Weaver told the House on March 1. “That is not a fact.”

Rep. James A. Garfield, the Republican leader from Ohio, seized the opportunity to mock both Weaver and the Democratic speaker, Samuel Randall of Pennsylvania.

“Which figure represents you?” Garfield inquired. Drawing on his command of scripture, Weaver responded with a reference to a story from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers.

“The large figure with the long ears, of course, represents me. You know that the ass in the Bible saw the angel before Balaam, his rider, saw him.”

Weaver seems to have been conflicted about the image. His decision to include it in his memoir and manifesto, A Call to Action, suggests that he found it, at some level, flattering. But his description of the drawing – “a scurrillous travesty” – also indicates that Nast’s sting continued to irritate a full 12 years after the cartoon was published.

“Prominent caricaturists were employed by the monopoly organs to fill the illustrated weeklies with gross and uncomplimentary exaggerations of the author and the scope of his resolutions,” Weaver wrote. “The imaginative genius of Nast was called upon to swell the volume of misrepresentation and ridicule.”

Satirizing Weaver and the Greenbacks may have been one of the few things Nast and the management at Harper's could agree on as the 1870s drew to a close. Harper's publisher George William Curtis wanted less vitriol from the cartoonist. Nast became disillusioned with the Republican Party, and ultimately broke with the GOP when it nominated James G. Blaine in 1884.

"In the essence of Nast's success was the ability to communicate ideas in graphic form," Vinson has written. "His cartoons for the most part were not illustrations of captions, dependent on writing for their impact. His figures never needed an identifying tag. The force of the work was in the drawing itself."

There was no mistaking what Nast thought of Weaver or the Greenback monetary program.


Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press, 2008.

Vinson, J. Chal. "Thomas Nast and the American Political Scene." American Quarterly (9), Johns Hopkins University Press (Autumn 1957).

Weaver, James B. A Call to Action. Des Moines, 1892.

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