Political cartoons have always been useful tools for the media to use to gain support for or against a particular situation. In 1866, Thomas Nast used this cartoon as a way to create opposition to President Andrew Johnson's plan for Reconstruction. In the cartoon, Johnson is portrayed as Iago from Shakespeare's Othello, while a black Union veteran is Othello, who is being denied any political rights. The cartoon also depicts the violence that southern whites had recently committed against blacks in Memphis and New Orleans. Nast hoped this cartoon would influence the public to elect congressmen who opposed Johnson's plan for Reconstruction.
Under Johnson's plan the former Confederate states had to repudiate their war debts and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment in order to be allowed back into the Union. Former Confederate officials also had to petition the president personally for a pardon. Most states complied, but Radical Republicans in the North argued that Johnson's plan made it too easy for former Confederates to regain their United States citizenship. Radicals objected that recently freed slaves did not have any voting rights and were still subject to the Black Codes—laws that restricted the rights of slaves and free blacks before the war. In 1866 voters elected a Republican majority, and by the spring of 1867 they had enacted a new plan for Reconstruction that provided more protections for newly freed slaves and required more changes in the former Confederate States that wished to reenter the Union.
Shortly after the new Reconstruction plan was in place, Congress submitted the Fourteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. It declared the former slaves and their descendents to be citizens of the United States and required the states to grant them due process and equal protection under the law. Southern objections to the amendment convinced the Republican Congress to intensify the requirements for Reconstruction and readmission to the Union.
The artist, Thomas Nast, was born in 1840 in Bavaria. He moved as a child with his family to New York and studied art under a fellow German emigrant until he was fifteen when he began working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine. Within three years he was working as a freelance artist for many other prestigious national magazines. In 1860 Nast traveled to Europe. During the Civil War he established himself as a political cartoonist, adamantly supporting the Union and justice for African Americans. Nast is considered by some historians to be the father of political cartooning, creating a genre that relies heavily on symbols and imagery. His most-lasting symbols are the fat jolly Santa Claus that we recognize today and the use of the donkey for Democratic Party and the elephant for the Republican Party. Nast died in 1902 in Ecuador where he was serving as United States consul under an appointment by President Theodore Roosevelt.
1. Why did the artist draw this cartoon?
2. What were the stipulations of Andrew Johnson's original Reconstruction plan?
3. Why was this plan disliked by the Radical Republicans?
4. What was the nation's reception of the Fourteenth Amendment?
1. This political cartoon was published in an effort to gain opposition to President Andrew Johnson and his “lenient” Reconstruction plan. There were many other political cartoons published during this time to gain support for or against many particular people or events. Research other political cartoons published about the time of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. What were the creators of these cartoons trying to achieve? How are they similar or different from this cartoon?
2. Political cartoons have been used for centuries to make statements about government actions. Compare "Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction and How It Works" to "Political Cartoon Criticizing the King, May 1, 1775."
Epps, Garrett. “The Antebellum Political Background of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Law and Contemporary Problems 67, no. 3, Conservative and Progressive Legal Orders (Summer 2004); 175–211.
James, Joseph B. “Southern Reaction to the Proposal of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Journal of Southern History 22, no. 4 (November 1956): 477–497.
Bond, James E. No Easy Walk to Freedom: Reconstruction and the Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.
Epps, Garrett. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post–Civil War America. New York: H. Holt, 2006.