The Noise of democracy
thomas nast and the elections of 1872 & 1876
September 21 - December 9, 2012
Thursday, September 20
Members' Gallery Talk - 5:30 p.m.
Opening Reception 6:00 - 7:30 p.m.
Renowned political cartoonist Thomas Nast created some of his most famous work between the Presidential elections of 1872 and 1876. The Noise of Democracy examines the issues and personalities that shaped these important elections. As a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast’s visual commentaries helped shape opinion in an age that faced many issues similar to those of today. Monetary policy, third-party politics, the separation of church and state, and civil service reform were among Nast’s topics in this period, when he was at the height of his powers.
The Presidential election of 1872 pitted Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant against newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who was first nominated by the splinter Liberal Republican Party and then by the Democratic party. The highly partisan media of the time conducted a no-holds-barred campaign of character assassination and mudslinging. Harper’s Weekly supported Grant, while Greeley was endorsed by his own paper, the New York Tribune.
Nast’s arsenal consisted of his extraordinary skill as a draughtsman combined with a clever and biting use of puns and symbols both borrowed and invented. The Bible, Shakespeare, and Aesop’s Fables provided inspiration, as did popular songs and current colloquial expressions. Nast codified the use of the Elephant and the Donkey to represent the Republican and Democratic Parties and also employed the traditional personifications of the United States -- Columbia and Uncle Sam -- to bold effect in witty and powerfully persuasive images.
Although Grant won the 1872 election, the economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1873, a series of corruption scandals in his administration, and ongoing controversy about Reconstruction in the South contributed to growing Democratic strength, reflected in the 1874 congressional elections. As the presidential election of 1876 approached, Nast’s support for Republican presidential nominee Rutherford B. Hayes lacked the enthusiasm he had shown for Grant. He nonetheless mounted a vigorous attack on Democratic nominee, Samuel J. Tilden, focusing on the candidate’s earlier association with corrupt New York Democrats. In the first disputed presidential election in American history, Tilden won the popular vote but 20 crucial electoral votes were in question (through allegations of fraud). Established in January 1877 to decide the matter, the Electoral Commission took until March to announce the results. A back-room deal between the two parties -- the Compromise of 1877 - gave Hayes the election but required him to withdraw federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.All of the works in this exhibition are drawn from the 2006 gift of Judith and Norman Zlotsky. The exhibition was organized by Ann H. Sievers, Director and Curator, and Tanekwah C. Hinds, Wellesley College class of 2015, Art Gallery summer curatorial intern.
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