Winter 2004

An Historic Look at Political Cartoons

‘The future of editorial cartooning in America is uncertain, but the past holds lessons for us all.’

By Harry Katz
In 1754, Benjamin Franklin created the first American political cartoon, urging the British colonies to “Join, or Die” in defense against France and her Indian allies. Following ratification of the United States Constitution and the First Amendment, political cartoonists in the new republic enjoyed unprecedented freedom to express their views protected by the nation’s courts from charges of libel or governmental persecution.

Two hundred and fifty years later editorial cartoons remain a vital component of political discourse and a cornerstone of American democracy. Yet today editorial cartoonists face unprecedented challenges: Commercial attrition of newspapers and journals has reduced their numbers, advertisers and publishers exert more influence, while the advent of television and the Internet diffuse their influence amid an overwhelming welter of images, text and information. Furthermore, the profession is in transition. Young cartoonists no longer work with crayon and paper in offices near the newsroom, rather they often work at home in isolation, scanning computer-generated drawings for reproduction. The old guard, too, is passing; in recent years we have lost Herbert Block and Bill Mauldin, among others. The future of editorial cartooning in America is uncertain, but the past holds lessons for us all.

The Historic Timeline

Franklin’s early efforts to rouse his countrymen inspired the Revolutionary War generation, led by patriot and propagandist Paul Revere, who used sensational text and vivid imagery to inflame public sentiment against British rule. Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre, for example, shamelessly copied from his brother-in-law’s sketch, portrayed British soldiers as cold-hearted killers when in fact they had been provoked into violence by an unruly crowd. Widely distributed throughout the colonies, Revere’s bloody Massacre print dramatically displayed the power, immediacy and effectiveness of political graphics. Ironically, Revere and his colleagues modeled their crude yet potent style from the work of English satirists then flourishing in London.

After the Revolution, American cartoonists produced precious few images satirizing George Washington and John Adams, reflecting collective national goodwill toward the heroes of the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, however, was not immune from controversy. He bore the brunt of numerous graphic invectives, signaling the vulnerability of American politicians from the top down to personal attacks and the vigorous good health of a democratic system founded on the principles of free speech and a free press.

Cartoons at the time, however, were relatively scarce, laboriously and expensively engraved on sheets of copper or more crudely and cheaply on wood blocks. Printers and publishers reached only a small audience of literate and enfranchised citizens, mostly in urban areas. Change came quickly, however, during the 1820’s, when rapidly increasing immigration and the invention of lithography greatly enhanced the ability of publishers to expand their market and print cartoons quickly, cheaply and in greater numbers, just in time to meet the ferocious demand for satire created by Andrew Jackson’s polarizing administration.

The Civil War brought conflict and controversy and a golden age in American political cartooning. The Southern press, what little there was, and Democratic editors in the North, published cartoons excoriating President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, for his views on slavery and callous disregard of civil liberties. By contrast, the North drew from an apparently endless supply of paper, ink and journalistic talent. Newly established illustrated weeklies, including Harper’s and Frank Leslie’s, produced thousands of cartoons during the war years. Supported by a national thirst for news and a more literate readership, these weeklies reached new heights of circulation, in excess of 200,000 readers. Thomas Nast became a household name during the war through his weekly diatribes against Confederate perfidy, establishing his credentials as America’s foremost cartoonist and foreshadowing his epic crusade against New York City politico, “Boss” William Marcy Tweed, in the 1870’s.

The persuasive power of political cartooning was now unmistakable even to casual observers. Cartoonists achieved unprecedented visibility and influence. President Lincoln called Nast his “best recruiting sergeant,” while “Boss” Tweed soon railed from jail against “them damn pictures.” Publishers quickly recognized the potential influence and attraction of political cartoons. Beginning in 1872, the New York Daily Graphic featured front-page large-format cartoons and, in 1884, Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World became the first daily American newspaper to include cartoons. The suffrage movement gained momentum, and women got into the act. Rose O’Neill and Edwina Dumm were among these pioneers who broke the gender barrier and challenged typecasting that labeled them only fit to illustrate fashion plates and children’s stories. By 1900, political cartoons were an indelible feature of American newspaper and magazine publishing. The first generation of daily newspaper cartoonists, including Homer Davenport and John McCutcheon, became national celebrities.

Effective and compelling as their work undoubtedly was, both Davenport and McCutcheon often seemed spokesmen for the views of their powerful publishers rather than independent-minded journalistic commentators. In fact, most editorial cartoonists at the time steered clear of controversy over foreign or domestic affairs, choosing instead to promote American progress and prosperity. Their large numbers— for in those years most large American cities and towns supported multiple daily newspapers—were offset by a small minority of more radical cartoonists who took the side of labor against management, socialism versus democracy, pacifism over militarism.

Just prior to World War I these radicals, including Robert Minor, Boardman Robinson, and John Sloan, reached the height of their influence, producing highly charged drawings for socialist journals as well as watered down versions for the mainstream press. Their antiwar work, in particular, hit home, precipitating a legal crisis unique in American history. Cartoonist Art Young and his colleagues at The Masses, an urbane and influential socialist journal, were indicted for sedition by the U.S. government. Young and the others were ultimately acquitted, a clear victory for freedom of the press, although the U.S. Postal Service did manage to shut down The Masses, silencing a loud though limited voice for peace and progressive reform.

During the Depression, dominated politically by the Democrats and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cartoonists divided largely along party lines and economic issues. World War II united the country and cartoonists against the Axis threat. American cartoonists joined the fight as Arthur Szyk, Herbert Block, and Rollin Kirby, among many others, stirred the nation to support the Allies and fight their common enemies. Bill Mauldin became a war hero bringing humor to the front lines, enraging officers while entertaining the troops with his humorous and human portrayals of Willie and Joe, two foot soldiers in the war against fascism. Mauldin’s humor became serious after the war when shortages of jobs and housing left returning veterans in the lurch. For him, and many of his countrymen, the good fight continued. In times of war and crisis, it seems, cartoonists reach their full potential.

The cold war, however, a time of conflict over ideologies, did not spur American cartoonists to produce their best work. Most remained mired in partisan politics, unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo and address the larger issues facing the world and the American people. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist assaults on American institutions and individuals provoked few angry protests from newspaper cartoonists, with the notable exceptions of Herbert Block and Walt Kelly. They openly challenged McCarthy with satire and caricature, complementing the journalistic efforts of Edward R. Murrow; in fact, the term “McCarthyism” appeared for the first time in a Herblock cartoon satirizing the Republican Party platform. By 1952, too, Herblock had identified House member Richard Nixon as a person of interest.

With the 1960’s came President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), Vietnam, and the generation gap. A new breed of young cartoonists came onto the scene. Paul Conrad, Pat Oliphant, Tony Auth, Paul Szep, and many others helped turn the tide of popular sentiment against the Vietnam War. Their passionate, pointed commentary combined with televised images of death and destruction to discourage LBJ from running for reelection and, ultimately, bring an end to the war. President Nixon, preaching peace with honor in Vietnam, soon dishonored the White House. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Paul Conrad achieved immortality on Nixon’s “enemies list” with his searing series of satires portraying the President as a tragic figure in the Shakespearean mold. Herbert Block, unbelievably productive with five decades behind him and three more to go, won a fourth Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to The Washington Post’s investigation of Nixon’s Watergate role. Collectively, American cartoonists enjoyed another golden age.

Change came with the 1980’s when President Ronald Reagan transformed the American political landscape. The Reagan years are memorable for the work of Garry Trudeau who, like Walt Kelly before him, introduced politics into the comics page; Pat Oliphant, one of history’s finest comic artists, and Jeff MacNelly, whose prodigious talent and conservative outlook defied the notion that the best political artists have always been liberals devoted to reform. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton suffered grievously at the hands of cartoonists. Oliphant added immeasurably to the elder Bush’s image as a wimp, unforgettably accessorizing him with a lady’s purse, while Clinton’s doughy features and scandalous activities were a boon to cartoonists everywhere.

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"The Red, White and Blue Palette"
- Excerpts from a Speech by Ann Telnaes
Recently, George W. Bush’s efforts to remake America and fight a global war against terrorism have divided the nation and its cartoonists. Like the cartoons themselves, the issues have become black and white, no shades of gray. In 2001, just as President Bush began implementing his platform and cartoonists honed their portrayals, the 9/11 attacks shattered the world as Americans knew it and overwhelmed most commentator’s abilities to make sense of the madness. Few cartoonists responded with courage and conviction, seemingly stunned into silence with the rest of us. Ann Telnaes, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winner, was a notable exception, as her stylish and strong cartoons shed light on critical issues including the separation of church and state and threats to civil liberties emerging from the war on terrorism. Trudeau took Doonesbury to Ground Zero and the war in Iraq, while relative newcomer Aaron McGruder’s edgy comic strip The Boondocks broke new political ground in the funnies. Only as the nation has emerged from the shadow of 9/11 have the majority of American editorial cartoonists regained their critical voice.

In an age when reality is defined by sound bites and spin doctors, pandering pundits and partisan politics, political cartoonists must remain relevant and above the fray, talking truth to power in all its forms and clarifying with insight, intelligence and accuracy the difficult, complex issues and events shaping our daily lives.

Harry Katz is former head curator of prints and photographs at the Library of Congress and current curator of the Herb Block Foundation Collection. He is the coauthor of “Humor’s Edge: Cartoons by Ann Telnaes,” published by Pomegranate Press in 2004.

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