history politics and the media have been interdependent. The caesars
of ancient Rome staged elaborate triumphal processions to celebrate
their victories and to flaunt their power.
And in medieval times the public burning of effigies of
oppressive landowners and tyrants was an unambiguous form of political
performance art. Without
commanding the attention (if not the minds and hearts) of the people,
few leaders have governed effectively, and few reformers have made
inroads against the established order. Conversely, these same public
figures have for centuries provided the media a reliable source of
For most of the
modern period the printing press has been the primary instrument of
political expression. (In the twentieth century the broadcast media emerged, and
perhaps the Internet will inherit this role in the twenty-first
century.) One medium in
particular – printmaking -- has been at the center of Western
political life for over five centuries.
Introduced at a time when images could be copied only by hand,
printmaking made it possible to reproduce an image, combine it with
text, and then replicate it by the thousands for widespread
distribution. This capability gave rise to the posters, broadsides,
handbills, cartoons, and other sorts of graphics that have since
become essential to partisan struggle. Politicians learned early on
that the combination of image and text can exert a powerful and direct
visual impact, even on the illiterate. As late as 1871, the corrupt
New York political boss William M. Tweed complained of Thomas Nast’s
cartoons, “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My
constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.”
served the princes and clerics of fifteenth-century Europe through
dissemination of royal emblems and portraits and devotional images
designed, at least in part, to reinforce the political and
ecclesiastical order. Later,
during the Protestant Reformation, the anonymous wood-engravers of
northern Europe satirized the corrupt clergy and the political
intrigues of the mightiest power in the West -- the Catholic Church.
The various warring
factions of the turbulent seventeenth century exploited the timeliness
of illustrated broadsides, which in those days could be turned out
more rapidly than books and journals, to memorialize their victories
and demonize their foes. The
acerbic etchings of the eighteenth-century caricaturist James Gillray
were a constant torment to the English royal family and Whig
statesmen, exposing the political duplicity and moral turpitude
rampant in Regency England.
Prints were part of
the political scene in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America as
well. The techniques of engraving,
woodcut, and, later, lithography
offered those who employed them a means of
being heard above the din of the crowd. Party strategists, editors,
activists, political "wire-pullers" and "fixers"
of all stripes in the young democracy found pictures to be powerful
tools for advancing their interests and agendas.
Simple visual images drawn from political rhetoric, like the
broom of reform used widely by Andrew Jackson’s supporters in the
1828 presidential race [1828-13], provided campaign publicists a
colorful and effective shorthand. And the arts of caricature and
satire, which had been honed to a razor’s edge in England and
France, offered a ready means to undermine an opponents’ standing in
the public eye.
On occasion even a
candidate’s own promotional images were subverted by the opposition
for its own ends. Mathew
Brady’s famous Cooper Union photograph of 1860 Republican
presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, and other portraits that were
circulated by Lincoln’s campaigners, were copied by his detractors
as the bases for their caricatures [1860-36 through -42].
Political prints were
an urban phenomenon, their economics reliant upon a sufficient
population density of knowledgeable, consumers who had a vested
interest in the political order.
From the 1830s on, the center of production for political
graphics in the United States was New York City, more precisely lower
Manhattan. Relatively few
political prints were produced in the other urban centers, however.
Before the Civil War, Washington DC was a relatively
undeveloped village, nearly uninhabitable during the summer months.
And the waning of the Bank of the United States precipitated a
decline in Philadelphia's centrality in American monetary affairs.
The area around Chatham Square, Broadway, and Wall Street was
the teeming center of American finance, politics, and journalism.
Many of the great partisan newspapers of the day -- Horace
Greeley's Tribune, Harper’s Weekly,
and the New York Times --
were all published within a few square blocks of each other.
movements in the antebellum United States, like abolitionism, nativism,
and temperance, generated many impassioned works in the medium.
The abolitionists in particular used visual media of all kinds
in an inventive and sophisticated campaign to arouse moral indignation
against the "peculiar institution " of slavery.
Abolitionist prints and broadsides like Am
I Not a Man and a Brother? [1837-16] were sold by mail order
through antislavery newspapers like the Liberator
and the Charter Oak or from
reading rooms and offices set up by activists in several northern
cities. Many prints were
also given away for free. While there is little concrete evidence of
the effectiveness of other political graphics in the period, it is
clear that the prints, pamphlets and newspapers disseminated by the
antislavery forces struck a nerve among the larger populace.
During the 1830s several abolitionist presses were destroyed by
mobs, even in the North, and antislavery materials sent through the
mails were frequently seized from southern post offices and publicly
rather than idealism, was more often the motive behind the publication
of political prints, however. American
printsellers and publishers found political and patriotic subjects a
marketable commodity in a democratic society intensely absorbed with
its own governance. John
Quincy Adams provides one of the rare contemporary glimpses of the
political print trade in the United States.
In an April 1831 diary entry Adams wrote that ten thousand copies of Edward Williams Clay's satire on
the resignation of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet officers The Rats leaving a Falling House [1831-2] were printed, and that two
thousand copies of the print were sold in a single day.
Probably the most
successful purveyor of political prints in the United States was New
York's Nathaniel Currier, later proprietor of the firm of Currier
& Ives. Currier sold
a variety of lithographs from his shop on Nassau Street and from the
street corners of lower Manhattan.
Judging from the surviving prints that bear his name Currier
does not seem to have been aligned with any party or special interest,
aside from the relatively affluent merchant class to whom his business
catered. In fact, during
every American presidential election from 1840 to 1872 Currier
produced campaign banners for all of the major party nominees.
Trade in political
prints and broadsides flourished in the United States from about 1825
until the end of the Civil War. The
rise of the weekly illustrated magazines, Frank
Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's
Weekly in the 1850s and Puck
and Judge in the 1870s,
spelled the end of the market for the individual political print. The
magazines could include several cartoons in each issue, and their
publishers developed national distribution networks enabling them to
reach vastly enlarged markets.
Beginning in the
1850s posters also began to make inroads into the market for political
prints. Printed in stark,
bold designs on large or multiple sheets of paper, posters were better
suited to outdoor use and began to replace prints as means of
promoting candidates for office.
The earliest presidential campaign poster in the Library of
Congress collection, an 1848 color woodcut portrait of Zachary Taylor
[1848-12], is a magnificent, masterful product of early American
We know very little
about most of the artists who produced political prints.
There are occasional instances of work by artists of
consequence, like Winslow Homer [1856-1], Washington Peale [1844-50],
and Theodor Kaufmann [1850-5]. (And no doubt there are more works
produced anonymously by well-known American painters still to be
discovered.) But most
political satires from the period are by unidentified, semi-skilled
draftsmen who generated a range of work for hire for the growing
American lithographic print trade.
Many of these hacks borrowed freely from the works of more
competent artists. This
was in part a practical necessity.
Prior to the Civil War it was considered unseemly for
presidential candidates to campaign, and so most artists had little
opportunity to see political figures firsthand.
Photography did not become a commonplace until the Civil War as
well. Hence the
likenesses captured by the few artists and photographers favored by a
candidate with a sitting were widely copied in caricatures, campaign
banners, and other representations.
Outright piracy was
also rampant. While some artists merely lifted details, others produced
unauthorized reproductions of entire cartoons.
Paul Revere is known to have plagiarized his famous portrayal
of the Boston Massacre [1770-1] from a drawing loaned to him by his
brother in law the painter Henry Pelham.
And several versions exist of Edward Williams Clay's popular The Rats leaving a Falling House [1831-1, 1831-2].
In the popular print trade of the nineteenth century copyright
laws were rarely enforced, if they were even invoked.
In the political realm, piracy in fact, often served the
interests of the publisher by getting the message to a wider audience.
One can trace the
activity of a few artists over the course of several years, and get a
sense of their political leanings and biases.
One such artist is Edward Williams Clay, who worked in
Philadelphia and later New York for H.R. Robinson and other
publishers. Clay was a
capable draftsman and his figures have a stylish elegance and
sartorial detail. (Clay
also drew fashion plates for clothing merchants.)
Like many northern Whigs of the mercantile class, Clay was an
ardent apologist for slavery [1841-1] and a persistent critic of
Andrew Jackson and his Democratic successor, Martin Van Buren.
Aside from this, little is known about Clay or his career.
It was not until Thomas Nast, who championed the Republican
cause and waged a relentless battle against New York's corrupt Tammany
Hall in the pages of Harper's
Weekly, that an American political cartoonist would become a
recognized public figure.
Today these period
satires and cartoons enjoy an afterlife as material for study by
historians and others who seek to understand the past.
Viewers must bear in mind that they provide only an incomplete
survey of American political ideologies of their time.
Popular movements like nativism and temperance are sparsely
represented in them, and the urban northeast and the views of its
residents are far more heavily represented than the South or West.
Studied in conjunction with the other contemporaneous
documents, however, political prints can be valuable keys to the
issues, values, and culture of the past.
F. Reilly, Jr.