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Politics and Printmaking in the United States, 1766-1876. 
By Bernard F. Reilly, Jr.

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Throughout recorded 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 "good copy."

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.”

Printmaking first 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. 

Major grass-roots 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 burned. 

Commercial gain, 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 poster art. 

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. 

Bernard F. Reilly, Jr.

Evanston, Illinois

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