Presidents and cartoons: You think Obama gets dissed? Look what Abe Lincoln faced
Few would disagree that President Obama has faced an unprecedented amount of vitriol during his time in office. The Photoshopped images of his head on witch doctor bodies, the vicious anonymous attacks on social media, the hateful comments on websites, the death threats, the liberal use of the “n” word — we’ve all seen and read it.
But he’s hardly alone. Every president from George Washington on has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—and of political enemies in the media and in Congress. And the nation’s editorial cartoonists have done their part over the nation’s history to mock those chief executives in derisive fashion.
“Cartoons work best when they attack,” wrote Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop in Drawn & Quartered: The History of American Political Caroons (Elliott & Clark, 1996). “With the rare exception of applauding a peace agreement or a singular individual act of valor, cartoonists are nobody’s cheerleaders. Some cartoonists gauge their success by the hate mail they receive.”
In honor of Presidents’ Day, let’s look at some examples of the cartoon vilification of our commanders in chief.
Although political cartooning was around in America since the 1740s, it really took off in the 1800s with the growing use of lithography, first invented in 1796. Lithography, the process of putting an image directly onto a stone or metal plate and then using an oil-based ink for printing, made it cheaper and less time-consuming than engraving to spread the printed image. The New York firm of Currier & Ives hired illustrators and offered low-cost prints to the public, often drawn to reflect all sides of political issues, to boost sales. It gave America its first real affordable art.
By 1828, the populist and military hero of the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, won the presidential ection in a rematch against the incumbent, John Quincy Adams. During his two terms, Jackson drew fierce opposition from members of the Whig Party as well as cartoonists for what they considered his autocratic use of executive power and his willingness to wield the presidential veto pen.
Jackson was strongly criticized for his veto of the bill that would have rechartered the Bank of United States in 1832. He saw the bank as “a privileged institution and the enemy of the common people” and said the bank constituted the “prostration of our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many.” He also issued an executive order to remove federal deposits from the federal bank. Critics and cartoonists alike lambasted Jackson as a “despotic monarch,” often deriding him as “King Andrew the First.”
Perhaps no chief executive faced more opposition than the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. That makes sense, as he presided over a country torn in two during the Civil War. But even in the north, Lincoln’s critics were vociferous when the war’s battles went poorly.
The Civil War was a time of deep division in the nation’s newspapers, too. The press was as partisan as right-wing radio and Fox News (and to a lesser extent MSNBC) are today. The New York papers were the biggest partisan game in the country, with papers (and by extension their readers) Republican or Democrat.
Historian Harold Holzer writes about Lincoln and his relationship with the nation’s newspapers and about the confluence of newspapers and politics during Lincoln’s presidency in Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
The financial and popular success that many newspapers enjoyed in pursuit of political goals enabled them to influence both leaders and events, and emboldened them to report on politics with a biased fury unimaginable in previous or subsequent generations. … Political parties commenced openly funding and promoting sympathetic newspapers, while newspapers began overtly shilling for party organizations.
Newspapers were the method of learning about war news and war casualties. Even when much of the populace was still illiterate, they could understand a cartoon. As William M. “Boss” Tweed, head of the New York political machine Tammany Hall, said later, in 1871, “Stop them damn pictures! I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.”
The Republican papers, such as Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and Henry Raymond’s New York Times, ran stories and cartoons praising Lincoln and his policies. Those printed in the Democratic anti-Lincoln papers, such as James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, ran strong anti-Lincoln editorial content as well as cartoons. Pro-Union papers backed administration actions when Lincoln cracked down on the pro-Secession press during the Civil War (but that crackdown is a whole other story).
There are vast collections of political cartoons about the Civil War and about Abraham Lincoln in particular. James Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, estimates that there are at least 300 cartoons alone in which Lincoln was portrayed as a character.
The cartoons had a national reach, as journalists from outside New York clipped them out and reprinted them in hometown papers. In addition, it was cheaper then to mail a newspaper than it was to mail a personal letter, so members of the public often mailed papers to family members across the country.
Cartoons against Lincoln portrayed him as a devil (cloven hooves and all), a clown, a court jester, Brutus the killer of Julius Caesar, an emperor, a pig, a bartender, and Guy Fawkes. Sometimes cartoons showed him dressed in women’s clothing. They often incorporated a rail into the drawing to invoke the image of Lincoln as a rail splitter, using the story for which he had become famous.
Even more cartoons ran in weeklies or were sold individually by Currier & Ives. Besides newspapers, also popular were periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, Phun, an American and a strictly Southern version of the British Punch, and Southern Illlustrated News. The famous cartoonist Thomas Nast worked for several of these publications, especially Harper’s Weekly.
Nast, sometimes referred to as the “father of the American political cartoon,” is perhaps best known for his cartoons against Boss Tweed. He drew the modern version of Santa Claus and created the symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party (he is often credited with the donkey for the Democrats, but that symbol was already in use; he merely popularized it). He put a beard on Uncle Sam and he defined the figure of Lady Liberty. But he also drew his share of cartoons both praising and lambasting presidents.
Nast was highly critical of President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies and had a field day during Johnson’s impeachment and trial.
Lincoln chose Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, to balance the ticket in 1864. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and Johnson’s ascent to the presidency, the Southern Johnson found himself with a Congress full of Republicans bent on passing punishing Reconstruction rules and laws.
During a long congressional recess, Johnson took advantage of the lawmakers’ absence and instituted his own policies. Despite his words to former slaves that he would “be the Moses of your people, and lead them on to liberty,” he refused to force Southern states to give full equality to black men. He issued pardons and amnesty to any Southern rebels who would take an oath of allegiance. This cartoon shows Johnson as a traitorous Iago addressing an African-American Civil War veteran as Othello.
Many of us probably know the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s unsuccessful run for president in 1912 as the candidate from the Bull Moose Party. Teddy Roosevelt became president after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. He served two terms, and by 1908, he decided to honor his pledge not to run again on the Republican ticket that year. But Roosevelt became angry that President William Howard Taft did not complete Roosevelt’s progressive agenda, instead siding with the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
In 1912, Roosevelt decided to run on the Progressive Party ticket, more popularly known as the Bull Moose Party, as Roosevelt had once referred to himself as being “as strong as a bull moose.” Roosevelt’s supporters in California even referred to themselves as “Bull Moosers.” But with the Republicans split, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won that election in a landslide. The Democrats captured both houses of Congress at the same time.
Lincoln scholar James Cornelius has a theory about presidents and cartoons. “In terms of the vitriol from the Eastern establishment—including cartoonists—against Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush, all shared some characteristics,” he said. “All were Westerners, all were poorly spoken, and all were warmongers. And all were re-elected, which made the cartoonists really mad. They were looked down upon as outlanders.”
Whatever the cartoonists’ motivations, there are many more examples of cartoonists’ methods of and success in taking the nation’s leaders down a peg or two. As Hess and Northrop wrote in Drawn & Quartered:
Presidents are a cartoonist’s bread and butter. Since each new chief executive becomes the symbol for his term in office, cartoonists sweat to arrive at the essence of the man they will draw repeatedly. For Newsday cartoonist Doug Marlette, that caricature is key: “Cartoonists are after that certain quality that comes through despite everything that makeup artists, speech writers, spin doctors and press secretaries do to hide it. … We want his soul.”
And they captured those souls. The exaggeration of a president’s physical attributes, such as Richard Nixon’s needle nose, Jimmy Carter’s teeth, Ronald Reagan’s hair, George H.W. Bush’s forehead, or Obama’s big ears. The way Garry Trudeau used a single object to symbolize a president or politician in his “Doonesbury” strips, such as a waffle for Bill Clinton (actually the result of a readers’ poll; it beat a flipping coin), first a Stetson then a Roman helmet for George W. Bush, a feather for Dan Quayle, and a bomb for Newt Gingrich.
Because of copyright laws, I have left off many excellent modern-day examples of political cartoons of presidents. Besides, we’re all familiar with cartoons of George W. Bush’s goofy look and Richard Nixon’s outstretched arms and hunched shoulders, fingers flashing a victory sign.
I end with one of my favorite classics, drawn by the great Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times, who died in 2010 after a career of eviscerating presidents, especially Nixon and George W. Bush. He drew more than 100 cartoons about Watergate alone between 1972 and 1974 and was the only cartoonist on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Oh, and he also won three Pulitzer Prizes as well as a slew of other awards.
Happy Presidents’ Day, everybody. Now go buy a mattress.
Originally published on Daily Kos, Feb. 14, 2016.