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Cartoon Analysis: Thomas Nast on Reconstruction, 1869–1874

Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.

Suggested Sequencing


In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving holiday. Six years later, in 1869, Thomas Nast’s “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” appeared in the November 20 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Harper’s Weekly covered domestic and foreign news as well as fiction, essays, and illustrations. Thomas Nast was the magazine’s most famous and influential contributor; his work appeared in Harpers Weekly from the late 1850s to the mid-1880s. When Nast’s Thanksgiving cartoon was published in 1869, Congress had recently passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and state legislatures were in the process of debating the ratification of the amendment.

In the first image, Uncle Sam, standing on the far right, carves a turkey. Columbia, seated on the far left, speaks to a Chinese man. Americans from all around the world sit at the table. On the wall hang portraits of three presidents: Lincoln, George Washington, and Ulysses S. Grant. Behind Uncle Sam is a painting of Castle Garden, the main immigration processing center in New York City before the opening of Ellis Island in 1892.

Despite the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments (i.e., the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments), the idea of allowing African American men to vote and receive full civil rights met with local resistance in the South. The second featured image by Thomas Nast, “The Union As It Was,” also appeared in Harper’s Weekly, on October 10, 1874. A member of the White League and a Ku Klux Klan member shake hands over a shield depicting “The Lost Cause.”

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who created these images and where were they published?
  2. What was the political context in which these images were created?

The cartoon shows a table crowded by people of different races and ages. Columbia sits between a black man and a Chinese man. Uncle Sam carves the turkey. In the center of the table is the Temple of Liberty on top of the words “Self Government” and “Universal Suffrage.” Portraits of Lincoln, Washington, and Grant hang on the walls along with an American flag and a banner that says “First Amendment.” The words “Come One, Come All” and “Free and Equal” are on either side of the title of the cartoon, which is “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.”

Figure 1: Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” by Thomas Nast, as it appeared in Harper’s Weeklyon November 20, 1869.

The cartoon is titled “The Union as it was: This is a white man’s government.” The cartoon shows two men standing on either side of a shield. The shield, titled “Worse than slavery,” shows a black family on their knees between a lynched body in a tree and a burning school house. The two men are labeled the White League and the KKK. They reach across and shake hands over the shield. Above their handshake are the words “The lost cause.” Under their handshake is a skull.

Figure 2: “The Union As It Was” cartoon by Thomas Nash, as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly, October 10, 1874.

Comprehension Questions

  1. (Figure 1) What was Nast’s overall message with this cartoon? How do you know?
  2. (Figure 1) Do any of the figures at the table surprise you? Explain.
  3. (Figure 2) How many years have passed between the publications of each of these cartoons?
  4. (Figure 2) What is Nast’s overall message with this cartoon? To what extent does it reflect a change in the artist’s attitude toward Reconstruction?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Explain why the Fifteenth Amendment was necessary as part of Reconstruction.
  2. Predict how the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments will exacerbate regional tensions after the Civil War.
  3. Explain how these cartoons depict the idealism and reality of Reconstruction.

Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” (image),_by_Thomas_Nast.jpg

“The Union As It Was” (image)