Harper’s Weekly magazine was hugely popular thanks to its extensive use of illustrations, and its broad editorial content. By the end of 1861, Harper’s had a circulation of 120,000 and became one of the leading magazines of the Civil War period. Thomas Nast (1840-1902) joined the staff of Harper’s in 1862, and rose to prominence for his battle front depictions. As a liberal, progressive paper, Harper’s supported President Abraham Lincoln, the preservation of the Union, and the Republican Party. A view that Nast also held strongly.
With Harper’s as his platform, Nast effectively used satire and masterful caricatures to hold candidates accountable for the issues of the day, which included the economy, political corruption, immigration, and civil rights. Although Nast lacked formal education, he was extremely adept at incorporating allegorical, symbolic, and literary references into his detailed pictures as a way to explain the complex, political issues to Harper’s readers. His representations of the donkey and elephant helped to solidify the enduring images as symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.
Known as “The President Maker,” Nast’s persuasive, and sometimes scathing, cartoons proved crucial in influencing the nation’s vote and affecting the outcomes of six presidential elections between 1864 and 1884. His illustrations supported the cause he believed was just, and the candidate he thought was best. While the names on the ballots have changed, the issues remain surprisingly similar more than 100 years later.