Inky Trail

A tale of the power of the editorial cartoon: The Inky Trail of Boss Tweed

More than any other single individual, crusading cartoonist Thomas Nast was credited with bringing down the corrupt regime of Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed.

“I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

– William “Boss” Tweed

By Mark Taylor

From the earliest days of America, political cartoons have played a colorful and powerful role in American political commentary. Even Benjamin Franklin tried his hand at cartooning, penning the famous “Join, Or Die” serpent cartoon calling for unity of the colonies during the American revolution.

A century later it was a cartoonist who brought down William “Boss” Tweed, one of the most corrupt politicians in the old Tammany Hall days of New York City. Tweed – whose ring of City Hall cronies, appointees and grifting stooges looted the city of millions in the late 1870’s – was the poster boy of Gilded Age greed and corruption echoed in today’s politics. One of the heroes to stand against Tweed was cartoonist Thomas Nast – who even turned down a bribe to still his pen.

Nast relentlessly hammered away at Tweed and his crew in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which prompted the quote above when Tweed bitterly complained to the editors of Harper’s. With his empire of fraud and corruption collapsing around him, Tweed fled the country. In a delicious twist of irony, Tweed was eventually captured on the run after someone in Cuba recognized him … from one of Nast’s cartoons.

The party in power is the enemy

When practiced at its best, political cartooning is a dark art. True political cartooning always punches up, never down on the victims of power and greed. Whether wielded as a club or a laser beam, good political cartoons strike for the jugular. Leave the fine points and nuance to the bloggers and pundits in the parlor; the political cartoonists – the good ones at least – are out on the loading dock brawling.

No prisoners are taken.

Throughout the 20th century political cartoonists battled official corruption and political mendacity from town square to Pennsylvania Avenue. The Washington Post’s famous Herblock etched the shadowy image of Richard Nixon’s dark soul into the American consciousness. Legendary Bill Mauldin drew the truth of the battlefields of WW II with his Willie and Joe characters in the pages of the Army’s Stars and Stripes and then went on to the domestic political battlefields through the 1950s into the 1980’s.

“Bill Mauldin’s Army” is an amazing collection of his WW II work for the Army’s “Stars and Stripes”. His work earned praise from the enlisted and scorn from many in the officer corps – including the brittle General George S.Patton.

In 1993 I had the opportunity to interview Mauldin at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico when I had sought him out for some professional guidance in dealing with an editor. Here is what he said about the art and duty of political cartooning:

“It’s a hackneyed old thing, but it’s the basis of what I always worked on: be a skeptic, never a cynic, but always a skeptic.” Mauldin noted. “Never take anything on anybody’s word – satisfy yourself.

“We’re also in the business of deflation. When you see someone taking themselves so seriously, take after them. Like kids throwing snowballs at silk hats. That’s really what it is – like high level mischief.”

With a devastatingly sophisticated use of caricature and razor sharp metaphor, Australian transplant Pat Oliphant opened up a new vision of the artform in the 1960’s, influencing a generation of cartoonists. Like him or loathe him, the one thing everybody could agree on, you always knew just where Oliphant stood on an issue or what he thought of a particular politician…especially Richard Nixon, the dark meme of American politics.

Pat Oliphant’s classic 1969 collection, “The Oliphant Book”, redefined and sharpened American political cartooning. A copy from my very conservative paternal grandfather ignited my interest in editorial cartooning.

“It makes no difference whether I am right or wrong,” Oliphant said in a rollicking good 1977 profile. “I feel quite positive about being negative. The party in power has to be the enemy, and it is my job to search out the flaws. Mine is an unfair art. …The editorial writers feel duty-bound to point out all sides of the question, to weigh and balance, to present the facts. But in the great negative art of cartooning, you’re only going for the Achilles’ heel.”

In the same interview, Oliphant observed, “All politicians are bastards and have to prove themselves innocent.”

As a critic once said of him: “If Pat Oliphant couldn’t draw, he’d be an assassin.”

In the world of political cartooning that is a compliment.

Lines of Resistance

With the sputtering demise of newspapers and periodicals, the art of political cartooning is a disappearing artform. While economic insecurity in the newspaper industry has caused many papers to drop or tame cartoonists, the artform remains a powerful tool to memorably – often brutally – slice to the core of complex issues and opaque personalities and stir up the pot in a way that splits open the truth and sticks in the mind.

In that spirit, all artwork, photos and commentary is freely available for use by progressive groups and activists for newsletters, websites, flyers, banners or any other means of communication. Some of my earliest work – going back to my days at The Albuquerque Tribune – will be archived and available on the “Lines of Resistance” page. New cartoons will be continually added to the website and Substack.

Cartoons may be freely passed along and used for non-profit causes working for a just society with a link to the website and/or Substack: SUBSTACK ADDRESS (add here)

The artwork may not be edited, reworded or blended into other images without the direct permission of the artist. You can reach me at: NEW EMAIL ADDRESS (TBD needs to be created — add here)

Ben Franklin’s “Join or Die” call to patriots is as timely today as it was when published in the heat of the American Revolution. It is thought to be the first political cartoon in America, warning that unless the colonies united against the tyranny of the British corporate system they would be destroyed.
The same message echoes now under a new tyranny as a needed call for unity among all people exploited, betrayed and intentionally divided by today’s bipartisan corporate political system.
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