An Irish-American Catholic fraternal group has repeated its objections to 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast’s nomination to the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
“The Hall of Fame should be a place to honor people from New Jersey that we should all be proud of. Clearly that’s not happening here,” objected Sean Hugh, public affairs director and treasurer for the New Jersey Ancient Order of the Hibernians.
The Hall of Fame’s treatment of Nast “made him look like a hero” through his accomplishments in cartooning, Hugh told CNA on Jan. 6.
Nast, considered a pioneer in editorial cartooning, helped popularize the symbols of the Elephant and the Donkey for the Republican and Democratic parties. He helped create the modern versions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam.
He also drew cartoons which depicted Catholics, Irish people and others in a negative light. His “The American River Ganges” shows Catholic bishops as alligators threatening schoolchildren. Another cartoon, archived at the Catholic League website, labeled the Catholic Church a “foreign reptile.”
Hugh said his organization was concerned that the Hall of Fame didn’t tell the full story about Nast. The nomination information on the cartoonist “failed to point out that he was an anti-Catholic, anti-Italian, anti-Irish, and in some cases anti-African-American bigot,” he charged.
State Hall of Fame inductees also become part of the New Jersey public school curriculum, which is another concern for Nast’s critics.
“My question is, whether it’s Thomas Nast or anyone else for that matter, are we just going to talk about the good things and not the bad things? Are we going to change history?” Hugh asked.
“That’s something the Hall of Fame should be reviewing,” he said.
Opponents of Nast’s nomination included the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Catholic League, the Irish Anti-Defamation League, and state legislators from both political parties.
The Hibernians are particularly interested in the issue because of Nast’s role in advancing the stereotype of “Irish Catholic drunks.” The organization has been fighting that stereotype for “more than 100 years,” Hugh said.
“That’s why we’re firmly against the Nast nomination,” he explained, adding that the lack of negative information about Nast also hurt the possibility to hold a fair vote on his induction.
The New Jersey Hall of Fame was created through state legislation but it is privately funded. Its latest nominees include 50 New Jersey residents, living and deceased.
The organization’s executive director Don Jay Smith told CNA on Jan. 3 that the organization’s board of commissioners had reviewed the concerns, but felt that these centered on “a very small number of cartoons” over Nast’s decades-long career. He said Nast was very critical of the Catholic Church because he believed the Church did not support the separation of church and state and because the bishops were campaigning to have children leave public schools and attend Catholic schools.
Nast was also a rival of the Democratic political machine of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed, which received the support of Irish Catholics. Smith rejected claims that Nast was anti-black, citing his support for emancipation.
In response, Hugh cited Nast’s cartoon “The Ignorant Voter,” a portrayal of a Leprechaun-like Irishman and a stereotyped African-American on each side of a balanced scale.
“Clearly, that’s certainly not flattering.”
Hugh said it is “completely wrong” to say Nast’s objectionable cartoons only make up a small portion of his work or are not offensive.
He said Nast should not be nominated for the Hall of Fame in the future. He also criticized the hall’s lack of a policy to withdraw nominees.
While Smith said the Hibernians are part of the Hall of Fame voting academy but did not raise objections to Nast’s, Hugh said that their representative has not been notified about any meetings in “probably about two years.” The nomination process also includes over one hundred voters, making one group’s opposition unlikely to succeed.
Voting on the nomination closed on Jan. 1. Smith said it is not very likely that Nast will be on future ballots because of his failure to win induction in previous years.