“New York Must Go—Down"

May 7, 1881

Thomas Nast

“New York Must Go—Down"

New York State, Government/Politics; U.S. Constitution; U.S. Military, National Guard;

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Scum. "When this law is passed, you will be so disorganized that you will not be able to muster a corporal's guard against me."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast caricatures a new military code for the New York National Guard as detrimental to the character of the organization and the safety of New York.  The National Guard consisted of adult, male citizens who were part-time soldiers for their state, being called into duty only in times of emergency when the local police could not handle a situation.  They were also a fraternal organization, whose members performed ceremonial functions, marched in parades, and hosted social occasions, such as dinners, dances, picnics, and sporting events.

In 1881, a specially appointed commission of National Guard officers drafted a new code for their organization, which they presented to the New York State Legislature.  The Committee on Militia held hearings to allow commentary and debate on the bill.  Opponents of the proposed measure had three major objections:  1) that it treated the National Guard as a regular, standing army; 2) that it undermined the attractiveness and camaraderie of the Guard; and 3) that it enlarged the powers of the state commander-in-chief.  Opponents were also displeased by rules requiring identical uniforms for all regiments and the abolition of rifle practice.  

Proponents insisted that the commissioners were careful to keep in mind the National Guard's character of citizen soldiery, not of a professional army; their resulting suggestions reflected moderate change in light of experience, rather than a radical overhaul of the organization.  Supporters responded that National Guardsmen on duty were already subject to military law, and denied that the authority of the commander-in-chief was being greatly enhanced.  While the new rules required the same uniform, the commander could have imposed such a practice under the old code, and regimental dress uniforms might still be worn for parades and other off-duty events.  Finally, rifle practice was vital and would continue under the new code; only the "fancy" aspects of it were being eliminated.

Nast was an honorary member of the Seventh Regiment, and therefore took the issue personally.  The Seventh Regiment had a distinguished military history and over a thousand members by the 1860s.  In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes presided at the opening ceremony for its new armory.  The interior rooms, completed two years later (the time of this cartoon), were designed by some of the nation's leading architects, including Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Here, Nast employs a stark contrast in his visual summary of the debate.  The National Guardsman is tall, handsome, firm, and calm as he guards a safe labeled "New York City Property:  Capital and Labor," while symbols of prosperity fill the background.  In front of him is a squat, ugly, violent rioter who, waving the new military code in the guardsman's face, threatens death and destruction.  The cartoonist even contends that the proposed bill is unconstitutional.

The harshly critical view expressed in Nast's cartoon differs significantly from the balanced and far more positive discussion of the new military code in an editorial by George William Curtis in the May 21st issue of Harper's Weekly.  Curtis recognized that the proposal was generating intense reactions, pro and con, among National Guardsmen, but pointed out that both sides were of "equal intelligence, sincerity, and high purpose."  

Robert C. Kennedy

“New York Must Go—Down"
May 29, 2024

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