“The American River Ganges”

May 8, 1875

Thomas Nast

“The American River Ganges”

Children; Education, Public Schools; New York City, Education; Religion, Roman Catholic Church; Symbols, Columbia; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

India; New York City;

No caption

This cartoon is one of Thomas Nast's most famous.  It depicts Roman Catholic clergy as crocodiles invading America's shore to devour the nation's schoolchildren--white, black, American Indian, and Chinese.  (The white children are prominent in front, the rest are in the background.)  The public school building stands as a fortress against the threat of theocracy, but it has been bombarded and flies Old Glory upside down to signal distress.

Education in nineteenth-century America was provided by a variety of private, charitable, public, and combined public-private institutions, with the public school movement gaining strength over the decades. A major political issue during the 1870s was whether state and municipal governments should allocate funds for religiously affiliated schools, many of which were Roman Catholic.   In most public schools, the Protestant version of the Bible was read, Protestant prayers were uttered, and Protestant teachers taught Protestant moral lessons.  (Notice the boy in the cartoon who protects the younger students from the Catholic onslaught carries a Bible in his coat.)  Catholic (and some Protestant) leaders asked that parochial schools receive their fair share of public funds.  Protestant defenders of public schools erroneously considered that request to be an attempt by Catholics to destroy the spreading public school system.

In 1867, the New York state government accepted the principle of taxpayer-supported public education with the passage of the "free school" law.  In May 1874, the legislature enacted a compulsory education bill, which took effect on January 1, 1875 (a few months before this cartoon appeared).  The law stipulated that a census of all school-age children be taken, and that they attend classes at least fourteen weeks per year, with free textbooks loaned to those who could not afford them.  (Harper & Brothers publishing firm was a major provider of schoolbooks.)  For decades, though, mandatory school attendance was largely not enforced in New York City.

The publishers and staff of Harper’s Weekly, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, were mainly Protestant or secular liberals.  Like most such Americans, they believed that the Roman Catholic Church was an antiquated, authoritarian institution that stood against the “Modernism” of a progressive society and democratic political institutions.  Irish-Catholics in particular were suspected of being loyal primarily to the Vatican, rather than to the United States, and of not being capable of assimilation by nature or stubborn will.  Furthermore, Irish-Catholics were overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party, and more politically involved than other ethnic groups.  The Republican newspaper was vehemently opposed to what it believed was the growing political and social influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

Nast's cartoon appeared originally in the September 30, 1871 issue of Harper's Weekly.  Then, it was not only part of the cartoonist's campaign against state aid to parochial schools, but was related to his sustained attack on the Tweed Ring, the corrupt Democratic political machine in New York City.  For the 1875 version, Nast replaced Tweed and his associates with generic political thugs (who grab the schoolchildren and lead Miss Columbia to the gallows), and switched the label on the Vatican from "Tammany Hall" to "The Political Roman Catholic Church."  In both instances, Nast's cartoon was accompanied by articles written by Eugene Lawrence, "The Priests and the Children" (1871) and "The Common Schools and Their Foes" (1875), in which the Catholic hierarchy is bitterly assailed for its alleged assault on the public school system.

Nast's inspiration for transforming the miters of the Catholic bishops into the jaws of crocodiles was a small cartoon by John Leech in the English publication, Punch.  Nast expanded Leech's single Irish cleric into an invading horde of crocodile-priests, and added the panoply of images related to American public schools, politics, and the Catholic Church.  When in 1871 he selected the Ganges River in India, considered holy by Hindus, Nast may have remembered an article in Harper's Weekly from 1867 about the worship of crocodiles in India.  Whether or not that was the case, the cartoonist would have realized that most of his American audience would associate the Ganges with religious superstition, which was one of the messages about the Catholic Church he wished to convey.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The American River Ganges”
June 17, 2024

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