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A History of Political Caricatures


Cartoon chroniclers: Hess and Northrop(Mike Magner)

One of the casualties of the Republican Revolution, which began when the GOP won control of the House in the 1994 elections and Newt Gingrich became speaker, was a three-part series for PBS on the history of political cartoons in America.

Veteran PBS producer Sandy Northrop had been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to make the programs, “but then Newt came in and”—Northrop made a slashing motion across her throat, referring to cuts in NEA funding imposed by the Gingrich-led Congress.


But all was not lost to the budget ax. Northrop was told to go ahead with a planned companion book to the PBS series, even though it would never be made, and she teamed up with a leading authority on political cartoons, Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, to co-author Drawn & Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons, published in 1996.

Northrop and Hess have done it again. After more than a year of additional research, much of it in the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, the pair has produced an updated book, American Political Cartoons: The Evolution of a National Identity, 1754-2010, through Transaction Publishers.

The new book includes an extensive chapter covering the past 14 years of cartoons, including a number featuring Obama both as candidate and president. “The longer he stays president, the bigger his ears will get in political cartooning,” Hess wryly noted in a presentation last weekend at the Newseum.


The book is actually Hess’s third on political cartoons; he also co-authored The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons with Milton Kaplan in 1968. Kaplan, who died in 1988, was a specialist in historical prints at the Library of Congress who had conceived the idea for the book in 1960, Hess said.

Cartoon commentaries have been part of American history since before the republic was established, and the craft was “honed and elevated to the plateau of art” in the decades following the Civil War, Hess and Northrop write.

Some of the most famous cartoonists also mirrored the prejudices of their times, Hess noted. For instance, Thomas Nast, “considered one of our greatest cartoonists,” was a German immigrant who lampooned virtually every other immigrant group in the pages of Harper’s Weekly during the 1870s, Hess said.

And the press itself has often discriminated in hiring cartoonists. “There have been many black cartoonists, but very few have made it into the mainstream media,” Northrop said. It took an Australian, Pat Oliphant, to speak the truth about civil rights in America through his Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoons in the 1960s, she said.


The shrinking print media today is forcing cartoonists to “explore new avenues,” including online animation and 3-D videos, Northrop said. The art form has declined from an era in which there were sometimes six or seven cartoonists in a single city like Chicago to one in which only 54 full-time cartoonists are employed by newspapers today, she said.

This article appears in the May 19, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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