A Close Look at Thomas Nast's Cartoon "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner" 1869 Immigrants Welcome Here

Pat Young

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nast thanksgiving.JPG

One of Thomas Nast's most reproduced cartoons is his 1869 Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner depicting a new America at the dinner table. While an 1860 version of this cartoon might have shown only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants seated at the table, with perhaps a black waiter and an Irish cook in the background, this shows pretty much everybody invited to dinner!

This is the first Thanksgiving of the Grant administration. Reconstruction has been wrestled away from Andy Johnson and placed in the hands of men who believed in equal rights before the law. The 14th Amendment had been ratified the year before and the 15th Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, had been introduced at the beginning of 1869. The Know Nothings, such a powerful force of political anti-immigrantism just a decade earlier, seemed on their way to extinction.

Most of all, for Nast, his beau ideal of a man, Ulysses S. Grant was president!

In this thread I will dissect the imagery of the cartoon and reproduce some commentary about it. Please add your insights and reactions.
 

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Pat Young

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When I show people this cartoon, the first thing that they notice is "diversity." There are people of all colors and cultures at the table. Nast could have reflected the actual numerical diversity of the U.S. at the time and shown mostly white native born men and women, a token Irishman, a German who looked like his own immigrant self, and three or four African Americans, but he didn't. He depicts America as a genuinely multicultural enterprise. While all of these peoples might never have come together around an actual 1869 dinner table, Nast was pointing the way to future, not simply allegorizing his present.
 

Pat Young

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The centerpiece at this dinner, quite literally, is "Universal Suffrage." This is presumably something that all of the men, and women, can get behind. The 15th Amendment was on the table, women's suffrage was being discussed in the state houses. In November of 1868 many black men had gone to the polls to vote. Enfranchisement of all and an end to violent voter suppression was on the horizon.

nast suffrage.JPG
 

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In the cartoon most of the people are identifiable ethnic or cultural figures. There are only two who appear to be whites from the then-dominant culture. One is Uncle Sam and the other is the woman seated at the foot of the table, a seat that would be reserved for Uncle Sam's wife. Who knew Uncle Sam had a sex life? She may be "Columbia."

nast sam.JPG


Nast essentailly created the modern image of Uncle Sam, and this was his first depiction of the mythical figure.

A decade later, Nast's iconic Sam was taking shape:

nast late sam.JPG
 
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Pat Young

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She is placed between two men of color. Like Uncle Sam, she is not talking.

nast mrs sam2.JPG


She appears to be listening to something the apparently Chinese man is saying. The African American man to her left seems about to speak.

In many parts of the country, this sort of scene would have lead to social ostracism for the white woman and a beating for the black man.
 

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The painting behind Uncle Sam has the word "Welcome" on the frame. It is a painting of Castle Garden in New York City. Now called Castle Clinton or more simply "The Battery," Castle Garden had since the 1850s been the State of New York's receiving station for new immigrants, sort of a Civil War Era Ellis Island. This is clearly not simply a painting welcoming African Americans to the table.

nast castle garden.JPG
 

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#13
I count 6 very young children in the picture and I think each one of them represents more than just the future of a United States. I notice the Chinese lady is pointing her finger at her child, perhaps the child was interrupting his father whilst he was talking to aunt Sam, for me I took that to represent ‘respect and discipline’, the Indian lady with the fan across her mouth shows an ability to listen and show politeness. The lady in yellow in the top left corner is looking attentively at her child representing kindness. The lady sat next to the Native American looks relaxed and at ease, does having her back to the Native American indicate ‘trust and peace’. And finally, the lady sat next to Uncle Sam watches as the turkey is prepared possibly representing that Uncle Sam will provide and take care.
Just my take on the picture.
 

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