Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation” (1863 / 1865)

“Emancipation” by Thomas Nast (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

The image that provides the banner for this digital classroom comes from famous cartoonist and illustrator, Thomas Nast, and was distributed as a popular print in 1865 through Philadelphia printers King & Baird.  Nast’s vivid illustration that formed the basis for this print –with one essential difference– originally appeared in Harper’s Weekly on January 24, 1863.

Within the illustration, Columbia (the female representation of America) presides over  a scene imagining the difference that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would have on slavery and former slaves in the South.  Images on the left show slaves being sold, hunted down and whipped.  Images on the right show freed black children being educated in public schools and black farmers receiving payment for the work.  In the center, a black family celebrates their life together in front of a stove labeled “Union” and before a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Click on the image above to zoomify the illustration and pan across details from the various scenes.  There is also a helpful summary of the image and other useful resources about cartoonist Nast from Ohio State University Libraries.


Original Thomas Nast illustration in Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863

The original caption in Harper’s Weekly read: “The Emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863  –The Past and The Future–  Drawn by Mr. Thomas Nast.”   The original illustration also omitted Lincoln’s image at the bottom.  Instead the small circled insert featured an abstract image of heavenly intervention breaking a slave’s chains.

Detail from 1863 image

This slight change in image design between 1863 and 1865 often goes unnoticed in commentary on the piece but nonetheless provides a revealing way to demonstrate Lincoln’s apotheosis from sometimes-maligned president into a national martyr and revered Great Emancipator.  Special thanks to teacher Rebecca Maxfield from Bountiful, Utah for pointing this out.

Lincoln actually met Nast in December 1864 at the urging of George William Curtis, political editor of Harper’s Weekly. You can read Curtis’s letter of introduction, informing Lincoln that “You and the country have no more faithful friend than Mr. Nast,” at the Abraham Lincoln Papers.

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2 Responses to Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation” (1863 / 1865)

  1. Pingback: Happy Emancipation Day « Student of the American Civil War

  2. J.W. Hudspeth says:

    Great picture! Both versions. Am using it as the top shot in my genealogy chart, above a reproduction of my great grandparents who were slaves. I just have to, it is so beautiful. Thank you from myself and my fore-parents and my children (down to my great granddaughter!)

    Thank you!

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