Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, on 27th September, 1840. His father, a musician, had radical political views and found the conservative Bavarian government oppressive. He therefore decided to take his family to the United States.
Nast was raised in New York City and at the age of 15 had his first drawing published by a national magazine. Inspired by the cartoons of John Leech and John Tenniel, in 1855 Nast started working for Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
As soon as Harper's Weekly was launched in 1857, Nast became determined to join the magazine. He had some drawings in the magazine but he did not obtain a full-time post until 1862.
Nast was a staunch opponent of slavery and throughout the Civil War Nast produced patriotic drawings urging people to help crush the rebels. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said: "Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism."
After the war Nast remained a strong supporter of black civil rights and some of his cartoons attacked Andrew Johnson for undermining Lincoln's policies. During this period Nast began to distort and exaggerate the physical traits of his subjects and therefore played an important role in the development of political caricature.
Nast also originated the idea in America of using animals to represent political parties. In his cartoons the Democratic Party was a donkey and the Republican Party, an elephant. He also helped to develop the character, Uncle Sam, to represent the United States.
In September 1869, Nast began his campaign in Harper's Weekly against William Tweed, the corrupt political leader of New York City. Pressure was put on Harper Brothers, the company that produced the magazine, and when it refused to sack Nast, the company lost the contract to provide New York schools with books. Nast himself was offered a bribe of $500,000 to end his campaign. This was hundred times the salary of $5,000 that the magazine paid him but Nast still refused and eventually Tweed was arrested and imprisoned for corruption. Nast's campaign against Tweed was later described as "the finest and most effective political cartooning ever done in the United States."
A strong Republican Party supporter, Nast supported Ulysses Grant in 1868 against his rivals, Horace Greeley and Horatio Seymour. Grant's next opponent, Samuel Tilden, had helped Nast remove William Tweed from office. However, Nast continued to use his skill as an artist to undermine Tilden and helped Grant achieve another victory.
Nast also played an important role in securing victory for Rutherhood Hayes in 1876. Afterwards Hayes commented that Nast was "the most powerful single-handed aid we had."
In 1884 Nast changed sides and supported the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland for president. In doing so, he helped Cleveland become the first Democrat president since 1856. After this, Nast was known as the "presidential maker".
In the 1880s Nast's cartoons began to attack trade unions and the Catholic Church. This was less popular with his readers and after a disagreement with the owners of Harper's Weekly, left the journal in 1886. He started his own journal, Nast's Weekly, but it failed and he was left with heavy debts.
Other investments Nast made were also unsuccessful and he got into severe financial difficulties. Nast's cartoon work began to dry up and in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt helped his old friend by appointing him U.S. consul in Ecuador. This provided him with a steady source of income until his death from yellow fever on 7th December, 1902.