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Images document different aspect of life as a slave including beatings, threats and a family together
Emancipation of the Negro. Thomas Nast, 1863

Reflections from the Library: Interesting Finds to Deepen Analysis

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This is the third in a series of posts by Caneisha Mills, the 2022-23 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence. We thank her for her hard work during this school year.

This year at the Library of Congress has shown me the importance of using primary source images when teaching the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863 by President Lincoln; primary sources from this time can help students analyze the war and Proclamation.

Primary source images can spark student interest prior to reading a document. Also, a close reading of a photograph or illustration can provide the same amount of insight as reading a document.

Famous illustrator Thomas Nast showed his understanding of the meaning of emancipation many times both during and after the war. Many students are introduced to Nast through his political cartoons in opposition to William “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall in New York, or through his popularization of the symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties. But Nast became a leading political cartoonist on a national scale with his illustrations in Harper’s Weekly during and immediately following the Civil War.

His image, “The emancipation of the negroes, January, 1863 – The past and the future” was published January 24, 1863, in Harper’s Weekly. It is significant that this illustration appeared so soon after the Proclamation was issued, and encouraging students to analyze Nast’s cartoon would make a strong addition to any discussion about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Thomas Nast cartoon celebrating the emancipation of enslaved Africans. Includes an image of a family celebrating in the center surrounded by images from slavery. At the bottom is an image of Abraham Lincoln.
Emancipation. Thomas Nast, 1865

Discussion questions I might use include:

  • What do you notice about the images on the left and right sides of Nast’s cartoon?
  • Why do you think the artist chose to include images of the cruelty of slavery?
  • Why do you believe Nast centered the Black family in his political cartoon?

To deepen knowledge of the impact of Lincoln and Emancipation on the nation, students could also review Nast’s second illustration “Emancipation,” created in 1865. Nast replaced the scene at the bottom with a bust of the assassinated president.

Possible discussion questions include:

  • Review the title of his 1863 and 1865 illustrations, why do you think Thomas Nast changed the name?
  • What does the second title reveal about Nast’s feelings about Emancipation?
  • Why do you think Nast changed his cartoon for 1865?
  • Which cartoon do you think best represents our understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation today?
Two drawings: One features a formerly enslaved African man being sold as punishment for his crime; the other shows a formerly enslaved African being whipped.
Slavery is Dead. Thomas Nast, 1867

Last, students could analyze Nast’s “Slavery is dead,” published in Harper’s Weekly in 1867. This highlights the changes which occurred before and after the proclamation was issued. His illustration shows the difference between the end of slavery and equality and citizenship for African Americans while still centering 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation in his cartoon. Analyzing all three illustrations with students could deepen interest about the Emancipation Proclamation and what it meant to the nation.

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