Thomas Nast Portfolio

“The American River Ganges,” Harper’s Weekly,
September 30, 1871, p.916. Wood engraving.

     By the middle of the nineteenth century, large numbers
of Catholic children had withdrawn from the significantly
Protestant American public schools to attend newly
organized Roman Catholic schools. With a large and
influential Irish Catholic constituency, the powerful New
York City Democratic machine centered at Tammany Hall
persuaded the Democratic state legislature to provide
public support for the Irish schools. A firestorm of
controversy ensued, especially in states like Ohio and
Illinois,where the Catholic hierarchy had made similar
requests. The controversy re-ignited smouldering
Republican nativism, a policy of protecting the interests of
indigenous residents against immigrants; and it suddenly
became attractive as a vote-getter since that
Reconstruction issues appeared to have been resolved.
Tammany politicians are shown dropping little children into
the “American River Ganges,” infested with crocodilian
bishops. The American flag flies upside down, the universal
signal of distress, from the ruins of a public school. Linking
Roman Catholicism to theGanges, the sacred river of
Hinduism, suggested its exotic un-Americanism and also
linked it with what Americans then considered a primitive
and fanatical religion.



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