In the Gilded Age of extreme partisan politics, Puck magazine, the nation's premier journal of graphic humor and political satire, played an important role as a non-partisan crusader for good government and the triumph of American constitutional ideals. Its prime targets, however, were not just corrupt machine politicians. The magazine included as well what it, like the letterpress, condemned as the nefarious political agenda of the Catholic church, especially its new pope, Leo XIII. Indeed, New York's infamous Tammany Hall, committed to spoils and patronage as the means of dominating the body politic, was all the more dangerous to Puck because, beginning in the 1870s, Irish Catholics dominated it. The hall's Irish Catholic base enabled the magazine to rationalize more completely its conviction that the Catholic church, ruled by a foreign potentate dressed in the irrational garb of infallibility, was a menace not only to the nation's body politic but also to its democratic soul. If allowed to proceed unimpeded, the pope and his minions, along with Tammany's bosses and supporters, would convert the nation into their personal fiefdom. Puck was not about to let that happen. In cartoons and editorials spanning two decades, the magazine blasted and often conjoined both Tammany and the papacy with invidious comparisons that left few readers in doubt as to their complicity. Although scholars have noted how the American letterpress also alluded to a connection between Tammany and the Catholic church, Puck's unparalleled comprehensive strategy to perpetuate and strengthen that connection has never been scrutinized. This essay redresses that oversight of an age when the public and its politicians reckoned very seriously the editorial artistry of great political cartoonists, especially those who drew for Puck.
- ©© 2004 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. All rights reserved.