The first mass-media images brought a visual version of the news, both military and legislative, to the people in the mid-19th century. During the Civil War, illustrated weekly newspapers took off in the United States, bringing engravings from the war front into readers’ homes. Reconstruction—the tumultuous period after the war through 1877 when Southern states were reintegrated into the Union, and citizenship rights were established for the formerly enslaved—also generated plenty of news, particularly about Congress. These Reconstruction Era illustrations from Harper’s Weekly both showed and told their audience about new civil rights laws and gave them a graphic sense of changes in America.
In their early years, weekly magazines like Harper’s Weekly occupied a distinct position separate from newspapers in the periodical market. Newspapers were perceived as rabble-rousing, and part of the unruly, hyper-partisan public sphere. Illustrated magazines offered more refined and intellectual content, reporting on literature and culture as well as current events. The magazine’s subtitle, “A Journal of Civilization,” reflected its high-brow aspirations. The target audience was middle and upper class, a group with a “renewed interest in civility and gentility,” when the magazine first published in 1857.
Harper’s Weekly turned away from its politically neutral beginnings and took a distinctly partisan view of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Although the relationship was never official, Harper’s Weekly strongly supported Republican Party positions during the war and after. Harper’s maintained its elevated attitude alongside its steadfast position on social justice during the Reconstruction years. The illustrations that enlivened each week’s issue fell under the same philosophy—they reflected the publication’s cultured approach and complemented the magazine’s news-reporting.
Harper’s Weekly used a cover illustration depicting the reaction in the House Chamber to accompany its reporting on the January 31, 1865, passage of the 13th Amendment. This amendment ended slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. Through image, verse, and prose, Harper’s sent a message of positive progress in its reporting on the amendment’s passage. Spectators in the galleries waved handkerchiefs, while men on the House Floor, all on their feet, flourished their hats and celebrated the momentous occasion. The amendment passed 119–56, only two votes more than the required two-thirds majority. In keeping with Harper’s literary tone, a poem, “Free America,” kicked off the amendment coverage. It began with the stirring stanza, “A shout of joy is ringing through the land, / and men long bowed and broken rise and stand / As if uplifted by God’s bared right hand-- / Our country shall be free!”
The editorial that follows the poem praised the people of the Union for accepting the cause of abolition:
“At the opening of the fifth year of the war, the country having thought the matter over, has now seen what some men have always seen, that Slavery in a Union like ours has been, and always must be, the root of civil war. Congress, therefore, recommends the constitutional abolition of Slavery, and the country cries Amen!”
A few years later, the 1867 state-level elections made the cover of Harper’s Weekly. “The First Vote” commemorated the first election in which African-American men could vote in several southern states. Here, Harper’s used all the tools at its disposal to promote its political position. In the imagined re-creation, an orderly queue approaches a ballot box for this state election. The line leader, holding his hat politely, his clothing suggesting that he is a laborer, deposits his vote in a jar. A man in a suit, followed by one in a military uniform, wait behind him. The article that describes this illustration discusses the demeanor of the voters, commending them for their earnest approach to civic responsibility. It goes further, stating, “The freedmen are represented marching to the ballot-box to deposit their first vote, not with expressions of exultation or of defiance of their old masters and present opponents depicted on their countenances, but looking serious and solemn and determined.” The prominent illustration of a diverse and dignified group of voters, reinforced in the accompanying article, assured Harper’s Republican readership that suffrage for all men was a wise choice. That these serious men almost certainly voted Republican and helped the party keep its substantial majority in the House while southern states were readmitted to the Union would also comfort Harper’s audience.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was one of the last bright spots of the Reconstruction Era. Harper’s Weekly celebrated it with a symbolic illustration entitled “To Thine Own Self Be True” by Thomas Nast. Unlike the straightforward scenes—real or imaginary—accompanying the passage of the 13th Amendment and the 1867 vote, Harper’s leaned into an aspirational tone in this image. The hands of Columbia, a common female personification of the United States, pass a sheaf of papers marked “Civil Rights Bill” to the hands of a Black man. Cartoonists often called on Columbia to denote the nation’s highest ideals, and the rest of the image bolsters that moral high ground. Several phrases from the legislation come through loud and clear: “The Equality of Men Before the Law” and “It is the duty of the government in its dealings with the people to mete out equal and exact justice to all, whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion, religious or political.” Lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from which the image’s title is lifted, hammer home the message in the literary manner pleasing to the magazine’s readers. The final lines of the quote remind the reader that without equal rights for all men before the law, the United States would indeed not be true to itself: “This above all,–To thine own self be true; / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
House Republicans passed the 1875 Civil Rights Act on February 4, 1875, after they lost their majority in Congress. This legislation was five years in the making and included equal access to public accommodations, but the bill lacked a dearly sought provision for equal access to public education.
These triumphant images from the 1860s and 1870s illustrate the commitment of Harper’s Weekly to bolstering the aspirations of the Reconstruction Era amongst its readership. All too soon, however, the public and the paper drifted away from their support of civil rights. Illustrations of any kind faded, too. By the end of the 19th century, technology evolved to allow printing photographic images in newspapers, displacing artists’ renderings in the mass media.
Sources: Harper’s Weekly, 18 February 1865, 16 November 1867, 24 April 1875; Baird Jarman, “The Graphic Art of Thomas Nast: Politics and Propriety in Postbellum Publishing,” American Periodicals 20, no. 2 (2010): 156-89; “The 13th Amendment: Passage by the House,” HarpWeek, accessed 24 June 2020, https://13thamendment.harpweek.com/HubPages/CommentaryPage.asp?Commentary=05HousePassage; “American Woman? Amérique, Columbia, and Lady Liberty,” New-York Historical Society, accessed 24 June 2020, http://womenatthecenter.nyhistory.org/american-woman-amerique-columbia-and-lady-liberty/.Follow @USHouseHistory