Inviting each and everyone to the table: Thomas Nast’s Thanksgiving

"Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner", Harper's Weekly, November 20, 1869.

Welcoming All to Join Together to Create a More Perfect Union

By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

Post-Civil War America was a nation of numerous contradictions and conflicts. Yet despite these differences many people remained committed to the vision of inherent equality and the promise of our founding motto, E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, one.

"Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner", Harper's Weekly, November 20, 1869.
“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner”, Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869.

Thomas Nast envisioned a nation that welcomed the full participation of its citizens, regardless of nationality, and that through the crucible of the “melting pot” America would benefit from the contributions of the world’s best and brightest. Arlene Halley expertly interprets one of Nast’s most iconic illustrations:

Nast clearly articulated his views in “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” of Nov. 20, 1869. With Nast’s open-hearted encouragement a culturally diverse group is assembled in fellowship to share the traditional Thanksgiving dinner as ‘Free and Equal’ citizens. They gather beneath portraits of Lincoln, Washington, and Grant. The ‘Come One Come All’ theme is reiterated with “Welcome’ written above the picture of Castle Garden, the New York City immigrant reception center, later renamed and better known as Ellis Island.

The hosts are Columbia, a symbolic representation of the United States, sitting between a black freedman and a Chinese man, and at the head of the table, Uncle Sam, the male representation of the United States, carving a turkey. The turkey serves as a metaphor for America’s bounty to be shared by all.

Although the cartoon deals mostly with immigrant minorities, Nast puts an [American] Indian with feathers wearing a peace medal near the center of the drawing close by the monumental centerpiece with “Self-Government” and “Universal Suffrage” emblazoned. Nast advocated the immediate granting of voting rights to the Native American population. In his view granting them the vote was part of the civilizing process and not a reward for meeting standards rendering them eligible for citizenship.¹

This is one in a series of articles offered by the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center to highlight its historic collection of Harper’s Weekly newspapers, as a means of exploring how Americans sought to resolve the contentious social, political, and economic problems of the late 19th century, even as they wondered at the technological achievements and new frontiers that greeted them each day.

For a behind the scenes look at our collections and additional information on New Jersey history, follow us on Twitter @NJHistoryCenter and on Tumblr at  


[¹]  “Thomas Nast’s Indian Imagery” by Arlene M. Halley, Journal of the Thomas Nast Society, Vol 8, No 1, 1994, pg. 1

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  1. The way of life in 1869as proposed by Nast was already the Morristown way of life thanks to the efforts of local citizens like George Vail, George Cobb and Augustus Cutler. Why are we still fighting to maintain those rights 147 years later?