Where It All Began

It would be almost unfair to create a political cartoon blog without talking about what is widely considered to be the first American political cartoon: Ben Franklin’s “Join or Die.”

The cartoon is simple and so widely reproduced that it’s easy to overlook this work. Further, even though Ben Franklin did dabble in political cartooning and illustration beyond this piece, he wasn’t creating a new medium or even being much of a trailblazer in it. That honor would be bestowed on Thomas Nast, cartoonist at Harper’s Weekly and the creator of William “Boss” Tweed’s reputation, as discussed in a previous blog post.

 “Join or Die” is important for two reasons. First, the historical context is fascinating. Most people who have studied “Join or Die” in any way have considered this point of view. Even still, it’s good to remind ourselves of the context. Second, the cartoon was exploring a new medium. And while the field of communication has decided that the medium is not the message, the medium is an important consideration when understanding a message. 

So let’s talk history. “Join or Die” was printed on May 9, 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette – Franklin’s newspaper – in Philadelphia. The message, like the cartoon itself, was simple: if the colonies do not unite as one, none will survive. The cartoon can be considered as a rallying cry for the Declaration of Independence, which was penned 22 years after the cartoon.

Benjamin Franklin’s Join or Die. 

But as we said, the cartoon is important beyond just its intended message and its historical context. The cartoon is also significant by its mere existence. This was a clear and concise message that was presented without text. Besides the title, there are only 13 letters on the entire cartoon, but the meaning was so clear that no one was confused. Even over two centuries later, the meaning is still crystal clear.

This was not how all political cartoons were made, especially not the earlier ones. The research duo Allan Nevins and Frank Weitenkampf give a brief sketch of the history of cartoons in their work A Century of Political Cartoons; Caricature in the United States from 1800 to 1900. According to them, the early 19th-century political cartoons were more akin to visual journalism, with vivid and literal detail and little symbolism. “Join or Die” not only was probably the first example of the medium in the Americas, but it also avoided a trap that many early cartoonists would soon fall into. It was the first, and it was also the ideal.

It’s also important to consider that literacy was not stressed as much in the 1700s as it is now. Though the circulation was limited by other factors, the cartoon was simple enough to be accessible to most. Even if colonists didn’t know the underlying context or even the names of the other colonies, they could conceptually understand what was being conveyed. The medium allowed for a larger audience and therefore a more accepting public opinion.  

“Join or Die” was the one of the first of its kind, but was not one of the last. According to historian George R. Roth (“American Theory of Satire, 1790-1820”), political satire was a moral duty of Americans. With “Join or Die,” political cartooning became just another avenue for completing that moral obligation.  

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