The First Political Comic in American History

Some of you may recognize the logo that I use. Originally, it was depicted over the words, “Join or Die”, with sections of the snake labelled for the early British colonies. It is a woodcut attributed to Benjamin Franklin, circa 1754, and is widely considered to be the first political cartoon in American history.

Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_DieIt was altogether a cry, at least at first, for unity amongst the colonies against their enemies, the French and native nations.
But, as memes do, it was copied and re-used widely in the colonial era. Eventually, it was re-introduced in the context of uniting these ‘states’ against Britain–and became a de-facto logo for the Revolutionary War.

It is important to note that this wasn’t Franklin’s original intent. After all, one isn’t born a revolutionary–and in the days before Pop culture could depict what a revolutionary could look/act like without necessarily providing any political or philosophical substance to their identity, one wasn’t compelled toward that conclusion quickly. No, revolution was for those who had exhausted other avenues–for Ben Franklin, one of those was the Albany Plan.

“Join or Die” was printed and published first in Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, as a push for this Plan. Largely driven by him, it proposed (among other things) a unifying Grand Council and President over the British territories of North America to address new matters of concern–namely, security and defense (including a standing army) in the wake of France’s growing alliances with many North American indigenous groups.

The Crown, sensing that this idea smelled some too much of a push for independence, did not approve. Colony representatives, from New York to Virginia, were too embroiled in their own local squabbles to really care.

With regard to the Albany Plan and its rejection, Benjamin said:

“The Colonies so united would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretence for Taxing America, and the bloody Contest it occasioned, would have been avoided. But such Mistakes are not new; History is full of the Errors of States & Princes.”

Despite it coming about as the banner of an essentially failed campaign, it is interesting to see how this image has lived on. One can’t help but note that ‘JOIN OR DIE’, which has survived centuries, was crafted by a man who had a knack for effecting lasting imprints .

The premise of the cartoon, by the way, is somewhat obvious but has some interesting aspects. At the time, it was apparently common superstition that a severed snake could be re-connected (and brought back to life) if the severed pieces were reattached before sunset (… the more you know!). It was a fascinating way to convey that there was precious little time to act on an urgent matter.

The pieces, of course, are the colonies, who were all separate entities. Franklin was among the first to argue that they are recognizable as something of a larger whole, distinct from England and its other world colonies. The era of colonization in America was an era of massive change, and ‘JOIN OR DIE’ was part of a budding outlook… the earliest and most rudimentary depictions of a sense of national identity.

A page from the Penn Gazette- May 9, 1754.
A page from the Penn Gazette- May 9, 1754.

I’ve since seen it used for a lot of references to the Revolutionary War– Paul Giamatti’s “John Adams” series on HBO immediately comes to mind. I’ve even seen [modern day] Tea Partiers use it, somewhat to my confusion and amusement. Fundamentally, its significance isn’t so much about patriotic fervour as harnessing the sentiments of many into an idea–an idea that proposed tremendous action, which was represented with a simple symbol and but a few words.

history_john adams

My interest as a writer and as an activist is in connecting dots. With art as the form and history as the content, I think there are many sentiments in our world today that need harnessing–from depression to hatred, narcissism to nihilism–and media like comics can begin to make sense of it all in a way that is accessible.

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