Digital History>Topics>Political Cartoons

Background of Political Cartoons

Digital History TOPIC ID 55

Benjamin Franklin published what is thought to be the first American political cartoon in 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette as the French and Indian War approached. It showed a snake cut into eight pieces, with the head representing New England and the other seven parts representing the remaining colonies. With the caption "Join, or die," the cartoon warned the American colonists to work together or perish separately. The cartoon acquired fresh meaning when it was reproduced published during the campaign against the Stamp Act in 1765 and again at the start of the American Revolution. It was now perceived as staunchly anti-British.

Political cartoons' power to influence public opinion became vividly apparent after the Civil War, when Thomas Nast, cartoonist for Harper's Weekly , helped bring down "Boss" William Marcy Tweed, who headed New York City's corrupt Tammany Hall political machine from 1866 to 1871. Nast reportedly turned down a $500,000 bribe if he would stop attacking Tweed. Tweed didn't mind written attacks, but political cartoons were another matter. "My constituents can't read," fulminated Tweed, "but dammit, they can see pictures."

Born in Germany in 1840, Nast arrived in New York City when he was five. At fifteen, he became an illustrator He helped to popularize some of the defining symbols of American culture, including the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, the tall, slender, bearded Uncle Sam, with a top hat and striped pants, and the plump, jovial bearded Santa Claus driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

Today, many newspapers that lack a book reviewer or film critic have a political cartoonist. Among the most influential political cartoonists of the twentieth century were Bill Maudlin, Pat Oliphant, and Herblock.

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