The First American Political Cartoon

By Bryant, Mark | History Today, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The First American Political Cartoon


Bryant, Mark, History Today


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Continuing his series on how cartoonists have seen events great and small, Mark Bryant looks at the first political cartoon--and one of the most influential ever--to be published in America

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, as generations of schoolchildren have been taught, was the man who flew a kite into a storm cloud to see if lightning was a form of electricity. He also invented the lightning conductor and bifocal spectacles and wrote and published Poor Richard's Almanack, whose famous maxims included 'God helps them that help themselves' [sic]. In addition he was one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, was the first US ambassador to Paris and his face has appeared on the $100 note since 1928. However, perhaps less well known is the fact that he was also America's first political newspaper cartoonist. His most celebrated drawing was published in the weekly Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754 and accompanied an article he'd written urging unity amongst the British American colonies against French aggression during the French and Indian War. It showed a snake divided into sections, each of which bore the initial of one of the original British American colonies or regions. The caption read: 'Join, or Die'.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was born on Milk Street in Boston, capital of the British colony of Massachusetts, on January 17th, 1706. He was the son of Josiah Franklin, an Englishman from Northamptonshire, who in 1683 sailed to Boston and worked as a tallow chandler producing candles and soaps. His mother was Josiah's second wife Abiah Folger from Nantucket, Massachusetts, and he was the 15th of 17 children from both marriages. Franklin left school aged ten and after working in his father's shop for two years became apprenticed to his elder brother James, a London-trained printer who later founded the New England Courant (1721), one of the first independent newspapers in the American colonies. However, at the age of seventeen Benjamin ran away to Philadelphia where he worked for printer Samuel Keimer. He then travelled to London, before returning to Philadelphia in 1726 to become a clerk for a local merchant. On the death of the merchant four months later, he returned to Keimer's printing shop and in 1728 he and Keimer's apprentice, Hugh Meredith, set up in business together (funded by Meredith's father).

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Then in the autumn of 1729 they bought The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences: and Pennsylvania Gazette, which Keimer had founded in December 1728 and was selling badly. They immediately cut the large extracts from Chambers' Dictionaries that had made up its bulk, shortened its name to the Pennsylvania Gazette (subtitled: 'Containing the Freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick'), and published their first four-page issue on October 2nd, 1729. Edited by Franklin (who also contributed articles) it became the most successful paper in the colonies.

In December 1732 Franklin began his annual Poor Richard's Almanack under the pseudonym of 'Richard Saunders'. An instant success, it sold about 10,000 copies a year between 1732 and 1757. Then in 1747 he published a pamphlet, Plain Truth, whose frontispiece (adapted from a book of fables) was the first political cartoon of any kind to be published in America. A year later, in 1748, he took on a business partner, David Hall. Soon afterwards he retired from printing to focus on scientific study while also holding a number of local government posts, rising to be Deputy Postmaster-General for the Colonies (1753). In 1754 he headed the Pennsylvania delegation to the Albany Congress, a conference held in the capital of New York State, at the request of the British Board of Trade, to improve relations with the Iroquois Indians (150 of whom were present). The Congress also discussed how to defend the British American colonies against the French and it was Franklin's proposal--the Albany Plan of Union--which was the subject of his cartoon. …

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