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The First Political Cartoons in America | Archiving Early America
Celebrating 17 years

The First Political Cartoons

It's important to note that America's earliest cartoons were political in nature. The first cartoon appeared in Ben Franklin's newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. It appeared as part of an editorial by Franklin commenting on 'the present disunited state of the British Colonies.

The woodcut drawing entitled 'Join or Die' pictures a divided snake in eight pieces representing as many colonial governments. The drawing was based on the popular superstition that a snake that had been cut in two would come to life if the pieces were joined before sunset. The drawing immediately caught the public's fancy and was reproduced in other newspapers.

Another early cartoon from the 1700's appeared in the Massachusetts Centinel on January 30, 1788. Entitled 'The Federal Superstructure,' the drawing shows a hand helping to raise the Massachusetts pillar to an upright position. The Centinel newspaper, a supporter of the new Constitution, observed that 'The Pillar of the Great Federal Edifice rises daily.'

Shown in position 'having already ratified the new document' are pillars representing the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut. A story below the drawing reports that the New York Assembly will call for a convention to ratify the Constitution.

While the style of America's early political cartoons differs in appearance from those of today, central to all is a subject that is obviously political. And the objects in the cartoon symbolize something other than what is shown.

 

Join or Die Full-size version of the
Join or Die cartoon
Federal superstructure cartoon Full-size version of the
Federal Superstructure cartoon