Early Formulations of American Identity, Ideals, and Ideas
Political Satire: The Influence of Humor
A cartoon is a drawing, representation or symbol that makes a satirical, witty,
or humorous point. Some may have captions, and some may not. Some may
appear in one panel, while others may fill several panels . Though cartoons
may vary greatly from one to the other, the one common factor is humor.
Political cartoons have their own particular style of humor however, and this
style is based on a certain blending of serious topics and humor. The origin of
political cartoons is believed to date back to the 16th century, and from that
time on, political satire has been used as an effective means of criticizing the
establishment. The political cartoon is directed at the common person, the
masses of people who can make or break a political idea, and it is as effective
today at stirring, and directing public opinion, as it was back in 16th century
The foundation for political satire can be traced back to several different
factors that created the concept, and the means of delivery. Caricature is one
of the main arts used in political cartoons, and it is described as “a parody of
an individual, and allusion, which creates the situation or context into which
the individual is placed.” Leonardo da Vinci is credited with inventing the
caricature, and he did so when he investigated “the ideal type of deformity, the
grotesque”, which he used to gain a better understanding of the concept of
ideal beauty . The principles utilized by Leonardo da Vinci, are the
foundation used by artists creating caricatures even today. The next
foundation block was the invention of printing. Printing allowed for large
numbers of copies to be circulated, reaching into the hands of large numbers
of people, and putting the message out to the general public.
In the 15th century, a painter-satirist, named Pieter Bruegel the Elder, was
becoming increasingly popular with his grotesque paintings of strange
inventions and abstract symbolism. By the 16th century, Bruegel’s style had
fueled the imagination of Martin Luther, who was leading a theological debate
over Reformation against Pope Alexander VI at the time . In Germany, a
merchant class had risen up to occupy key leadership positions within the
villages and towns. Martin Luther knew that these people would be supportive
of his reforms, and also that these individuals would be economically stable
enough to stand up to the all-powerful Catholic Church. By winning the
support of these people, Martin Luther was sure he could gain the support of
the peasant masses, and through sheer numbers overwhelm the Catholic
Church. Martin Luther was aware of the fact that the majority of the public
could not read, so he used pictures to send out his message. Martin Luther
handed out simple one page posters, and illustrated booklets in all of the
major towns and villages, and in these prints he showed depictions of Biblical
scenes that everyone could immediately recognize, and then next to it he
would print the same picture, but with Caricatures of members of the Catholic
Church in the positions of the antagonist . This was the birth of the political
cartoon, and it proved to be very effective.
After the success of Martin Luther, political cartoons became a common
means of criticizing the hegemony in Europe. The quality and quantity of
cartoons varied however, depending on where you were, and who was in
power at the time, because openly criticizing the power elite could be very
dangerous at times, but still the political cartoons continued to get their
messages to the masses. It is not surprising then, that political cartoons would
reach across to the colonies of the New World, where a political struggle was
raging over the identity of America.
It was one of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who is credited with
creating, and printing the first political cartoon in America. Franklin was
attempting to rally support for his plan for an inter-colonial association, in order
to deal with the Iraquois Indians at the Albany Congress of 1754. Franklin’s
cartoon depicts a snake, cut into pieces, with each piece representing one of
the colonies. The cartoon was published in every newspaper in America, and
had a major impact on the American conscience. The words “Join, or Die”
eluded to the Indian threat, but much of the effectiveness of this image was
due to a commonly held belief at the time, that a dead snake could come back
to life if the severed pieces were placed back together . Franklin’s cartoon
effectively grabbed the American peoples minds, and implanted an idea that
endured even though the Albany Congress turned out to be a failure. The
image of the snake became the symbol for colonial unification, and was
transferred to the colonial battle flag “Don’t Tread on Me”, and became part of
the American spirit .
Much like the situation in 16th century Europe, the colonies proved to be a
great venue for the political cartoon. The strength of the governmental
policies relied on support from the masses of the common people, and among
this population the illiteracy rate was quite high. As different factions fought to
sway public opinion, the political cartoon became even more important and
refined in its delivery of the message.
By now the political cartoon had established itself as an effective means of
communicating a specific message to the general public, and cartoons now
appeared in every major newspaper in America, but political cartoons are not
really at their peak unless there is a great controversy, and the next big period
for the political cartoon came as a result of several topics of heated debate,
the election of President Andrew Jackson, the Mexican War, the issue of
slavery, and the Civil War.
It was the Civil War that inspired a man who is considered the greatest
American political cartoonist. An artist by the name of Thomas Nast, was
working for a publication called the Leslie’s Weekly, and he became nationally
recognized for his cartoons defending President Lincoln’s policies . The
style and degree of his artistry took the political cartoon to new heights, but
there were also a couple of other contributing factors that helped increase the
effectiveness of the cartoons. By 1850 the literacy rate among Northern
whites had risen to 89 percent, and this factor meant that the textual content of
the cartoon could now be used to support and further bolster the overall
criticism of the topic. Also, about this same time, the technology of printing
had made many improvements, and inventions like the steam press allowed
huge quantities of printings to be created for distribution across America. The
increase in printing technologies led to an increase in publications, and by
1860 the number of active publications in America had risen to approximately
These advances in the printing field allowed Thomas Nast’s work to be seen
by a larger audience then ever before, and it had allowed him to have much
more influence with the American public. President Lincoln is often quoted as
saying Nast was his best recruiting sergeant, and his scenes of once-thriving
southern cities like Richmond did much to convey the magnitude of destruction
to Northern audiences . Though Thomas Nast is credited with greatly
influencing the American public during the Civil War, He is most remembered
for his cartoon attack against political corruption in New York City. Nast
created political cartoons in the 1870’s that exposed the corruption of Boss
Tweed and New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. One of the
cartoons printed by Nast, showed Tweed and the Tammany Hall Ring pointing
at each other in answer to the question, “who stole the people’s money?” After
this cartoon appeared, Tweed supposedly made the statement, “Stop them
damned pictures. I don’t care what the papers write about me. My
constituents can’t read. But damn it, they can see pictures.”  During his
successful career, Thomas Nast was able to influence both the public and the
political culture of America, and some of his influence is seen even in today’s
society. Thomas Nast is the creator of the Republican Elephant, the
Democratic Donkey, and is responsible for the image of Santa Clause, as the
jolly, round, red-nosed character that we all accept as the true image of Santa
Clause today . Nast had become so influential in American society, that the
public could not get enough of political cartoons. After his retirement, two
fellow political cartoonists attempted to carry on the ideals of the political
cartoon, and due to the great popularity political cartoons had gained, they
created a publication named “Puck”, which was a colored comic book that
featured only political cartoons. The founders, Joseph Keppler and Bernhard
Gillam provided the artwork.
The cartoons in Puck, leaned heavily towards the Democratic point of view, so
soon after its inception, a rival comic book was started by the name of Judge.
Judge was established to provide a Republican point of view to the public, and
Bernhard Gillam provided the political cartoons for this publication as well.
Many experts agree that Gillam’s political cartoons were very instrumental in
swaying public opinion, which led to the election of Grover Cleveland as
president, and helped the Democratic Party gain control. Gillam accomplished
this feat by running hard-hitting cartoons in Puck, and then using Judge as a
forum to criticize both parties .
By this time in history, printing technologies had advanced to the point that
reproduction was a simple matter, and with this advancement came the daily
newspapers. Political cartoons were regular features in all of the daily
newspapers of the time, and the influence of the political cartoon continued to
grow. As stated previously, issues of great controversy are the breeding
ground for political cartoons, and the World Wars provided great material for
political cartoonist of the age. Political cartoons during the War periods
reached a fevered pitch as cartoonist from every country around the world
expressed their opinions, and criticized government policies. Political cartoons
were used as a form of propaganda, and quickly became a widely used tool by
everyone involved, making every flat surface a venue for the political cartoon.
Posters were pasted on poles, buildings, and signs. Window displays were
created utilizing the political cartoons, and leaflets, banners and every other
imaginable outlet was utilized to get the political cartoons in front of the public.
The power of the political cartoon to influence the public was well known by
the hegemony of the time, and they attempted to use it to their best advantage.
By the end of the War Era, political cartoons had evolved in artistry and
sophistication to match the ever-increasing education of the common person
in society. Every publication now printed political cartoons in every issue, and
it was a regular part of the American culture. Even in today’s society, you
need only to open a newspaper to find what the most pressing issue of the
day is in America, and you will find it in the form of a political cartoon. Now
that the history of political cartoons has been addressed, and the evidence of
their influence examined, now the question is “why are political cartoons so
The purpose of political cartoons is to make people think about current events
and issues about politics and government. Basically, six different artistic
techniques are used to achieve the desired result, and they are: symbolism,
caricature, captions and labels, exaggeration, satire, and irony. A famous
linguist by the name of Ferdinand de Saussure, expressed the opinion that the
answer is in the study of signs, and he emphasized the importance of studying
the whole picture, and the groupings of signs, when analyzing a picture.
Saussure felt that the meaning and significance was derived from the
interaction of all of the signs in a picture. It is the contrast of images that is
significant . Political cartoons exemplify this theory in their structure. Often
a person is utilized to represent an entire country, and placement within the
picture usually is significant in expressing relationships between things. When
a person is characterized as himself, this usually indicates a view of that
person’s policies. It is these subtle blending of images that are believed to
affect the sub-conscience mind of the reader. Researcher Mark Turner, in his
text entitled The Literary Mind, argues that complex metaphorical and blending
patterns, like those found in political cartoons, is fundamental to the way
humans think and reason. Turner feels that almost no thought or reason can
be accomplished without these processes . If Turner’s theory is true, it
would explain why a political cartoon can so effectively convey a message
about a complex issue, and why it elicits such a response.
Whatever the reason, it is apparent that human nature and political cartoons
somehow have a connection, and because of this connection, an image is
capable of communicating complex messages, and influence a person’s
thought and reason. History is full of examples of political cartoons and their
influence on the American culture. From Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die”, to
Thomas Nast and his depictions of the political parties Elephant and Donkey,
cartoons have impacted the way people thought about an issue, and the
influence has endured through the years in many cases. Political cartoons are
as popular today as they always have been, and are still a standard in most
modern publications. Humor is something that transcends all social classes,
and is not hindered by a lack of education. It can even cross language
barriers and project worldviews that are recognized by anyone who see them.
What other concept has the ability to do this?
The simple cartoon therefore, is arguably one of the most influential factors in
the development of the American identity.
The following are a sample of different political cartoons that have appeared in
American publications over the years of this countries identity formation. As
you will see, the artist may not always have been correct in his points, but the
images successfully raised issues in the minds of the American public, thus
influencing further action by the population.
 Low, David and Williams, R.E. Political Cartoon, The American Presidency. Grolier.
 Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. London, Duckworth. 1983
 Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. Oxford University Press, New York. 1996
 Grolier. The American Presidency. Political Cartoon. Low, David and Williams, R.E.
 American Studies, University of Virginia. A Brief History of Political Cartoons.
 BoondocksNet.com, Political Cartoons of Thomas Nast. Zwick, Jim.
 Archiving Early America.
 Archiving Early America.
 HarpWeek.An Heir To The Throne, or The Next Republican Candidate. 1860