Monday, October 29, 2007

Influence of Franklin's "Join or Die"


In early 1754, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin became one of the earliest political cartoonists in American history. As a printer, Franklin had regularly published political commentaries on various issues. His "Join or Die" publication, however, was quite different and would be remembered for generations to come.

During the early part of 1754, Franklin became quite concerned about the security and future of the British colonies. He believed that each individual colony was going too far in its own direction, and thus neglecting the need for unity. As a result, Franklin created this early political cartoon that served as a call for unity. The cartoon (originally done as a wood carving) was posted not only in Franklin's paper, but was distributed across the colonies. The snake (each section representing an individual British colony), was purposely cut into pieces, suggesting that death would come not only to the snake, but to the colonies as well if they chose to stay divided. (It is also worth noting that 18th century society believed that a snake would come back to life if the pieces were all put together and buried before sundown).

During the French and Indian War, Franklin's "Join or Die" slogan was used as a battle cry, inspiring colonies to unite against the French. In the years prior to the American Revolution, Franklin would again use his "Join or Die" logo to promote union with the British (Franklin even suggested to Parliament that the colonies could be joined with Great Britain in the original Acts of Union, which had united Scotland and England). England's passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 gave Americans a cause to rally around. Naturally, Franklin's slogan was brought out of the closet, this time to rally against the British.

With the onset of the American Revolution, patriots from across the colonies used Franklin's "Join or Die" to promote the cause of independence. The slogan could regularly be seen in the windows of shops, on flags, and in newspapers.

Years later, Northerners would again resurrect Franklin's political cartoon to promote the cause of unity in the early years of the Civil War. There are even more recent instances of "Join or Die" being used to promote a political cause. During the 2000 presidential election, Republicans raised the banner of "Join or Die" to promote unity in the party. I guess this is proof that political cartoons may evolve, but the "classics" never die. I'm sure we have not seen the end of Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" slogan.