Political Cartoons of the American Revolutionary Era (1765-1784)

Political Cartoons are used as a form political and social commentary, with their most effective ones being able to present an issue in a cleverly concise and a thought provoking manner. Many people do not realize that these witty editorial pictures actually originated during the Revolutionary Era of the United States. Around the middle of the 18th century, satirical cartoons began popping up everywhere in the colonies; they were used in newspapers, pamphlets, and even posters to unite the colonists under one continental spirit in their fight for independence from Great Britain. This brand new way of presenting topics as symbols was immensely popular and truly caused discussions in the most meager of intellects. On the other hand, It's no secret that Political Cartoons are charged with their own agendas. Because of these some had pushed the medium even to the levels of propaganda, convincing people of extreme opinions using emotional imagery and skewed facts. Nonetheless, because of these first Political Cartoons, thousands more have been published in newspapers throughout the world; their success in appealing to the masses during the American Revolution contributed to their popularity throughout history and their use in modern politics. This article presents several notable Political Cartoons that will provide interesting commentary on the American Revolutionary War as well as insight on the development of the Political Cartoon as a popular medium.


I. Timeline

II. Political Cartoon Examples

  • Join or Die
  • The Colonies Reduced
  • The Bloody Massacre
  • Bostonians Paying the Excise Man
  • The Political Cartoon for the Year 1775
  • The Horse America, throwing his Master

III. Analysis

  • Common Themes
  • Sophistication of Art
  • Effects of Political Cartoons

IV. Poll

V. Sources



Political Cartoon Examples

Join, or Die

Most historians agree on the fact that this drawing was the very first political cartoon. Its creator was none other than America’s beloved jack of all trades, Benjamin Franklin. He had written an article to be published in May 9th, 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette. His editorial urged the colonies to ban together over the issue of attacks from the Iroquois and increasing tensions with France and Great Britain. He thought a picture would be a convincing way to convey his message. So he chiseled into wood a crude drawing of a snake split into 8 sections, representing each of the colonies, with the words “JOIN, or DIE” underneath. There was a legend in those days that a snake could come back to life if its severed sections came back together before dusk. Please with the drawing, the Gazette pressed it onto the newspaper, beside the editorial. The cartoon was a great success because of its shock value and its profoundly concise statement. Its popularity spread to many other newspapers around the Colonies, including one in Boston that took the liberty to edit the caption to “UNITE AND CONQUER” It stimulated lots of discussion and culminated in the decision of the Congress of Albany, New York’s to pass a plan of unification. However, its success did not match its popularity; every other state rejected Albany’s plan. In the end, we remember this drawing for starting the trend of political cartoons.

The Colonies Reduced

"The Colonies Reduced" was published in 1767 by Benjamin Franklin as a warning of the consequences of the newly imposed Stamp Act. The Stamp Act of 1765 established a tax on all printed documents which realisitically was not a significant monetary burden against the colonists it was, however, a matter of principle. This was the first time Parliment implemented an internal tax on the colonists and it passed without the colonist's consent. The woman represents Britian and her dismembered body parts are different colonies (Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and New England). This cartoon was used to explain Franklin's concern that the Stamp Act would sever the connections between the colonies and the "mother land" if it was not repealed. Britannia's torso is leaning against a globe which, according to Franklin, portrayed the "placement that depicted her inability to dominate world politics should she dismember herself" from her colonies. The banner across the dismembered Magna Britannia's lap reads "date obolum Bellisario" which, translated from Latin, means "give an a penny to Belisario." During this period in American history, the ancient story of the general Belisario was popularized in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin believed that Great Britain would eventually suffer the same consequences as the fallen, accused and blinded Belisario if the mother country was severed from the colonies "the source of her Commerce, Wealth and Glory." The comparison of Great Britain to the life of Belisario emphasized the colonies' assistance in international conflicts, suggested the military harm that Britain would cause itself by weakening the colonies; "and visualized the loss of international stature resulting from the conflict within the empire."

The Bloody Massacre


"The Bloody Massacre" by Paul Revere published in 1770, was a Political Cartoon used to stir-up outrage in anti-British Colonists. The Colonists consistently throughout this time period expressed their annoyance and dislike of the laws that allowed for British soldiers to inhabit their homes and community for free and for virtually unlimited amounts of time. The event, coined as "The Boston Massacre", began as a civilian riot, which resulted in British troops firing back as a means of self-defense. The event led to five civilian casualties, but the press propagated it as a massacre caused solely by the troops. The public became enraged with the Troops and in turn Great Britian. Once the Boston Massacre occurred, Paul Revere felt it best to continue to feed the fire of animosity towards the British and printed this cartoon. He very strategically drew this picture to show a point of view that would bring people to hate the British. The way the British soldiers are in a straight line shooting, displays that the shootings were planned, but in actuality it was in reaction of mass chaos and incidental gunshots. This event was a pivitol in swaying the Colonists towards fighting for American Independence because many previous efforts to stir-up the public against the British had failed. This cartoon has no statement of policy like previous cartoons but rather was used to illustrate a view of Great Britain that pundits of revolution, like Paul Revere, desired. This work swayed many opinions and created a great rise in a common desire to fight for independence from Great Britain.
Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man

The "Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man," was published in 1774, some weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The cartoon depicts several men pouring boycotted tea down the throat of British Customs Commisioner, John Malcolm. One can also see in the illustration that even before the men started forcing tea down his throat, Malcom had already been humiliated through the process of the "Tar and Feather". Just two years before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, many people in Boston were angered about his support of the importation of British goods; they lashed out in anyway they could on the issue. The Colonists desired to produce their own goods and not have to suffer heavy taxes on goods when they aquired them from Great Britain. Bostonians started a hugh boycott of British goods in order to change the policy. Also, they wanted to let it be known to all of Boston that anyone caught not respecting the boycott of British goods would be punished by public humiliation and possibly , in more extreme cases, death. The tree in the background of the cartoon reads "Liberty Tree" which represented how Boston (and all colonial citizens for that matter) needed to stand together in order to not be pushed around by British legislation.

The Political Cartoon for the year 1775

At this point in American history, a relatively small faction of the Colonists (most of them eventually became the Founding Fathers) believed that severing ties and declaring complete independence from Great Britain was the necessary course of action. In order to propagate their ideology of independence, the Founding Fathers hired Thomas Paine to write Common Sense, a political and philosophical pamphlet arguing for Revolution. This political cartoon titled "The Political Cartoon for the Year 1775" is a visual representation of Thomas Paine's argument in Common Sense: Monarchy is inherantly evil and its power unnatural. The men in the carriage represent King George III and Lord Mansfield, who at the time was the King's Court Justice . Lord Mansfield and King George are leading the carriage over a cliff pulled by two horses branded with the names "Obstinacy" and "Pride." This is symbolic of Britain's inevitable loss of power over the colonies due to the stubbornnesso of the nation, the pride of its leaders, and an overall reluctancy to recognize the Colonies as an independent nation. The devil in the upper left quadrant of the cartoon is flying off with a bag over his shoulder labeled "National Credit." "Obstinacy" and "Pride" are trappling over both the Magna Carta and the Constitution which signifies Parliament's disregard for the documents that were initially intended to limit their power a justify their very existence as a governing body.

The Horse America, throwing his Master

The author of this political cartoon is unknown due to the fact that he apparently wished to remain anonymous. This comes as no surpirse considering two things. First, this was drawn in the midst of the American Revolution, a time where both sides were brutal with those they saw as opposing them. Secondly, it is widely belief that this particular political cartoon originated not in America but actually in Great Britain. The meaning of this cartoon is not explicit as others that have come before it but it should be clear to an educated audience. The horse represents America while the man represents King George and, perhaps collectively, Great Britain. It is clear in this drawing that America's strength and resolve was seen as fierce and extremely dangerous. Also, we see Britain depicted as a fat, pig-faced man with both no reason or ability to control America. Some have read this to be an encouragement to Americans but some have interpreted this cartoon to be used to stir Great Britain into more decisive action.

Analysis of Political Cartoons

Common Themes
Political Cartoons of the Revolution share three common themes: a need for unity amongst the country, criticism of Great Britain and criticism of the new government structure. In dealing with the issue of unity, Political Cartoons tend to be aimed at the heart and portray colonists being forced to do things that impose on their newly established freedoms. Unity was not only a need within the colonies themselves, but the colonists at this time were also interested in improving their relationship with Great Britain; it was only later that talk changed from reform to revolution. In the "The Colonies Reduced" Benjamin Franklin demonstrates the effects Great Britain undermining its own colonies. If the colonies and the motherland failed to co-operate economically, the nation would be in disarray and lose global power. The colonies still recognized the benefits of life under British rule but understood that in order to continue growing and prospering, Britain needed to loosen the reigns and allow the colonies more freedom. Aside from the mother-child relationship that needed reuniting, there was a need for unity on the colonial home front. An example of this is clearly present in Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" cartoon. The message is simple, but it's clarity showed that if the colonies failed to unite for the common good, the result would lead to destruction. The second theme of these political cartoons, the criticism of Great Britain, began to appear just before the Revolutionary War. As seen in "The Political Cartoon For the Year 1775", the artist visually depicts the feelings that many of the colonies were harboring: War was near. These cartoons used detailed symbolism to provoke a sense of anger towards Great Britain for its unrelenting tyranny of the colonies. The third and final theme Revolutionary cartoons share is the criticism they illustrate against the newly issued government. This theme was based upon the power struggle between the government and the citizens. In "Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man", it is apparent that the colonists strongly disfavored the new taxes imposed on them by the government. This cartoon can almost be considered a threat to the government, by displaying the repercussions of severe taxation on the colonies. These themes were prevalent throughout the Revolutionary Era because Political Cartoons allowed common access to the current issues of the time period.

Sophistication of Art

As a medium gains usage and popularity, it almost always progresses in different areas of expertise in the medium. We see in the very first political cartoon, “JOIN, or DIE.”, that it was a very unsophisticated both in its meaning as well as its artistic complexity. But moving on to “The Political Cartoon for the Year 1775”, the depth of meaning in the work is almost unbelievable, with every little drawing in the picture representing something. Also, the artistic quality of the piece is on a much higher scale compared to “JOIN, or DIE.”. At the same time however, the point that “The Political Cartoon for the Year 1775” is trying to make is not as easily accessible as the Franklin’s simple one-liner. Later on we can see a balance between both of these styles struck in “The Horse America, throwing his Master”. The Cartoon’s meaning is simple; America is getting Great Britain off its back (literally). But the artistic texture of the piece is comparable to sketches of “The Political Cartoon for the Year 1775.” It had high quality drawing complete with shading and layered images. Political Cartoons had truly become a sophisticated art form.

Effects of Political Cartoons

The effects of the Political Cartoons during the American Revolutionary Era are important from a historical context as well as an artistic one. First of all, these cartoons provide a glimpse into the sentiments and opinions of the Colonists during those times. We cannot rely on their Political Cartoons for facts but we can look beyond the opinions to identify the real issues underneath. For example, in “The Bloody Massacre”, we see an example of an exaggeration of facts, but at the same time we can look beyond that to discover the sentiment of some of the Colonists at that time towards British Army and their tendency to overstay their welcome. Also, many of these cartoons were stirred by current issues. For example, “The Colonies Reduced”, may not have facts within itself but within its historical context we can understand it to be an opinion on the principle of the Stamp Act. Lastly, we see the effect of the very first Political Cartoon to incite action. Albany’s Unity Act was a direct result from the discussion surrounding the idea expressed in “JOIN, or DIE”. We also understand that it’s effects are limited due to its failure to convince other colonial legislatures. These historical documents are invaluable in our understanding of popular colonial sentiment during those times as well as what influenced them. On the other hand, the effects of these cartoons are important for an understanding of the first forms of this artistic medium. The way we appreciate and understand Political Cartoons today is due in part to the work this authors did to define the medium. From complex scenes to simple portraits, all of these styles were set in motion by the artistic developments of this time period. In conclusion, all the effects of American Revolutionary Era Political Cartoons still stand to this very day.

Poll Results



Library of Congress. British Cartoon Prints Collection. Library of Congress Subject Headings. Washington: Library of Congress, 1975. Print.

Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress Classification. J. Political Science. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Cataloging Distribution Service, 2008. Print.

Marcus, Robert D., David Burner, and Anthony Marcus. America Firsthand. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. Print.

Olson, Lester C. Benjamin Franklin's Vision of American Community: a Study in Rhetorical Iconology. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2004. Print.

Revere, Paul. The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th, 1770 . . ., etching (handcolored), 1770, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.