On 9 May, 1754, a cartoon was printed in the Philidelphia-based newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. This cartoon is believed to have been devised by the United States inventor and writer Benjamin Franklin. The Pennsylvania Gazette was owned and run by Franklin, who tried to bring information on politics to his readers. This newspaper is widely considered to be the first American publication to illustrate news stories with cartoons and this political cartoon is believed to be the first of its kind in America.
The cartoon, dubbed 'Join, or Die' shows the early American Colonies as a snake cut into eight segments with each segment labelled1 as one of the colonies. Below the illustration is a caption, reading 'Join, or Die'. The newspaper editorial that accompanied the cartoon was written by Franklin and suggested that the colonies band together against a threat from the French and Indians.
In the middle 1700s, the British Colonies on the Atlantic coast began to become crowded. They looked towards the soil-rich land beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The indigenous people who inhabited much of this land, Native Americans, consequently felt threatened. The French, who also laid claim to the land, set up forts to guard it. In the 1754, the French and Indian War began.
American and British troops fought Native American and French soldiers. However, at the beginning of the war, many of the colonies were divided at the prospect of war. Franklin's cartoon urged them to unite against the Indian and French pressure and fight against them.
Although it's unclear why Franklin used a snake to illustrate his point, there are many good theories why he chose the animal. For one thing, the colonies of 1754 had a very narrow shape, which fitted the form of a snake. It has been suggested that the outside edge of the snake represents the Atlantic coast, but the snake in the cartoon twirls its tail and twists in a way that the coastline does not.
The segments clearly represent the colonies, with each segment symbolizing a particular colony or region. The segments appear in the relative order as they would appear on a map, with the right side of the cartoon being north. The rightmost one is labelled 'NE' (New England), with the segments following it going left. They were labelled as 'NY' (New York ), 'NJ' (New Jersey), 'P' (Pennsylvania), 'M' (Maryland), 'V' (Virginia), 'NC' (North Carolina) and 'SC' (South Carolina).
The division of these segments clearly shows the colonies were divided over the war. The caption implies that the colonies should unite or be killed by the French and Indian attackers.
The cartoon was widely used as a header for newspapers in its time. Since copyright laws were basically non-existent the cartoon was copied throughout many colonies. It was even more widely used during the American Revolutionary War although this was not its intended purpose. The message of this cartoon works surprisingly well with the American Revolutionary War, as the states were also divided on the issue. The major problem with using this cartoon during the time of the Revolution, in 1776, was that the colonies had changed in the intervening time, so it was usually redrawn or altered. In 1774, Paul Revere used the same design of the snake for the Massachusetts Spy newspaper, except that the snake was fighting a British dragon. The cartoon again appeared during the American Civil War, with two versions of the cartoon, one for the Union and one for the Confederacy. The Union cartoon, however, was devouring soldiers.
Benjamin Franklin's political cartoon was the first in America and one of the first of its kind. It had a large effect on people's views of the French-Indian War and a larger effect on the American Revolutionary War. Never before had such a cartoon made such an impact on America and even now 'Join, or Die' is possibly one of the most influential cartoons in American history.