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Ben Franklin Flies Kite, Discovers The Political Cartoon!!

September 8, 2011

I’ve always enjoyed political cartoons. I drew a weekly cartoon¬†for Congress Daily
for close to seven years. You can see some of them here.

I doubt he was flying his kite at the time, but Ben Franklin is credited with creating the first American political cartoon. It was published in Franklin’s own Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. Here’s how it looked with the surrounding text:

Ben Franklin's Join Or Die the first American political cartoon and how it looked in the May 9th, 1754 issue of Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette

It was in the news recently because a rare copy of the May 9, 1754 issue will be sold at auction in California on September 13, 2011. You can submit a bid online, but I should warn you: the requested opening bid is $50,000. Oops– never mind.

I had never seen the cartoon in its original context on the newspaper page. I had assumed it was about the same size as today’s political cartoons. Quite the contrary, as you can see below:

Ben Franklin's Join Or Die the first American political cartoon and how it looked in the May 9th, 1754 issue of Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette

And I had always thought Franklin created the cartoon to rally the American Colonies
to unite against British rule. Not so. Franklin was actually urging the Colonies to unite against the French who were blocking British colonial expansion to the west. It was only later, when the cartoon was republished in 1765 by those who opposed the Stamp Act, that it became associated with rebellion against the British.

Ben and I did intersect on an art project once. I was asked to draw some caricatures for an American History study guide. Alas– he only made the back cover. See if you can pick him out below. (I’ll give you a hint: the other guys are Elvis, Chris Columbus, and George W. Bush.)caricatures of Elvis Presley, Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, and George W. Bush, done for the cover of an American History study guide

Do you have any thoughts on Ben Franklin as a cartoonist, or about political cartoons in general? I’d be glad to have your comments.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Margie permalink
    September 8, 2011 9:05 PM

    Political cartoons are really very sophisticated, aren’t they? The readers have to have enough background information to understand them. We lived in England for a few years, and it was some time before we understood enough of their past and present to ‘get’ the cartoons!


    • September 9, 2011 7:30 AM

      You’re so right, and I can identify with your England experience: I love picking up cartoon collections at book sales. I found one by British cartoonist Carl Giles (1916-1995), who did social and political commentary for the Daily Express. His drawings absolutely convulsed me, but lacking the proper context, I didn’t “get” a single one! Always appreciate your stopping by, Margie– thanks!!


  2. September 10, 2011 6:28 PM

    To be honest I ignore all political cartoons but I love your cartoons.


    • September 14, 2011 7:50 AM

      Thanks, TT, and I’ll be honest in turn: I love all your immensely helpful blogging advice!! Always wishing you well here! : )


  3. September 18, 2011 8:23 PM

    Fascinating insight, thanks!


    • September 19, 2011 9:02 AM

      You’re very welcome, Zeg. I checked out your own work– it has great rollicking energy! I’m sure Mr. Franklin would be glad to know you’re carrying on the grand tradition. All the best, and thanks for stopping by!


  4. September 23, 2011 6:49 PM

    Good piece!


  5. October 4, 2011 3:07 AM

    I just wanted to reply to the lovely comments that you made about my blog – Thank you so much for stopping by and I am pleased that you enjoyed it. Those cycle trails around your area sound fabulous. I love the illustrations on your blog – very cool!


    • October 4, 2011 9:23 AM

      Ah– I thought I recognized the tire tracks leading away from that very kind comment. Delighted to see you here, and thanks so much for pedaling over and taking a look! : )


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