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How Ben Franklin's Viral Political Cartoon United the 13 Colonies

October 23, 2018 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon was so effective it rallied the colonies and influenced politics throughout two wars.

Benjamin Franklin’s warning to the British colonies in America: “Join or Die.”

Anyone on social media knows the power of memes to drive home an argument and influence others’ views. But the tactic of using a viral image to persuade people goes back to long before the existence of the Internet or Facebook. One of its earliest practitioners was American founding father Benjamin Franklin who, in 1754, published a cartoon, “Join or Die,” depicting a snake severed into pieces that symbolized the American colonies.

Franklin’s goal was to unite the colonists to combat the French and their Native American allies, and to convince the British government to support a unified colonial government in America. He didn’t achieve that goal, but the image was so powerful and persuasive that it took on a life of its own. A few years later, in the prelude to the Revolutionary War, colonists repurposed it as a symbol of their unity against British rule.

The cartoon was a warning during the French and Indian War.

The story of the first viral image in American political history began in May 1754, when Franklin, then the publisher of a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette, sought to drum up support for a unified colonial government. He wrote an impassioned editorial, in which he warned of hordes of French intruders converging on the western frontier in Ohio. “Many more French are expected from Canada,” he wrote. “The Design being to establish themselves, settle their Indians, and build Forts just on the Back of our Settlements in all our Colonies; from which Forts, as they did from Crown-Point, they may send out their Parties to kill and scalp the Inhabitants, and ruin the Frontier Counties.”

But if that horrific scenario weren’t enough to motivate his readers, Franklin also illustrated it with what he called an “emblem”—a woodcut of a snake cut into sections, with the caption “Join or Die.” The identity of the actual artist who created the image isn’t known, but the concept may have been inspired by an illustration in a book published in France in 1685, which showed a snake cut in two with the slogan, se rejoindre ou mourir (“will …read more


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