The American Revolution started off as a war between American colonists and Britain, but quickly evolved into a struggle for power between four of the world’s strongest empires. As France, the Netherlands, and Spain joined the Americans in their struggle against Britain, it seemed like one half of the world had decided to go to war with the other. Naturally, every one had to get their two-cents in and American Revolution political cartoons started popping up on both sides of the Atlantic.
Even though hundreds of political cartoons were published during the American Revolution, certain themes appeared across many of them. Since we can’t possibly fit every political cartoon published into this post, let’s take a look at why, exactly, rattlesnakes and Native American imagery were used so often in these illustrations.
Rattlesnakes in American Revolution Political Cartoons
Snakes get bum rap a lot of the time. From the Garden of Eden to Harry Potter, they’re portrayed as evil beings or, at least, symbols of evil. But, when it comes to American history, snakes got a much needed rebrand.
After arriving in the Americas, European colonists became fascinated with rattlesnakes. A species unique to North America, something about the way they rattle and the power they display in hunting caught Europeans’ collective imagination. It soon became a symbol for America itself.
By the time of the American War for Independence, American Revolution Political cartoons featuring the powerful serpent began appearing on both sides of the Atlantic. While some have persisted in America’s national memory, while others faded, they offer a fascinating look into what people thought about the American Revolution.
Join or Die
The “Join or Die” political cartoon we so often associate with the American Revolution actually came about much earlier. In the mid-1750s, tensions between English and French colonists, as well as several Native Nations, were on the rise. At the time, English colonies acted independently on many matters of state, including going to war. Afraid that this tendency would allow his, and other, colonies to be easily overrun, Benjamin Franklin created the “Join, or Die” snake.
“The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty of bringing so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common Defence and Security,” Franklin wrote.1
Published in 1754, Franklin drew inspiration from a popular belief that if you chopped a snake in half the snake could be resurrected if the pieces were rejoined before sunset.2 The meaning was clear enough to Franklin’s fellow colonists – if the colonies joined together before a war started (the metaphorical sunset) – then the snake would be just fine.
Two decades later, American revolutionaries readopted it for their protests, and eventual war, against the British. During the American Revolution, this political cartoon was used in the same way by Americans – as a rallying cry against a common enemy. The only difference was that, this time, they were fighting the British.
The American Rattle Snake
To appreciate “The American Rattle Snake,” we need to understand two important battles in the American Revolution: Saratoga and Yorktown.
In October 1777, American forces led by General Horatio Gates scored their biggest victory to date when they defeated the forces led by General John Burgoyne. After coming south from Quebec to take Fort Ticonderoga, Burgoyne attempted to march on Albany. Unfortunately for Burgoyne, he underestimated the gumption, and size, of the American forces. On the way to Albany his men were surrounded by the Americans under Gates. Eventually, on October, 17, 1777, Burgoyne was forced to surrender and send his army, numbering 5,800 men, back to Britain.
Now, let’s flash forward four years (almost exactly) to October, 19, 1781 when George Washington scored the final, decisive victory for the American side. Known as the Battle of Yorktown, Washington pinned British forces under General Cornwallis into one of the many peninsulas that make up the Virginia coast line. Admiral Rochambeau then led a French fleet to cut off British escape by sea. With victories on land and sea, the American-Franco alliance won the day, and the war.
This American Revolution political cartoon originally appeared in London in April of 1782, poking fun at major British generals for their inability to defeat the upstart colonists, namely General Burgoyne. The large rattlesnake has coiled itself around British encampments, cutting them off from the outside world, if not strangling them. On his tail, the snake holds a sign that reads: “An Apartment to lett for Military Gentlemen.”3 Underneath the snake, the cartoonist wrote: “Two British Armies I have thus Burgoyn’d, And room for more I’ve got behind.”4
Any time you’re made into a verb, you know you messed up – hard.
The American Rattlesnake Presenting Monsieur His Ally a Dish of Frogs
Following the American victory at Yorktown, the war was over, but another contest was beginning: peace negotiations. With American diplomats set to meet with their main allies, the French, and the representatives of the defeated British forces, one cartoonist tried to drive a wedge between the Franco-American alliance.5
Again, the rattlesnake stands in for America. But, instead of breaking the fourth wall, this time the American serpent is speaking to an overly quaffed, overly powdered Frenchman. A stand-in for France itself, the gussied-up speaker demonstrates the British view of the French elite who called the shots across the channel – foppish. And, sitting between the two, a basket overflows with frogs – probably another dig at the French.
This American Revolutions political cartoon didn’t just rely on overt symbols. The cartoonist tried his hand at humor, too. Speaking first, the snake says: “Monsieur be pleas’d to accept the frogs I just have kill’d them in the Bogs.” To which the foppish aristocrat replies: “I give you thanks my good Ally, some will make soup, the rest a fry.”
Below this stilted exchange, the following verse appears:
O Britons be wise
And part these Allies,
Or drive them both into the Bogs;
Think it is fit
They both should submit
To old England, or live upon Frogs.
Clearly, not everyone in Britain had accepted the fact that the Americans had won the war.
Native American Imagery in American Revolution Political Cartoons
Since the earliest days of American colonization, European artists searched for ways to symbolize the New World in their works. Artists had, for a long time, used god-like images to symbolize the various parts of the new world. Derived from ancient Greco-Roman mythology, a goddess figure named Europa stood in for Europe. Often depicted in flowing robes, with gleaming weapons, scientific instruments, and books all around her, Europa was the only one of the continental goddesses that came out looking good.
The stand-ins for Africa and Asia were often depicted, in what we would call, as rather racist fashion. The goddess for Africa was often half dressed, with her breasts exposed and surrounded by wildlife. The goddess for Asia, though dressed, was often shown with wild animals as well, lacking any of the indicators of ‘civilization’ that surrounded Europa.
When it came time to pick a goddess to represent the Americas, European artists kept the trend of racist depictions alive. Bare chested with a feather headdress, and often carrying a bow, the goddess Columbia was born. This idealized version of what Europeans who had never been to the Americas thought indigenous peoples looked like persisted for a long time. By 1776 and the beginnings of the American Revolution, political cartoons that used Columbia or Native Americans as a metaphor for the rebelling colonies, or Americans themselves, were all over the place.
The Female Combatants
American Revolution political cartoons are pretty crazy by default, but “The Female Combatants,” really takes it to a whole different level. Originally published in the American colonies in 1776, it shows an aristocratic British woman engaging in fisticuffs with a younger, sprier, nakider America. A clear derivation of Columbia, the American woman sports a feathered headdress, skirt made of feathers, and no top. And, her rather pale, European-looking skin is covered in tattoos. In this way, she almost looks more like a Pictish warrior than a Native American.
But that’s just half of the insanity this amazing political cartoon brings to the table. In the speech bubbles over their heads, Britain attempts to scold America, telling her: “I’ll force you to obedience you Rebellious Slut.” Refusing to be slut shamed, American quickly retorts, “Liberty Liberty foreverMother while I exist.” Then, as Britain puts a fierce upper-cut to her daughter’s boob, America delivers a knuckle sandwich right to her scowling jaw line.6
But the symbolism doesn’t end there. In the bottom left order, a shield with a compass drawn upon its front leans against the stump of a tree. A nod to Britain’s seafaring prowess, the compass shield rests upon a long piece of parchment that reads, “For Obedience.” In the opposite corner, America’s shield is emblazoned with a rooster and hanging from a tree that’s topped with a liberty cap. The rooster, or “Gallic cock,” represents France, who allied with the American colonies to send them semi-secret financial support from the get-go. The liberty cap is another reference to ancient Greece. In certain Greek city states, people who were politically free, but poor, wore these caps to distinguish themselves from the enslaved populations. It was an easy way to tell the authorities, “I’m not a slave.” Later, Europeans would adopts these “liberty caps” as a symbol of freedom. Finally, across a piece of parchment under America’s shield the artist scrawled the words, “For Liberty.”
The Tea-Tax-Tempest, or the Anglo-American Revolution, 1778
This American Revolution political cartoon is an interesting one. Originally published in the micro-states that would, around a century later, coalesce into Germany, “The Tea-Tax-Tempest” gives us a fascinating view into the ways the Revolution was perceived outside of the British empire.7
To the far right, a winged Father Time leans against a giant blog, magically projecting a highly symbolized battle scene. In the middle of the battle, a teapot explodes, representing colonists’ hatred of British taxes. Next to the exploding teapot, a rooster is literally fanning the flames, while a liberty cap goes shooting through the sky. To the right of the explosion, Continental forces prepare to charge through the smoke, led by Columbia herself. To left of the scene, three lions (the national symbol of the British empire) get tangled up as they try to escape the smoke and flames. Behind them, British regulus turn and run from the oncoming American troops.
In front of the projection, the four goddesses of the known world take in the scene. The Old World huddles together, Europa in the center, holding her shield, flanked by Asia to her right and Africa to her left. Columbia sits on her own, to the left of the projection, wearing her feathered headdress, with a sling of arrows over her back, while she clings to a blow. With her left hand gently reaching for the battle scene, she looks almost concerned.
Which side the artist favored is hard to tell. In the projected battle scene, American troops look like they’re about to route the red coats. But, in the foreground, Europe looks uncovered, almost like she’s talking smack to other Old World Goddesses; Columbia, on the other hand, seems frozen in fear.
The Savages Let Loose, or The Cruel Fate of the Loyalists, 1783
If you thought the “Tea-Tax-Tempest” and “Female Combatants” didn’t exactly portray Native Americans the best, then wait till you get a load of this American Revolution political cartoon. This pro-Britain cartoon shows six loyalists being brutally murdered and hanged. Again evoking inaccurate representations of Native Americans to represent the rebelling colonies, the three “Americans” are shirtless, with feathered head dresses and skirts.
One of the Americans has just finished killing the last of four hanged loyalists; as he holds the string keeping the dead man aloft, he says, “I have them all in a string.” Another holds a loyalist by the hair with a knife in the other hand while saying, “I’ll scalp him.” The last of the three Americans wields a hatchet (backwards, for some reason), above a terrified loyalist. The loyalist pleads to the universe, decrying, “O cruel fate! Is this the return for our loyalty?”; the American above him says “I’ll butcher the dog.”8
Printed in 1783, the “The Savages Get Loose” was made two years after the Battle of Yorktown ended armed hostilities between the Americans and the British. This political cartoon is not as much a response to the American Revolution, but to the terms agreed to by both sides in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. Wary of what would happen to loyalists once the Americans, or “savages,” were on their own, the artist shown them being slaughtered by the newly freed nation. To underscore his point, he added the following beneath the illustration: “Is this a Peace when loyalists must bleed? It is a Bloody Piece of work indeed.”
Sources on American Revolution Political Cartoons
- “The story behind the Join or Die snake cartoon,” constitutioncenter.org.
- “Join or Die,” digitalhistory.uh.edu.
- “The American Rattle Snake,” metmuseum.org.
- “Britain’s Defeat in the American Revolution: Four British Cartoons, 1782,” americainclass.org.
- Bob Ruppert, “The Rattlesnake Tells the Story,” allthingsliberty.com.
- “The savages let loose, or The cruel fate of the Loyalists,” loc.gov.
- “The tea-tax-tempest, or the Anglo-American Revolution,” loc.gov.
- “Female Combatants, January 26, 1776,” https://onlineexhibits.library.yale.edu.