Political Cartoons

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Cartoons, Political


Throughout world history, political cartoons have illustrated the age-old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Since the sixteenth century, illustrated caricatures have been used as satire, drawing attention to important political and social events of the day. But in 1843, the practice gained a new name when Englands Punch magazine published a drawing parodying preliminary sketches of paintings commissioned for the houses of Parliament. Cartoon No. 1, as the illustration was called, was the first use of the word cartoon to describe humorous, satirical, or witty drawings or caricatures. It used simple imagery to communicate a message aimed at influencing public debate and the political process.

A surprising forefather of the political cartoon is Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century religious reformer, who used illustrated booklets and posters in a campaign to reform the Catholic Church. In Passional Christi und Antichristi (1521), illustrated by the printmaker Lucas Cranach, Luther contrasted easily recognizable scenes from the Bible with scathing caricatures of the Catholic Church. One set of illustrations juxtaposed Christ driving the moneylenders out of the Temple with the Pope selling indulgences. The practice of using satirical drawings to make political commentary caught on in Europe, and the practice eventually spread around the world.

Political cartoons were very influential in early American political culture. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin became the first to publish a cartoon in an American newspaper. Franklin, a supporter of unifying the colonies for protective purposes, used a common superstition to get his message across. It was believed that a snake that had been severed would come to life again if its pieces were put back together before nightfall. Franklin drew a picture of a snake cut into eight pieces, with the caption Join, or Die. Using easily recognizable symbols as shorthand for commentary remains a staple of modern political cartoons.

Even in the eighteenth century, political cartoons traveled around the world, crossing language and cultural barriers. One famous example is that of William Boss Tweed, the head of the political machine that had run New York City since 1789. Tweed was caricatured as a crook in a series of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in the American publication Harpers Weekly. Stop them Damn Pictures, demanded Tweed, I dont care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents cant read. But damn it, they can see pictures. When Tweed fled an American jail for Spain, a Spanish official recognized him from his cartoon likeness, leading to his arrest and return to America.

In the twenty-first century, cartoons are often used as a vehicle for disseminating political commentary around the world. Political cartoons now come in many forms, from the one-frame cartoons found on the editorial pages of newspapers to multipaneled cartoons commonly referred to as comic strips. Political content can also be found in other popular cartoon forms, such as comic books, graphic novels, and Japanese anime, and in different media venues, such as television, movie theaters, and the Internet. Recurring politically charged comic strips, or funnies, are particularly well suited to using humor to deal with significant issues. Comic strips are able to address social and political issues by weaving them into the day-to-day lives of their characters. In America, the syndicated comic strips Doonesbury and The Boondocks are examples of daily comic strips that provide biting social commentary and critiques of the government.

SEE ALSO Nast, Thomas


Hess, Stephen, and Sandy Northrup. 1996. Drawn and Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons. Montgomery, AL: Elliott and Clark.

Luther, Martin. 1521. Passional Christi und Antichristi. Wittenberg, Germany: Johann Rhau Grunenberg. http://www.kb.dk/luther/passion/index.htm.

Katina Stapleton

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POLITICAL CARTOONS are art forms portraying government programs, policies, and personalities in humorous ways. Although occasionally used to elicit praise, political cartoons more often employ satire and parody to criticize opponents during election campaigns. Political cartoons also manipulate well-known cultural symbols to enhance the cartoon's comments about newsworthy situations. Political cartoons are the legitimate offspring of graffiti, and they retain the salacity and naughtiness of their parent. Political cartoons have become more pervasive with advances in communications technology.

The modern history of the political cartoon began in Great Britain in 1735. The passage of "Hogarth's Act" (8 George II c13) extended copyright and protection to the satires on current events reproduced by the new copper engraving plates. The works of William Hogarth (1697–1764) and other satirists on British politics and the Parliament drew immediate crowds to the bars, taverns, and coffeehouses throughout the colonial American cities of

Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Benjamin Franklin drew and published the first political cartoon in the American colonies. In 1747, his woodcut leaflet "Plain Truth" displayed a kneeling man praying to Hercules who is sitting on a cloud. Franklin's allegory of "Heaven helps him who helps himself" told the American colonists to defend themselves against the Indians without British help. His 1754 cartoon of a snake chopped into pieces, each piece labeled with a colony's name, advised the colonies to "join or die," that is, to unite against their common foes. American folklore always asserted a cut-up snake could rejoin its parts and live. Thus, Franklin made classics, mythology, and folklore into staples of the American political cartoon.

Satirical posters, leaflets, and banners quickly became an integral part of American political life, especially during the election campaigns. Most of these early efforts remained anonymous. Exceptions included Elkanah Tilsdale's "The Gerry-mander" (1812), the infamous winged dragon shaped from Massachusetts townships grouped for electoral advantage. Edward William Clay (1799–1857) drew cartoons extolling President Andrew Jackson in his fights with the U.S. Bank. George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) painted effective parade banners of Henry Clay for Whig Party rallies in Missouri in 1844. The Currier and Ives Company used the new lithographic print process to churn out cartoon handbills by their chief draftsman Louis Maurer (1832–1932) for any party or candidate willing to pay for them from 1835 until 1907.

Political cartoons from New York City magazines spread their candidates' messages across the nation. Frank Leslie's Illustrated (1855–1891) published caricatures of Abraham Lincoln by Frank Bellew (1828–1888) that became almost as famous as Harper's Weekly (1857–1916), and Thomas Nast (1840–1902) later made cartoons of local political boss Thurlow Tweed. When Tweed fled the country to avoid prosecution, Spanish police identified him from Nast's caricatures. After the Civil War, New York City humor magazines continued to lampoon political figures. Puck (1877–1918) supplied pro–Democratic Party cartoons by Joseph Keppler (1838–1894) while The Judge (1881–1939) and Bernard Gillam (1856–1896) provided the Republican Party. Created for a literate clientele, such periodicals referenced Shakespeare and the classics to a higher degree than anyone had previously done.

Political cartoons appeared in daily newspapers as early as the 1860 presidential election. Walt McDougall began routine daily front-page cartoons for William Randolph Hearst's New York World with the half-page "The Royal Feast of Belshazzar, Blaine, and the Money Kings" on 30 October 1884. Republican James G. Blaine lost the 1884 presidential election to Democrat Grover Cleveland because he lost New York's electoral votes. Such cartoons

also supposedly enhanced circulation, but photographs and banner headlines quickly took over the front page of newspapers, moving the political cartoon to the editorial page. Many unemployed sketch artists then reinvented themselves as "editorial" cartoonists. By 1900, American newspapers employed around 500 of these new editorial cartoonists.

Editorial cartoons widened the genre's horizons by including seemingly nonpolitical cultural themes. They also turned bland because of owners' desires for profits and the establishment of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons in 1922. The Columbia University School of Journalism invariably chose inoffensive cartoons with subtle and universal messages for the Pulitzer. Until 1967, the school awarded the prize for single cartoons, resulting in three-time winners: Rollin Kirby (1875–1952) for the New York World and Edmund Duffy (1899–1962) for the Baltimore Sun. Eight others won twice. After 1967, the school conferred the Pulitzer only for a cartoonist's body of work. Gary Trudeau won in 1975 for his cartoon strip "Doonesbury," which most newspapers quickly moved to the editorial section. Cartoonists generally agreed with the Pulitzer's choices for recipients despite its methods for selecting cartoons.

Liberal-minded European American males dominated the ranks of political cartoonists from Franklin's time through the early twenty-first century. Late-twentieth-century giants indicative of this trend included Herbert Block ("Herblock") and Pat Oliphant. The historical list of women and racial minority editorial cartoonists is short. Edwina Dumm became the first regularly employed female editorial cartoonist in 1915 for the Columbus, Ohio Daily Monitor. In 1991, Barbara Brandon (Universal Press Syndicate) became the first black female cartoonist nationally syndicated in the mainstream press. In 1992, Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News became the first woman to win the Pulitzer. In 2002, Daryl Cagle's exhaustive Web site for editorial cartoonists listed only a dozen women out of 350 working cartoonists. Black male Oliver W. Harrington (1912–1995) drew regularly for Amsterdam News (New York City) in the 1930s and as an independent contributor thereafter. Michael Ramirez of the Los Angeles Times and Lalo Alcaraz of L.A. Weekly represent the growing Hispanic population. Political conservatives are equally as scarce. In 2002, only thirty-two of an estimated 350 employed editorial cartoonists regarded themselves as conservative.

In the twenty-first century, the Internet returned the genre to its visceral roots. Internet cartoonists excoriated both candidates for office and political issues in ways not seen in a century. Local party groups on the Internet and suburban newspapers distributed political cartoons by free-lance conservative cartoonists such as Jim Huber. Internet sites produced more daily political cartoons than newspapers do editorial cartoons.


"Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonists Index." Available from http://cagle.slate.msn.com

Hess, Steven, and Sandy Northrop. Drawn and Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons. Montgomery, Ala.: Elliott and Clark, 1996.

Press, Charles. The Political Cartoon. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.


See alsoMagazines ; Newspapers .

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Political cartoons, or editorial cartoons, serve as a commentary on current events. From the first use of such cartoons in newspapers and periodicals in the early nineteenth century to the Great Depression in the 1930s and thereafter, political cartoons have played a major role in shaping public perceptions and opinions. By using satire rather than mere humor, political cartoons communicate the views of the cartoonist and add depth to an editorial in a newspaper or magazine.


Several political cartoonists gained fame for their work during the Great Depression, including Clifford Berryman, Herb Block, J. N. "Ding" Darling, Jerry Doyle, Rollin Kirby, and Fred O. Seibel.

J. N. "Ding" Darling. Jay Norwood Darling (1876–1962) received the Pulitzer Prize twice for his editorial cartooning (1924 and 1943) and was named the best cartoonist by the nation's top editors in 1934. From 1906 until his retirement in 1949, Darling chronicled the thoughts, ideas, trends, and politics of the United States primarily for the Des Moines Register, although his cartoons appeared in newspapers throughout the United States. He was particularly noted for his wit and his use of political satire, especially in relation to conservation policy. Darling's interest in conservation led in 1933 to his being appointed chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Darling was a strong Republican and not a supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal policies, he nevertheless was an energetic promoter of conservation projects and his cartoons often emphasized the value of governmental regulations that could benefit the environment. The J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida is named after him.

Herb Block. Another popular Depression-era cartoonist was Herbert L. Block (1909–2001). Block published his first editorial cartoon, titled "This is the forest primeval—", six months before the 1929 New York Stock Exchange crash that marked the onset of the Great Depression. Like Darling, Block was interested in protecting nature and the environment, especially the cutting of America's virgin forests, and he addressed these concerns in his cartoons. Block's interest in nature later broadened into concern for the economic and international environment that developed in the 1930s.

Block started his career as a cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News in 1929. In 1933, he started working as a syndicated cartoonist under the name HerBlock for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a feature service headquartered in Cleveland.

He joined the Washington Post in 1946, and stayed there for the rest of his career. During the Depression he provided superb commentary about unemployment and poverty in the United States and the rise of fascism in Europe. One cartoon, titled "Well everything helps," depicts Hoover fishing at Rapidan River with members of Congress and his administration. Block comments on the deepening Depression by showing Hoover reviewing his "economic program" with his fishing line in the water, and later selling his catch of fresh fish on a street in Washington, D.C.

Block's cartoons addressed many aspects of the Great Depression and his editorial comments were a rallying call for reform. Though Block was supportive of New Deal policies, he nonetheless questioned Roosevelt's efforts in some areas, notably the president's unsuccessful attempt in 1937 to pack the U.S. Supreme Court. Block was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1942, 1954, and 1979, honors that confirmed his reputation as one of the country's leading political cartoonists.

Jerry Doyle and Fred O. Seibel. Gerald "Jerry" Doyle (1898–1986) and Fred O. Seibel (1886–1968) were two of the more popular political cartoonists of the New Deal era. They were especially noted for their distinctive depictions of Roosevelt. Seibel was an editorial cartoonist from 1926 to 1968 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, while Doyle spent most of his career at The Philadelphia Record and Philadelphia Daily News. Doyle's sophisticated drawings generally expressed support for Roosevelt, whom he depicted as tall, imposing, powerful, and larger-than-life. Doyle usually showed Roosevelt smiling, gave him titles such as "skipper" to show that he was in charge, and sometimes depicted him as a quarterback in football games. Seibel, whose drawings were less realistic in style, generally depicted Roosevelt as struggling and lacking control, with a protruding chin and a body like a penguin. Seibel's cartoons sometimes included an image of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, which was meant to indicate that Roosevelt's policies would only succeed by magic. Neither Doyle nor Seibel, however, would hesitate to reverse his usual depiction of Roosevelt when, in the cartoonist's opinion, the subject matter warranted it. One of Doyle's most famous cartoons showed Roosevelt holding a picture of Hitler with Hitler's arms in a position of surrender and Roosevelt's elongated arms forming a V for victory.


Hoover and Roosevelt were regular subjects of political cartoons during the 1930s. In the first hundred days of Roosevelt's administration in 1933, cartoonists tended to show Roosevelt as a confident, strong, and energetic leader whose intentions for the nation were good. These cartoons suggested that Americans sensed that the new president had faith in the future and could lead the nation out of hard times. The February 1934 issue of Vanity Fair, for example, includes a rugged-looking Roosevelt riding a bucking horse in the shape of the United States. By 1935, however, the country had only achieved a modest degree of recovery, and some political cartoonists began to express opposition to Roosevelt and his programs.



Fred O. Seibel (1886–1968), Editorial Cartoonist, Richmond Times-Dispatch. Virginia Commonwealth University. Available at: www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/exhibit/seibel1.html

Herblock's History: Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millennium. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Available at: www.loc.gov/rr/print/swann/herblock

J. N. "Ding" Darling Foundation. Homepage at: www.dingdarling.org/cartoons.html

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 1994.

Robinson, Erik. Political Cartooning in Florida, 1901–1987. 1987.

William Arthur Atkins

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Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1775) defined caricature as drawings "intended as humour, satire, and comment." Political cartoons fit this bill as well. The first American-made example is credited to Benjamin Franklin. Originally produced to urge intercolonial union at the 1754 Albany Congress, this engraving of a dismembered snake emblazoned "Join, or Die" became the ubiquitous symbol of colonial unity during the Revolutionary period. Not until the ratification battle over the U.S. Constitution in the late 1780s did Americans begin to use cartoons as part of political discourse. Even though crudely drawn, these cartoons commented—at times through savagely direct dialogue, at other times by using pointed allegorical imagery, or both—on the intrigues, schemes, and decisions that shaped politics. For example, "Cong-ss embark'd

on Board the Ship Constitution of America," engraved in 1790, criticized attempts to locate the new nation's capital in Philadelphia. As their ship travels from New York, a devil lures members of Congress, led by Pennsylvania senator Robert Morris, toward certain death at the foot of a waterfall located just outside Philadelphia, while an unobstructed waterway leads to the proposed Potomac River location. Another contemporary cartoon depicts Morris carrying Congressional Hall on his head to Philadelphia.

British cartoons such as those produced by William Hogarth or, later, James Gillray clearly served as models for the American form. But it was the American tolerance for dissent that permitted political cartooning to flourish in the early nineteenth century. During the Adams, Jefferson, and Madison administrations, cartoons by the opposition grew particularly rancorous. Jefferson's alleged pro-French sentiments, for example, aroused his critics who portrayed him as a madman or worse. An illustration entitled "The Providential Detection," dating from between 1796 and 1800, shows him on his knees before a fiery "Altar to Gallic Despotism," wrestling the Constitution away from the American eagle to consign it to the flames. A flood of negative cartoons attacked both the Americans and the British during the War of 1812. William Charles, an artist who emigrated to America from Scotland in 1806 and signed his early work "Ansell" or "Argus," created as many as three dozen cartoons during the war, many of which feature the figure of John or Johnny Bull to represent the English.

Cartoons sometimes appeared in newspapers or magazines but most often were printed as separate broadsheets and distributed in bookshops or by peddlers. With the advent of lithography in the 1820s, political cartoons were created in larger numbers and enjoyed a wider distribution. Reportedly, during President Andrew Jackson's scandal-plagued second term, as many as ten thousand copies of E. W. Clay's "The Rats Leaving a Falling House" were produced in Philadelphia.

Few early cartoons survive, but examples can be found in the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the New-York Historical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the American Antiquarian Society.

See alsoHumor; Newspapers .


Blaisell, Thomas C., and Peter Selz. The American Presidency in Political Cartoons, 1776–1976. Berkeley, Calif.: University Art Museum, 1976.

Hess, Stephen, and Milton Kaplan. The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Weitenkampf, Frank. Political Caricature in the United States in Separately Published Cartoons: An Annotated List. New York: New York Public Library, 1953.

Kym S. Rice