Although Benjamin Franklin—prolific writer, scientist, inventor, and statesman—is perhaps best known for his work in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution and for his experiments with electricity, he also deserves to be celebrated for his significance as the publisher of America's first political cartoons.
Well before he gained prominence in the political sphere, Franklin made a name for himself as a printer. One of 17 children born to Josiah Franklin, a Boston soap- and candle-maker, Benjamin became an apprentice printer, working for his brother James, at age 12, and later ran away to establish his own printing business in Philadelphia.
In 1747, he published a pamphlet entitled Plain Truth, which urged Pennsylvanians to establish militias to defend themselves against the French. To help make his point, the pamphlet included an illustration showing a horse-drawn wagon stuck in the mud and the wagon driver on his knees, praying to Hercules (seen sitting on a cloud above the scene) to assist him. The caption to this image reads “Non Votis,” a phrase contemporary readers would understand to mean “God helps those who help themselves.” Franklin had previously used this illustration in a popular schoolbook and accompanied it with the caption “He that won’t help himself, shall have Help from no Body.” By applying this image to make an argument in discussing a current political question, Franklin created what some historians consider the first American political cartoon. In his Autobiography, Franklin recalled that Plain Truth and its imagery “had a sudden and surprising Effect” in mobilizing militia volunteers.
“Join, or Die,” the famous image of a segmented snake representing the American colonies, is more widely considered the first American political cartoon—it was certainly the first cartoon to be published in an American newspaper. This cartoon too was published by Franklin, in his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 9, 1754. Within a month of publication, it had been reprinted in almost every newspaper in America and was reproduced and re-circulated during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 and during the American Revolution. It remains one of the best-known images associated with the Revolutionary period to this day.
Ironically, although Franklin was the first American political cartoonist, he was also the first American public figure to be lampooned in political cartoons. As art historian William Murrell documents, half of the eight American cartoons that can be traced to the 1760s are images attacking Franklin. (These cartoons are held HSP and can be explored online at http://digitallibrary.hsp.org.) Thanks in part to these negative caricatures, Franklin lost his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly in its election of 1764.
James N. Green and Peter Stallybrass, Benjamin Franklin: Writer and Printer, Library Company of Philadelphia, online exhibition, accessed July 28, 2015. Link
Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan, The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 50-52.
William Murrell, A History of American Graphic Humor, vol. 1 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1933), 11-21.