It could be said that all art is political in some manner or another. But political cartoons are undoubtedly a prime example of this. Political cartoons first emerged during the early 1500’s in Germany with the Protestant Reformation and have continued to be relevant five hundred years later. But what are political cartoons? What is their purpose?

Join or Die - Benjamin Franklin (May 9th, 1754)
Join or Die - Benjamin Franklin (May 9th, 1754)

Political cartoons, aka editorial cartoons, are meant to inform and influence whoever reads them. It takes a stand on current political events. Political cartoons are meant to make a viewer think about the subject matter. It achieves this by using several methods: symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy and irony. Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent something like an idea or a quality. For example, A giant bag of money in a suit in a political cartoon could be symbolism for a person that the cartoonist feels is greedy or has too much money. Exaggeration is taking a certain quality about something or a person and blowing it out of proportion. For example, if a certain president has smaller than average hands, the cartoonist may choose to depict them as having far smaller hands than they really do in real life. Exaggeration is quite possibly the most frequently used element in political cartoons. It can be found in nearly every political cartoon. The most common form of exaggeration is known as caricature. Caricature focuses on exaggeration qualities on a person. Labeling is used in political cartoons to clearly label objects and allow the reader to more quickly figure out what an object is meant to represent. In the first American political cartoon ‘Join or Die’, Benjamin Franklin showed severed segments of a snake and labeled each segment with different colonies. Analogies are comparisons between two things that share something in common, so a political figure that is sneaky and conniving may be compared to a snake in an editorial cartoon. Irony is the difference between the way things are and the way things should or are expected to be. It’s frequently used by cartoonist’s to further express their feelings towards an issue in current events. All these methods are used together to get an idea or opinion across and if used right, can be extremely effective.

Passional Christi und Antichristi - Lucas Cranach (May 1521)
Passional Christi und Antichristi - Lucas Cranach (May 1521)


The first political cartoons were created during the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Visual images were extensively used as propaganda against the church due to the high illiteracy rates. The best example of this is a booklet that was published in May 1521 titled ‘Passional Christi und Antichristi’. This was a series of 26 woodcut images designed by Lucas Cranach that compared scenes from the life of Jesus Christ to the church and how it strayed from God. The pope was depicted as being the antichrist in a disguise. Images showed scenes like Jesus washing his disciples feet while on the image next to it, there would be scenes showing the pope having his feet washed. Comparing Jesus and the antichrist was not a new concept but the booklet was still wildly influential and deeply impacted the viewers because of the way it went about doing this. It was able to achieve this by using the tools that make political cartoons have the effect that it does. The booklet takes full advantage of exaggeration as well as analogies by
comparing the pope to the antichrist. These elements are very powerful when used correctly. As a result, ‘Passional Christi und Antichristi’ were not the only political cartoons to have such an intense impact.

Gargantua - Honore Daumier (1831)
Gargantua - Honore Daumier (1831)

The time before the French Revolution was not pleasant for those who weren’t in the church or nobility. Those that did not belong to those classes suffered from poverty, high taxes and other horrid conditions. One particular person that voiced this discontent was Honore Daumier, an artist who produced political cartoons so critical and scathing of the king that he was eventually arrested and his works were censored by the French government. His most famous political cartoon was a caricature of King Louis-Philippe titled ‘Gargantua’. It showed the king as a fat giant sitting on a chair with a wooden plank leading up to his mouth where bags of coins were fed to him. The bags of money were filled with coins from miserable citizens and carried up to the King’s mouth by ministers. It criticized the intense amounts of money the government spent on itself and Louis-Philippe’s greed by using a form of exaggeration called caricature. The king had a salary of over 18 million francs while the citizens of France lived in extreme poverty. Louis-Philippe was so offended by ‘Gargantua’ that the artist was put on trial and given a fine of 500 francs as well as six months in jail. This is not the only political cartoon where the people depicted were highly offended by the caricature of themselves.

‘Who Stole The People’s Money?’ was created by Thomas Nast and published August 19th, 1871 and was part of a larger political cartoon titled ‘Two Great Questions’. ‘Who Stole The People’s Money?’ is considered to be among one of the greatest American political cartoons, being reproduced and mimicked countless times. Political machines, a powerful group of people that controlled votes and who could be elected, were an issue in New York City during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. “In July 1871, The New York Times ran a series of news stories exposing massive corruption by members of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine in New York City run by William "Boss" Tweed. The Times had obtained evidence that the Tweed Ring had pilfered the public's money in the form of inflated payments to government contractors, kickbacks to government officials, extortion, and other malfeasance. The estimated sum stolen was set at $6 million, but is today thought to have been between $30 and $200 million.” (“On This Day”) The exposed corruption led to massive backlash and scathing caricatures in political cartoons as well as multiple different news sources running even more articles exposing scandals. Eventually Harper’s Weekly ran the famous political cartoon. ‘Who Stole The People’s Money?’ features a ring of men pointing at each other in order to pass on the blame. Tweed is not alone in this political cartoon, and is placed next to Peter Bar Sweeney, Richard Connolly and Oakey Hall. Tweed was reported to have said in response to the editorial cartoon, “I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!” The cartoon made use of labeling and exaggeration. It has undoubtedly become one of the most iconic political cartoons in American history up to this day.
Who Stole The People's Money? - Thomas Nast (August 19th, 1871)
Who Stole The People's Money? - Thomas Nast (August 19th, 1871)

The very first American political cartoons is titled ‘Join or Die’ and was created by one of the founding fathers Benjamin Franklin. It features labeling and analogy by showing severed snake segments. The segments are labeled with different parts of the colonies. The head is labeled ‘N.E.’ which was for New England. The next segment is labeled ‘N.Y.’ for New York, followed by a segment labeled ‘N.J.’ for New Jersey. Segment ‘P.’ stood for Pennsylvania, segment ‘M.’ for Maryland, segment ‘V.’ for Virginia, ‘N.C.’ for North Carolina and the last segment was labeled ‘S.C.’ for South Carolina. New England was not actually it’s own colony but rather a group of colonies, but Benjamin Franklin choose to lump them together to further stress colonial unity. The segmented snake references an old myth that if severed
Join or Die - Benjamin Franklin (May 9th, 1754)
Join or Die - Benjamin Franklin (May 9th, 1754)

snake segments were placed near each other before sunset, the snake pieces would come back together and the snake could come back to life. This was meant to represent how if the colonies didn’t join together, they would suffer a terrible fate. The political cartoon was originally published in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 9th, 1754. It was an incredibly powerful cartoon. It was created out of a hope of being a call to action and to sway public opinion in favor of the colonies being better united. It was not about the Revolutionary war, but was actually trying to unite the British colonies against the French and Native Americans. By the 1750’s, the French and British had been fighting for years over territory during what would be eventually known as the French and Indian War which is what prompted the political cartoon’s creation. ‘Join or Die’ was certainly a first of it’s kind in America.

All these political cartoons held some sort of influence and show just how deep an impact the art form can hold. From their first appearance in history with the Protestant Reformation to the ones we see in the daily newspaper, they’ve never failed to be incredibly important in spreading an idea and a message. Even early on their ability to sway the public was profound and incredibly useful. They played a key role during the Protestant Reformation and were vital in voicing opinions throughout history. Shortly before the French Revolution for example with Gargantua. Or during the 1800’s in America with criticism against the Tweed ring and with America’s first political cartoon. The history of political cartoons is surprisingly vast and incredibly important.

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