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Ever since the printing press was invented, people have been using political cartoons to poke fun at politicians and make comments about key political issues. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the mass production of newspapers allowed political cartoons to be distributed to the general public on a large scale. It was around this time that political cartoons became permanent features of newspapers and magazines.

Political cartoons are advantageous due to their ability to use political satire while still maintaining journalistic integrity. Political cartoons often use humor, visual metaphors, satire and caricatures to make important points about American politics and American society. These cartoons reach out to people and sometimes get people to think about government in new and often-interesting ways.

Political Cartoons in the United States

While political cartoons have been used for many centuries in countries around the world, it is believed that the first major political cartoon in the United States dates back to 1754. It was in this year that Benjamin Franklin created his cartoon Join, or Die in support of the French and Indian War. This political cartoon would later be recycled and used in support of the U.S. Revolutionary War against Great Britain.

In the early days of political cartoons in the United States, historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln were targeted in political cartoons, just as politicians and political issues are the targets of today’s political cartoons.

In today’s political cartoons you can expect to see common metaphors and symbols. For example, many American political cartoonists portray Russia as a bear, China as a dragon and the United Kingdom as a lion. You’re also likely to see America’s beloved Uncle Sam in many political cartoons.

Political Cartoons vs. Political Issues

The boom of political cartoons occurred in the 1870s. Around this time, a New York politician name William Tweed was linked to a scandal involving $200 million of taxpayer money. In response to the press already generated from Tweed and his group of politicians, known as the Tammany Ring, cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of political cartoons that put Tweed in the spotlight.

Tweed was infuriated that Nast’s works were giving him bad publicity, but he was unable to stop the press. Partially due to the influence of these political cartoons, Tweed was convicted and imprisoned. He later escaped from jail, only to be caught in Spain. Legend has it that the customs clerk in Spain was able to recognize Tweed from Nast’s famous cartoons.

Political Cartoons and Political Campaigns

The Tweed/Nast case is now a classic example of the influence of political cartoons. Perhaps even greater was the influence of a cartoon that appeared on the front page of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World on Oct. 30, 1884.

Created by Walt McDougall, the cartoon satirized a dinner held the night before in honor of the Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine. The caption read: “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.” This work has been noted by historians as one of the main reasons Blaine was defeated in the election just five days later.

Influenced of Historical Political Cartoons

Here’s a list of just some of the events that have been influenced by political cartoons:

  • Child Labor Laws: In the first two decades of the 20th century, there was a massive push to end child labor laws. Political cartoons helped bring that issue to the public’s attention and eventually help enforce laws against child labor.
  • The Meat Trust Scandal of 1906: Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle is a literary classic that opened many people’s eyes to the realities of Chicago’s meat-packing industry. Political cartoons of the time helped create additional controversy that helped lead to federal inspection and later legislation of the meat market.
  • The Spanish-American War: Cartoonists played a great role in mobilizing support for the Spanish-American War and also help interpret the issues that it raised.