Political cartoons have had a tremendous impact on the way history has unfolded, particularly before the majority of the population was able to read. One simple image defining complex social issues are the crux of what makes political cartoons so effective for both the layman and the erudite.
Political Cartoons in Religion
In fact, one of the most notable uses of political cartoons was in Germany during the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther used cartoons to persuade the middle and lower classes that the Church’s actions were quite different from Jesus’.
Following the Protestant Reformation, political leaders and thinkers continued to refine their craft through the use of political cartoons, which can take the form of either caricature or allusion.
- Caricature: A political or editorial cartoon that parodies the individual.
- Allusion: A political or editorial cartoon that invents the situation or context into which the individual is placed.
The First Political Cartoon in the United States
Although the original roots of political cartoons can’t be traced, historians agree that Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon, which depicts a snake broken into several parts, was the first political cartoon to influence the masses in America. Franklin’s goal was to paint the colonies as a fractured group that couldn’t face problems without help from one another, and eventually his cartoon became an important symbol for colonial unity.
Cartoons Play Critical Role in American Civil War
One of the most influential political cartoonists in United States history is Thomas Nast, a Harper’s Weekly staff artist who became famous for creating a satirical cartoon that depicted slavery and life in the south. During the Civil War, his work became so powerful that President Abraham Lincoln described Nast as the “best recruiting sergeant” for the Union cause. After the Civil War, however, Nast’s illustrations began to fall short of readers’ expectations, and other illustrators began to step in to fill his place at the forefront of political discourse.
Joseph Keppler was raised and educated in Austria before immigrating to St. Louis during the Civil War. Because his views and ideology were formed before he arrived on American soil, he brought with him a perspective that was different from many Americans’. Keppler and his colleagues started several illustrated humor magazines, none of which found long-term success. His work is notable, however, because he was able to use it to bridge the gap between the United States and the German-speaking world. The magazines were printed in German during an era when a substantial portion of U.S. voters still spoke German.
It’s clear that activists have used visual imagery to incite a revolutionary spirit in people who might not have received the critical information they needed to take action. Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet, the meme has often overshadowed the satirical political cartoon in publications. Luckily for us purists, reputable ‘offline’ publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times still see the value in keeping the art form alive.