Anyone on social media knows the power of memes to drive home an argument and influence others’ views. But the tactic of using a viral image to persuade people goes back to long before the existence of the Internet or Facebook. One of its earliest practitioners was American founding father Benjamin Franklin who, in 1754, published a cartoon, “Join or Die,” depicting a snake severed into pieces that symbolized the American colonies.
Franklin’s goal was to unite the colonists to combat the French and their Native American allies, and to convince the British government to support a unified colonial government in America. He didn’t achieve that goal, but the image was so powerful and persuasive that it took on a life of its own. A few years later, in the prelude to the Revolutionary War, colonists repurposed it as a symbol of their unity against British rule.
The cartoon was a warning during the French and Indian War.
The story of the first viral image in American political history began in May 1754, when Franklin, then the publisher of a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette, sought to drum up support for a unified colonial government. He wrote an impassioned editorial, in which he warned of hordes of French intruders converging on the western frontier in Ohio. “Many more French are expected from Canada,” he wrote. “The Design being to establish themselves, settle their Indians, and build Forts just on the Back of our Settlements in all our Colonies; from which Forts, as they did from Crown-Point, they may send out their Parties to kill and scalp the Inhabitants, and ruin the Frontier Counties.”
But if that horrific scenario weren’t enough to motivate his readers, Franklin also illustrated it with what he called an “emblem”—a woodcut of a snake cut into sections, with the caption “Join or Die.” The identity of the actual artist who created the image isn’t known, but the concept may have been inspired by an illustration in a book published in France in 1685, which showed a snake cut in two with the slogan, se rejoindre ou mourir (“will join or die”). Additionally, the severed snake image may have drawn upon folklore of the time, which included the belief that a snake cut into pieces could come back to life, if its various parts were reunited before sunset.
The snake was a potent symbol with more positive connotations to the colonists than it might carry today, according to Donald C. Dewey, author of the 2007 book, The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons. “Snakes meant regeneration and renewal, because they shed their skins,” he explains.
The 'Join or Die' snake carried many symbols.
As University of Kansas special collections librarian, Karen Severud Cook, wrote in a 1996 article in the British Library Journal, the snake also may have intended to evoke a map, with undulations that “suggest the curving shape of the eastern seacoast of North America, even if one could not superimpose the cartoon on a map and match the shapes precisely.”
Oddly, though, the snake was cut into eight pieces, rather than 13. The head of the snake was labeled “N.E.,” signifying the four New England colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, which Franklin combined to emphasize the importance of unity. Other pieces were marked to signify New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Delaware, which shared a governor with Pennsylvania, and Georgia, a newer colony that Franklin didn’t think could contribute much to colonial defense, were left out.
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Franklin’s cartoon had another advantage. “Literacy was not high in that day,” Dewey notes, so the drawing and its message provided a way to reach colonists who might not have been able to read his editorial.
Franklin published the image with a specific political objective in mind. At the time, he was preparing to join other colonial leaders at the Albany Congress, a meeting called to discuss how they should deal with the growing military threat from the French and their Native American allies. Franklin thought that the colonies needed to join together in a strong alliance. He proposed a unified colonial government that could levy taxes and form a military, governed by a council of representatives from each of the colonies and headed by a President General appointed by the British monarch.
The image backfires in England.
Franklin’s campaign of persuasion got a boost when the severed snake cartoon was soon reprinted by more than half a dozen other colonial newspapers. But he apparently wanted to reach another influential audience as well on the other side of the Atlantic. Since he didn’t have Twitter or Instagram at his disposal, he mailed a copy of the cartoon in 1754, along with his editorial, to Richard Partridge, a Quaker merchant who acted as colonial Pennsylvania’s agent in London.
“With this I send you a Paragraph of News from our Gazette, with an Emblem printed therewith, which it may be well enough to get inserted in some of your most publick Papers,” Franklin wrote to Partridge.
In retrospect, that may not have been the wisest move. According to Lester C. Olson, a professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the 2004 book, Benjamin Franklin's Vision of American Community: A Study in Rhetorical Iconology, the severed snake image may actually have backfired, because British politicians saw the colonial unity that it promoted as a potential threat to their control. Even though Franklin’s plan was approved by the Albany Congress, the British Parliament rejected it, and instead the British sent their own army to fight in the conflict that would become known as the French and Indian War.
The cartoon is adopted for the Revolutionary War.
But even though “Join or Die” failed to accomplish its real purpose, it may have had a much larger unintended impact. Franklin’s cartoon made such a powerful impression on Americans that it took on a life of its own.
A decade after it originally was published, colonists protesting Great Britain’s enacting of the Stamp Act resurrected the severed snake as a symbol of their desire to unify in opposition to unfair taxation. In 1774, Paul Revere used a version of it in the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy newspaper, as did several other colonial newspapers that promoted the developing rebellion against British rule. Today, it remains one of the most famous political cartoons ever published.
Only two copies of the edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette with the cartoon still exist. One is held by the Library of Congress, while the other resurfaced in a 2008 auction, where a collector purchased it for $50,000.