Political cartoons are rarely warm and friendly. Not everyone in public life considers them useful or constructive. The most famous cartoon in the country's history -- it seems to have been the first, and very possibly the most influential -- was a snake.

You would recognize it immediately. Benjamin Franklin published it in his Pennsylvania Gazette in early 1754 as the French and Indian War approached. It was a two-inch woodcut: a snake severed into eight segments, the head representing New England and the other seven representing colonies to the south. The legend was, "Join, or Die," suggesting the necessity for close cooperation. It was widely reproduced at the time and was revived, with increasingly seditious implications, in the campaign against the Stamp Act and again at the beginning of the Revolution. The purpose was, obviously, to make trouble for the British authorities -- among other things, to disturb their peace of mind and public standing. But whatever else the British did that may have been ill- advised, at least they didn't try to respond by suing Mr. Franklin for libel.

Which is more than you can say of some of the officials who have succeeded them. In Benjamin Franklin's city a former mayor, Frank Rizzo, has a libel suit going against a cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Mr. Rizzo seems to feel that the cartoon in question tended to diminish his stature as a statesman and a force for moral uplift in the community. In Massachusetts -- where incidentally, the snake was widely and enthusiastically reprinted two centuries ago -- a governor, Edward King, brought suit, shortly before announcing his (unsuccessful) campaign for reelection, against The Boston Globe. He was offended by several cartoons, along with various columns and an editorial. But as The Wall Street Journal suggested, in its recent survey of this subject, it's hard see how a cartoonist can do his job without offending anyone.

The political cartoon is precisely the kind of commentary that is, or ought to be, most fully protected by the First Amendment. A good cartoon is opinion, sharp and pure.

Perhaps that is what an appellate court will say, if and when it gets either of these cases. But judges in the lower courts have refused to dismiss them, demonstrating another salient point about the law of libel in its present confused and labyrinthine condition. Because trial judges hesitate to dismiss even the most obvious intrusions on constitutionally protected political expression, litigation goes on for months and years with the meter running, the legal fees accumulating, and the burdens rising on the litigants. Judges might usefully reflect that without the subversive idea that Ben Franklin's snake forcefully and successfully conveyed, Americans would find themselves living today in a very different kind of country.