HE WAS, perhaps, the first American who intimately understood why an image goes viral.

Great printer-turned-polymath Ben Franklin not only toted much wisdom about fonts, but was also a total “font of wisdom” about the mental traction sparked by the right, electric interplay between word and picture.

“Franklin was certainly the most important [colonial] image-maker,” says Sara W. Duke of the Library of Congress, “and he understood the relationship between images and text in a way that others did not necessarily, because he was a publisher and accustomed to illustrating some of the books he printed.”

Pencil drawing of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin West. Pencil drawing of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin West.

Decades before American independence, while in his early 40s, Franklin was trying to sway his fellow Pennsylvanians and the Quaker-led Assembly on matters of defense. In his pamphlets, he turned to the power of the cartoon to elucidate a point, concentrate the focus — and, perhaps, persuade.

Franklin also created the historic “Join, or Die” cartoon that shows an institutional body as segmented snake. “The image proved so evocative that a generation later, colonists used it to defeat the British during the American Revolution,” says Duke, curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art in the library’s Prints & Photographs division.

Today at noon, in the spirit of Independence Day, Duke will give a free public presentation on the first American political cartoon, which Franklin published in 1747 in his pamphlet Plain Truth.

Ahead of that talk at the library’s South Gallery (in the “First Among Many: The Bay Psalm Book and Early Moments in American Printing” exhibition), Comic Riffs caught up with Duke to talk about big Ben not as statesman or scientist, but rather about Franklin, the father of American cartoon satire:

MICHAEL CAVNA: I typically hear Ben Franklin referred to as America’s first true political cartoonist — the founding father of colonial editorial cartooning, as it were. Would that be true or false — and why?

SARA DUKE: Benjamin Franklin was a great satirist – and that was true from the time he created Silence Dogood [his first pseudonym] while apprenticed to his brother as a printer in Boston. However, he was not a cartoonist. He hired artists to create images and he had input over designs that he wanted, but as far as I know he did not draw, engrave or make woodcuts himself.

MC: If you walk up to 10 Americans on the street, most will know Ol’ Ben’s résumé as a politician and inventor and champion storm kite-flier, and perhaps even his rep as a ladies’ man [or widower-years flirt]. … But why is his cartoon career not more widely known, do you think?

SD: It’s because we overlook the images that Franklin had his artists create – but in the scale of things, some of the cartoons he did generate influenced generations of Americans. [There was] his 1754 cartoon “Join, or Die,” which was issued later in the Pennsylvania Gazette during the French and Indian War. The image about which I will be speaking is an illustration published in his 1747 pamphlet, Plain Truth or, Serious Considerations of the Present State of the City of Philadelphia and Province of Pennsylvania, on Nov. 17, 1747, in reaction to the Quaker Assembly’s refusal to approve money to pay for weapons to attack the privateers who raided Delaware Bay and homes along its shores. An image, titled “Non Votis, &c.,” was printed opposite the title page as additional commentary on the pamphlet.

Ben Franklin's 1754 cartoon.
This Ben Franklin concept was so evocative, it was reissued for the Revolutionary cause.

The image features the story of the Wagoner from Aesop’s fables, in which the wagoner finds his team of horses stuck in a hole and unable to move forward. He begs Hercules to use his strength, and the god refuses, ordering the wagoner to whip his horses and put his shoulder to the wheel. The image nicely dovetails a Franklin adage, “God helps those who helps themselves.”

In the context of the pamphlet, the image functions as a political cartoon, because it expresses the opinion of the author that mere prayer is not enough to stop the invasions of property by privateers. In the text, he uses Sallust’s “Bellum Catilinae,” especially the line “timorous prayers and womanish supplications,” to insult the Quaker-led Assembly and to persuade readers of the pamphlet that they needed to band together to pay for defense. That line, when coupled with the image, affects how we read the image.


The image “Non Votis, &c.” appeared in Franklin’s 1747 pamphlet Plain Truth. (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Franklin, at this point, was truly American and not an “English colonist,” and understood the power of the press to persuade and influence educated colonists to action.

Nevertheless, the image was not created for the pamphlet – it was a re-use from an earlier 1747 publication, and if you really want to know whether or not I think this was the first political cartoon in America, you’ll have to come to my talk at noon in the South Gallery in the “First Among Many: The Bay Psalm Book and Early Moments in American Printing” exhibition.

MC: Could you please talk [more] about Plain Truth and … what you’ll be discussing today at the Library? What are some points or themes we’ll hear?

SD: Plain Truth was a pamphlet that Benjamin Franklin anonymously issued on Nov. 17, 1747, to urge Philadelphians to create an association for their defense, and not, as the Quaker-led Assembly had proposed, let raids on merchants ships and homes along Delaware Bay be the providential price for doing business.

FRANKLIN-penngazette

“Join, or Die” was published in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754, advocating that colonies united with Great Britain to defeat the French and their allied Native Americans during the French and Indian War. The image proved so evocative that a generation later, colonists used it to defeat the British during the American Revolution. It’s interesting that people have argued that it is America’s first political cartoon, too, and perhaps, I might indicate tomorrow, a more natural selection.

MC: Could it reasonably be argued, given his colonial timing, that Franklin was one of the most important political “cartoon satirists” in American history? Or even, for social impact — as he rallied Quakers to take up arms, for instance — the most important? And what made him so effective, other than access to his own barrels of ink?

SD: Franklin was certainly the most important-image maker, and he understood the relationship between images and text in a way that others did not necessarily, because he was a publisher and accustomed to illustrating some of the books he printed.

MC: Could you talk some about Franklin’s materials for illustration? He was such an accomplished printer, of course — but what physical materials and tools was he using circa 1847 to render his editorial art?

(via Wikimedia Commons) (via Wikimedia Commons)

SD: I think he probably had a wood engraver working for him who created illustrations for his book publications and the few illustrations he published in his Pennsylvania Gazette. However, I don’t know how big his staff was – perhaps he did it himself. He wasn’t trained as an engraver, though. Nevertheless, both wood engravings and type have to be set in reverse, so it is possible he cut have cut the images himself – he would have been familiar with thinking in reverse.

MC: Benjamin Franklin: Great American, or greatest American? Does he crack your “top five”?

SD: The more I learn about him, the more I respect his sense of humor and his sense of responsibility to the American people. He does make me laugh, but more, he impresses me with the depth of his curiosity, his interests, his energy, and his passion.

MC: What, to your mind, is the most amazing or awe-inspiring product of Franklin’s labors that the Library of Congress has in its possession? And can we see it?

SD: Very appropriately for July 4, when Franklin worked as the ambassador to France for the United States — at a time, during the American Revolution, when our nationhood could not be taken for granted — he was very grateful to the people of France for their support that led to victory over England, and especially the monarchy of George III. He hired Antoine Esprit Gibelin to design a medallion that he could have cast in metal to thank the people of France. The Library of Congress possesses one of the designs, but not the final design.

It’s great to work at the Library, where we can bring a wealth of information to the American people.