Political cartoosn more than silly pictures
By Stephen Springer - Staff Reporter
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a political cartoon incorporates nuance, context and implications pictures cannot, a Highline professor told the Oct. 11 History Seminar audience.
Without the efficiency of computers and the internet, writers and artists had to develop the most logical method of conveying information about current events as quickly and completely as possible, said professor, Tim McMannon.
One of the first of these cartoons was published just more than 100 years before the start of the Civil War in 1754 by Benjamin Franklin. It was designed to emphasize the dire importance of unifying against Britain.
Franklin's simple and intuitive imagery featuring a snake cut in sections to represent each of the American colonies and accompanied by the words "Join, or die," became so iconic for the colonists' struggle against British imperialism, that it is still recognized more than 250 years later.
"In order to understand a lot of these cartoons, you have to know who the people are," said McMannon. "There are some real people and some fake people."
One of the factors that make political cartoons so effective is the use of fake people to represent any idea or organization, much as the snake Franklin used to symbolize the colonies.
Some of the more well-known symbolic figures of the Civil War era include Old Secesh, the male personification of the Confederacy, John Bull as Great Britain and of course, Uncle Sam representing the United States.
"By the 1850s and 1860s, political cartoons mostly showed in weekly magazines," McMannon said, though they were also available from a variety of other sources such as single prints and in newspapers.
By the beginning of the war, these political cartoons had been used in several different ways.
Some used symbolism to illustrate complex situations happening in the government to giving imagery to shocking incidents, such as when an abolitionist senator was beaten with a cane by another senator on the floor of the Senate over an anti-slavery speech.
Even though political cartoons had already been around for about a century, in the 1860s they are still considered to be "in their infancy," McMannon said. "[Cartoonists] were still trying to figure out what they are going to do with this artwork."
One of the best of these cartoons to showcase the importance of imagery features South Carolina's governor threatening President James Buchanan with a cannon in order to take control of the federally controlled Fort Sumter.
According to the artist of this cartoon, the governor thinks this threat will bring peace, but he doesn't realize that the cannon is pointed at his own groin, symbolizing how his actions will backfire if he attacks the fort.
Meanwhile, President Buchanan is presented as a man who wants to pass the issue of slavery onto the next president.
When artists of their day wanted to express current events about the Civil War, these cheeky presentations did the job and also shaped what political cartoons would turn into today.
The next History Seminar will feature America's use of forced and voluntary mass sterilization in Puerto Rico in order to control the overgrowing population of the island territory.