Benjamin Franklin is arguably one of the most fascinating figures in American history. He was an author, printer, satirist, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, diplomat, and not to mention, one of the United States’ most prominent Founding Fathers.
Franklin owned and ran the Pennsylvania Gazette, a Philadelphia-based newspaper that featured the “Join, or Die” cartoon on May 9, 1754. His ability to disseminate powerful messages helped reinforce his influence as a communicator. From an early American propaganda perspective, Franklin was revolutionary. According to an article in BBC, the Pennsylvania Gazette “is widely considered to be the first American publication to illustrate news stories with cartoons and [the ‘Join, or Die’] political cartoon is believed to be the first of its kind in America.”
The cartoon depicts the early American colonies as a snake divided into eight segments. Toward the head of the snake, “NE” represents New England, followed by “NY” (New York), “NJ” (New Jersey), “P” (Pennsylvania), “M” (Maryland), “V” (Virginia), “NC” (North Carolina) and “SC” (South Carolina). Even though there were four “New England” colonies, Franklin lumped them into one category to stress the need for colonial unity. At the time, the colonists fiercely debated expanding west of the Appalachian Mountains and fighting the French and their Indian allies.
The snake, a seemingly simple image, has powerful, superstitious connotations. During Franklin’s era, there was myth that a severed snake would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset. The cartoon, which appeared alongside Franklin’s editorial about the “disunited state” of the colonies, symbolically portrays an either/or fallacy: unite or be attacked by French and Indian allies. In his editorial, Franklin wrote:
“The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty of bringing so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common defense and Security; while our Enemies have the very great Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse….”
Fear, a common theme throughout American propaganda history, ignites natural human emotions and produces a “call to action.” People are generally more likely to respond when they feel their lives are in danger. In 1754, the newspaper served as the primary medium to disseminate news to the public. Franklin, ahead of his time, understood that in order to convince the colonists, he had to first convince the public. Direct and powerful images, accompanied by clear and descriptive prose has the power to create a conversation among various niche populations. Franklin, through his “Join, or Die” cartoon, voiced a strong opinion in a subtle, persuasive and intellectual way.