Caricatures and political cartoons have existed as far back as the Stone Age. (Hess 15) Political cartoons of the 19th and 20th centuries have greatly impacted public knowledge and perceptions of local and world events and leaders through their humor, wit, and accessibility. These often satiric examples of liberated journalism reveal both political conflicts and society’s ills and successes with a comical edge.

It is apparent that at least some form of political cartooning has been present throughout the history of human society. Going back as far as the cave man, the favorite targets of the political cartoonists have always been their leaders. A caricature of a man, assumed by historians to be a leader, was found on a cave wall that dates back to the stone age. (Hess 15) A little later, tribes began to carve or chisel generally silly, though sometimes flattering, impressions of their leaders. The Chinese also used caricatures, but their creations represented comical acts of everyday life that contradict the normal stereotypes that present them as colder, more uptight traditionalists. Egyptian cartoons include depictions of intoxicated masters being cared for by their slaves. The Greek cartoons, as well as portraying public leaders, also made fun of the mythological Gods and their individual traits. The Romans left many caricatures on their walls as well as some engraving in stone columns of military leaders. Western European churches used caricatures of sinners in hymn books to convince their members to embrace God and avoid sin. (Hoff 16)

The use of caricatures changed as the world started to gain its freedom from constrictive monarchies. The modern political cartoon was born as artists and journalists found their freedoms expanding in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is also important to note that the first prominent political cartoon in America was Benjamin Franklin’s "Join or Die," which shows a snake cut into pieces, representing the regional separation of colonial America. While it was first intended as propaganda to encourage Americans to unite and fight in the French-Indian War, it was later reused to inspire freedom-hungry patriots to fight against Britain in the Revolutionary war. (Hoff 31)

Demonstrating the influence that political cartoons have on pubic perception, crooked New York politician William Marcy Tweed was quoted as saying in 1871, "Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures." (qtd. in Hess 13) Tweed was referring to "pictures" by the great American political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who had sworn to bring down the likes of sneaky, tyrannical leaders like Tweed. Tweed’s quote accurately sums up the amazing ability of political cartoons to reach people of all classes, no matter what their educational background might be.

Political cartoons are, in essence, manifestos for the common man. A great problem in the early democratic governments was to include all eligible parties in the voting process, informing them of the issues and hearing expressions of their opinions. Early American leaders like Alexander Hamilton tried to make the vote a purely elitist experience. Political cartoons, however, informed the lower class citizens of current issues, inspired them to take matters into their own hands, and to cast their votes despite the obstacles in the way. These cartoons gave the illiterate a source of updates on recent political news so that their votes could be cast based on the candidate’s credentials and not out of ignorance.

The 19th century led to a widespread use of political cartoons by politicians. Perhaps one of the most famous uses was during the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840 for the Whig party. Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler, did not agree on any of the political issues of the time, and, therefore, avoided the issues during the campaign. Realizing that the duo had made no public stance on matters of national concern, the opposing party suggested that ". . . all Harrison wanted for the rest of his life was a pension, a log cabin, and plenty of hard cider." (qtd. in "Harrison" 79) The Whig party decided that instead of fighting this story, they would use it as their candidates’ slogan. Propaganda newsletters and flyers were spread throughout the country showing a political cartoon of Harrison and Tyler in front of a log cabin surrounded by cider barrels. The election focus shifted from current issues to political cartooning, resulting in Harrison and Tyler handily defeating the incumbent President Martin Van Buren. ("Harrison" 79)

Political cartoons were also used in the 19th century during the Civil War to promote both sides of the conflict. The Southern cartoonists took aim at Abe Lincoln, labeling him two-faced (Hoff 63), and distorting his appearance in true caricature style. His tall lanky figure provoked them to draw him like a stick, and his prominent nose soon became half the size of his head. Northern cartoonists portrayed Jefferson Davis, the Confederate leader, as a dark, gloomy man. They also targeted the stereotypical Southern plantation owner with light-colored clothes, and a sun-hat. In cartoons northern men wore darker clothes and a top hats. There are many cartoons showing these two stereotypes arguing or fighting. (Hoff 58)

One of the most famous cartoonists of the Civil War, Thomas Nast, who wrote for the renowned magazine Harper’s Weekly, is known as " . . .the father of American political cartooning. . ." (qtd. in Thomas) Hoff explains that Nast and Harper’s were a comfortable fit:

Barely 20 when Fort Sumter was fired upon and succession of the states took place, he turned into a fiery Union patriot. Harper’s Weekly, strongly pro- North by this time, was quick to welcome him to its pages. (68)
A majority of Nast’s cartoons were about the crooked New York City politicians, civil rights, and the Civil War. (Thomas)

Joseph Keppler was another great American political cartoonist in post Civil War 19th century. He lived through a time in the United States when American politics had a black shadow over them following the corruption of the New York City government. He attacked the United States Congress for avoiding issues and spending money needlessly. (Hoff 84) Keppler is also famous for his "Welcome To All" cartoon. It shows a line of immigrants being greeted by Uncle Sam surrounded by signs stressing the freedoms of America. Keppler drew this to remind Americans that, although they have problems, they are a lot better off than people elsewhere. (Hoff 88) It is a truly powerful patriotic cartoon. Keppler was also an owner of the political magazine, Puck, and drew several cartoons for it. He also worked to make several European Puck magazines, but they failed rather quickly. (Backer)

Europe was also enduring many great changes in the 19th Century. The general shift from monarchy to republic caused turmoil and uncertainty which gave political cartoonists plenty of material. France, for example, was going through both political and social unrest as it looked for its identity after the breakup up the monarchy in the French Revolution. Cartoonist Honoré Daumier revealed the hypocrisy of the French aristocracy. Daumier’s cartoons left no casualties, which was the way he liked it. After being thrown into jail for drawing a cartoon with a rather plump King Louis Philippe called "Gargantua," Daumier returned to cartooning with even more drive and ideas on how to expose the governmental and societal troubles of his homeland. (Hoff 45)

As the Women’s Suffrage Movement (late 19th, early 20th centuries) grew in America and Europe, "it is interesting to note that most political cartoonists were always in the ladies’ corner." (qtd. in Hoff 144) Most examples of cartoons on this subject show men giving total respect to suffragettes as the women walk down the street, leave for conventions, or picket government officials. (Hoff 144) This can be attributed to the generally liberal views of most political cartoonists.

The fears and trials that people felt throughout the World Wars were lessened by the humor of the marvelous talents of these political cartoonists. They managed to take a horribly frightening subject and lighten the mood with negative images of the enemy. In World War II, they fueled both support for the Allies, and hatred for the Nazis and Japanese. The cartoonists shifted their focus from the home-front and looked abroad for targets of their abuse. This was because most cartoonists were avid patriots who supported the war and did not want to cause any sort of distrust or questioning of national leaders. Although cartoonists generally felt it was their job to expose their country’s problems, they saw that questioning a leader’s political choices might hurt the national morale. A victory in Europe needed the backing of the people, and cartoonists did not want to be responsible for causing distrust between the government and the people. Negative portrayals of Hitler and showing the Nazi Swastika destroying European towns and countries became popular. American cartoonist D.R. Fitzpatrick is famous for the swastika in his cartoons that he describes as "a huge, tumbling engine of destruction. . ." (qtd. in Hess 156)

Across the Atlantic, Europe had another soldier in their fight against tyranny. David Low was a New Zealander who worked in Sydney, Australia before working for the London Sun. During World War II, Low wrote the political comic strip entitled "Hit and Muss." This stood for Hitler and Mussolini, whom Low relentlessly trashed with a comic style that gave the English, engulfed in fear from the Nazi attacks, at least something to laugh about. (Hoff 141)

Later on in the 20th Century, American cartoonists found a gold mine of material in the Vietnam War, and, soon after, the Nixon Watergate scandal. Cartoonists such as Pat Oliphant (Oliphant 10), John Fischetti (Fischetti), and Garry Trudeau (Hess 170) led the way against Richard Nixon, John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman, and Robert Haldeman. (Robinson 68) Themes ranged from Nixon’s withholding of evidence to leaked evidence to impeachment. The standard caricature of Nixon included a large head and long, curved up nose.

Most recently, political cartoonists have found great delight in joking about President Bill Clinton’s marriage infidelities. Cartoonists, along with the media in general, showed how the level of respect for the private lives of public people has changed over the years. Everyone in the media, for example, knew of President Kennedy's numerous affairs, but believed that they were personal and had no effect on the nation itself. When Clinton’s marriage difficulties arose, the media did not feel the same sort of restrictions. Political cartoonists created caricatures dealing with something that for so long was off limits: his private life. With this development, cartoonists were given a wider range of topics to deal with.

Although political cartoons were not new, they entered their prime in the 1800s and their influence is still strong. The advancement of new technologies may cause newspapers to be less popular and the political cartoons they contain to be less read. However, as long as politicians continue to make personal mistakes, neglect human rights, and start wars, political cartoons will continue to be drawn about them.


This webpage was created by Sam H. on 04/01/99 for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School, Park Forest, Illinois.

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