The “Join, or Die” illustration was first published in 1754 by Benjamin Franklin as a political cartoon for the Pennsylvania Gazette, an early American newspaper. The cartoon is a representation of all of the British Colonies in a cut-up segmented rattlesnake, which Franklin described as “the present disunited state of the British Colonies.” (Source)
The “Join, or Die” illustration. (Source)
The letters next to the snake are abbreviations of each colony in geographical order, running south to north (South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New England). Because of this, it can actually be viewed as a map of some sorts. Georgia and Delaware are not portrayed on it, and the New England colonies are listed together rather than having their separate segments. Originally, the cartoon was created as a woodcut, which is an illustration carved on a piece of wood.
PURPOSE OF THE FLAG
Ben Franklin’s goal was to unite the colonies during the French and Indian war, which lasted seven years. When Franklin published the woodcut, it became the first political cartoon. It was based on a superstition, being that if a snake was cut in two and the pieces were put together before sunset, the snake would return to life. (Source) The cartoon was recognized for its meaning and many newspapers reprinted the cartoon throughout the colonies.
Franklin expressed in his editorial that the colonies would become stronger if they were united. As 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…” (Source) The text that Franklin wrote explains that the colonies, without unity, would be extremely challenged with so many different governments, laws, and assemblies. A union was deemed necessary.
Even though the cartoon was published long before the American Revolution, it certainly did not lose its popularity. Prior to the Declaration of Independence, the illustration was recycled as a banner promoting independence from Britain. Many newspapers throughout the colonies reprinted the illustration which promoted the unification of the colonies to create a stronger force against the British Rule.
In a way, the cartoon had two very different meanings between the British and the Colonists. Patriots viewed it as a symbol for unity and a way to be one independent country. The British Loyalists saw it as a sign of disrespect and a sly, cunning way to become independent from the British Empire. In 1774, Paul Revere fitted the cartoon to the front of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper in order to display a unity against the British Empire.
The cartoon was refitted in the top of the newspaper, seen attacking a British Dragon. (Source)
The dragon illustrated in the top of the newspaper was being attacked by the same snake used for the “Join, or Die” cartoon. Instead of being split apart, the snake was now drawn as one piece, or one whole union of colonies. In addition, the snake had a “G” at the bottom of it, representing Georgia while the abbreviation for the New England colonies still remained instead of individual colony labels.
LEGACY OF THE CARTOON
After the American Revolution, the flag was still used and repurposed. In fact, the usage of snakes in certain American flags (such as the Gadsden or the First Navy Jack) were inspired by the “Join, Or Die” illustration.
Overall, the “Join, or Die” political cartoon played a major role in uniting the Colonies to a Union.