Political Cartoons: Seriously Funny

“Join or Die.” Benjamin Franklin. “The Pennsylvania Gazette,” May 9, 1754

When is a cartoon serious about making a point? When it’s a political cartoon.

Since Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” was published in 1754, political cartoonists have joined in almost every debate in U.S. public life. At their best, these artistic editorialists could insult their enemies, praise their allies, change people’s minds on the most important issues of the day, and still be funny enough to be remembered–all on just a few square inches of newsprint.

Along the way, they created a number of classic American symbols, from the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey to Boss Tweed and Uncle Sam.

The Library of Congress offers thousands of political cartoons from across centuries of U.S. and European history online. Searching the Library’s Prints and Photographs Catalog is an excellent way to begin.

Teaching Ideas

Political cartoons may not be as widespread as they once were, but they make powerful teaching tools.

Since they’re often blatantly argumentative, they provide opportunities to explore differing points of view on a political issue. Plus, the vivid economy of the cartoon form allows students to examine the many persuasive techniques cartoonists use to persuade others.

Have students:

  • Select a political cartoon to analyze. What point is the cartoonist trying to make? What techniques, such as symbols, words, caricature, exaggeration, and irony, communicate the message?
  • Compare two political cartoons that are on the same side of an issue. Identify the different methods — like symbols, allusions, or exaggeration — that the two cartoons use to persuade their audience.
  • Identify the point of view in a cartoon and another document on the same topic and compare them. Is the point of view in the companion document similar to or different from the point of view in the cartoon? Which method of making a point is more effective? Why?
  • After analyzing a political cartoon, describe–or draw–how the cartoon might be different if it had been created by a cartoonist with a different point of view.

Additional Resources

Visit the Library of Congress Teachers page to find a primary source set containing more political cartoons.

Primary Source Set: Political Cartoons in U.S. History

For background information, visit these Library of Congress exhibitions:

Cartoon America–The Ungentlemanly Art: Political Illustrations

The Cartoon, by Herb Block

 

If you’ve used political cartoons–historic or otherwise–in your teaching, we’d love to hear about how it went. Please let us know in the comments.

2 Comments

  1. Dale Alger
    June 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    “The Cartoon” by Herb Block is an excellent resource for teaching how and why there are political cartoons. Wow! It is excellent.
    Thank you.

  2. Susan Garfinkel
    July 8, 2011 at 11:15 am

    More information about Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon–and many links for further exploration–can be found on the Library’s Today in History site, in the May 9 entry at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/may09.html#joinordie .

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