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 collections is an excellent way to begin.
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.
- 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.
Visit the Library of Congress Teachers page to find a primary source set containing more political cartoons.
For background information, visit these Library of Congress exhibitions:
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.