The Gallery

Political Cartooning

A black-and-white drawing of a large coin resembling the back of a quarter, labeled “The Lindbergh Quarter.” The coin features an ostrich bending its face to the ground subserviently with the words “In God We Trust (And How!)” The
“Since when did we swap our ego for an ostrich?”
PM cartoon by Dr. Seuss (April 28, 1941)
Courtesy UCSD, Mandeville Special Collections

Dr. Seuss was a not only a successful children's author, but also a successful political cartoonist, lampooning current events during World War II for a progressive newspaper. Viewed as mere entertainment or children’s “funnies,” modern cartoons and comics often don’t get enough respect. But from caricature to commentary, from long-running print serials like Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” to televised satire such as Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons,” political cartoons have rightly taken their place on the page and screen as valid outlets for expressing political thought, championing activism and affecting social change through creative use of visual art.

A drawing of a serpent crawling to the right of the frame, with its body separated into segments each labeled with the abbreviation for a different colony: S.C., N.C., V., M., P., N.J., N.Y., and N.E. The caption below reads: JOIN, or DIE.
"Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin
Pennsylvania Gazette (May 9, 1754)

A sketch of a large, somewhat shady looking man in a hat, jacket, vest, and trousers, smoking and leaning protectively against a box labeled “The Ballot” atop another stand labeled “In Counting There is Strength.” The caption reads: “That’s What’s the Matter.”

“Boss Tweed. As long as I count the
Votes, what are you going to do
about it? say?” by Thomas Nast
Harper’s Weekly (October 7, 1871)

A panel from Doonesbury of a two characters—a man with receding hair and sunglasses standing next to a woman with a bob haircut and glasses who is speaking in to a microphone. She says: “You’ll be telling the truth, won’t you, sir?” In the background looms the shadowy figures of a crowd that is watching and listening.
“You’ll be telling the truth,
won’t you sir?”
A panel from “Doonesbury”
by Garry Trudeau (March 5,1995)
Courtesy Universal Press Syndicate

Political cartooning in America dates back to before the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die,” which depicted the fractured American colonies through the severed parts of a snake, is commonly known as the first political cartoon in America. In 1754, Franklin used this image as a call to arms to support his plan for an intercolonial association.

During most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, political cartoons were relegated as stand-alone works that had the advantage of reaching both literate and illiterate audiences. Regarded as the father of political cartooning, Thomas Nast was the first artist whose work appeared on newspaper editorial pages. Nast’s cartoon series for Harper’s Weekly helped expose the William Tweed and Tammany Hall political embezzlement scandals of the 1870s, and, as legend has it, even helped to imprison and convict Tweed because it made his image so recognizable.

In the twentieth century, political cartoons have helped shape public opinion on issues from Prohibition to Watergate. Because of its unique mix of the pictorial, the artistic, the journalistic and the editorial, the medium has been especially successful due to its succinctness, eye-catching imagery and ability to make political commentary beyond the boundaries of plain text. Today, political cartoons are featured in magazines and newspapers, on opinions pages and comics pages, where popular cartoon series such as “Doonesbury” and “The Boondocks” reach hundreds of thousands of daily readers. While Dr. Seuss's style is unparalled, cartooning continues to shape our perception of politics and current events.

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