Geopolitical Cartoons: Join, or Die. (1754)

In an effort to lighten the blog, I’ve decided to devote weekend posts to less dense topics. Partly to keep things fresh and engaging, and partly to keep myself entertained. One idea is to spend a post every week highlighting a (geo)political cartoon throughout the ages, discuss its purpose, and why its geographic. For the first post I thought it would be fitting to discuss the first known American political cartoon (and a geographic one no less!), “Join, or Die.” by Benjamin Franklin (1754).

As we can see above, the map is a general depiction of the British colonies, represented as parts of a snake. Though it pre-dates the American Revolution by two decades the spirit and message of the map would have been the same. Join together colonists, or fail. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry notes that Franklin made the map to raise support for his plan of “colonial union” presented at the Albany Congress (June-July 1754). Incidentally, the delegates at the Congress passed the plan unanimously but the legislatures of the represented colonies (Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island) rejected it.

In addition to the message colonial unity, a web site hosted by the State University of New York – Stony Brook notes that Franklin meant for the cartoon to be a basic map for the colonists. With the right-side of the image representing north, we see New England (as the head), New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina as the tail. What is most interesting is that Franklin’s Plan of Union included “all the British North American colonies, except Delaware and Georgia”. While the quote comes from wikipedia, it would be interesting to do some more digging on what Franklin included (just the future American colonies or Canada as well?) and why not Delaware and Georgia? After all, these two don’t appear on the map either. And if you’re wondering, the two Floridian colonies (West Florida and East Florida) were under Spanish administration during the Albany Congress. Britain would not regain these areas until 1763.

On the issue of Delaware, wikipedia provides some information that we can weave into an assessment. According to the article, William Penn (founder of the Pennsylvania colony), desiring sea access for his colony in 1682, leased “the lower Counties on the Delaware” from the Duke of York. The Duke of York conquered this area in 1664 from the Dutch. By 1704, the province of Pennsylvania had grown larger causing its representatives wanted to make decisions without the Lower Counties. Thus the two sets began meeting separately, the Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia the Lower Counties at New Castle. Despite this split legislative assembly, Penn and his heirs continued to appoint the same governor to both the province of Pennsylvania and the territory of the Lower Counties. Perhaps in 1754, the one-governor two-assemblies system was still in effect making Delaware technically a part of Pennsylvania for Benjamin Franklin?

Georgia’s exclusion is a bit more difficult to explain. On the one hand there is the common argument that Georgians were regarded as brigands, being a colony primarily settled by debtors and released convicts (something like Australia later). Then there’s the potential issue that Franklin simply didn’t know about Georgia’s change in status (on the issue of slow communications I discussed the Battle of New Orleans despite the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, 1814 recently). From 1732 to 1750/1751, the province of Georgia was administered by unelected trustees from Great Britain, rather than elected representatives in the state. While that sounds silly to modern “democrats,” the original idea was a pure (if a bit naive). The thought was that administrators without connection to the land or labor would rule out of purely humanitarian motives. A step-farther than enlightened despotism, but definitely not “democratic” or “republican.” At any rate, the trustees had Georgians elect adviser, not legislator, delegates in 1750. By 1751, representatives were meeting in Savannah and passing legislation. The trustees’ were unable to regain subsidies from the British Parliament and turned the colony over to the crown. The last meeting of the trustees occurred on June 23, 1752, four days after the start of the Albany Congress. One could argue that Georgia was the last colony to “mature” to nascent representative democracy and missed the Albany Congress, assuming the criterion was having a functioning legislative assembly. Finally, Georgia could have been invited but chosen not to participate in the Albany Congress (which is presumably what happened with three southern colonies included on the map but not in attendance; Virginia, and the two Carolinas).

Finally, we should remember the general purpose of maps. They’re designed, like other information graphics, to communicate ideas and information. In addition, they often attempt to bias the reader in some not so subtle ways. In this case, Benjamin Franklin is making a fairly obvious political statement, whether you’re literate or not. The colonies should be united, or we shall perish. Join, or die.


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