Monday, August 8, 2011

The First and Most Important American Political Cartoon Comes to Auction

by Stephen J. Gertz

By Benjamin Franklin
From the Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1754.

On May 9, 1754, the Pennsylvania Gazette, a newspaper published by Benjamin Franklin and the most successful in the American colonies, featured a cartoon by Franklin with accompanying text  by him that rallied the American colonies to unite and defend against the French in the looming French and Indian War. It was the first time that the colonies were asked to act as one.

That issue is among the rarest pieces of all early American history, the most ephemeral of ephemera. The only known surviving copy of that issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette lies in the Library of Congress. But another copy has surfaced and will be auctioned at Heritage Auctions Historical Manuscripts Signature® Auction September 12-14, 2011 in Beverly Hills, CA. It is estimated to sell for $100,000 - $200,000. There is no reserve. The estimate may be conservative. This is major, major offering, the only copy to ever come to auction and quite possibly the last.

The cartoon, Join, or Die, would, in 1765, be republished in the September 21st issue  (its only issue) of the Constitutional Courant as a clarion-call against the Stamp Act. calling for the unification of the colonies in their struggle for justice from Great Britain. In 1774 Paul Revere altered the cartoon to fit the masthead of the Massachusetts Spy.

"This rare and historic newspaper holds the earliest publication of the first and most celebrated editorial cartoon in American history," says Sandra Palomino, director of historical manuscripts at Heritage Auctions.

In the cartoon, the snake represents the the colonies, eight individual sections labeled with abbreviations for New York, New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Vermont, North Carolina and South Carolina. There was, at the time, a long-held superstition (with roots in the legend of Osiris)  that held that a snake cut to pieces would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset. Separate, they are inert and impotent. United, they are active,  and powerful. Delaware and Georgia were omitted, for reasons that remain unclear.

The image, redrawn, was later co-opted by each side during the American Civil War.

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions, with our thanks.

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