We’ve all seen political cartoons, even if they may have been largely supplanted by memes and other joke formats in the modern digital environment. Throughout history, political cartoons have been a powerful tool for swaying public opinion, speaking truth to power, and holding leaders accountable through the use of satire and hyperbole. They also act like a time machine, allowing us to look at what was on the minds of the populace throughout history.
Tracing their origins to England as far back as the 1720 stock market crash known as the South Sea Bubble, political cartoons—sometimes instead called “editorial cartoons,” for their tendency to espouse opinion rather than necessarily reflecting fact—were initially sold as individual prints before becoming a fixture in newspapers and print magazines. By the middle of the 19th century, you could expect to find a political cartoon in just about any newspaper that you picked up, and by the 20th century, few newspapers could be considered complete without one.
Throughout the years, these cartoons have reflected the hopes and fears, fixations and myths of the moments in which they were created, allowing a quick glimpse into the zeitgeist. Here are half a dozen of the most significant, notable, or influential political cartoons of the past three centuries, and what they tell us about the moment in which they were created…
"Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme"
William Hogarth, 1721
According to The Cambridge History of English Literature, “English graphic satire really begins” with this print created by William Hogarth around 1721. While it’s busy and confusing compared to modern political cartoons, this “emblematical print” was intended to explain the events surrounding the so-called South Sea Bubble, a 1720 stock market crash in which many British citizens lost a considerable amount of money while the founders of the South Sea Company engaged in insider trading and bribed members of Parliament. Though a parliamentary inquiry was launched following the collapse of the bubble, the repercussions were disastrous for many investors, and damaging to the entire British economy at the time.
“Join, or Die”
Benjamin Franklin, 1754
Possibly the most famous political cartoon in American history first made its appearance in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754, where it accompanied an editorial by Benjamin Franklin. The cartoon showed a simple drawing of a snake divided into eight parts, each one labeled with the initials of one of the colonies or regions that made up what would soon become the United States, along with the legend “Join, or Die.” At the time, the cartoon was a commentary on disunity among the colonies during the French and Indian War, but it would later find its greatest use as a means of encouraging the colonies to unite against Britain during the American Revolution.
“The Plumb-pudding in Danger”
James Gillray, 1805
In one of the most famous political cartoons of all time, British caricaturist and printmaker James Gillray depicts British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon carving up a plum pudding marked with a globe into spheres of influence. The image, which has been “stolen over and over and over again by cartoonists ever since,” according to fellow cartoonist Martin Rowson, is one of the earliest examples of a political cartoon combining all of the elements we now typically associate with the form, including caricature and symbolism. Napoleon himself is rumored to have claimed that Gillray did more damage to his reputation with this cartoon than “a dozen generals.”
“Meanwhile They Drown”
Blanche Ames Ames, 1915
Blanche Ames Ames was a lot of things; writer, inventor, political activist, and artist. She also worked as the art editor of Woman’s Journal, a women's rights periodical that was in circulation from 1870 to 1931. An outspoken proponent of women’s suffrage, Ames channeled her views into numerous political cartoons to advance the cause. One of the most famous was headlined “Meanwhile They Drown”, and showed women drowning in an ocean labeled with conditions like “sweat shops,” “disease,” and “white slavery,” while a well-dressed man and woman stood on the pier with a life preserver labeled “votes for women,” saying that they wouldn’t toss it to the ones below until all women asked for it.
The cartoon drew the ire of no less than former president William Taft, who decried it in an editorial published in the Saturday Evening Post. Undeterred, Ames penned a follow-up, which showed Taft sitting on the dock with his foot upon the “Votes for Women” life preserver, saying, “They don’t need it.”
E. H. Shepard, 1936
The illustrators of children’s books occasionally dabbled in political cartoons. Those unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding Dr. Seuss prior to it becoming a recent political talking point might be surprised to learn that he was responsible for some frankly reprehensible political cartoons in his day.
While British cartoonist E. H. Shepard may have been better known for his illustrations of children’s book classics like The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh, he also produced some iconic political cartoons, including one of his most famous, “The Goose-Step”, which was critical of the rearmament of Germany under Adolf Hitler in 1936. It was one of many notable political cartoons first published in the English magazine Punch, which was established in 1841 and helped to define the form of the political cartoon in subsequent decades.
Depictions of Muhammad
Charlie Hebdo magazine, 2006—
These cartoons might not be historical, but they are history-making. In one of the most notorious contemporary examples of strong, even violent reactions to political cartooning, the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by two gunmen in 2015. This came after the magazine’s controversial publications of satirical images of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The gunmen killed 12 people, and the terrorist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, asserting that they intended to get “revenge for the honor” of Muhammad. In accordance with Islam, depicting Muhammad is sacrilegious.
Among those slain in the attack was publication director Stéphane "Charb" Charbonnier, who had previously been added to al-Qaeda’s “most wanted list” for the same reason. At that point, the magazine had already been subject to a 2011 terrorist attack, in which their offices were firebombed and their website hacked. The deadly attack stirred worldwide outrage and a public outpouring of support for the publication. The next issue released after the attack sold around 7.95 million copies in six languages—an impressive figure, given that the publication generally had a print run of around 60,000 French-language copies.