Auction: Original copies of Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon

Four pages of a 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette featuring the first editorial cartoon (“Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin) is now up for auction and is expected to fetch more than $100,000. Franklin depicted a snake severed into eight sections representing each of the colonies at the time to build unity in the run up to the French and Indian War. The only other known copy of this cartoon is held by the Library of Congress.

The auction is being conducted by Heritage Auctions on Sept. 13.

“There’s no way to overstate just what this cartoon means to American history, Pop Culture history and comics history,” said Ed Jaster, Senior Vice President of Heritage Auctions. “It’s important on so many levels, to collectors of all kinds, across many genres, that there’s no telling where the bidding for this could go.”

More from the press release:

This very rare and historic newspaper was published in response to the French military expansion west of the Allegheny Mountains in Virginia,

itself a response to the growing influx of British traders and colonists in that same region. The French sought to build several forts along the Ohio River to discourage the British colonists from their westward migration. In April 1754, a young Major George Washington was given command of a small detachment and sent across the Allegheny Mountains to protect Virginian settlers who had built a fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, the beginning of the Ohio River. When Washington arrived, however, he found that a much larger French force had already arrived and taken control of the fort.

When Franklin received the news about Washington’s findings, he devised the “Join, or Die” illustration and wrote an editorial for the May 9 edition of his own Pennsylvania Gazette, a prominent American newspaper which he had purchased in 1729. The editorial, which appears above the illustration on page two of this newspaper, is an argument designed to reinforce the message of the severed snake by convincing the British colonies to overcome their predicament as the “disunited State of the British Colonies” and to unify against the French.

After the editorial and cartoon ran, a conference of colonial delegates met in Albany, NY, on June 19 to discuss ways for the 13 colonies to establish a united front against the belligerent French and Indian nations. Franklin created the Albany Plan to present to the delegation, calling for a type of federal government which would tend to colonial defense and expansion. Cooperation, however, did not come easily, even in the face of a strong enemy, and the delegation rejected the plan.

“The movement for unity among the colonies, begun so earnestly by Benjamin Franklin through this newspaper, would have to wait for the American Revolutionary War to be fulfilled,” said Jaster. “The image of the severed snake remained important in eighteenth-century America and was later reused and slightly modified as a symbol of colonial unity against British oppression during the years leading up to the American Revolution.”

2 thoughts on “Auction: Original copies of Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon

  1. It’d be funnier if the snake were saying “I hate Mondays”.

    This Franklin character knows nothing about what looks good on a t-shirt. Well, except ‘Fart Proudly’…comic gold right there!

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