Revolutionary Era Political Cartoons

An exhibit of political cartoons in part from the last half of the 18th Century in (where else?) Philadelphia is on display until the beginning of August 2024.

Political cartooning and the United States of America came up together. A new exhibition at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania suggests the two are inextricably linked.

“Cartoons as Political Speech in Colonial and Contemporary America” features political cartooning from 1764 to today, depicting how satirical drawings defined our American identity and became a tool of nation-building.

“Our founding story is one of feeling oppressed by a foreign power, or a power that’s thousands of miles away, feeling that we don’t have a voice at the center of power,” said David Brigham, CEO of the Historical Society. “That story heats up in the 1760s.”

Peter Crimmins at PBS’ WHYY interviews David Brigham about early American political cartoons.

Before the 1760s, American colonists rarely used cartoons to express political opinions. However, as the desire for independence grew in the colonies, cartooning became a popular medium for political expression.

“Cartoons as Political Speech” starts with 1764 cartoons about the Paxton Boys, a Pennsylvania vigilante group who instigated a series of attacks on Indigenous people because they felt the Pennsylvania colony was insufficiently secured. They ultimately marched, unsuccessfully, on Philadelphia where Quaker leaders shielded Indigenous people.

The Paxton Boys incident became a flash point leading to reams of pamphlets, articles, songs and cartoons targeting the colony’s Quaker-led legislature, which denied defense funding in the outer regions of Pennsylvania. The cartoon on display at HSP accuses Benjamin Franklin of leveraging the Paxton incident to amass his own political power, “For I can never be content/ ‘Till I have got the government.”

Aad if we’re in Philadelphia talking political cartoons then we need Signe Wilkinson:

“Cartoons as Political Speech” comes up-to-date with editorial cartoons by Signe Wilkinson, the longtime Philadelphia Daily News and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who now draws a weekly item for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Wilkinson explores a broad range of work, including women’s rights, public schools, trash and public safety. One of her bedrock issues is freedom of speech, which ties her illustrations back to the original cartoons from the birth of the nation.

“These are founding principles and equality and censorship,” Wilkinson said. “I like to use the Founding Fathers as a place to get started.”

Read the WHYY article and visit the Historical Society of Pennsylvania exhibit.

One thought on “Revolutionary Era Political Cartoons

  1. PS: Plus many of Signe Wilkinson’s more contemporary (though now
    historic) cartoons… Signe

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