Uncle Sam: Not the Man They Say He Is (Part 1)

The one and only Uncle Sam – but hardly the original.

Uncle Sam is a real man named Samuel Wilson, born from two brothers both named John. He was around before there was even a United States and only later became a sexist who overpowered an idealistic young woman who had always loyally followed his lead. He didn’t always wear red, white and blue or a tall hat and looks exactly like the artist who decided his own was the only face that should immortalize Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam is the symbol of this website, which intends to reflect a uniquely conflicted, diverse and endearingly kooky Pop Culture of legends, myths and facts which ultimately unities our blended nation and makes Individualism our defining, fascinating and celebratory common commodity.

As the nation prepares for this week’s celebration of Independence Day on July 4th, Uncle Sam is long overdue for the rigorous biographical scrutiny he will finally get in this first of a multi-part series to run this week.


In the September 7, 1813 edition of the Troy Post, there was an article about the progress of the War of 1812 which began:

“Loss upon loss, and no ill luck, stirring but what lights upon UNCLE SAM’S shoulders,’ exclaim the Government editors in every part of the Country.”  

The article concludes with an explanation of  what the expression “Uncle Sam,” stood for:

“This cant name for our government has got almost as current as ‘John Bull’.’ The letters U.S. on the government wagons, etc. are supposed to have given rise to it.”

Two weeks later, in an October 1, 1813 article in the Lansingburgh Gazette, there was reference to “Uncle Sam’s Men,” meaning American soldiers. That same day, a Burlington, Vermont article explained the need for volunteers to protect private property from potential seizure of destruction from British troops because there was a shortage of enlisted soldiers resulting from the fact that:

“Uncle Sam, the now popular explication of the U.S. does not pay well…”

In 1816, just after the War of 1812 was won by Great Britain by the peace treaty terms with the United States, a political satire written by the witty Seth Richards of Connecticut under the pen name of “Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy” was the first printed publication to use “Uncle Sam” as a nickname for the United States, the title being, The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor. 

Fidfaddy was identified as a “Scratch-etary to Uncle Sam,” and “Privvy Counsellor to Himself.”

Uncle Sam was cast as overconfident and arrogant about a British invasion, to the point where he was asking for a whiskey.

Uncle Sam was cast as overconfident and arrogant about a British invasion, to the point where he was asking for a whiskey.

Just over 140 pages in length, The Adventures of Uncle Sam is especially fascinating because it shows that many Americans had just as intense anti-war feelings two hundred years ago as they do today.

The book unequivocally designates Uncle Sam as the physical embodiment of the United States.

It presents Uncle Sam as a bit of fool who rambles on a lot, overconfident of his ability to defeat any perceived enemy, unwilling to take responsibility for the result of his haphazard arrogance, and avoiding having to hear the details of how much the War of 1812 has cost him financially.

Uncle Sam was depicted as not wanting to hear the details of the cost of war and what had been lost in the process.

Uncle Sam was depicted as not wanting to hear the details of the cost of war and what had been lost in the process.

imultaneous to this sudden widespread use of the term “Uncle Sam” during the War of 1812 was the fact that a successful Troy, New York businessman by the name of Samuel Wilson had been sub-contracted by the United States departments of the Army and Navy to supply troops with meat rations from his slaughterhouse and food-processing plant.

The barrels his company sent out to troops were stamped with the initials *U.S.” to indicate them as official property of the U.S. government.

There the facts end and the legend begins.

Sam Wilson.

Sam Wilson.

According to the tale which was only later told decades after the fact, workers rolling these barrels into delivery wagons were unsure what the stamped initials “U.S.” stood for but soon joked that it must have been to let the world know that even the dried meats of Troy were made by “Uncle Sam,” as they folksily called the friendly and popular local businessman.

The grandson of a Scottish immigrant and an American Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Wilson was born in Massachusetts, raised in New Hampshire and walked into New York State, where he became a pioneer settler of Troy.

The Uncle Sam Memorial in Massachusetts.

The Uncle Sam Memorial in Massachusetts.

It was not until well after he died in 1854 at the age of 87 years old that the legend began that this particular Sam was the role model for the familiar symbol of the United States of America, with a star-designed top hat, striped pants and a blue coat with long coat tails.

Eventually it grew to the point where it was claimed to be fact.

Not only was a a statue immortalizing Samuel Wilson as the authentic Uncle Sam was crafted in Arlington, Massachusetts, the place of his birth but the statue of him there was given a top hat and clothes worn by the familiar icon of Uncle Sam.

There was also a memorial built near his home at Riverfront Park in Troy, New York.

Long after he was dead, the city fathers of Troy, New York may have stretched the imagination to find a way to credit their local boy Samuel Wilson as the originator of Uncle Sam. It was another feather in their cap. Samuel Wilson may not have been the original inspiration for the American icon but he was Uncle Sam, technically. With some thirteens brothers and sisters, Mr. Wilson had several dozen nieces and nephews who did, in fact, know him as Uncle Sam.

The grave marker of Sam Wilson.

The grave marker of Sam Wilson.

Truth be told, however, one glaring, important but suppressed fact proves that while the concept of “Uncle Sam” as a symbol of the United States gained currency during the War of 1812, it had been part of American Pop Culture for almost forty years before Mr. Wilson’s meat barrels were marked “U.S.”

In 1775,  a year before the Declaration of Independence was even written, there was reference to “Uncle Sam” in the thirteenth stanza of one version of the famous Yankee Doodle song. Two lines of that stanza read this way:

Old Uncle Sam come to exchange some pancakes and some onions! 

For m’lasses cake to carry home to his wife and young ones!” 

In making their case that Sam Wilson retains bragging rights to being the original Uncle Sam, his Troy defenders later argued that the use of “Uncle Sam” in the 1775 Yankee Doodle was just a coincidence of the lyricist randomly choosing the nickname without intending it to be the initials for “United States.” That was a moot point.  In 1775, the initials “U.S.” didn’t mean anything having to do with the “United States” because there wasn’t any  “United States” yet in existence. We were still just the thirteen American colonies.

By 1775, however, the fictional persona of an “Uncle Sam” had already become established as an allegorical symbol intended to represent the scrappy string of British colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. By the time the colonies fought and won a war of independence against the fierce and efficient British Army in redcoats to establish a new nation in a democratic form of government, the conceptual character of Uncle Sam had become synonymous with the United States, both entities joined simply by the initials U.S.

The first known illustration of a figure identified as "Uncle Sam."

The first known illustration of a figure identified as “Uncle Sam” from 1840. (University of Virginia)

In 1800 (at least a dozen years before Sam Wilson’s barrels) a popular song was published describing how the new nation avoided war with France. Two phrases in the lyrics proved just how thoroughly blended the concept of Uncle Sam, the United States and their initials U.S. had already become. One line bragged that “we US’d them clever,” while another referred to “Uncle” feeling confident that his people worked just as hard at being sailors as they did at being weavers.

A pre-Civil War man posed in a "Brother Jonathan" costume. (Gettysburg College) f

A pre-Civil War man posed in a “Brother Jonathan” costume. (Gettysburg College) 

The song is called Brother Jonathan and the title is a clue to the next stage of development of Uncle Sam.

Sometime during the American Revolution, the nickname of “Brother Jonathan” came into use to describe a typical Continental Army soldier or sailor. Nobody knows for certain how or why that name started but Jonathan was a popular and routine American name for men at the time, much like Joe was during World War II – as in G.I. Joe.

Some sources date the first use of “Brother Jonathan” to 1783. Later generations place its origins much earlier, in 1775. The latter is based on a claim claiming that it was George Washington who first remarked, “We must consult Brother Jonathan when asked how he could win the war,” intending it as a reference to Connecticut’s Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut where is where most of the American Revolutionary War hardware and other supplies were produced.

Just as Uncle Sam was gaining wider currency as the conceptual personification of the United States, Cousin Jonathan was being immortalized as a visual one, capable of physically fighting off the most famous of all national personifications, the thick-necked, beer-drinking belligerent John Bull of England.

Peg (Scotland) sits behind  her brother John Bull (England).

A docile “Peg,” the symbol of Scotland sits behind her brother John Bull, the symbol of England.

John Bull had been born at the end of John Arbuthnot’s pointed pen in 1712. The colors of his clothes would evolve over time, but he was always marked by a short top hat, knee breeches and a tailcoat. Arbuthnot was savage in depicting other nations and cultures from the British viewpoint, depicting France first as the arrogant Louis Baboon and then as a cannibalistic monster of the bloody revolution. He cast Scotland as “Peg,” the fat and acquiescent old maid sister of John Bull, happy to just sit quietly in his shadow.

By the beginning of the 19th century, engraving and printing press technology had advanced to the point where European magazines could increasingly be illustrated.

In ambitiously attempting to encapsulate all the side stories of ongoing news of scandals or battles that may have occurred between issues of the magazine, political cartoons were presented as elaborate scenes with multiple characters, each of them marked with balloons above their heads which contained lengthy quotes, usually lampooning all sides of the conflict.

Russia, the Roman Church, Scandanavian nations, the leading principalities of what would become Germany, Austria, England and other nations are shown throwing France's Napoleon in the air.

Holland, Russia, the Catholic Church, Scandanavian nations, the leading principalities of what would become Germany, Austria, England and other nations are shown throwing France’s Napoleon in the air.

Here, an entire national, partisan or cultural viewpoint was more easily summarized by the illustrator and readily grasped by the reader in the form of satirical stereotype character with exaggerated physical traits making them instantly identifiable.

As the United States faced England in a second war but before the young nation found itself humiliated by the British casting in as an indelible caricature, however, a national personification took form beyond a mere concept.

In 1813, just months after the War of 1812 began, Connecticut engraver Amos Doolittle showed the Brits that their Yankee cousins across the Atlantic could give as good as it got.

He drew the first known image of Brother Jonathan, showing him in plain brown cloth as he throttled a corpulent John Bull (the American version of which had him wrinkled and pompously bedecked in medals).

The Doolittle depiction of Brother Jonathan battling John Bull.

The Doolittle depiction of Brother Jonathan battling John Bull.

He called it, predictably enough, Yankee Doodle and in the advertisement circular with the large print which was sold to the public, he explained the very purpose for an Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan:

“Although many caricatures extant are of no use, and some of them have an immoral effect, I flatter myself that this will not answer that description. At the present time, it is believe, it will have a tendency to inspire our countrymen with confidence in themselves, and eradicate any terrors they may feel as respects the enemy they have to combat.”

Jonathan as he appeared in the 1827 book about him.

Jonathan as he appeared in the 1827 book about him.

The Adventures of Uncle Sam had an eleven year lead time in helping to establish the character as the national personification by the time The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan was published in 1827.

But the book about Brother Jonathan had one great advantage over the book about Uncle Sam. It showed him in illustrations, establishing him as a young, lean and energetic, an idealized embodiment of the American.

He even chops down a tree – like George Washington.

When a weekly humor magazine named Brother Jonathan first appeared in 1842, however, the character had come to represent a stereotype of the “Yankee,” a New England merchant with wits and wile enough to make money every way he could.

In 1844, Jonathan was a bit cheekish, even dodgy – but then again this image was from the British magazine Punch.

He had by then gained the greater advantage over Uncle Sam with not only name recognition but a definitive familiarity of appearance.

As the 1830s gave way to the 1840s, he became  more whimsical, a bit light-hearted and mischievous in appearance.

In one depiction, he thumbs his nose at the viewer.

As the 1840s gave way to the 1850s, Jonathan becomes a bit older and more facially gaunt.

Jonathan had his striped pants and tall hat by the 1850s

Jonathan had striped pants and tall hat by the 1850s.

He almost never appeared without his hat, which got taller. Reflecting the influence of his ancestral land, he had a tailed coat like John Bull, but his pants became permanently striped just like the stripes on the American flag.

He may have been born as a symbol of plain and honest American virtue, but over time Jonathan had morphed into a figure of gentle humor in the American mainstream consciousness but not entirely one worthy of emulation.

Jonathan retained his youth.

The running gag about his virtue was that he was always after a little bit more money if he could wangle it.

He was fair but not always generous.

Harmless but not always to be trusted.

He wasn’t greedy – but he would use any loophole another nation had overlooked to close.

Jonathan often stood at the side of a scene, slouched in stance, amused in attitude, detached from the drama of any of the national crises of the era, sometimes making an ironic quip but never interfering. His character seemed to assume a passive empathy.

Yet he still retained a sort of puckish optimism. He was still shown as the young man of a young nation, perhaps naive still by nature in those moments when he wasn’t working a deal.

Jonathan tries to fast-talk John Bull into turning over some fishing rights on tge Canadian border.


Jonathan makes no effort to prevent the influence of Catholicism from coming to the US, a critical point for the cartoonist.


An amusedly detached Jonathan observing the antics which the 1856 Democratic presidential candidate James Buchanan is willing to undertake to gain his party’s nomination.

By the dawn of the Civil War, “Uncle Sam” remained a familiar term exclusively used as an expression for the United States government, while “Brother Jonathan” was now being described a bit more darkly, possessing what was termed a “deceptive simplicity.”

As a schism of national identity, the war between the states of the North and the South also marked a crisis point for the national personification. Brother Jonathan was always a regional caricature, not a national one. To Europeans, the Yankee stereotype represented all Americans but to Southerners he was always a New Englander.

As the conceptual personification of the United States government, Uncle Sam was of even less interest to the Confederate States of America for his name was analogous to them now with the Union Army.

Whether he would survive the Civil War,  and in what form, was unclear.

One thing was for certain. After the Civil War, Brother Jonathan would no longer be seem young again.

Brother Jonathan looking like Uncle Sam except for the goatee, negotiating with John Bull over a British  ship carrying Confederates which the Union had seized. (sonofthesouth.net) t

Brother Jonathan looking more like the image of the later familiar Uncle Sam, negotiating with John Bull over a British ship carrying Confederates which the Union had seized. (sonofthesouth.net)


Categories: History, Holidays, Independence Day, Myths, The Story of Uncle Sam

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12 replies

  1. As a cartoonist you have rattled my cage with those great illustrations, Carl and I had not known that much about Brother Jonathan. So, now I’m hooked and waiting impatiently for part II!


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