Without question, Uncle Sam underwent his most painful growing pains during the Civil War. The very reason for his existence, to symbolize the nation, was sent into a tailspin. Could one man represent two regions that identified as separate nations?
The shock of having the country at war with itself was enough to even initially throw the familiar image of Brother Jonathan into turmoil; among the odd derivative versions he assumed was a peculiar type of troll, a suggestion that his cool and confident self had become reduced into an ugly, contentious oddity.
That image, even among the European illustrators, did not last long. Great Britain, in the familiar form of John Bull, watched anxiously as the war began, concerned about its own economic stability.
The “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire was India and it served as the base for the lucrative textile production of cotton. The South’s raw cotton trade, however, was abruptly thrown into turmoil by blockades from the North.
The cotton could be obtained from the North if it seized it from the South. Or, it could be obtained in Bermuda, where many Confederates who managed to ship bales there found a thriving market.
In seemingly every corner one looked, Uncle Sam was fighting his Confederate counterpart.Ultimately, England remained neutral in its approach to the American Civil War, never suggesting support for one side in a way that would insult the other.
That viewpoint was soon enough reflected even in the cartoons and illustrations coming out of England.
And in the effort to show cheeky irreverence towards both sides, it was the London cartoonists who first gave form to a pattern which would eventually help propel Uncle Sam into his next incarnation.
They showed two Brother Jonathans, a Northern one and a Southern one and they often even seemed to be twins or at least battling brothers.
In a period of early victories for the North’s Union Army, however, “Jonathan North” began to emerge with a visual distinction from “Jonathan South,” suddenly showing some serious muscle.
The buff Jonathan didn’t last long.
As year two of the conflict got underway, the northern representational image began to develop the gaunt visage and stretch into the longer, lankier unmistakeable image of the President of the United States himself, Abraham Lincoln.
More often, however, Lincoln was overtly identified as “Uncle Sam,” who still remained the figure who represented the federal government, while Jonathan still symbolized the common man, many of them now fighting in the war.
By now, although they still ostensibly represented two different ideas, there seemed to be very little physical distinction between Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam. Both of them wore striped pants and often a shirt with stars.
It was in the cartoon identification of the character that the specific identity was made between them.
One clear change was that, somewhere along the way both Jonathan and Uncle Sam had lost their hat. In cartoons favorable to the North, the lack of a hat permitted a clearer facial expression to be made on the face of Jonathan or Sam.
For as early as three years before the Civil War began and during its first months, Uncle Sam was often still seen with a hat.
During that initial period, however, he was depicted as now not always wearing the tall top hat as he had in the previous decades, but rather the broad-brimmed straw hat that was more common a symbol of the Southern plantation owners.
That hat quickly became the identifying trademark used to represent the South.
As the war progressed, the earlier notion of a Jonathan South began to develop a more distinct look from his northern counterpart as the brother who was rebellious. By at least 1863, a new member of the national personification family had emerged – Johnny Reb.
An earlier cartoon of the war suggesting the impossible conditions of a re-united nation showed a beardless, even civil southern planter, hardly the grisly Johnny Reb that later emerged to represent the Confederacy.Johnny Reb was also often identified by a dagger or knife in hand or behind his back, sometimes a whip.
And just as Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam had often morphed in and out of a Lincoln-like image, Johnny Reb often adopted the look of the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis.
There was one particular detail which made President Davis distinct.
Lincoln was easily identifiable by his fuller-faced black beard. Jefferson Davis, however, had a trimmed goatee, limited to his chin.
Further, as the war wearied him, some colored images of Jeff Davis showed it as a white goatee. And that would prove significant to Uncle Sam’s further development.
At war’s end, marked by the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the succession to the presidency of his Southern Democrat Vice President Andrew Johnson, the armed conflict might have finally come to a conclusion but the emotional wounds between North and South were hardly healed.
Emerging from the war into the Reconstruction period, the ex-Confederate Army soldiers – the former Johnny Rebs -remained resentful and disgruntled over the voting rights now promised to the African-American males who were former slaves in the South.
Their depiction in the political caricatures and cartoons of the weekly illustrated magazines invariably showed them with furrowed brow and, like Jefferson Davis, the long white chin beard.
It would be several years before the white chin beard of Jeff Davis and Johnny Reb appeared again so prominently in public on the face of the icon of a re-united nation.
There is no documentation about whether or not the most influential of satirical American illustrators of the latter 19th century, Thomas Nast of Harper’s, did so consciously or not, but if the Rebels had lost the chance to guide the nation’s future, they sure seemed to have impressed an indelible influence on the face of the nation.
In truth, it would take nearly three decades before the Uncle Sam we know today had finally seemed to settle in.
As the drawing below, from Harper’s during the Centennial year, suggested, there was a bit of a multiple personality problem going on with the national personification.
The aging and contemplative Uncle Sam figure in the center did now sport a chin beard, but he presided over an impish Brother Jonathan who seemed a throwback to the War of 1812, a white-haired version of himself that seemed to anticipate his future, his sister Columbia fighting off control of the public schools from the influence of Catholic schools and in another corner, a former Johnny Reb, now a member of the Ku Klux Klan, committing violence against for slaves.
The uncertainty of what type of personification truly represented the post-war United States was no more obvious than in the rather schizophrenic efforts to name him. As late as 1888, a Nast drawing of the fully-developed figure we know today only as “Uncle Sam” was still being identified as Jonathan.
In the end, it was yet again not an American but the fat man whose belligerence first prompted the very creation of a national United States personification, England’s John Bull.
Perhaps because the name of “Brother Jonathan” evoked for the British a reminder of the days when the scrappy fellow in the plain, brown suit had first fought old John Bull, their illustrators and cartoons showed an increasing reluctance to label the by that name.
Yet again technology played its part. By the 1890s, the ability to more easily print color illustration plates in weekly magazines led to the public suddenly seeing the older man in white chin beard, red-and-white striped paint, white-star-spangled royal hat and waist-tail coat several times a week. And just as that specific image became more frequently seen and familiar, the British magazines and papers began to exclusively refer to him as “Uncle Sam.”
And, as Americans had begun to make clear, they generally liked to follow the customs and traditions of England. In the 1890s the American emulation of England was especially strong, in light of an increase of non-Anglo European immigrants by the millions.
The elite American class more directly mimicked the British upper-class in speech patterns and formal etiquette but even sent their young daughters to Great Britain and into the lower ranks of royalty, hoping to encourage a trade of their great wealth for a British future son-in-law who was titled.
Nothing, however, more firmly cemented the new Anglo-American alliance than did the Yankees following in the footsteps their English brothers across the globe in search of cobbling together their own colonies with rich natural resources ready to be exploited.
With the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired Hawaii, the Philippines and held Cuba as a protectorate, the United States followed in the more dishonorable custom of imperialism first pioneered by the British Empire.
It was not international affairs alone which led to the seemingly sudden rise of Uncle Sam and the entire world’s instant recognition of him. As the new century began and Uncle Sam began to aid allies or wage wars all across the globe, he presumed to have the freedom to do so because he was able to finally overcome, overstep, overshadow and overwhelm the loyal and loving, pure and enlightened lady who had been at work at personifying her nation before Brother Jonathan was even a thought at the end of a quill pen.
For all she did and for as long as she did it, Miss Columbia would be pushed into the darkness by Uncle Sam himself.
- Uncle Sam: Not the Man They Say He Is (Part 1) (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Tell Uncle Sam What You Want For Independence Day! (txwclp.org)
- He Wants You! (mindbogglingfacts.wordpress.com)
- Uncle Sam, It Is Time To Drop Your Drawers! (cynthiajquinnblog.com)