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American Revolution Propaganda: Examples & Posters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore symbols and messages in American Revolutionary propaganda. We will look at paintings and posters by Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. Then, we will discover symbols meant to unite the American colonists behind the cause of independence.

Lessons in Revolution

Looking backward, it's easy to assume that an American Revolution against British rule was an inevitable event. After all, our nation was based on the founding principles of liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. However, many American colonists did not believe that it was a good decision to break from British rule. In school, we study the events, both courageous and tragic, that led up to the Declaration of Independence. But it's also of vital importance to look at the beliefs of those who disagreed with the founding fathers.

Benjamin Franklin, Propagandist

Before he signed the Declaration of Independence, invented bifocal glasses, and founded the first public library in America, Benjamin Franklin was a political activist. He lent his sharp tongue and satirical style to a 1754 illustration that had a lasting impact on America. The cartoon depicts a rattlesnake symbolizing the unity of the colonies. It serves as one of the first and earliest examples of American Revolution propaganda: words and images designed to convince and rally for a social or political cause. The picture was produced as a woodcut and published along with Franklin's essay in the Philadelphia Gazette.

Join or Die (1754)
Join or Die

The slogan 'Join or Die' was meant to convince colonists that the only way to survive was to unite. They would be stronger as a whole, in this case symbolized by the body of the snake with individual units shown labeled New York, Virginia, Carolina, etc. The slogan caught on, later transforming into 'Unite or Die'. Today, the revolutionary zeal lives on in the New Hampshire motto, 'Live Free or Die.' The symbol of the rattlesnake was replaced by the Stars and Stripes in the flag. Imagine how this country might have been different if the American flag had retained the rattlesnake.

The Bloody Massacre

An event remembered as the Bloody Massacre, also known as the Boston Massacre of March 1770, was the subject of many works of American Revolutionary propaganda. One portrayal, going by the curiously long title, 'The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt.,' has been called 'a masterpiece of anti-British propaganda' (Library of Congress). It was based on a drawing by Boston painter Henry Pelham, and engraved by none other than Paul Revere, better known for his 1775 'midnight ride,' made legacy in Henry Longfellow's 1861 poem.

Revere portrays the 'Massacre' here as a brutal, unprovoked attack. By depicting them as a ferocious enemy, the scene serves to gather animosity against the British troops. Notice how Revere shows one side of the conflict obviously attacking the other. As a work of propaganda, the illustration clearly marks the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Here, the artist shows innocent colonists as the victims of a barbaric British attack. Dividing a conflict between good and bad, or painting the enemy aggressor and the innocent victim, are both effective tactics in propaganda. Images such as these present on opinion or interpretation of an event as an honest truth. They omit details and background that could inform a viewer and allow them to make their own judgment.

The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt.
Bloody Massacre

Notice how Revere depicts the Americans as innocent victims, omitting any kind of retaliation against the shooters. A few lay bloody and dying while the shooters appear with faces expressing satisfaction and malice. The caption also serves to support colonists sympathy for the Bostonians: 'Unhappy Boston! see thy Sons deplore, Thy hallowed Walks besmeared with guiltless Gore.' Revere makes a point to memorialize the fallen by listing the names of the victims, 'Six wounded; two of them (Christr Monk & John Clark) Mortally.'

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