What are Political Cartoons? - History & Analysis

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  • 0:00 What Are Political Cartoons?
  • 0:36 History Of Political Cartoons
  • 1:29 Examples Of Political Cartoons
  • 4:51 Analyzing Political Cartoons
  • 7:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Political cartoons have a rich history that is as interesting as the cartoons are visually entertaining. In this lesson, you'll learn how political cartoons have shaped our past and continue to shape our society today, and how to analyze their messages.

What Are Political Cartoons?

Political cartoons are visuals that comment on political events or issues while hopefully getting you, the reader, to laugh a little. Political cartoons usually involve a caricature (or an image of someone or something that is exaggerating certain characteristics or details), and allusion (an indirect reference to something), which helps create a scene or situation. You've probably heard stories and/or learned about controversies surrounding different political cartoons in the past, and the truth is, political cartoons have been an important part of socio-political processes for longer than you might think.

History of Political Cartoons

During the Protestant Reformation in Germany in the sixteenth century, visual propaganda was widely used to portray religious and political figures as heroes or villains. Both woodcutting and metal engraving were trades that many artists and draftsmen participated in to create visual art that had a message. Because there was such a high illiteracy rate, these cartoons became very popular, and simple broadsheet posters or illustrated pamphlets in town or city centers proved to be an effective way to reach many people.

Not long after that, the Italian caricature emerged and became the foundation for cartoonists of the eighteenth century. Political cartoonists created images that were designed to affect viewers' opinions while making them laugh about serious issues. As time moved forward, more topics could be discussed and ridiculed through these cartoons, and just as the number of topics grew, so too did the interest and influence of cartoons in society.

Examples of Political Cartoons

Cartoon by Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin's Join or Die, which shows a snake whose severed parts represent the colonies, is recognized as the first American political cartoon. Franklin used this cartoon to garner support for a political plan. It's a woodcut showing segments labeled with the initials of some of the thirteen original American colonies and a region of colonies (New England, which included four colonies, is represented by one segment). The cartoon helped make Franklin's point about the importance of uniting the colonies. It was used in the French and Indian War to represent the idea that the colonies needed to join forces to defeat the French and Indians. It also alludes to the popular superstition that a dead snake could come back to life if the pieces are placed next to each other.

Gargantua cartoon by Daumier

In 1830, King Louis Philippe abolished censorship of the press in France. Two years later, Honore Daumier produced his famous pear-shaped caricature of King Louis Philippe called Gargantua. Notice that Louis-Philippe is sitting on his throne and swallowing bags of coins. The money has been taken from the poor and is carried up a plank that stretches to the king's mouth. Gargantua was referring to the incredible amounts of money the Government spent on itself while most working people were living in poverty. Even though the king had recently abolished censorship, he was so offended by Daumier's cartoon, that both Daumier and his publisher were indicted and sentenced to six months in prison for 'arousing hatred and contempt of the King's government.

Another political cartoonist who impacted society was American artist Thomas Nast. Nast's cartoon entitled Who Stole the People's Money? is one of the most reproduced and mimicked American political cartoons. In July 1871, The New York Times exposed corruption by members of Tammany Hall, a political organization run by William 'Boss' Tweed. The Times had evidence that the Tweed Ring had taken the public's money through inflated payments and extortion. The estimated sum stolen was $6 million dollars, but it's today thought to have been much more.

In Who Stole the People's Money?, Nast creatively caricatured the Tweed Ring. Upon seeing the cartoon, Boss Tweed reportedly exclaimed, 'I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!'

Cartoon by Nast

As you can see, Tweed and his cohorts are positioned in a ring with each member denying blame by pointing at the next man. The four leaders are in front and Tweed is pointing at Ingersoll, a man who was also involved. His hatband reads 'Chairs', referring to Ingersoll's chair-making trade. They are all refusing to take responsibility for their actions and that is emphasized by the man towards the back on the right who is labeled 'Tom, Dick & Harry' (referring to multiple unspecified people being involved).

In 1958, Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature, but the communist regime of the Soviet Union would not let him travel to Stockholm and accept the prize. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin responded to this with his cartoon I Won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What Was Your Crime?

Pulitzer Prize Winning Cartoon by Bill Mauldin

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