J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 27, 2021

Copley’s One and Only Political Cartoon

As long as I’m writing about political cartoons and about John Singleton Copley, I should note the only cartoon that Copley ever published.

It survives in a single copy at the Library Company of Philadelphia collected by the Swiss artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière, who came through Boston on his way south in 1767. Du Simitière penciled Copley’s name on his copy and also saved a Pennsylvania knock-off that he deemed “a wretched copy.”

This picture was announced by an item in the 7 Nov 1765 Boston News-Letter:
On the fatal First of November, 1765, was published, a caricatura Print, representing the deplorable State of America, and under what Influence her Ruin is attempted.----

At the Top is a Figure representing France, holding in one Hand a Purse of Money to a Comet, marked with a Jack-Boot, and out of her Mouth a Label, by which we find she actuates the Star to shed its baneful Influence on Britannia; who presents a Box to America, telling her it is the St--p A--t: but on it is wrote Pandora’s Box (which, according to the Poets, was fill’d with all Kinds of Calamities[)].

America, who is in deep Distress, calls out to Minerva to secure her, for she abhors it as Death! Minerva (i. e. Wisdom) forbids her taking it, and points to Liberty, who is expiring at the Feet of America with a Label proper to his Extremity.

Close by is a fair Tree, inscribed to Liberty; at whose Root grows a Thistle, from under it creeps a Vine, and infixes its Stings in the Side of Liberty.--

Mercury (who signifies Commerce) reluctantly leaves America, as is expressed by the Label.—

Boreas, near the Comet, blows a violent Gust full upon the Tree of Liberty; against which Loyalty leans, and expresses her Fear of losing her Support.—

Behind, a Number of Shops haul’d up and to be sold; a Croud of Sailors dismiss’d, with Labels proper to them.

On the other Side a Gallows, with this Inscription, Fit Entertainment for St---p M--n: A Number of these Gentlemen, with Labels expressing various Sentiments on the Occasion. At the Bottom is a Coat of Arms, proper for the St—p M—n.

The above is to be Sold by Nathaniel Hurd, near the Town House.
Scholars agree that Copley took inspiration for this picture from a British cartoon published in March 1765 under the title “The Deplorable State of America or Sc——h Government,” shown here.

Both the British original and Copley’s picture blame the Stamp Act on the Earl of Bute, a former prime minister supposedly influenced by France. They both forecast wounded liberty and damaged trade, and they shows gallows for stamp agents.

However, though Copley drew on the same classical and political symbolism as the London artist, he greatly reinvented the picture. He traced nothing, instead:
  • posing the figures differently
  • replacing the French king with an abstract flying woman
  • replacing the British king losing his crown with the female figure of Loyalty
  • changing Liberty from female to male
  • shifting the background scenes
  • adding a urinating dog
Artistically, Copley’s composition was more unified, but as propaganda his image is harder to read. The grouping of the figures and the heavy hatching mean nobody stands out. The word balloons (“Labels”) are smaller and not framed by white space for easy reading. Copley would almost certainly have improved if he’d kept making political cartoons, but we’ll never know.

Copley left no writing about this cartoon, so we don’t know why he made it. Was he expressing his own political belief at the time? Did Nathaniel Hurd, an established engraver and goldsmith, commission the picture from him? Neither man was politically active, though Copley found himself dragged into the tea crisis. Did they make this print in late 1765 because at that time they were in agreement with the great majority of anti-Stamp Act Bostonians, or because they saw an eager market for it? Again, we don’t know.

TOMORROW: What else did that British cartoon inspire?

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