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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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The “Join, or Die” Rattlesnake

Last week the New York Times reported that one of the few surviving copies of the 9 May 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette is up for auction.

That’s the issue that contained the original “Join, or Die” political cartoon, supporting the program of the Albany Congress of 1754. Publisher Benjamin Franklin wanted the North American colonies to form a united defense against the French and Indians. He was having trouble even in his own adopted colony of Pennsylvania because of its Quaker founders’ aversion to war for any reason, particularly conquest.

The rattlesnake was a symbol of North America because Europeans had never seen such an animal. Normally, I’d think, we primates would instinctively view a chopped-up venomous snake as a Good Thing. But Franklin’s message depended on his readers identifying with the snake.

There are copies of this newspaper at the Library of Congress, New-York Historical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and American Antiquarian Society. But this may be the only one still in private hands. Until recently, it was owned by Stephen A. Geppi, founder of Diamond Comics Distributors, and displayed in his museum in Baltimore. The new owner has put it back on the market.

One notable detail of this image is that the four New England colonies are all lumped together as one piece of the snake. Of course, they’re the head—the poisonous part. The snake also combines Pennsylvania and Delaware, as they legally were then, and ends before it gets to Georgia and the Floridas.

TOMORROW: The rattlesnake’s second life.

1 comment:

Daud said...

Oh dear, something tells me the teaparty is going to be on this thing like a pack of dogs on a three legged cat.