Picturing Revolution:
Snakes, Indians, Slaves, and Massacres

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

America as a Snake

Frustrated by the unwillingness of colonial legislatures to accept his "Plan for Colonial Union"out of fear they might lose individual power by agreeing to work jointly, Franklin designed and published this simple warning: Join or Die.

 

 

Why a snake? Some believe Franklin used a snake as a follow-up to an earlier warning he had issued to the English in response to their practice of exporting convicted felons to the colonies. He suggested that the colonists return the favor by shipping to Britain "a cargo of rattlesnakes, which could be distributed in St. James Park, Spring Garden, and other places of pleasure, and particularly in the noblemen's gardens." The Library of Congress's online exhibit entitled "Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New NationThe exhibit at the Library of Congress" has a section on Symbolizing the National Union of States that explains: "Benjamin Franklin consulted Baroque emblem books to find an appropriate symbol for the union of the colonies. A French source provided the image of a cut snake with the motto that translated as 'Join, or Die.' An Italian iconography book stated that snakes symbolized democracy, government by the people." And in a paper entitled "The Snake That Would Not Die" Karen Cook pointed out that "Although historians have lauded Franklin's snake as a cartoon 'first' they have failed to identify it as a symbolic map. The curves of the snake suggest the coastline's shape, and the labels on its eight segments are in geographical order, from 'N.E.' - New England - at its head to 'S.C.' - South Carolina - at its tail."  However, for the ultimate word on the subject, you might want to consult Franklin himself.  He gave his own point of view on this matter in his essay, The Rattle-Snake as a Symbol of America, printed in The Pennsylvania Journal, December 27, 1775.

But if unity was necessary, how was it to be achieved? The answer to that question, too, can be discovered by investigating the way that Franklin's image was used in the colonies. A number of American newspapers in the period before and during the Revolution used mastheads incorporating Franklin's device, like the one designed by Paul Revere for Isaiah Thomas' "Massachusetts Spy" shown below.

As you will notice, there is one significant difference between the snake depicted here and Franklin's original. This transformation of this icon helps explain its sudden popularity in 1774. According to legend, a snake that had been cut into pieces could heal itself into a perfect whole. The masthead snake, its pieces joined together, is now a dangerous foe that should not be ignored. Though small, it carries a fatal bite. What better symbol could there be for the colonies, now united, as they prepared to face off against a better established enemy. And some of the revolutionary era depictions of the snake carried a revised slogan as well: "United Now Alive and Free Firm on this Basis Liberty Shall Stand and Thus Supported Ever Bless Our Land Till Time Becomes Eternity."

However, the only reason that the symbol of the snake was able to promote American unity was because it was disseminated effectively among the people through various modes, including newspaper mastheads, broadsides, flags, currency, and even buttons.


 

 
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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.