The history of American presidential elections is mirrored rather unsystematically in political cartoons. Often the important issues were passed by for an easily caricatured nose or chance comment of a candidate. The presidential candidate himself may have been left in the background, with the cartoonists' attention centered on the vice-presidential hopeful, as happened in the 1820 election when the political broadsides lampooned Daniel D. Tompkins and not James Monroe. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were also in the cartoonists' spotlight when they ran as Vice Presidential candidates. For the most part, however cartoons and caricatures vividly display the spirit of the times, depicting major issues and concerns that shaped American history.

Expring: In Hopes Of Resurrection To Life Again

But what, exactly, is a political cartoon, and what role does it play in the society in which it is created? First, we must note a difference between the terms "caricature" and "cartoon." Strictly speaking, a caricature is a "portrait" in which characteristic features of the sitter are exaggerated to the point of distortion (the first use of this term occurred in 1748).(1) "Cartoon" originally meant a preparatory drawing for a larger work of art, but it came to mean parody as well after John Leech used the term in this manner in 1843. But printed pictures have been used to convey attitudes and points of view for as long as the printing process has been employed, and what we know as the political cartoon is a result of the fusion of the two media, caricature, and didactic pictures, which not only pokes fun at the figure through caricature but also makes a point.(2)

The nature of this point has been much debated. Some suggest that the cartoon "is a vehicle for hostility" and consistently functions as an outlet for aggressive, anti-establishment attitudes.(3) Others see the cartoon as "value-neutral," i.e., not taking a side in a given issue, while a third view is that cartoons "satisfy us simply because they reduce a complex situation to a formula which sums it up neatly." (4,5) In the cartoons that follow, we will see examples of all three types: Osborn's caricatures of Nixon express an attitude of hostility; several cartoons from the mid-nineteenth century are simply caricatures of all the candidates, and still others, while not entirely neutral in their presentation, aim simply at the summing up of various political situations, such as the sectionalism of the early nineteenth century, or the peace issue of 1940.

A great deal of attention has been focused on the influence that cartoons have upon society and its attitudes. While many have maintained that cartoons shape public opinion, it is obvious that they reflect it as well. As you will see, cartoonists come from many political walks of life, and the many, often conflicting, attitudes of the "common man" are well-represented. For example, in the first election in which women could vote, the 1920 campaign, there were not only cartoons maintaining that Cox would win the female vote, but also that Harding would be the one to profit from the Suffrage Amendment. In general, cartoonists follow the trends generated by the interest, or lack thereof, in political issues. Their portrayal of William Jennings Bryan in his first campaign was that of a fiery crusader, as Bryan's speeches caught the imagination of the people. But by his last campaign, the people had become bored with his politics, and cartoonists reflected this disinterest as well in their portrayal of the candidate.

Cartoonists also help to create the popular attitudes. The most famous and probably the most influential cartoonist in the area of politics was Thomas Nast, whose cartoons in Harper's Weekly during the last half of the nineteenth century spurred the people to action over the scandals in the Boss Tweed ring of New York City, resulting in the imprisonment of many members of the ring, including Tweed, the most powerful man in new York politics. Tweed escaped to Spain, where a Spanish official arrested him after he recognized him from a Nast cartoon. This is one of the most famous cases, but many other cartoons as well have had the effect of opening the public eye to wrongdoing or injustice.

The breakup of the Tweed ring was Nast's most famous achievement, but he was influential in other areas as well. Lincoln commented that Nast was "his best recruiting sergeant in the Civil War." Other cartoonists have wielded this type of power as well; Sir David Low said of Bruce Bairnsfather, whose "Old Bill" cartoons were great morale boosters for the men fighting in World War I, that the war "could not have been won without him." (7) This is a slight exaggeration perhaps but obviously a tribute to the power of cartoons.

Join or Die

The power of the cartoonist in general has been assessed at many different levels. One writer maintains that a "caricaturist may sometimes represent the only informed critic of propaganda and he may create in opposition a counter-image of reality," while, on the other hand, another asserts that "in an epoch of mass literacy it would be perverse to maintain that the resident cartoonist is likely to exert a greater influence than the leader-writers and commentators in plain prose." (8,9) Obviously, cartoonists such as Nast filled the former role, while many others simply record the attitudes of the people around them. However, both are important to our look at the history of presidential elections through cartoons.

You will recognize some recurring symbols in this collection of cartoons. American cartoonists were quick to realize that the use of a single well-chosen symbol could convey what had previously been put across by means of lengthy narration enclosed in balloons or added as captions. In addition, symbols had the advantage of being quickly and easily recognized, rendering cartoons more spontaneous and forceful. The devil appears as such a symbol quite often in the early cartoons; however, the devil himself later disappears and becomes incorporated directly into the candidate under fire, as we see in Nast's portrayal of Seymour in 1868, where his curly hair is pictured twisted into horns. Columbia, the noble representative of the United States, is slowly replaced by Uncle Sam, who first appears in 1834, although Columbia herself appears as late as 1912. The American eagle first appears in a cartoon that was printed during Jefferson's campaign for re-election in 1800. It appears often, usually representing the state of the country.

In addition to his other achievements, Nast also drew the first Republican elephant, and although he is credited by some with the first Democratic donkey as well, that figure actually appeared somewhat earlier, during Martin Van Buren's campaign. There were many symbols, of course, which, unlike these, barely survived the issues they were employed to parody. The "rag baby" of inflation, the Democratic "rooster," and the half horse-half alligator symbol of the Southwest are examples. (10)

In addition to the particular symbols, cartoonists often repeat themes. A favorite occupation of cartoonists is the prediction of the outcomes of elections. As we will see, their batting average is none too good; the correct prediction is the exception. This may be due to several factors: the fields of candidates were often very large, especially in the earlier elections, statistically lowering the probability of choosing the winner. In addition, not until 1920 were any opinion polls conducted and so the cartoonist had to rely on his own assessment of the preferences of an often unpredictable public. One of the main themes used by cartoonists for the prediction of defeat is to portray the candidate in various stages of falling into or drowning in a river known as Salt River. An interesting but inaccurate account of the origin of the name of this river comes from Henry Clay's campaign for the presidency in 1832. Supposedly, a boatman loyal to Jackson, who was to row Clay up the Ohio River to Louisville, where he was to make a speech, took him up the Salt River instead. In this way, Clay was prevented from making his speech, and according to legend, thus lost the election. The term actually appeared two years earlier, but in any case, Salt River became the symbol for a candidate's defeat. (11) It became such an established convention that cartoonists failed to identify the river in later cartoons.

Another theme often employed is the sport or game theme. Often the presidential election was depicted as a foot race, a horse race, a baseball game, a cock fight, or a fistfight. The cartoonists usually managed to convey their opinion of who would win in these contests, often incorrectly, as we have seen.

Although we have attempted to chronicle presidential elections through cartoons from the first campaign in 1789, it was not until the 1820s, with the advent of the lithograph, that political cartoons became numerous and influential. But the earliest American magazines almost all had woodcuts for their mastheads or covers, and a few included illustrations, some of which were done by Paul Revere. (12, InA) Another famous American, Benjamin Franklin, is credited with the first American cartoon, published in 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette. (InB) Ironically, he was also the first public figure to be ridiculed in a cartoon. (InC)

The Counter-Medely, being a Proper Answer to all the Dunces of the Medeley and their Abettors

One writer maintains that a resurgence in the number of cartoons produced in a society always accompanies an upheaval of conflict in that society. (13) This would seem to have been the case in America, as a "cloudburst of pamphlets, broadside satires, mock epitaphs, and cartoons--real cartoons" showered down in 1764, "before which time there had been none produced in America." (14) The events of America's struggle with England and her early growth were the main subjects of cartoonists at this time, but with the establishment of commercial lithography in 1832, illustration began to show more variety. (15) The increase in cartoons at this time may also have been due to the great interest, as well as the opposition, generated by the politics of Andrew Jackson.

Since the 1800s, cartoons have had an established place in American journalism. But their role has varied with the times as well as from cartoonist to cartoonist. In the late 1800s, they served as a vehicle for reform, in the first half of the 1900s, as moral support for a country torn by war and depression.

Our focus, however, is on the cartoons concerned with presidential elections. As mentioned above, cartoons of this nature were scarce in the early years of the republic. But with a growing number of cartoons in general since 1820, we see an accompanying increase in cartoons specifically concerned with presidential campaigns, until they became an overriding force in the campaigns of the late 1800s. Their role has shifted slightly since then; now cartoons are an important vehicle for editorial opinion, able to reach not only those who do not read newspapers because they are not able to (this was Boss Tweed's biggest complaint against "those damn pictures"), but also those who do not read the papers because they do not have the time, the latter a more important element since World War II. But their essential nature is still the same; to make their point through parody and humor. Their power to change society has waxed and waned with the times, but their bite and satire are felt to the present day.


1 W.A. Coupe, "Observations on a Theory of Political Caricature," Comparative Studies in Society and History Jan. 1969: 84-85.

2 Coupe 85.

3 Coupe 87.

4 Lawrence H. Streicher, "On a Theory of Political Caricature," Comparative Studies in Society and History July 1967:431-443.

5 Coupe 87.

6 Coupe 82.

7 Coupe 83.

8 Streicher 434.

9 Coupe 84.

10 William Murrell, "Rise and Fall of Cartoon Symbols," American Scholar Summer 1935:306-315.

11 William and Mary Morris, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, (New York: Harper and Row, 1967) 232-233.

12 Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, vol. 2, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957) 36.

13 Streicher 443.

14 Murrell, History, 12-13.

15 Murrell, History, 115-116.

InA-1066481 Paul Revere, engraving, 1774, reprinted from A History of American Graphic Humor, by William Murrell (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1933) 27.

InB-1066482 Benjamin Franklin, 1754, Pennsylvania Gazette, reprinted from The Image of America in Caricature and Cartoon, by the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1975) 43.

InC-1066483 Artist unknown, 1764, reprinted from A History of American Graphic Humor, by William Murrell (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1933) 17.