Uncle Sam as a Political Critique in the 1890s

By Nadine Blank

The character of Uncle Sam, beloved and notorious in the 19th and 20th centuries, originated during the War of 1812, when an American businessman, Samuel Wilson, supplied to the army with a stamp of U.S. to “indicate government property” (Brittanica). These initials were joked about to be from Wilson, known as “Uncle Sam.” As the folklore spread, Uncle Sam became a new symbol of the United States, and Thomas Nast of Puck Magazine was the first to depict him as we know him today, top hat, stars and stripes included. While it can be argued that he is most known for the “I Want You” propaganda, Uncle Sam was also depicted both affectionately and viciously in political commentary and cartoons. By the 1870s, he became a universal personification of the United States and was used extensively to critique American foreign affairs. This post will discuss four cartoons and their relation to American imperialism during the Spanish-American War. In the first two cartoons, I will discuss the drastic change in Uncle Sam’s character and the setting and circumstances in which he is viewed. “The White Man’s Burden” portrays America leading Cuba and others to civilization, while “Remember the Maine! And Don’t Forget the Starving Cubans!” shows America turning its back on those people in the first place. In the last two cartoons, I will draw important parallels between the depiction of Uncle Sam and “Negro Rule” and discuss how one can be considered a “vampire” and the other a hero and icon of American culture.

cartoon1(Victor Gillam, “The White Man’s Burden,” Judge, April 1, 1899.)

Here, Victor Gillam personifies the countries of the United States and Great Britain, as well as the respective peoples and countries they had invaded and imperialized. Uncle Sam seems to be struggling to carry his basket, which is “filled” with some of the countries of American interest during and directly after the Spanish American War, such as Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Samoa. The stepping stones are an interesting element, since their labels neither increase or decrease in severity and immorality. It is also worth noting that the labels of “vice” and “ignorance” have stepping stones at both the bottom of the hill and the top. Might this signal that these two matters exist even at the golden summit of civilization? Furthermore, Uncle Sam dons a red cross on his arm, symbolling aid, but the people on his back don’t seem very relieved. If anything, they are staring down at the stones he is using to forcibly “lead” them to the top. The words on the stones are mostly associated with how Americans viewed the native peoples of their imperialized countries, but if Uncle Sam is the one using them to climb up, isn’t he the one participating in “uncivilized” behavior?

cartoon2(Victor Gillam, “Remember the Maine! And Don’t Forget the Starving Cubans!” Judge, May 7, 1898.)

In an earlier piece by Gillam, Uncle Sam is depicted in front of what can only be described as a scrapbook of American imperialism. The use of real photographs gives this artwork a sense of tragic nostalgia and the two pages divided by Uncle Sam sends an eerie “cause and effect” message. The destruction of the naval ship USS Maine, thought to be at the fault of Spain, was often used as a reason for the Spanish-American War. While Spain and America fought for Cuba as a territory, both countries neglected the Cuban rebels, who were purposefully starved by the Spanish (Hernandez). A menacing Uncle Sam, with clenched fists, seems to be sending a warning, but to whom remains unclear. It is worth noting that within a year, Gillam’s Uncle Sam goes from angry and murderous to carrying the peoples he let starve in “The White Man’s Burden.” Perhaps this Uncle Sam never bothered to glance behind him at the consequences of his actions.

cartoon3.png(M. Moliné, “La Fatlera Del Oncle Sam,” La Campana de Gracia, 1896.)

The cartoon above, whose title translates to “Uncle Sam’s Craving,” was originally published in a newspaper, ironically, from Spain. Cuba was, at the time, rebelling from Spain, who was just as imperialist as the United States. Uncle Sam looks monstrous in this cartoon, and his hands are as large and clawlike as the “vampire” of Negro Rule in the below cartoon. He is reaching as far as Cuba and to what looks like faceless people swimming in the middle of the ocean. Uncle Sam, in this depiction looks predatory, as predatory as the vampire of the cartoon below. The caption reads, “saving the island so it won’t get lost.” In the face of Uncle Sam, it is incredibly obvious that his primary emotion is not concern, but greed. He is hunched over his empire in order to claim it. In the first two cartoons, his intentions may be naively justifiable at least; but in “Uncle Sam’s Craving,” it is obvious that he is a greedy, selfish beast, easily comparable to a vampire—the beast of imperialism that is the United States.

cartoon4(“The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina,” Raleigh News and Observer, September 27, 1898.)


Additional Sources Cited:

José M. Hernandez, “Cuba in 1898,” Hispanic Division Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/hernandez.html

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, “Uncle Sam: United States Symbol.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Uncle-Sam

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