May 9 marks the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" woodcut.
It would be tough to argue that Ben Franklin doesn't get his due in American history. In addition to his role as a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, he's credited for discovering electricity, inventing bifocals, introducing the first public library in the country, and so on. But did you know he also published the first political cartoon in American history?
The iconic woodcut of a snake cut into sections is often described that way. It was published in Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette 258 years ago today and is generally credit to him. It accompanied an editorial by Franklin which called for colonial unity -- not against the British, as is widely believed, but against the French and their allies in the French and Indian wars. it was only two decades later that it was revived and came to be used a symbol of the colonies' fight against the king in London (then, too, Franklin allegedly delivered a pithy summation: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."). It's a great example of how an author's original intent can be subverted for service of a drastically different goal -- even if, in this case, the author agreed with that end. And in an age when many publications have laid off editorial cartoonists, it's a poignant reminder that while editorial writing often loses its punch within weeks if not days, a powerful polemical illustration can maintain its currency for centuries.