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Join, or Die by Benjamin Franklin was recycled to encourage the former colonies to unite against British rule

Join, or Die by Benjamin Franklin was recycled to encourage the former colonies to unite against British rule

"Join, or Die" is a well-known political cartoon, created by Benjamin Franklin and first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754.[1] The original publication by the Gazette is the earliest known pictorial representation of colonial union produced by a British colonist in America.[2] It is a woodcut showing a snake cut into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initials of one of the thirteen American colonies or region. New England was represented as one segment, rather than the four colonies it was at that time. In addition, Delaware (then a part of Pennsylvania) and Georgia were omitted completely. Thus, it has 8 segments of snake rather than the traditional 13 colonies.[3] The two northernmost British American colonies at the time, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, were not represented, nor were any British Caribbean possessions. The cartoon appeared along with Franklin's editorial about the "disunited state" of the colonies, and helped make his point about the importance of colonial unity. During that era, there was a superstition that a snake which had been cut into pieces would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset.[citation needed] This cartoon was used in the French and Indian War to symbolize that the colonies needed to join together with England to defeat the French and Indians. It became a symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolutionary War.

Role during the Seven Years' WarEdit

At that time, the colonists were divided on whether to fight the French and their Native-American allies for control of the land west of the Appalachian Mountains, in what came to be known as the French and Indian War. It became a symbol for the need of organized action against an outside threat posed by the French and Native-Americans in the mid 18th century. Writer Philip Davidson states that Franklin was a propagandist influential in seeing the potential in political cartoons.[4] Franklin had proposed the Albany Plan and his cartoon suggested that such a union was necessary to avoid destruction. As Franklin wrote,

"The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty of bringing so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common defense and Security; while our Enemies have the very great Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse...."[5]

Role prior to and during the American RevolutionEdit

Massachusetts Spy 3a10607u

Massachusetts Spy, July 7, 1774

Franklin's political cartoon took on a different meaning during the lead up to the American Revolution, especially around 1765-1766, during the Stamp Act Congress. British colonists in America protesting British rule used the cartoon in the Constitutional Courant to help persuade the colonists. However, the Patriots, who associated the image with eternity, vigilance, and prudence, were not the only ones who saw a new interpretation of the cartoon. The Loyalists saw the cartoon with more biblical traditions, such as those of guile, deceit, and treachery. Franklin himself opposed the use of his cartoon at this time, but instead advocated a moderate political policy; in 1766, he published a new cartoon "MAGNA Britannia: her Colonies REDUC'D",[6] where he warned against the danger of Britain losing her American colonies by means of the image of a female figure (Britannia) with her limbs cut off. Because of Franklin's initial cartoon, however, the "Courant" was thought of in England as one of the most radical publications.[4]

The difference between the use of "Join or Die" in 1754 and 1765 is that Franklin had designed it to unite the colonies for 'management of Indian relations' and defense against France, but in 1765 American colonists used it to urge colonial unity against the British. Also during this time the phrase "join, or die" changed to "unite, or die," in some states such as New York and Pennsylvania.

Soon after the publication of the cartoon during the Stamp Act Congress, variations were printed in New York, Massachusetts, and a couple of months later it had spread to Virginia and South Carolina. In some states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, the cartoon continued to be published week after week for over a year.[4] On July 7, 1774 Paul Revere altered the cartoon to fit the masthead of the Massachusetts Spy.[7]

Legacy of the cartoonEdit

The cartoon has been reprinted and redrawn widely throughout American history. Variants of the cartoon have different texts, e.g. "Unite or Dead", and differently labeled segments, depending on the political bodies being appealed to. During the American Revolutionary War, the image became a potent symbol of Colonial unity and resistance to what was seen as British oppression. It returned to service, suitably redrawn, for both sides of the American Civil War.[8]

In popular cultureEdit

  • The Latin translation of Join, or Die (Jungite aut Perite) is used as the official motto of the Philadelphia Union soccer team. A snake is also featured in their logo as an allusion to this cartoon.[9]
  • A flag featuring this cartoon was prominently displayed in the opening credits of the TV miniseries John Adams and was the title for the first part of the miniseries.
  • The Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson has this cartoon tattooed on the inside of his right forearm, reaching his wrist.[10][11]
  • An image of the Join, Or Die snake was delivered as a threat to a victim in the NCIS episode "Dead Air". It was used as a symbol for a Military At Home terrorist group.[12]
  • The cartoon is used on the cover of the novel Crooked Little Vein by comic book author Warren Ellis.
  • 'Join Or Die' is the name given to the special edition of the video game Assassin's Creed 3, it being set during the American Revolutionary War.
  • The cartoon is on a t-shirt worn by Justin Walker (Dave Annable) in episode 4 of season 4 ("From France with Love," 2009) of Brothers & Sisters.
  • In the TNT show Falling Skies, when Pope and his gang of outlaws are cornered at gunpoint by Tom Mason, Pope asks Mason for options, to which Mason replies "Join, or Die!". Part of Mason's backstory included him being a Boston University history professor who taught the American Revolution as part of his curriculum.

See alsoEdit


  1. "Join or Die". United States Library of Congress. Retrieved May 1, 2006. 
  2. Margolin, Victor. "Rebellion, Reform, and Revolution: American Graphic Design for Social Change." Design Issues Vol. 5, No. 1, 1988
  3. "Join or Die Snake Historical Flag". Flags Unlimited. Retrieved May 13, 2011. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Olson, Lester C. Benjamin Franklin'sGeorge Washington Vision of American Community. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2004
  5. "The Writings of Benjamin Franklin: Philadelphia, 1726 - 1757". Retrieved May 1, 2006. 
  6. "Political cartoon: MAGNA Britannia : her Colonies REDUC'D". Library Company of Philadelphia. Retrieved April 29, 2007. 
  7. "A More Perfect Union: Symbolizing the National Union of States". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  8. "'Join, or Die' - the Political Cartoon by Benjamin Franklin". BBC. 2003. Retrieved December 13, 2006. 
  9. "Philadelphia Major League Soccer Team Reveals Identity to the World". Major League Soccer. 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  10. "22 September 2009". Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  11. "The Rallying Cry of the Robot Skeleton Army". Plixi. 2010-02-11. Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  12. "NCIS Recap: Dead Air". Retrieved 2010-11-03. 

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