Political Essayists and Satirists

Political essayists and satirist assumed a critical part in the settling and establishing of many of the American colonies. The first American essayists began to write topics revolving around morality and ethics in the early colonial years.

Writing Prompts on History
Writing Prompts on History

The primary essayists of this period included Samuel Sewell and John Woolman, who condemned the slave trade in America. Many of their works were based on the political essays of Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift who wrote conscious thoughts about the emerging commercial society in the early 18th century.

Most of Swift’s works were focused on the financial revolution and its effects on the economic and political stability of Great Britain. Swift also talked about the change of power between the commercial and landed classes in his works.

Besides essayists, colonial America also had political satirists that challenged policies, issues, and government figures. Political satire rose to fame in the American colonies in the early 17th century as the colonists fought for independence from Great Britain.

Since the majority of the population were illiterate, cartoons gave critical commentaries against the rule of the British. From the mid to late 1800s, several editorial cartoonists like Thomas Nast criticized the political corruption of New York senator William Tweed and his Tammany political machine that handled the state government.

It was also during the American colonial era that humorist Mark Twain was recognized for his ingenuity and satirical humor on issues such as imperialism and slavery. In his essays and stories, Twain talked about what he saw as hypocrisy and stupidity around him, ridiculing dishonest politicians, religious hypocrites, and close-minded small towns.

Other than that, political commentators also made use of satire to warn Americans of the growing threat to their liberties and lives during the colonial period to Earl of Bute, who took advantage of a young King George III. Bute was blasted in the colonial and British press by political satirists like John Wilkes for taking advantage of a weak and young King George III and for working outside of the Parliament to secure peace.

The writings of Wilkes help instill the fear that the ministers of the king were eroding developed political norms with their continuous power-seeking corruption. While political satirists continued to depict Bute behind the scenes across the war, one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, took a direct aim at King George III in the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson made no mention of the ministers of Great Britain. Instead, he laid the blame squarely on King George III, whose actions had in direct object the development of a complete Tyranny over these States.

Facts about the Political Essayists and Satirists of Colonial America

  • President Benjamin Franklin is considered the first American political satirist. Franklin used political caricatures and cartoons to reach the American public because of literacy barriers.
  • Franklin’s Join or Die cartoon gained him popularity after it was published in The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754.
  • Join or Die depicted the individual colonies as segments of a rattlesnake, which later became one of the most iconic symbols in the American Revolution.
  • The purpose of the Join or Die cartoon was to persuade American colonists to join together to fight for a common cause.
  • Join, or Die, was also considered as the first political cartoon of America.
  • Thomas Nast is acknowledged as the most prolific political satirist of the American Colonial period. He introduced the symbols for Democratic and Republican political parties such as the elephant and donkey, which are being still used today.
  • The Third-Term Panic cartoon by Nast characterized the political controversy around the potential run for a third term as president of Ulysses S. Grant.

Q & A:

What was the first political cartoon in America?
Join, or Die, was the first political cartoon of America.

Who is the most prolific political satirist of Colonial America?
Thomas Nast was the most prolific political satirist of Colonial America. He is the author behind the critically acclaimed Third-Term Panic cartoon.

What types of political essays did Jonathan Swift write?
Jonathan Swift wrote about the rising commercial society in the early 18th century as well as the financial revolution and its effects on the economic and political stability of Great Britain.

Who introduced the political symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties?
Thomas Nast was responsible for introducing the symbols of the Republican and Democratic political parties.

Who was the first American political satirist?
President Benjamin Franklin was the first American satirist.