JOIN, OR DIE: Political and Religious Controversy Over Franklin’s Snake Cartoon

"JOIN, or DIE." Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, from the Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1754. (Library of Congress)

On May 9, 1751, Benjamin Franklin published a satirical article in the Pennsylvania Gazette commenting on British laws that allowed convicted felons to be shipped to the American colonies. As an equal trade, Franklin wryly suggested that the colonists should send rattlesnakes to Great Britain and carefully distribute them among “Places of Pleasure.”[1] Although these reptiles seemed to be the most suitable returns, Franklin nonetheless lamented on one disadvantage of the trade. In Franklin’s mind, even if Britain received these venomous pests, the risk was not comparable to the one the colonists’ bore. According to Franklin, “the RattleSnake gives Warning before he attempts his Mischief; which the Convict does not.”[2] Notwithstanding his sardonic wit, this American entrepreneur did not know that he would eventually unleash a literary rattlesnake upon Britain and its American colonies. Precisely three years later, on May 9, 1754, Franklin published a political cartoon depicting a rattlesnake with the admonishing title, “JOIN, or DIE.”[3]

This graphic masterpiece, originally representing the inevitable death of the American colonies if they failed to unite during the impending French and Indian War, later stirred political and religious controversy between Loyalists and Patriots during the American Revolution. To Loyalists, the serpent represented Satan, deception, and the spiritual fall of man, proving the treachery of revolutionary thought. To Patriots however, the snake depicted wisdom, vigor, and cohesiveness, especially when the colonies united for a common purpose. By closely examining colonial newspapers and images, one notices that Franklin’s cartoon not only represented the political unity of the American colonies, but evoked religious ideals during the Revolution. Newspaper articles adopted the infamous words, “JOIN, or DIE!” to stir colonial citizens to join the revolutionary cause, renditions of Franklin’s cartoon were published on mastheads of newspapers, and conflicting editorials were published to teach the correct religious interpretation of the “American Serpent.”[4] Due to the cartoon’s prominent influence and the controversy that it created, the snake inevitably became the first national symbol for the newly created United States. Loyalists and Patriots eventually synthesized biblical imagery with Franklin’s political cartoon to articulate their positions for the revolutionary cause, creating religious controversy while solidifying the serpent as America’s first national emblem. This is an intriguing subject that has received little analysis, requiring further investigation.[5]

Birth of the Snake Cartoon

To fully appreciate the political and religious controversy that Benjamin Franklin’s snake cartoon generated, it is important to first relate the history of the illustration as well as discuss the symbolism that Franklin hoped it would portray. By reexamining some historical details, it is possible to show how the political history and religious story of Franklin’s cartoon are inherently linked.

During early May 1754, when England and France competed for territory in the Ohio River Valley, Benjamin Franklin was a staunch advocate for British colonial unity. Writing an article in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin reported the tragedy of Ens. Edward Ward’s surrender to Capt. Claude-Pierre Pecaudy. He wrote that Ward’s troops, while trying to build an English fort in the area of modern-day Pittsburgh, were surrounded by Pecaudy’s French force of over four hundred men.[6] Then after describing the hardships the colonists would suffer if the French continued to seize Pennsylvania’s western territory, Franklin inserted his snake cartoon. Displaying a rattlesnake cut into eight parts, the forewarning phrase “JOIN, or DIE.” loomed beneath the image.[7] This illustration, as scholar J.A. Leo Lemay asserted, was the first published symbol for colonial unity.[8]

In addition, as Lemay revealed, this probably was not a foreign image to some English citizens. The serpent was a classical symbol and had been presented in religious and mythological literature for centuries. Lemay wrote, “Franklin knew the various symbolic meanings of the serpent, and when he wanted to portray colonial union, he recalled the image of a serpent cut into two that appeared in a seventeenth-century emblem book.”[9] This book was Nicolas Verrien’s Recueil d’emblemes, displaying a cut snake with the motto, “‘Un Serpent coupé en deux. Se rejoindre ou mourir’ (A serpent cut in two. Either join or die).”[10] Also, throughout the years a superstition had widely circulated among the British colonies that a cut serpent would come alive if the pieces were joined back together before sundown. This also may have been another influence to help Franklin concoct the cartoon.[11] Franklin most likely knew about the French snake emblem and the mythological folklore behind the serpent. Some of his readers, no doubt, would have been familiar with these representations as well.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Franklin’s image quickly became a popular symbol for colonial unity. Four colonial newspapers published versions of the cartoon in May 1754, with the most dramatic modification by the Boston Gazette on May 21.[12] Although the cartoon exhibited the motto “JOIN or DIE,” the image of the snake was more detailed, displaying a scroll with the maxim, “Unite and Conquer.”[13] Franklin’s cartoon became a reoccurring symbol during the upcoming months, especially when The Virginia Gazette reported the defeat of Col. George Washington’s forces at Fort Necessity. The article concluded by referencing the cartoon, stating, “Surely this will remove the infatuation of security that seems to have prevailed too much among the other colonies” and “inforce [sic] a late ingenious Emblem worthy of their Attention and Consideration.”[14] Within a short period of time, colonials started to appreciate Franklin’s cartoon. Individuals, whether interpreting the snake emblematically or superstitiously, understood its message — if the colonies did not unite to defend themselves against foreign encroachments, they would perish and become subject to other nations. Although Franklin’s cartoon became a popular symbol before the French and Indian War, it would not become a national emblem until the American Revolution.

Revolutionary Resurrection

To scholars such as J.A. Leo Lemay and Gordon S. Wood, Benjamin Franklin’s snake cartoon ultimately became a national emblem due to its unifying aspects and powerful political imagery. These historians are correct to assert that the cartoon encapsulated the political and social struggles of the American Revolution, especially when Britain began enforcing new taxation laws on its North American colonies. However, the story turns much more captivating when reading the newspaper editorials.[15] By examining these writings within the political context of the time, a fascinating history emerges. Franklin’s cartoon was resurrected as a potent call for colonial unity against Great Britain, ultimately giving momentum to the religious controversy that would soon follow when Loyalists and Patriots began writing their opinions on what the snake symbolized.

Once word reached the colonies that Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, a surge of protests spread throughout the continent. The lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, feared for his life, and lamented to Franklin about the mobocracy that was forming in Boston.[16] The home and office of Massachusetts’ stamp distributor was attacked, and Hutchinson’s mansion was invaded. These acts made Hutchinson hope for a speedy repeal of the tax, but as Franklin suggested in a private letter, this was not likely to happen. Hutchinson also informed Franklin how Bostonians protested the new tax.[17]

According to Hutchinson, opponents resurrected Franklin’s motto, “JOIN, or DIE” to promote their insurgency. He wrote to Franklin, “When you and I were at Albany ten years ago, we did not Propose an union for such Purposes as these.”[18] Franklin had published his snake cartoon two months before he and Hutchinson met at the Albany Congress in July 1754 to attempt to form an intercolonial government under British authority. Franklin’s cartoon had been originally intended to support this type of union under the British Crown.[19] But a decade later, angry colonists started to use Franklin’s cartoon to encourage unification against Britain’s encroachments, transforming the original intention of the image by making it a call for revolutionary ideology. Hutchinson recognized the significance of this transformation, and as others would later realize overtime, Franklin’s cartoon would radically influence revolutionary protests.

When Parliament passed the Boston Port Act at the end of March 1774, riots swept the city and other colonies lent moral and economic support to Boston.[20] As the act declared, Boston’s harbor was closed on June 15, 1774 and was expected to be tightly regulated until the East India Company received compensation for the merchandise that was lost during the Boston Tea Party.[21] This act outraged several colonists and induced them to further adopt Franklin’s famous motto. With the admonishing title, “JOIN OR DIE,” Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury published an article that rebuked Parliament and declared that the American colonies needed to unite. The article stated:

The act of parliament for blockading the harbour of Boston, in order to reduce its spirited inhabitants to the most servile and mean compliances ever attempted to be imposed on a free people, is allowed to be infinitely more alarming and dangerous to our common liberties, than even that hydra the Stamp Act (which was destroyed by our firmness and union) and must be read with a glowing indignation by every real friend of freedom, in Europe and America – … The Generals of despotism are now drawing the lines of circumvallation around our bulwarks of liberty, and nothing but unity, resolution, and perseverance, can save ourselves and posterity from what is worse than death – SLAVERY.[22]

Parliament’s acts were seen by angry colonists as reducing Bostonians to a form of slavery, and if the colonies did not unite, these insurgents claimed that every province would soon be subjected to tyranny. Franklin’s motto now became imbedded in revolutionary ideology and began to exemplify the cause. A rendition of this article was printed in The Massachusetts Spy on May 26, 1774, demonstrating that the forewarning title, “JOIN OR DIE” continued to spread throughout the colonies.

Paul Revere’s masthead design for the Massachusetts Spy created for Isaiah Thomas. (Library of Congress)

One month later, Franklin’s motto again appeared in the Newport Mercury, this time promoting the unification of the colonies to create a Continental Congress. On June 27, 1774, the paper reported:

The freeholders and inhabitants of New Jersey, had a meeting at Newark in said country, the 11th of June inst. when they passed resolves nearly similar to those of most other towns and colonies on the continent, and were very zealous for having a congress appointed, as soon as possible; and according to present appearances such a congress will certainly take place … notwithstanding the enemies of American freedom, in this town and other places, have boasted that the other colonies would not join the province of Massachusetts Bay. The colonies know they must ‘JOIN or DIE.’[23]

As the article claimed, there were individuals who boasted that the colonies would not unify for the revolutionary cause. Yet as this Patriot declared, a congress was being summoned for that very purpose. This article demonstrated the tensions that stirred between Loyalists and Patriots during the tempestuous months of 1774. Colonists of several ideological backgrounds began to contemplate their political views, and many resolved to determine which side they would support. This year, known for the Intolerable Acts that were imposed on the colonies, is when Franklin’s cartoon became the embodiment of the revolutionary cause and aroused the most heated controversy. This is when Franklin’s cartoon would begin to be synthesized with biblical literature, affixing it a religious icon and America’s first national emblem.

By July 1774, several colonial newspapers placed renditions of Franklin’s cartoon on their mastheads. The New-York Journal displayed an image of a snake cut into nine parts with the maxim “UNITE OR DIE.”[24] However, the most detailed alteration was created by the Massachusetts Spy. This newspaper already had an ornate masthead, but when it added Franklin’s image, the front page became a crest for revolutionary fervor. The newspaper displayed a snake separated into nine parts contending with a dragon.[25] This creative version of Franklin’s cartoon attempted to portray the contest between the American colonies and Great Britain. The same motto “JOIN OR DIE” was printed above the snake, but it was accompanied by another adage: “Do THOU Great LIBERTY inspire our Souls – And make our Lives in THY Possession happy – Or, our Deaths glorious in THY just Defence [sic].”[26]

Controversy Over the Snake

These mastheads adopted Benjamin Franklin’s snake cartoon for two purposes: to purport revolutionary ideology and to encourage unity against Great Britain. As a result, Loyalists became unsettled and began to synthesize Franklin’s image with biblical literature to undermine the Patriotic campaign.

The first Loyalist satirization of Franklin’s cartoon appeared in Rivingston’s New York Gazetteer on August 25, 1774. Entitled, “On the SNAKE, depicted at the head of some American NEWS PAPERS.,” the epigram read:

YE Sons of Sedition, how comes it to pass,
That America’s typ’d by a SNAKE — in the grass?
Don’t you think ‘tis a scandalous, saucy reflection,
That merits the soundest, severest Correction,
NEW ENGLAND’s the HEAD, too; ——- NEW – ENGLAND’S abused;
For the Head of the Serpent we know should be BRUISED.[27]

Adopting language from the third chapter of Genesis, the rhyme manipulated the curse that God had placed on the serpent. Genesis reads, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”[28] Typifying revolutionary America as a “SNAKE” and its citizens as “Sons of Sedition,” this poem paralleled God’s curse with the inevitable defeat of the colonies. By combining political ideals with biblical literature, this poem associated revolutionary America with Satan. However, the fact that this author tried to condemn the illustration proves that Franklin’s cartoon had now become a powerful symbol for colonial unity. This epigram was later reprinted in the Boston News-Letter on September 8, 1774, demonstrating that Loyalist fervor was growing to condemn the revolutionary cause.[29]

Inspired by the Loyalist poem found in Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, a competing rhyme was published in the Patriot newspaper, the New-York Journal, on September 1, 1774. With the heading, “For the New-York Journal. On reading the Lines in Mr. Rivington’s last Paper, on the Snake at the Head of several American News Papers, the following occurred, viz.,” the poem read:

Ye Traitors! The Snake ye with Wonder behold,
Is not the Deceiver so famous of old;
Nor is it the Snake in the Grass that ye view,
Which would be a striking Resemblance of you,
Who aiming your Stings at your Country’s Heel,
Its Weight and Resentment to crush you should feel.[30]

Referencing the same biblical verse of the previous Loyalist epigram, this anonymous Patriot author associated Loyalists with the treachery of Satan. By equating Loyalist fervor to “Stings” aimed at the colonies’ “Heel,” the author used the same biblical story to declare that the Patriots would “crush” any Loyalist backlash. Using religious imagery, this Patriot hoped to highlight the literary power of Franklin’s cartoon. Also, by publishing this poem in a newspaper that proudly displayed a rendition of the image on its masthead, the author tried to convince Patriotic readers that the revolutionary cause was sacred.

In the same issue of the New-York Journal, another Patriot article appeared to explain Franklin’s cartoon. Although the editor claimed that the piece was written “about two or three months” before the current edition, he stated that he was not reminded of it until the first Loyalist poem was published in Rivington’s New York Gazetteer.[31] The author, known only as “SPECULATOR,” introduced the article by stating that he hoped to explain “the Design of the emblematical Figure at the Head” of The New-York Journal.[32] The author wrote, “The Serpent has been from the earliest Ages, used as an Emblem of Wisdom – We are told in the 3rd Chapter of Genesis, that the Serpent was more subtil than any Beast of the Field, and the Apostle exhorts us to be wise as Serpents.”[33] Instead of associating the serpent with Satan, this author linked Franklin’s cartoon to positive religious connotations. Referencing the third chapter of Genesis in beneficial terms, this article again combated Rivington’s Loyalist editorial which had drawn upon the same biblical chapter. Also, by referencing the tenth chapter of Matthew, the author associated Franklin’s cartoon with the words of Jesus Christ, which read, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”[34] The religious connotations the Patriot author related to Franklin’s cartoon were virtuous and emulated the teachings of the Christian savior. By synthesizing Franklin’s cartoon with biblical virtues, the author demonstrated that the snake was a choice emblem for the revolutionary campaign. The author also stated that the serpent represented “Life and Vigour,” as well as “a watchful Dragon” that guarded the colonists’ “Rights and Liberties.”[35]

After The New-York Journal published its Patriot rebuttals, the Boston Post Boy decided to join the debate and reprinted a satirical poem found in the London Magazine. On September 26, 1774, the newspaper published the following:

A BOSTONIAN EPIGRAM.
To the Ministry
YOU’VE sent a Rod to Massachusetts,
Thinking the Americans will buss it;
But much I fear, for Britain’s Sake,
That this same Rod may prove a Snake.[36]

Referencing the fourth chapter of Exodus, this poem drew upon the imagery of God transforming Moses’ rod into a serpent.[37] In the story, God used the transformation of the rod as a warning and example of his power. Yet what makes this epigram so intriguing is that it characterized the British ministry as Moses, who when first experiencing the transformation of his rod, became afraid.[38] When the British Crown imposed the Intolerable Acts, it hoped to suppress the colonists into obedience. Yet, as the poem suggested, instead of this “rod” convincing Americans to respect British power, the rod turned into a snake, showing the Crown that it needed to be mindful of its actions.

As the poem alleged, Britain’s repressive actions created the American snake, making the Crown face serious consequences. This epigram directly referenced Franklin’s cartoon, but it also helped solidify the image of the snake as a symbol for revolutionary thought. The snake was not portrayed as a symbol of evil, but as a retribution for Britain’s harsh treatment. Franklin’s image was used as an emblem of power and it cast a moral light upon the Patriotic cause. By giving this image religious and ethical overtones, Patriots hoped to demonstrate that their ideology was righteous; they wanted Franklin’s cartoon to represent the virtue of God’s holy word.

Since Franklin’s cartoon had started to become a hallowed emblem, Loyalists continued to write articles hoping to undermine its Patriotic symbolism. In an article published by the Norwich Packet on October 6, 1774, Samuel Peters, a well-known reverend and Loyalist, complained about the persecution inflicted by the Sons of Liberty and connected this activity with Franklin’s cartoon. Peters wrote, “The Riots and Mobs that have attended me and my House, set on by the Go_ _ _ _ _ _ of Connecticut, have compelled me to take up my Abode here; and the Clergy of Connecticut must fall a Sacrifice with several Churches, very soon, to the Rage of Puritan Mobility, if the Old Serpent, that Dragon, is not bound.”[39] Peters attached the satanic connotation of Franklin’s snake cartoon to Patriots, simply referring to them as “the Old Serpent, that Dragon.” In his article, Peters insinuated that Patriots were possessed by the devil and that the revolutionary cause needed to be “bound.” Peters not only referenced the biblical image of Satan, but applied verbiage found in the first two verses of chapter twenty in the book of Revelation. The verses read, “And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years.”[40] Alluding to this scripture, Peters attempted to demonstrate the sinful state of Patriots.

As the years progressed, Loyalists continued to write commentaries that rebuked American Patriots. Samuel Peters, as well as others, proceeded to link Franklin’s cartoon to the evils of Satan.[41] By consistently synthesizing negative biblical imagery with Franklin’s illustration, however, they unwittingly solidified the cartoon as a venerated Patriotic emblem and provoked revolutionaries to redeem their reputations. Patriots continued to attack Loyalist propaganda by publishing their own writings, and by applying positive religious imagery with Franklin’s cartoon, they made the snake a virtuous symbol of their campaign.

When the fall of 1774 arrived, colonial condescension of British authority was imbedded in Massachusetts. However, as Loyalist compositions continued to be printed, Patriots persisted with their countercharges. Magnifying the importance of Franklin’s snake as a religious and Patriotic emblem, an epigram published in the Massachusetts Spy advanced the editorial campaign. Entitled, “On the BRITISH MINISTRY, and NEW-ENGLAND, the Head of the American Snake. AN EPIGRAM, 1774,” the poem read:

BRITAIN’s sons line the coast of Atlantic all o’er,
Great of length, but in breadth they now wind on a shore.
That’s divided by inlets, by creeks, and by bays, –
A Snake* cut in parts, a pat emblem conveys –
The fell junto at home – sure their heads are but froth –
Fain this snake would have caught to supply viper broth
For their worn constitutions – and to it they go,
Hurry Tom, without hearing his yes or his no,
On the boldest adventures their annals can show:
By their wisdom advised, he their courage displays,
For they seized on the tongue ‘mong their first of essays;
Nor once thought of teeth when our Snake they assail –
Though the prudent catch Snakes by the back or the tail –
To direct to the head! our good King must indite ‘em –
They forgot that the head would most certainly bite ‘em.[42]

The rhyme suggested that Loyalists, while trying to curb Patriots from promoting their cause, forgot that the American snake had metaphorical “teeth” that could “bite” them. These “teeth” were the poems and articles that Patriots continued to publish to refute Loyalists that branded revolutionary ideology as evil. This epigram, although using common snake imagery, also contained religious symbolism, referencing several passages from the Bible. Using words such as “wisdom” and “head” to reference the American snake, the author evoked imagery from the books of Genesis and Matthew, as well as others throughout scripture.[43] Furthermore, by stating that the American snake was going to “bite” the hasty British Crown, the author noted the political tensions that existed in the colonies. Franklin’s serpent, which began as a political call for colonial unity, had now become a religious embodiment of the American Revolution.

By continuing to reference Benjamin Franklin’s snake cartoon, Patriots and Loyalists increased its literary power. However, it might seem odd that the man who created the cartoon and who was known for his contributions to journalism, would remain silent during this widely publicized controversy. Franklin was an ardent Patriot for the revolutionary cause, and as the creator of the cartoon, he surely would have known what the image symbolized. Therefore, in a manner that was common for Franklin, he surreptitiously joined the editorial contest by submitting an article to the Pennsylvania Journal.

On December 27, 1775, using the pseudonym “An American Guesser,” he published an article entitled, “The Rattle-Snake as a Symbol of America.”[44] With a whimsical tone, he wrote that his wishes were “to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device.”[45] Franklin penned: “I took care, however, to consult on this occasion a person who is acquainted with heraldry, from whom I learned, that it is a rule among the learned in that science ‘That the worthy properties of the animal, in the crest-born, shall be considered,’ and, ‘That the base ones cannot have been intended;’ he likewise informed me that the antients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom, and in a certain attitude of endless duration – both which circumstances I suppose may have been had in view.”[46] Interestingly enough, Franklin wrote that people of ancient times had recognized the serpent as an emblem of “wisdom” and “endless duration.” Similar to Patriots who countered Loyalist editorials, Franklin related the serpent to positive ancient writings, which of course, included biblical literature. This is not surprising. After all, according to historian Thomas S. Kidd, Franklin had constantly referenced the Bible to support his ideas and arguments. “Franklin knew the Bible backward and forward,” Kidd affirmed. “It framed the way he spoke and thought. Biblical phrases are ubiquitous in Franklin’s vast body of writings. Even as he embraced religious doubts, the King James Bible colored his ideas about morality, human nature, and the purpose of life. It served as his most common source of similes and anecdotes. He even enjoyed preying on friends’ ignorance of scripture in order to play jokes on them.”[47] Franklin was broad in his assertion, but when he connected the serpent to ancient notions of “wisdom” and “endless duration,” he probably referenced the books of Matthew and Numbers. As previously stated, in the book of Matthew, Jesus Christ had declared that men should be wise as serpents. In the book of Numbers, the story of the brazen serpent conveyed the allegory of timeless duration. To heal the ancient Israelites who had suffered from snake bites as a punishment for their sin and unbelief, God had commanded Moses to craft a “fiery” or brass serpent and fasten it to a pole. All the Israelites had to do to receive healing was cast their eyes on the serpent. Later on, many Christians interpreted this story as a foreshadowing of Christ’s atonement for mankind — Jesus had died for the sins of the world so that people could look on him to receive eternal life.[48] Just like Moses’s brazen serpent which represented extended life, Franklin suggested that the rattlesnake symbolized the vigor of the American colonies. If Patriots continued to seek what the snake cartoon exemplified, Franklin subtly insinuated, the Revolution would endure.

Conclusion

As the Revolutionary War dragged on, Benjamin Franklin’s snake cartoon continued to function as America’s holy national symbol. In an article published by The New-Hampshire Gazette on March 9, 1779, a journalist wrote, “The British Lion, unable to bruise to any purpose the head of the American Serpent is now playing with its tail.”[49] Reporting the southern campaign of the British army, this newspaper again represented the colonies as a serpent with biblical connotations. Nevertheless, as the war drew closer to an end, the image of the American serpent dissipated. The bald eagle became the new national emblem in 1782, forever replacing Franklin’s political and religious illustration that had gained its prominence during the American Revolution.[50]

The image of the American serpent was first conceived by Franklin in 1754, then contested by Loyalists and Patriots from 1774 to 1779.[51] Yet through this controversy, the cartoon became a political and religious ensign. Loyalists represented the snake as a symbol of evil, while Patriots endowed the snake with honorable qualities. All these allusions came from biblical literature — literature which carried divine clout for justifying the political positions of both parties. By synthesizing Franklin’s snake cartoon with religious imagery, the illustration became not just a call for colonial unity, but a holy embodiment of the American Revolution. As The New-Hampshire Gazette claimed, Great Britain could not bruise the head of the revolutionary campaign, and similar to Moses lifting the brazen serpent to the ancient Israelites, so too did Patriots raise Franklin’s snake during the Revolution, calling for colonists to “JOIN, OR DIE.”

 

 

[1] Editorial, “Rattle-Snakes for Felons,” Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1751.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Benjamin Franklin, editorial, Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1754. Although some historians question whether Franklin’s original cartoon displayed a rattlesnake, J.A. Leo Lemay conjectures that this was probably Franklin’s intention. Also, by referencing rattlesnakes in his articles published by the Pennsylvania Gazette (May 9, 1751) and The Pennsylvania Journal (December 27, 1775), it seems likely that Franklin meant for the cartoon to portray this type of serpent.

[4] Editorial, “Extract of a letter from New London, Feb. 27, 1779,” The New-Hampshire Gazette, March 9, 1779. See also, editorial, “Boston, March 4,” The New Jersey Gazette, March 31, 1779.

[5] The most comprehensive examination of Franklin’s snake cartoon was written by Albert Matthews in his article, “The Snake Devices, 1754-1776, and the Constitutional Courant, 1765,” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 11 (1910): 408-453. However, Matthews’ article is more of a bibliographic discourse, and he did not examine the religious connotations found in Loyalist and Patriot editorials.

[6] J.A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin: Soldier, Scientist, and Politician 1748-1757 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 3: 363.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 3: 364.

[9] Ibid., 3: 367.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. See also Donald Dewey, The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 2.

[12] For examples of these renditions, see Matthews, “The Snake Devices,” 416-17.

[13] Editorial, Boston Gazette, May 21, 1754.

[14] Quoted in Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, 3: 366.

[15] See Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, 3:362-368; Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004) 110.

[16] Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 110.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Quoted in ibid.

[19] Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 180-81.

[20] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press), 237-40.

[21] Ibid., 355.

[22] Editorial, “JOIN OR DIE!” The Newport Mercury, May 16, 1774. See also editorial, “JOIN OR DIE!” The Massachusetts Spy, May 26, 1774.

[23] “NEWPORT, JUNE 27,” The Newport Mercury, June 27, 1774.

[24] Masthead, The New-York Journal, July 7, 1774.

[25] Masthead, The Massachusetts Spy, October 6, 1774.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Epigram, Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, August 25, 1774.

[28] Genesis 3:15.

[29] Epigram, “On the Snake, depicted at the Head of some American NEWS PAPERS,” The Boston News-Letter, September 8, 1774.

[30] Epigram, “For the NEW-YORK JOURNAL. On reading the Lines in Mr. Rivington’s last Paper, on the Snake at the Head of several American News Papers, the following occurred, viz.” The New-York Journal, September 1, 1774.

[31] SPECULATOR, editorial, “The following Piece was written about two or three Months ago, but laid aside and forgot, till brought to Remembrance by some Lines in Mr. Rivingston’s last Paper. TO THE PRINTER. July 1, 1774,” The New-York Journal, September 1, 1774.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Matthew 10:16.

[35] SPECULATOR, editorial, The New-York Journal, September 1, 1774.

[36] Epigram, “From the LONDON MAGAZINE, for June, 1774. A BOSTONIAN EPIGRAM. To the Ministry.” Boston Post Boy, September 26, 1774.

[37] Exodus 4:3.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Samuel Peters, editorial, “BOSTON, October 1, 1774,” Norwich Packet, October 6, 1774.

[40] Revelation 20:1-2.

[41] For further examples of Loyalist editorials and propaganda, see also Editorial, “BOSTON. MASSACHUSETTS continu’d. To the INHABITANTS of the Province of MASSACHUSETTS-BAY.” The New-Hampshire Gazette, March 10, 1775; Editorial, “Parnassian Packet,” Essex Journal, March 22, 1775; Poem, “(Continued from our last.)” Essex Journal, May 6, 1775; LEONATUS, Editorial, “LONDON, From the General Evening Post, of August 5, 1777. To the EDITOR.” The New-York Gazette, November 3, 1777.

[42] Poem, “Parnassian Packet.” The Massachusetts Spy, October 27, 1774.

[43] See Genesis 49:17, Numbers 21:6-9, Psalms 140:3, and Jeremiah 8:17.

[44] Benjamin Franklin (AN AMERICAN GUESSER), “The Rattle-Snake as a Symbol of America,” The Pennsylvania Journal, December 27, 1775.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life, 5-6.

[48] Numbers 21:4-9; John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 905.

[49] Article, “Extract of a letter from New London, February 27, 1779,” The New-Hampshire Gazette, March 9, 1779; See also, Article, “Boston, March 4.” The New Jersey Gazette, March 31, 1779.

[50] Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, 650, footnote 34.

[51] It seems that 1779 was the last year when Franklin’s cartoon was referenced using religious connotations. However, further research could potentially uncover more articles, editorials, epigrams, and poems that connected Franklin’s snake to biblical literature. Nonetheless, the controversial climax between Loyalist and Patriots occurred between 1774-1775.

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4 Comments

  • Fascinating account! We use this imagery on the reproduction redware pottery we create, so are grateful to know more of the backstory to share with people.

    • Thanks so much Janice! I really appreciate it. It was a shock to find this information and fascinating to research. I’m glad it helped!

  • This was very fascinating. I used this article for an assignment in my history class where I had to critique a journal entry or article. I must say… I don’t have anything bad to say about the article. I enjoyed reading it.

    • Thanks so much Nathanael. I really appreciate the feedback. I’m also glad it helped! It’s always nice to hear things like that. Take care!

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