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Primary Source of the Month

“Join or Die,” by Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, PA), May 9, 1754.
“Join, or Die,” by Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, PA),
May 9, 1754. Courtesy, Library of Congress

This famous “Join or Die” snake, believed to have been created by Benjamin Franklin, has long enjoyed the distinction of being the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper. Few people realize, however, that it can also be viewed as a basic map.

The image first appeared in the May 9, 1754, issue of Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. By the 1750s, France and Great Britain had been arguing for years over the extent one another’s landholdings in the Americas. Franklin considered the American colonies to be dangerously fragmented and, through this cartoon and its accompanying article, hoped to convince the American colonies that they would have great power if they united against the threat of French expansion in North America.

Admittedly, the “Join or Die” snake does not fit any standard definition of a map. But many basic elements of a map are present. Perhaps the image has been best described at a “cartographic caricature,” or a map generalizing and exaggerating the American colonies’ most recognizable features—namely their locations and coastlines. The colonies are represented in geographic order, with the New England colonies at the head of the snake and South Carolina at its tail. [Note: The New England colonies are not listed individually and Georgia, oddly, does not appear at all.] The undulations of the snake’s body broadly suggest the curves of the North American east coast.

The “Join or Die” snake enjoyed popularity long after its first publication in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754. Newspapers throughout the colonies copied and reprinted the image. For example, in 1774 Paul Revere adopted a snake device in the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy. As the years progressed, Franklin’s image lost its usefulness as a symbolic map, yet the powerful message of strength in unity it conveyed remained for centuries.

Written by Misty Belyeu, elementary school teacher, Auburn, Alabama.