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Primary Source of the Month

Thomas Jefferson victory banner. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

Thomas Jefferson victory banner. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

The election of 1800 was as contentious and volatile as any modern election. The two candidates, incumbent President John Adams, and challenger Thomas Jefferson, were both characterized as the best and worst choices for president. In pamphlets and speeches, their integrity, character, and private lives were brought up for scrutiny and, at times, ridicule. In short order, political commentary moved from the printed word to the printed image.

This month’s primary source, a cloth banner that celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s victory over John Adams, is believed to be one of the earliest images carrying partisan political imagery. It makes a subtle and somewhat partisan comment on the election’s outcome. Jefferson’s framed likeness is pictured below an eagle holding a streamer in its beak. The image of the eagle was part of the Great Seal of the United States and Jefferson’s proximity to it places him in its protective grace. The banner in the eagle’s beak proclaims, “T. Jefferson President of the United States / John Adams is no more.” It’s an accurate depiction of the election’s outcome, but also a commentary on the fate of the losing candidate.

In the early nineteenth century, politicians and pundits began using political imagery to inform citizens on the issues and promote political ideas. Common objects became iconic messages: the stars and stripes of the flag to instill patriotism; "Columbia," a woman in Roman dress, representing American values and standards; the eagle, representing power, strength, and freedom; and laurel leaves symbolizing peace and prosperity. Positioned around the stoic portraits of candidates running for office, these images conveyed the impression of leadership and strength. Artists also used caricatures to provide commentary, usually critical, about leading political figures. Drawings of Abe Lincoln’s over six-foot frame were stretched to exaggerate his height sometimes in a mocking fashion and other times to represent his dominance. New York political boss William Tweed was depicted with a sack of money as his head, alluding to his use of bribes instead of brains for political solutions. Theodore Roosevelt was characterized as a bull moose, to represent the mascot of his political party and his stubborn disposition.

Today, political imagery is everywhere on banners, buttons, campaign signs, and bumper stickers. Political cartoons have incorporated this imagery to become part of our political lexicon for discussion and debate of important issues. They impart information to the viewer with a partisan message of satire and sometimes ridicule. The use of political imagery is also an exercise of liberty and facilitates political dialogue. It allows all of us an opportunity to enjoy a little humor even during trying times.

Source: This article was written by Greg Timmons, freelance writer and education consultant, Missoula, Montana.