Join, or Die - Ben Franklin and the Political Cartoon

Benjamin Franklin used this now-famous cartoon, created by an unknown artist, more than once. He first published it, to make a political point, in his Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Gazette on the 9th of May, 1754.

It is the earliest-known work, by a colonial American, which advocates union of the colonies. It is also the earliest-known American cartoon used to make a political statement.


The joining (or union) of Colonies, which Franklin references in his 1754 article, is not as a union of states (however much Franklin may have desired that eventual outcome). It is a call to join colonial action against a settlement conflict, in the Ohio Valley, which led to the "French and Indian War" (also known as "The Seven Years' War." The Library of Congress provides a summary:

Benjamin Franklin's warning to the British colonies in America "join or die" exhorting them to unite against the French and the Natives, shows a segmented snake, "S.C., N.C., V., M., P., N.J., N.Y., [and] N.E. [the four colonies also known as New England]."

What words did Franklin use to accompany this article? Among them are these:

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...

What could happen if attacks on the Colonials continued? The article, accompanying the cartoon, expresses Franklin's concern:

Hence, and from the great Distance of Britain, they [the French] presume that they may with Impunity violate the most solemn Treaties subsisting between the two Crowns [of France and Britain], kill, seize and imprison our Traders, and confiscate their Effects at Pleasure (as they have done for several Years past) murder and scalp our Farmers, with their Wives and Children, and take an easy Possession of such Parts of the British Territory as they find most convenient for them; which if they are permitted to do, must end in the Destruction of the British Interest, Trade and Plantations in America. (For quoted passages, see letter from Franklin to Richard Partridge dated 8 May 1754 at the U.S. National Archives' "Founders Online.")

If we closely study this political cartoon, we notice that two of the thirteen colonies—Delaware and Georgia—are not referenced at all. Why not?

Here's a possible answer:

  • At the time, Delaware and Pennsylvania shared the same governor (although each colony had their own legislature); and
  • Georgia (then a frontier colony) had virtually no effective government at all (with only three laws having been enacted by the time of Franklin's 1754 article).

From this we can conclude that:

  • Delaware could join a united effort (via its shared-with-Pennsylvania governor); and
  • Georgia's impact (at that time in the colony's existence) wouldn't add much to a joint effort. 

Leaving Delaware and Georgia out of the illustration also tracks with the "Albany Plan of Union." That was an early effort, supported by Ben Franklin, which colonial leaders debated during the summer of 1754. The idea was for the colonies to band together on common-interest issues.

It failed to gain traction, at the time, because colonial leaders were worried about their individual colonies:

The Albany Plan was not conceived out of a desire to secure independence from Great Britain. Many colonial commissioners actually wished to increase imperial authority in the colonies. Its framers saw it instead as a means to reform colonial-imperial relations and to recognize that the colonies collectively shared certain common interests.

However, the colonial governments’ own fears of losing power, territory, and commerce, both to other colonies and to the British Parliament, ensured the Albany Plan’s failure. (See the U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian, "Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations," "Albany Plan of Union, 1754.")

There's something else to know about the image Franklin selected. It's related to a superstition, then bandied about, that if a snake were cut into pieces, it would become alive again if those pieces were rejoined before sunset.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5189stories and lessons created

Original Release: Sep 03, 2017

Updated Last Revision: Sep 04, 2017

Media Credits

Image, U.S. National Archives. Original woodcut created by an unknown artist.


In-line image of the 9 May 1754 "Pennsylvania Gazette" article, featuring the referenced woodcut, online via the U.S. National Archives "Founders Online." 


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Join, or Die - Ben Franklin and the Political Cartoon" AwesomeStories.com. Sep 03, 2017. Dec 10, 2019.
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