The Story of... 'The most famous and important American editorial cartoon'


One of only a handful of known existing original copies of Benjamin Franklin's celebrated "Join, or Die" editorial cartoon, from the May 9, 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette will be offered for the first time at auction.

Regarded as the single most famous and important American editorial cartoon in existence, and one of the most famous ever printed, it is expected to bring well in excess of $100,000 when it crosses the block as part of Heritage Auctions' September 13 Signature® Historical Manuscripts Auction.


Keen artist Benjamin Franklin

"There's no way to overstate just what this cartoon means to American history, Pop Culture history and comics history," said Ed Jaster, Senior Vice President of Heritage Auctions.

"It's important on so many levels, to collectors of all kinds, across many genres, that there's no telling where the bidding for this could go."

Benjamin Franklin's woodcut illustration of a snake severed into eight sections, each one representing one of the colonies, is the stuff of legend, burned into the collective American consciousness from the time most US citizens were in grade school.

The appearance of this copy at auction - the only other known copy is in the Library of Congress -constitutes a major event in the annals of American auction history.

"Franklin used the illustration, along with his accompanying editorial, to vividly explain the importance of colonial unity in 1754 shortly before the French and Indian War," said Jaster.

"Its prescient call for American unity may not have worked the way Franklin planned it in 1754, but it plainly sowed the seeds of the need for unity in the face of the looming American Revolution, some 22 years in the future."

'Join, or Die'

This very rare and historic newspaper was published in response to the French military expansion west of the Allegheny Mountains in Virginia, itself a response to the growing influx of British traders and colonists in that same region.

The French sought to build several forts along the Ohio River to discourage the British colonists from their westward migration.

The 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette - click on the image and press 'Control and +' to read the text


In April 1754, a young Major George Washington was given command of a small detachment and sent across the Allegheny Mountains to protect Virginian settlers who had built a fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, the beginning of the Ohio River.

When Washington arrived, however, he found that a much larger French force had already arrived and taken control of the fort.

When Franklin received the news about Washington's findings, he devised the "Join, or Die" illustration and wrote an editorial for the May 9 edition of his own Pennsylvania Gazette, a prominent American newspaper which he had purchased in 1729.

The editorial, which appears above the illustration on page two of this newspaper, is an argument designed to reinforce the message of the severed snake by convincing the British colonies to overcome their predicament as the "disunited State of the British Colonies" and to unify against the French.

A united front

After the editorial and cartoon ran, a conference of colonial delegates met in Albany, NY, on June 19 to discuss ways for the 13 colonies to establish a united front against the belligerent French and Indian nations.


The pen is mighter... Benjamin Franklin's legendary cartoon

Franklin created the Albany Plan to present to the delegation, calling for a type of federal government which would tend to colonial defense and expansion. Cooperation, however, did not come easily, even in the face of a strong enemy, and the delegation rejected the plan.

"The movement for unity among the colonies, begun so earnestly by Benjamin Franklin through this newspaper, would have to wait for the American Revolutionary War to be fulfilled," said Jaster.

"The image of the severed snake remained important in eighteenth-century America and was later reused and slightly modified as a symbol of colonial unity against British oppression during the years leading up to the American Revolution."


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