John Bull & Uncle Sam - Four Centuries of British-American Relations

john bull and uncle samAs personifications of their respective nations, Uncle Sam and John Bull became popular during the nineteenth century. John Bull originated earlier, as a character in John Arbuthnot's The History of John Bull (1712). He became widely known from cartoons by Sir John Tenniel published in the British humor magazine Punch during the middle and late nineteenth century. In those cartoons, he was portrayed as an honest, solid, farmer figure, often in a Union Jack waistcoat, and accompanied by a bulldog. He became so familiar that his name frequently appeared in books, plays, periodical titles, and as a brand name or trademark. Although frequently used through World War II, since the 1950s John Bull has been seen less often.

Uncle Sam originated in popular culture. His origins are disputed, but the name usually is associated with Sam Wilson, a businessman who supplied the army during the War of 1812. His barrels were stamped "U.S." for the government, leading him to be nicknamed "Uncle Sam." The symbolic Uncle Sam's appearance evolved from that of Brother Jonathan, the most common earlier symbol for the United States. The two characters were used interchangeably from the 1830s through the 1860s.

As with John Bull, the cartoonists of Punch helped develop the figure, showing him as a lean, whiskered man wearing a top hat and striped pants. The famous American cartoonist Thomas Nast crystallized the image with his cartoons beginning in the 1870s. By 1917, when James Montgomery Flagg depicted him on the famous World War I recruiting poster, Uncle Sam was an icon, readily recognized around the globe. He was officially adopted as the national symbol of the United States in 1950.

John Bull and Uncle Sam have often been depicted interacting, as friends or antagonists, and thus their names were selected as appropriate symbols for this exhibition. This introductory section provides a small sampling of images of the two characters from the last hundred years. Other images will be found in additional sections of the exhibition.

Song Celebrates British-American Ties

This song written by a member of the British Parliament celebrates the peaceful resolution of the Venezuela Boundary Dispute in 1898--the last time the United States and Britain came close to going to war.

William Allan and J.B. Herbert. John Bull and Uncle Sam. Chicago: S. Brainard's Sons, [1898]. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (75A)

John Bull Recruiting Poster

This World War I military recruiting poster demonstrates that more than a century after independence from Great Britain, in many areas the United States still copied the mother country. This British recruiting poster showing John Bull was produced in 1914 or 1915, before mandatory conscription began. Both this and James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam poster (77) are similar to an earlier recruiting poster showing Britain's Lord Kitchner.

"Who's Absent? Is It You?" ca. 1916. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London (77A)

Uncle Sam Recruiting Poster

This version of Uncle Sam was first published in a popular magazine in 1916 and was adopted as a military recruiting poster when the United States entered World War I. "The Uncle Sam Wants You" motif has been used subsequently to promote every conceivable cause. During the Vietnam War it became an anti-war poster.

James Montgomery Flagg. "I Want You For the U.S. Army." New York: Leslie-Judge Co., 1917. Color Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (77)

Pro-British Song of the World War II Era

Written just before the United States became involved in World War II, "Let's Get Together" supports a British-American alliance.

John W. Bratton and Geoffrey O'Hara. "Let's Get Together." Cleveland: Sam Fox Publishing Company, 1941. Sheet music cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (85c)

Declaration of Interdependence

This 1953 cartoon accompanied an editorial in Collier's magazine in response to an eruption of anti-British feeling in the U.S. after disparaging remarks by former Prime Minister Clement Atlee. The editorial reminds Americans of the important ties between the two countries and suggests that they draw up a"Declaration of Interdependence" instead of criticizing each other.

John R. Fischetti. "Time for a New Declaration," 1953. Color drawing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (296)

Cold War Tensions

This cartoon from the British humor magazine Punch reflects Cold War tensions and the strains that sometimes have developed in the"special relationship" between the United States and Britain. Uncle Sam is depicted as a householder who won't cooperate with the British as represented by John Bull, but does not want the British to turn to the Soviet Union.

"And don't let me catch you trying next door either." Punch, April 29, 1959, p. 569. General Collections, Library of Congress (295)

Uncle Sam and John Bull Compare Governments

Oliver Herford's cartoon was produced after Britain elected its first Labor Party government in 1923.

Cold War Unity

The similarity of British and American policies during the Cold War is noted in this 1950s cartoon.

Edwin Marcus. "Russia: 'How I Hate That Song!'" ca. 1955. Pen and ink. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (298)

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