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Home > History > Join or Die - The Story Behind Ben Franklin's Iconic Woodcut

Join or Die - The Story Behind Ben Franklin's Iconic Woodcut

This article explains the history and symbolism of Benjamin Franklin's Join or Die Woodcut.

Join, or Die by Benjamin Franklin

Join, or Die

What was the Join, or Die Symbol?

Join, or Die was a political cartoon and woodcut created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754. It was designed to unite the American colonies against the French and their Native allies at the start of the French and Indian War. It is thought to be the first political cartoon that advocated unification of the colonies. It is believed that Franklin did not actually create the image of the snake cut into pieces, but the actual artist is unknown.

Why the Snake?

The symbolism of a snake may have represented regeneration or renewal, since snakes shed their skins, or, may have drawn upon a legend of the time, which suggested that a snake that was cut into pieces could come back to life if its parts were assembled before sunset.

What was its Purpose?

Franklin's Join, or, Die shows a snake cut into eight sections. Atop each section is a label representing the initials of a colony or group of colonies. Interestingly, the New England colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut are grouped together in one section labeled "N.E." Georgia and Delaware are absent from the woodcut. Some historians have theorized that Franklin included initials rather than the actual names of the colonies because many people of the time could not read. The design first appeared in an editorial by Benjamin Franklin for the Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 9, 1754, in which he urged colonial consensus on the decision to fight the French and their Native allies for control of the Ohio River Valley and lands to the west. He also argued for British support of a unified colonial government. Franklin's symbol, however, failed to have the intended effect in England, as British politicians likely saw the formation of colonial governments as a threat to their control.

A Symbol of Rage

Although Join, or Die was meant for the French and Indian War, it became a powerful symbol in colonial opposition to the Stamp Act, and other British taxes that ultimately led to the Revolutionary War. It remains one of the iconic images representing colonial sentiment toward the British.

 

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