Before Uncle Sam, America Had ‘Brother Jonathan’
Previous national personification proved surly, unsophisticated and proud of it.
Most Americans know Uncle Sam, the symbolic personification of the country, as a powerful, upstanding citizen. But very few know about Brother Jonathan, an ill-mannered and ill-spoken trickster, who preceded Sam.
But after the Revolutionary War, Brother Jonathan was portrayed as the personification of the newly independent America. And all these years later, he’s ready for his closeup, courtesy of Atlas Obscura.
Brother Jonathan was not sophisticated—and proud of it. He was, after all, considered the everyman, and a courageous one at that.
During America’s first hundred years, the country tried to find a perfect mascot for their new independent status. Only few had staying power, like Lady Liberty or Yankee Doodle. Yankee Doodle was originally a British invention, a caricature of what American colonists were supposed to be like. But after the war, Yankee Doodle faded, and Brother Jonathan rose in his place.
Over time, Brother Jonathan — always a New Englander — was depicted as a peddler, seaman, or trader. He was always shown as a sly and cunning man, and in the 19th Century, American cartoonists transformed Brother Jonathan into a figure of patriotic pride.
His true origins are sketchy. For decades, his origin story seemed linked to Jonathan Trumbull, the governor of Connecticut from 1769-1784, who was the only colonial governor to side with the patriots during the Revolutionary War. Rumor had it that George Washington had nicknamed the governor Brother Jonathan. History books leave no account though, and the more likely explanation is that Jonathan was first used as a derogatory term in England for puritans and others who opposed the crown. This derogatory term dated back to at least the English Civil War in 1642.
However, a lot of New Englanders in the new America were also named Jonathan. Since the British had made it such a derisive term, though, Americans did not like being called “Jonathans” — at least until after war.
Brother Jonathan represented ordinary Americans who were trying to make their way in the harsh new world. He was a trickster; many American artists depicted him as a sinister character. Americans clearly saw themselves as the scrappy underdogs, which showed in the political cartoons of the day which pitted Brother Jonathan against Britain’s John Bull.
In the cartoon, Brother Jonathan is tall, crude, cunning, plain-spoken and simply dressed. In comparison, John Bull was stout, stiff, aging, imperious, well-educated and highly-cultured. They were exact opposites.
Eventually, Brother Jonathan lost his humor in cartoons and gained more xenophobic traits. He became a mouthpiece for the nativist Know-Nothing party. In one cartoon, he is shown opposing voting rights for African Americans and other minorities, according to Atlas Obscura.
The Civil War marked the end of Brother Jonathan. Individualism became connected to reconstruction, and Brother Jonathan was anti-government, which didn’t fit. Also, he was a Yankee from the North, so no self-respecting Southern or Westerner could identify with him. He no longer represented a unified nation.
By that point, Uncle Sam had long been by Brother Jonathan’s side. During the Civil War, American and British cartoonists started drawing him in the classic long-tailed blue coat and red-and-white striped trousers that had previously been worn by Brother Jonathan.
Eventually, Brother Jonathan faded away into obscurity and Uncle Sam became the version of the American government that the new nation needed in the wake of the Civil War.
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