Written by Todd DePastino
The image above is the first known of Uncle Sam, symbol of the US federal government, published in the New York Lantern on March 13, 1852. It would take over another half-century for Sam to blossom fully into star-spangled glory. How Uncle Sam came to be and how he changed says much about military culture and how our nation has changed since its founding.
Illustrator Frank Bellew’s 1852 cartoon, above, of Uncle Sam depicts the character much as we know him today, minus the chin whiskers and star-banded tall hat.
There was, according to historian Alton Ketchum, author of Uncle Sam: The Man and the Legend (1959), an earlier image from the age of Andrew Jackson of a character named Uncle Sam.
While the name “Uncle Sam” is used in this 1832 cartoon, his depiction is nothing like what we’ve come to know: long legs in pegged pants, swallow-tail coat and top hat. And there’s no hint of a stars-and-stripes design to his outfit.
But the name is there. And the name came first, even before the War of 1812.
With apologies to Troy, New York, I have to say the popular legend of Troy meat packer and Army supplier Samuel Wilson as being the original “Uncle Sam” is bunk.
The story goes that Wilson sold 5,000 barrels of pork and beef to the US Army, then served as official meat inspector. Each barrel that passed his inspection received a stamp that included “U.S.” Somehow, joking soldiers supposedly knew who’d inspected the food and laughingly suggested “U.S.” referred to “Uncle” Sam Wilson.
In truth, the first known written reference to Uncle Sam was discovered in the 1810 diary of sailor Isaac Mayo by our friends at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
In his diary, the brand-new 16-year-old sailor aboard the USS Wasp describes an agonizing two-day bout of seasickness as the Wasp pulled out of New York harbor and passed Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
“Oh,” Mayo writes, “could I have got on shore in the height of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor.”
“Uncle Sam, as they call him.” The “they” Isaac mentions are probably the sailors aboard ship. “Uncle Sam” was probably Navy slang for their federal employer.
Five years later, in 1815, the nation’s first and wildly popular newsmagazine, Niles’ Weekly Register, contained a footnote explaining to readers that “Uncle Sam” was “a cant term in the army for the United States.”
In fact, almost all the early references to Uncle Sam come from people serving in the Army or Navy. Here’s a letter to the editor from an anonymous soldier recounting sickness and death among his fellow troops in the War of 1812:
It’s not surprising that “Uncle Sam” originated in the military.
First of all, no one—with the possible exception of hobos–uses more irreverent slang than soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Their language is filled with references to such things as “SNAFUS,” “Remington Raiders,” and “Pogey Bait.”
Secondly, those serving in the armed forces in the 19th century were just about the only Americans with any kind of relationship to “Uncle Sam.”
For most citizens, the federal government was virtually non-existent. It was tiny, far away, and didn’t figure into people’s daily lives. The vast majority of federal employees were enlisted in the Army, Navy, and what would become the Coast Guard.
Ordinary citizens only encountered the federal government in those rare instances they sent or received mail through the United States Post Office Department. With no IRS, VA, Federal Reserve, or other regulating agencies we take for granted, Americans simply had no reason to refer to “Uncle Sam,” which was largely invisible to them.
To such a freewheeling population, there was another nickname that seemed to be a better fit: “Brother Jonathan.”
That’s how the English referred to Americans in the 19th century. “Brother Jonathan” was a caricatured American, popularized in print and on stage as a tall, thin, cunning and unpretentious young man who could make a crude joke and pick your pocket at the same time. He was boorish and ill-mannered, never to be trusted. But you had to admire his pluck, and you could see he was going places.
Over the course of the 19th century, Brother Jonathan got displaced by Uncle Sam.
More precisely, Brother Jonathan matured into his more staid and stalwart—but still lanky—counterpart, just as the federal government expanded to touch all American lives under the leadership of the tall, skinny, bewhiskered President Abraham Lincoln.
Harper’s Weekly’s cartoonist Thomas Nast came close to clinching our final version of Uncle Sam in the 1870s, but the character would only be fully-realized in his star-spangled glory in 1916, with James Montgomery Flagg’s famous World War I recruiting poster.
Flagg relied on a mirror and his own good looks, dressed up with a fake goatee and top hat, to sketch the likeness. In his “I Want You for U.S. Army” poster, Uncle Sam is forceful and authoritative, the voice of the nation’s conscience.
And, indeed, it is on the march to war when governments and their people normally draw the closest. Uncle Sam, at such times, stands for the government of the United States acting in harmony with and service of its people, one nation, indivisible.
Note on top image: Illustrator Frank Bellew’s “Collins and Cunard” cartoon from the New York Lantern, March 13, 1852, is a comment on the rivalry between the American Collins Steamship Company and the British Cunard Steamship Company for the international mail trade. Britain, represented by John Bull with the bellows, subsidized Cunard’s efforts, while the United States was much more divided over whether the U.S. Post Office should support Collins’ overseas mail delivery. Uncle Sam, on the right, stands back and lets the kid blow the ship on his own. The end result can be surmised from the fate of the two companies. Collins went bankrupt in 1858. Cunard lives on as Carnival Cruises.