Join or Die - this was the first political cartoon on record. Benjamin Franklin often used political cartoons in his newspaper to give information about events he wanted people to understand. He felt the cartoons were a way of bringing attention to news stories and bring more people to his newspaper. Benjamin Franklin published it in the Philadelphia Gazette on May 9, 1754. Franklin was upset with Great Britain and what was happening to the colonies. If you look closely at the cartoon you can see it is in parts - each part showing one of the colonies.
The divided snake is in 8 parts - South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England. New England referred to the colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Each part represented not just the colonies but the colonial governments in each area. It was created from a woodcut. Apparently the superstition was - if a snake was cut in two, it would come to life if the pieces were joined together before sunset. Unfortunately Delaware and Georgia were not included on the snake.
Franklin felt it was important for the pieces to join forces. If the colonies joined together, they would be like a giant serpent and would be more powerful. But if they remained in pieces, they would never be able to have any power or say in the British government.
As events began to escalate, the cartoon would take on a new meaning. When the colonists were protesting the Stamp Act, the cartoon was used to bring the people together under one cause. The closer the colonies moved toward independence, the more this cartoon was used to symbolize American unity and their independence. At the time this cartoon was published, America was fighting in the French and Indian War over control of the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Many did not want to go to war against the French. Franklin felt it was important for the colonies to unite. This started the colonies on the path of joining together to fight for their own beliefs, without the assistance of the British government.
The Patriots saw the snake as a symbol of eternity, vigilance, and prudence. Great Britain saw the snake as a symbol of guile, deceit, and treachery. It's amazing that one symbol could have such diverse meanings.
One variation many of us know is "Unite or Die". Whatever the meaning people gleaned from the cartoon, the obvious result was - we became a nation.