The Snake That Started A Revolution

The front page of the July 7, 1775 edition of the Massachusetts Spy features a political article calling Americans to take action against the British. More rousing than the page’s text is the image of a snake printed beneath the paper’s title. Editor, Paul Revere printed a modified, yet still recognizable copy of Benjamin Franklin’s iconic “Join or Die” snake across the Spy’s front page for over a year leading up the Revolutionary War. Revere repurposed the cartoon to call Americans to revolt against England’s anarchy. The usage of the snake’s form as a headline on the Massachusetts Spy was an important moment in American literary history as it used the connotation from existing tradition to both call Americans to action and further establish an American literary canon.

Before it is possible for readers to fully appreciate Revere’s usage of a Snake paired with the phrase “Join or Die”, they must be aware of Franklin’s original form and the context in which it was published. Franklin had a particular interest in Colonial-Native American affairs in the early to mid 1750s. As a delegate at a meeting in Albany in 1754, which created a defense treaty with the Indian tribes of the Six Nations, Franklin was aware of the power that Native Americans could have over colonists if they formed a united front. (Severud 89). Thus, Franklin used his newspaper as a platform through which he advanced his political views.

In the May 9, 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette Franklin published a drawing of a snake cut into 8 pieces, each piece labeled with a colony or region’s name, with the ominous caption “Join or Die”. “Often cited as the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper,” the snake was patterned with the markings of a map, representing the literal gaps between colonial leadership and the demise which it would lead to.” (Severud 88) This drawing symbolized the urgency with which Franklin believed the colonies needed to begin working together. Until the Revolution the 13 colonies all acted as very separate states and Franklin saw this as a vulnerability in the face of French and Indian forces, which formed an imposing front during the French and Indian War. Franklin’s drawing was a call to unity; a unity which twenty years later allowed the colonies to overthrow their English rulers.

Revere used a snake similar to Franklin’s in the Massachusetts Spy because he knew that Americans would associate a call to action and unity with the image. The Spy published many political articles that supported independence. As the movement gained more supporters, Revere used the snake as a banner, calling readers to arms. He knew that they would associate the revolutionary movement which they were reading about in the paper’s articles, with the snake’s demand for joining forces to defeat a common goal. Similar to the situation in 1754, Americans in 1775 were on the brink of war. Colonists needed to form a united front if they hoped to succeed in declaring independence from England, which is represented on the Spy as a dragon fighting the snake (Murrell 307). Progress had been made since the 1750s as political leaders from the colonies had begun corresponding as the idea of breaking away from England gained popularity. This increased unity is represented in Revere’s drawing as the snake is no longer broken into many separate pieces, but is whole, with only lines marking the different sections or colonies.

Another major difference between Revere’s cartoon and Franklin’s are the states which are labeled on the snakes. While Franklin’s drawing is only divided into eight sections and was targeted at colonies in the central part of the East Coast, where most of the battles in the French and Indian War occurred, Revere’s snake is divided into nine sections, including Georgia in its cry for togetherness. This total inclusivity establishes a permanency in colonial relationships. Revere was not calling for unity in face of a temporary threat, rather he was calling for unity in facing a common enemy which he represented boldly and prominently as a threat to the snake, or America.

While, the snake’s context in American history is crucial to understanding its place on the front page of the Massachusetts Spy, it is also important to understand how Revere’s use of the snake further enriched its literary tradition. Revere used the snake as a headline, a form in which it had not been represented before. In doing so, Revere gave the snake increased power. It served as a weekly reminder to Spy readers that unity against the crown was critical to American survival. Revere transformed the snake and the phrase “Join or Die” into a mantra which infused the paper’s articles as well as the reader’s thoughts in the months preceding the Revolution. The snake continued to effect American thinking through out the war itself as the cartoon was finally joined into one un-segmented rattle snake, bearing the emblem “Don’t Tread on Me” across Patriot flags (Murrell 307). It is important to recognize that Revere used a piece of literary canon that does not rely on written word to convey its meaning. In this way he was able to spread support for the Revolution to viewers of the paper who were not literate.

Revere’s snake was powerful because it was built on American literary tradition. It called readers of the Massachusetts Spy to action by reminding them of the successes they faced when they worked as a unified nation, rather than single colonies. While Revere’s snake called only for unity in revolting against the British, the literary pattern it followed suggested that unity would be called for in the future as well. The cartoon stood for more than a single event, it represented colonial sentiment in the Revolutionary Period- the idea that the colonies could not only survive without English citizenship, but they would be better off with independence.

The “Join or Die” cartoon printed across the front page of the Massachusetts Spy was more enduring than the paper on which it was printed. Revere’s use of the snake cartoon was a reminder to American colonies that they were stronger together than the sum of their parts; an ideology which prompted the colonies to form a confederacy and later a nation in wake of defeating the British and gaining independence.

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