“Plague on you,” cries Brother Jonathan in an 1813 political cartoon. He wears a colonial hat and a mischievous smile as he assaults a Redcoat with a mug of fermented pear juice. It was a typical appearance for this young and brash character, who first entered political cartoons during the Revolutionary War, inspired by Jonathan Trumbull, governor of Connecticut and a close wartime adviser to George Washington. Brother Jonathan became a wartime mascot, embodying the upstart energy of the early United States.
Over the next few decades, as the country outgrew this rambunctious youngster, he was slowly edged out by the figure we now know as Uncle Sam, originally named after a meat magnate from New York State. (In the Civil War, Sam grew a beard modeled on Lincoln’s.)
Uncle Sam didn’t really become a household name until Thomas Nast’s sketches in Harper’s Weekly in the late 1860s and ’70s, when Nast made him a hero of the Union cause. An 1869 cartoon by Nast shows Sam leading a multiracial Thanksgiving meal above the abolitionist catchphrases: “Come One, Come All” and “Free and Equal.”
Unlike Jonathan, Sam wasn’t a stand-in for the citizenry or even the soldiers; more and more, he came to symbolize the federal government. His poise and gravity were better suited to rally a divided country—and to lead the nation through its increasing foreign entanglements. In World War I and II, Sam was a tough-love military recruiter, well-muscled with his sleeves rolled up and his shoulders broad like an athlete’s. That same stern visage has continued to bolster the government’s domestic authority, particularly during each tax season.
Even today, Sam continues to evolve—and Claire Jerry, a curator at the National Museum of American History, says that there is an ongoing conversation among historians and archivists about whether it’s time for him to get yet another makeover. The question, as Jerry puts it, is: “How can he in fact symbolize the whole country?” Perhaps he can’t—but one possible answer is to portray Uncle Sam as multiracial, and over the past decade, there has been increasing interest in creating a Black Uncle Sam. As Jerry says: “Uncle Sam will evolve along with us.”