Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A John Brown Political Cartoon

Political cartoons can make for some of the best primary sources available to teachers and students. Images such as these are particularly excellent for visual learners. They also tend to stimulate conversation and critical thinking in students. One must keep in mind though that political cartoons are usually produced to present a particular point of view; they aren't usually intended to be "fair and balanced." In fact, they can sometimes be down right propagandist; often to encourage action on the part of the viewer, or to focus attention on an individual or event.

Political cartoonists usually draw images that are exaggerated and incorporate symbols, make use of stereotypes, and have some level of humor, and or irony to deliver their specific point of view. If you understand and look for these artistic concepts then political cartoons can be a very useful medium to learn history.

In this particular cartoon, titled "A Premature Movement," a disheveled and elderly John Brown, with rifle in hand, is encouraging an African American, most likely a slave, to take one of his pikes and follow him. The caption says, "Here! Take this and follow me. My name's Brown." The slave, labeled Cuffee in the caption, responds, "Praise God! Mr. Brown dat is impossible. We ain't done seedin' yit at our house."

By the use of the image, the title of the cartoon, and the caption, this artist clearly shows that he thinks Brown was "premature" in believing that slaves would leave their masters and follow him to freedom. The wording in the slave's caption indicates that the artist believes that slaves have more loyalty to their owners than to a rifle-wielding crazy looking old man. The phrase "We ain't done seedin' yit at our house," makes one think that the slave imagines his master's home and fields are his own; "we," and "our" being the choice words.

Political cartoons have been around for hundreds of years and continue to make people think about current events and issues. Their unique ability to deliver points of view in the past, as well as in the present, make them a popular medium that will likely keep us thinking into the future.


  1. In the nature of these cartoons, wonder why there are no roads named John Brown Pike?

  2. As always, nice blog Tim.

    The artist who did this political cartoon is fascinating--a Virginia Unionist named David Hunter Strother, whose pen name was Porte Crayon. Strother was quite hostile toward Brown, although in the post-war years he became something of an admirer of the Old Man of Harper's Ferry, even to the point of trying to go on the lecture circuit (with little success). Strother's Harper's Ferry work fairly well conveyed the propaganda of southern leaders, particularly the idea that enslaved people were loyal to their masters and either feared or refused to join John Brown. Of course, Brown's black raider, Osborne Anderson tells quite a different story in his 1860 memoir, A Voice from Harpers Ferry. Anderson resented the presentation of local blacks as disinterested and lacking in militancy, and he describes quite a different reception toward Brown's men on the ground at the time of the raid. Strother even served in the Union army during the Civil War.

  3. Lou,
    Thanks for the comment. I was unaware that Strother, as "Porte Crayon," was the artist of this particular cartoon. I tried to find out who did it, but was unsuccessful. I ran into another image that he did that I think I will also post.