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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

Who was Uncle Sam?

There are many images that symbolize the United States but there are also images that symbolize specific things within the United States. We all know Uncle Sam, but most people don’t know where he comes from.

At this time there were already a few human symbols for the United States. Colombia was a female personification of America and liberty. There is also a male personification named Brother Jonathan that would be popularized during the Revolutionary War, and he stood for America and Capitalism. Brother Johnathan really resembled the Uncle Sam we know today.

When it comes to Uncle Sam, the origin of the character is unclear, but there is a popular legend that the character of Uncle Sam stems from a man named Samuel Wilson. Samuel Wilson was a meat packer in Troy, New York and he would become known as Uncle Sam Wilson around Troy.

During the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson inspected and provided rations for American soldiers. At the time there was a requirement for contractors to stamp their name and where the rations came from on the side of their packages. Wilson’s packages were labeled “E.A. - U.S.” and the soldiers and workers joked that it stood for Elbert Anderson, who was the contractor, and Uncle Sam, which referred to Wilson even though it actually stood for the United States. The local newspaper picked up on the story and Uncle Sam eventually gained widespread acceptance as the nickname for the United States Government.

We don’t know if this legend is true or if it just added onto the image of Uncle Sam. There was a reference to Uncle Sam in the original lyrics of "Yankee Doodle" in 1775.

“Old Uncle Sam come there to change

Some pancakes and some onions,

For 'lasses cakes, to carry home

To give his wife and young ones”

It is not clear whether this reference is to Uncle Sam as a symbol for the United States, or to an actual person named Sam. Sam also appeared in an 1810 Diary entry that stated…

“weighed anchor stood down the harbor, passed Sandy Hook, where there are two light-houses, and put to sea, first and the second day out most deadly seasick, oh could I have got onshore 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”

Whatever the story, Uncle Sam’s image exploded after the War of 1812. Uncle Sam appeared in political cartoons, literature, and so much more. His image changed from time to time, and he was even drawn as Benjamin Franklin.

Over time, Uncle Sam started merging with the symbol of Brother Jonathan as they were used interchangeably. Instead of representing America and Capitalism like Brother Jonathan, Uncle Sam came to personify specifically the United States Federal Government and its power. Before long, Brother Jonathan would disappear while Uncle Sam gained fame.

This usually goes beyond the scope of the page, but we are going to go a little past early American history because it’s so interesting. In the mid to late 1800’s, a cartoonist named Thomas Nast, which created the image of Santa Claus and the representations of the Democrat and Republican parties with the donkey and the elephant, started popularizing the image of Uncle Sam. He eventually gave Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit. This helped represent the Union and it told any rebels to mind their Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam became a rallying cry during times of war for the United States.

An interesting point that can be made is when the United States Government became more involved in international affairs and foreign powers, so did Uncle Sam. The image we all know today was painted by James Montgomery Flagg. It depicted an elderly man with white hair and a goatee, wearing a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, a blue tailcoat, and red-and-white-striped trousers. It was widely dispersed in World War I with the words “I WANT YOU” underneath it.

Whatever the origin, Uncle Sam has been a popular symbol of the US government in American culture and a manifestation of patriotic emotion. Anyone that sees this image usually recognizes it instantly.

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