Don’t Tread On Me: Benjamin Franklin And The Power Of Images

September 30, 2011

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Although images were scarce in the early days of American colonialism, they became more and more important as the colonies became increasingly sophisticated, both socially and economically. Printed material was necessary for the spread of money and ideas throughout the colonies, and eventually became an essential component of the idea of breaking from Britain and establishing an American nation.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the best-known “Founding Fathers” was, among his other accomplishments, a prolific printer. He was inordinately proud of this position, so much so that he wanted his epitaph to read merely, “Benjamin Franklin, printer.” Franklin learned the art of printing from his brother James, and during his lifetime published the infamous Poor Richard’s Almanac, as well as a newspaper: The Pennsylvania Gazette. It was in the latter that one of the most iconic images of the American Revolution was first published.

Benjamin Franklin, Join or Die, The Pennsylvania Gazette, 1754

This image of the snake, first published in 1754, was directed at the Albany Congress of the colonies. Seven of the thirteen original colonies met in Albany during the summer of 1754 to discuss, among other issues, Franklin’s “Albany Plan” of a union between the colonies. This plan is made quite clear through Franklin’s simple, evocative image. Franklin was one of the first people to use the image of a snake to represent the colonies, and such was the power of the image that the practice soon became widespread. In the eighteenth century, the northeastern United States was home to both the timber and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and Franklin first associated America with them when he suggested that if England continued sending convicts to the colonies, the colonies should send rattlesnakes to England. In addition to imparting a local flavor, the snake was a well-known sign of the motto, “Don’t Tread on Me,” a not so subtle hint to colonial enemies (which at that time, depending on diplomatic moods, could include France, England, and various Native American tribes) that not-quite-yet Americans were not to be trifled with.

In “Join or Die,” Franklin’s assertion that the colonies must band together or be destroyed is conveyed with a segmented snake – each segment marked with the initials of one of the colonies that attended the Albany Congress. The image is dramatic yet uncomplicated – easily replicated. Ease of replication would become important as more and more people began to call for the unification of the colonies. Images like Franklin’s helped the dissemination of such ideas, indeed, Paul Revere himself (also a printer!) used the image in his protest of the Stamp Act just a few years later in 1765.

Although Franklin’s Albany Plan was not passed by the Albany Congress, it went on to provide vital groundwork for the 1777 Articles of Confederation and 1787 United States Constitution. “Join or Die,” however, was arguably much more powerful than any political agenda. The simple image of the partitioned snake explained the cause of the colonies more clearly and effectively than words ever could.

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