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The "Personification" of the U.S: Uncle Sam



Even though political cartoonist Thomas Nast started spreading the original Uncle Sam caricature in the late 1860s and 1870s, Uncle Sam became widely known to the world through the “I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY” poster created by artist James Montgomery Flagg during World War I (Mullins, 2022). With Flagg’s poster, Uncle Sam, the personification of the United States, reminded the people of America of their responsibilities towards their beloved nation while triggering patriots to act on them. For years, used in various propaganda and advertising tools, the portrayal of Uncle Sam is thought to have evoked an aggressive form of patriotism, militarism, and division through an “us versus them” understanding.


The Origins of Uncle Sam

In 1776, Samuel Wilson, aka Uncle Sam, was a real person. Wilson was born in Massachusetts and then went to Troy, New York, with his brother Ebenezer, where they succeeded as businessmen (The Wilson Quarterly, 2004). When the U.S. declared war on Great Britain in 1812, their business flourished enough to supply meat to the U.S. army. The Wilsons delivered the majority of their salted, barrel-packed meat to the sizable army camp 15 miles to the south at Greenbush, but they also sent meat 175 miles to the west to Fort Ontario at Oswego and the naval base at Sackets Harbor and 150 miles to the north to soldiers stationed at Plattsburgh (Hickey, 2015). Samuel Wilson stamped the meat barrels with the initials “U.S.” for the country’s name; however, soldiers began referring to the meats as “Uncle Sam’s” (Mullins, 2022).



Figure 1: Portrait of Samuel Wilson

The American colonists received the custom of personifying the country in human form from the British iconography of John Bull. Brian Passey in his article suggests that, according to the Rev. Dr. Joel A. Lewis, head of the Department of History and Political Science at Dixie State University: "Bull was an image created in the generation after the 1707 Act of Union to represent the merger of the distinct kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Wales into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. In a similar notion, our early republic sought a way to unify 13 distinct colonies into the United States of America" (Passey, 2015). The United States used the personification of Uncle Sam to create a common sense of belonging and unity among the citizens of the new republic so that people would want to fight the tyranny of the British Monarchy to gain the independence and liberty they were seeking.


During World War I, the figure of Uncle Sam became more popular thanks to James Montgomery Flagg’s poster encouraging men to enlist. Citizens felt an obligation to do whatever they could for the sake of their country. These obligations, “coming from political traditions of republicanism that valued the common good over individual liberty, utopian visions of community, Christian beliefs that made of duty a virtue, paternalist notions that legitimated social hierarchies and demanded obedience” (Capozzola, 2008, p. 6-7), answer the question of what duties citizens owed to the state. In this regard, the famous poster of Flagg explicitly demonstrated one duty to be fulfilled by patriotic citizens of the U.S., which was military service. As a result of this call for enlistment, Uncle Sam got plenty of responses. More than 1.3 million men and more than twenty thousand women volunteered to serve in the armed services abroad and at home (Capozzola, 2008, p. 6-7).



Figure 2: A World War I United States Army recruitment poster featuring a half-length portrait of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, with the legend "I want you for U.S. Army".


Before World War I started in 1914, Uncle Sam was mostly utilized in primary school pageants to bring together various immigrants in a "spirit of brotherly love," according to Lewis. Two decades after the beginning of the 20th century, Uncle Sam and its meaning began to shift to a "rallying image for unity and support of U.S. foreign policy " (Passey, 2015).


Negative Connotations of “Uncle Sam”

In the War of 1812, the British in Canada referred to American troops as "Uncle Sams," and a Canadian newspaper ran a mock advertisement with derogatory undertones: "Slaves Wanted." It continued, "UNCLE SAM, a WORTHY GENTLEMAN Slave-holder WANTS TO PURCHASE, at 124 Dollars a head Sixty Five Thousand, ('more or less') Stout, able-bodied, full-blooded YANKEES" (Hickey, 2015, p. 690). Its aim was to ridicule the American government, particularly its finances and the army. The use of the term "Uncle Sam" in this context is intended to present the government and its troops in a negative light. It suggests that during the War of 1812, the term "Uncle Sam" was associated with negative connotations, revealing the government’s oppressive or exploitative acts. “Uncle Sam” can also be criticized as not reflecting the variety and diversity of the U.S. population. Uncle Sam's depiction as a white, older man reinforces certain stereotypes and excludes diverse perspectives and identities. This narrow representation limits inclusivity and fails to reflect the diversity of the American population. Diversity is at the core of the United States of America by including people from numerous races and ethnicities. While the representation of Uncle Sam aims for unification, it does not reflect the variety the U.S. embodies but rather it seeks to “reduce the collective history and identity into a coherent “oneness” – a unified personality” (Williams, 2021, p. 144).


Figure 3: School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization).

In conclusion, the figure of Uncle Sam has played a significant role in American history, evolving from its origins during the War of 1812 to becoming widely recognized during World War I through James Montgomery Flagg's iconic poster. Uncle Sam served as a powerful symbol of patriotism and unity, inspiring citizens to fulfill their duties to the nation. However, the portrayal of Uncle Sam has also been associated with negative connotations, as seen in derogatory references during the War of 1812 and concerns about its representation reinforcing stereotypes and excluding diversity. As the United States continues to evolve as a diverse and inclusive society, it is important to critically examine and broaden the representation of national symbols to reflect the rich tapestry of the American population. By embracing inclusivity and recognizing the complexities of its history and identity, the United States can foster a stronger sense of unity and shared purpose among its citizens.



Bibliography

Capozzola, C. (2008). Uncle Sam wants you: World War I and the making of the modern American citizen. Oxford University Press.


Williams, R. H. (2021). 7. Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, and Images of National Identity. In Civil Religion Today (pp. 137-162). New York University Press.


Hickey, D. R. (2015). A NOTE ON THE ORIGINS OF “UNCLE SAM,” 1810–1820. The New England Quarterly, 88(4), 681-692.


Mullins, M. (2022, July 25). September 7 – The United States Earns the Nickname “Uncle Sam” - Museum of The American G.I. Museum of The American G.I. - Where U.S. Military History Comes ALIVE! https://americangimuseum.org/the-united-states-earns-the-nickname-uncle-sam/


The Wilson Quarterly (2004). Portrait: Uncle Sam. Number 28(4), 128–128. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40261542


Passey, B. (2015, July 3). What’s the deal with Uncle Sam? The Spectrum. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from https://www.thespectrum.com/story/life/2015/07/03/what-the-deal-with-uncle-sam/29669929/

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Flagg, J.M. (1917). “A World War United States Army recruitment poster featuring a half-length portrait of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, with the legend “I want you for U.S. Army”. [Poster]. Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J._M._Flagg,_I_Want_You_for_U.S._Army_poster_(1917).jpg


Figure 1: [Portrait of Samuel Wilson, Painting]. (before 1854). Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_wilson_portrait.jpg


Figure 2: Flagg, J.M. (1917). “A World War United States Army recruitment poster featuring a half-length portrait of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer, with the legend “I want you for U.S. Army”. [Poster]. Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J._M._Flagg,_I_Want_You_for_U.S._Army_poster_(1917).jpg


Figure 3: Dalrymple, L. (1899). “School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization)”. [Caricature]. Wikimedia.


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Hazal Kazancı

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