Brother Jonathan and John Bull: how do national identities come to be?
You’ve heard of Uncle Sam, but have you heard of Brother Jonathan? What about John Bull? The rise of characters who personify entire nations – and, in some cases, their disappearance from the national consciousness, or their replacement by new and different characters – has something to tell us about naming, narrative, and national identity. This post will focus on Britain and the United States – though we will throw a small bone to the Canadians.
The Four Corners of the World
In the 16th century, the European discovery of the Americas inspired artists to create a new genre of iconography, which spread far and wide in paintings, prints, and books: the ‘four corners of the world’.
This iconography portrayed each of the four known continents with a female figure who, like a saint or a queen, posed in a wreath of symbols and attributes:
- Africa took the form of a woman crowned with an elephant headdress (to signify the terrifying use of elephants in battle), holding cornucopias of grain and attended by lions and poisonous serpents.
- Asia took the form of a woman garlanded in gold, pearls, and jewels, holding an incense burner and bundles of paper, fruit, flowers, and spices.
- Europe took the form of a woman wearing a large crown (to signify that she was ‘Queen of all the world’), surrounded by kingdoms, riches, and instruments of the arts.
- America took the form of an ‘Indian Queen’ from the Caribbean – mostly nude, with a crown of feathers, a quiver of arrows at her hip, and sometimes a cornucopia to symbolize the New World’s abundance.
It was normal and expected that these figures were female. In medieval and early modern iconography, most personifications of abstract ideas were women. This partly had to do with tradition, partly to do with the feminine endings of certain Latin words, and partly to do, in the case of portrayals of nations and continents, with connotations of fertility and abundance.
Hence Britannia, the personification of Britain, has since Roman times taken the form of a woman armed with a Roman shield and spear. Helvetia, the personification of Switzerland, began as an assortment of women who represented various concepts and territories and consolidated, as the Swiss nation did, into a single form. In the 18th century, the French Revolution gave rise to a new personification of the French Republic, a figure now known as Marianne: a woman who bears a Phrygian cap, a traditional symbol of freedom from slavery.
There she is, Miss America
As the colonies in New England and along the Atlantic coast became a center of power in their own right, they acquired an allegorical personification of their own, a familiar figure in magazine illustrations and political cartoons: an ‘Indian Princess’, based on the Caribbean ‘Indian Queen’ but younger, perhaps to suggest a young nation; she wore a feathered headdress, a skirt made of tobacco leaves, and a quiver of arrows at the hip. After the Revolution, the US Congress stamped its early medals with an image of the Indian Princess as an official symbol of nationhood.
Before long, however, Americans were swept up in a cultural craze for all things classical and Greco-Roman – a national project of designing buildings, naming settlements, and appointing mascots to match their imperial ambitions for the Republic. ‘They festooned the landscape with grand names from the Bible or classical antiquity: Babylon, Jerusalem, Mount Sinai, Troy, Ithaca, Syracuse, Rome.’ Cartoons and illustrations of the American genius began to replace the Indian Princess with a Greco-Roman goddess in flowing robes – called Lady Columbia, or just Columbia. By the early 19th century, Columbia had become the foremost personification of the United States.
John Bull and Brother Jonathan
Not until the 19th century did men replace women as the personifications of Britain and the United States. The first newcomer was John Bull, who technically originated in 1712, when the satirist John Arbuthnot created him as a stand-in for Britain in two books lampooning international politics. He maintained a modest presence in British media until the 1860s, when the illustrator Sir John Tenniel – you know his work from the Alice in Wonderland books – featured the character in a series of political cartoons in the comedy magazine Punch, which made the character a national icon.
Tenniel’s John Bull was stout, stern, and country-tweedy in dress. Sometimes a shopkeeper, sometimes a country gentleman, sometimes a beadle, a police officer, or a schoolmaster, he was everywhere that the British were as a force of authority: stubborn, hot-tempered, a little obtuse. John Bull remained a popular figure in British writing and illustrations through the First and Second World Wars.
In response to John Bull’s growing fame, Americans devised a national caricature of their own: a young man – rangy, strong, and plainspoken – named Brother Jonathan. The name ‘Brother Jonathan’ originated during the English Civil War as a term of derision for the rebelling Puritans; later, it was applied to the Puritans of colonial New England.
Brother Jonathan allowed Americans to reimagine the fight with England as family drama. His first American appearance, an 1812 book titled The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan, is a painfully straightforward allegory: a squire named John Bull argues with his son, Brother Jonathan, and drives him into the wilderness; the son ‘cleared the land, which he laid out into thirteen good farms’; and so forth.
As a national personification, he appeared in cartoons and illustrations for several decades, often wearing a stove-pipe hat and a frock coat – a look that Uncle Sam would appropriate later on.
For both of these figures, the name ‘John’ served as a ready signifier of everyman status. (Arbuthnot may have chosen the surname ‘Bull’ for his character to salute an old stereotype that Englishmen eat a lot of beef; in his time, the French called Englishmen les rosbifs, or roast beefs.)
Our Uncle Sam
The name ‘Uncle Sam’ began appearing during the War of 1812. Explanations of its origin vary; the simplest is that soldiers made jokes to each other about the initials U.S. for ‘United States’, which we know were stamped on casks of meat and other provisions from the government. (‘Another delivery from my Uncle Sam!’) From that day to this, Uncle Sam has served specifically as a personification of the US government – not, as Brother Jonathan did, of the spirit of the American people.
Perhaps this helps to explain why Uncle Sam utterly eclipsed Brother Jonathan in popular media. Brother Jonathan is good for propaganda: he has no flaws, and his youth and bright future pointedly contrast John Bull’s dotage. But Uncle Sam is good for satire: shrewd, self-serving, vainglorious, he has flaws that round out stories of nation against nation, and even the occasional story of people against the government.
He has a good face for propaganda, too. As the historian Wilbur Zelinsky notes, it is probably no accident that after the Civil War, Uncle Sam began to look a lot like Abraham Lincoln.
The Canadian exception
The odd thing about national personifications is that the existence of a nation is not, by itself, sufficient to create them. For example, Canada has no female national personification in the mold of Britannia, Marianne, or Columbia. Nor does Canada have an equivalent to Uncle Sam or John Bull, although Canadian illustrators made a valiant attempt, in editorial cartoons during the years of Confederation, to create a character named Johnny Canuck who would personify Canada on the international stage. (He never caught on, except for a short span during World War II when a publisher revived him as a Nazi-fighting comic-book hero.)
Why couldn’t Canada produce its own spokesman? For one thing, Canada kept its colonial status far longer than the United States did. Then again, the colonies from which Brother Jonathan sprang were not so dissimilar from the colonies further north. The difference was likely the very agitation for revolution, which fueled the need for stories of conflict and images of opposition.
As the historian Daniel Francis suggests, Canada’s history has been, though far from sinless, quieter than most: ‘We have had no civil war, no wild west, no successful revolution, all events which might have provided us, as it did the United States, with a pantheon of heroes.’ Real heroes, as we know, can arise in any circumstance, but mythical heroes can only emerge from conflict.