Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner
By: Thomas Nast
Date: November 21, 1869
Source: Nast, Thomas. “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.” Harper’s Weekly (November 21, 1869). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
About the Illustrator: American political illustrator and cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902) was considered one of the best political cartoonists of the nineteenth century. Nast illustrated the majority of his work—approximately 2,200 cartoons between the years 1859 and 1896—while with Harper & Brothers, who published such periodicals as Harper’s Weekly.
During this time Nast created or popularized such figures as the current characterizations of Santa Claus, Uncle Sam, the donkey representing the Democratic Party, and the elephant representing the Republican Party.
In 1817, brothers James and John Harper began a small printing business in New YorkCity. Two more Harper brothers, Fletcher and Joseph, joined the business later. By 1825, Harper & Brothers had become the largest book-publishing company in the United States. In 1850, the brothers began publishing Harper’s Monthly, which featured articles from established and well-known authors.
Based on its success, the company in 1857 began Harper’s Weekly. Expanding the business as circulation increased, Thomas Nast joined the company in 1862 as its cartoonist. Nast developed a unique style that frequently used the embellishment of the physical characteristics of his subjects.
At around the time, Nast joined Harper & Brothers, the popular nickname and symbol used to personify the United States was changing from Brother Jonathan to Uncle Sam. Brother Jonathan was the clever Yankee character that appeared initially in the late-eighteenth-century play The Contrast.
It is generally considered that Uncle Sam originated from the initials U.S., which first appeared on military supply containers, such as barrels of meat, during the War of 1812. Folklore holds that soldiers joked that the initials stood for Uncle Samuel Wilson, a meat supplier for the military. Later, around 1832, cartoon caricatures of a stars-and-stripes clad Uncle Sam figure appeared in political cartoons. In both figures (Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam), the short-bearded man generally wore a top hat, a coat with tails, and striped pants.
The Reconstruction era (1865–1877) of the United States—the period after the Civil War (1861–1865)—was a time dedicated to rebuilding the country and to concentrating on equal rights and citizenship of all Americans. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in July 1868, protected the rights of Southern blacks and restricted the political power of former Confederates. Later, in 1869, the Fifteen Amendment was ratified, which stated that U.S. citizens could not be denied the right to vote due to “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
Showing the patriotic idealism popular during these times, Thomas Nast is often credited with creating, in part, the popular image of Uncle Sam. The initials U.S. and the likeness of Uncle Sam have grown to represent the moral values within the United States. The image frequently was associated with military recruiting posters showing a likeness of Uncle Sam saying “I Want YOU for U.S. Army.”
The illustration “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” was Nast’s first drawing of the Uncle Sam character, which appeared in the November 20, 1869 edition of Harper’s Weekly. In the picture, Uncle Sam is shown standing while carving the Thanksgiving turkey. Although Uncle Sam is not wearing his now-familiar top hat and striped pants, Nast drew the illustration to imply images of freedom, equality, and unity—images still associated with Uncle Sam today.
Nast wrote out in the lower left-hand corner of the illustration the words “Come One, Come All,” and in the lower right-hand corner the words “Free and Equal.” He used these phrases to show that all the men and women of different races and backgrounds—such as Chinese, Indian, White, and Black—were equal while sitting at the dinner table of Uncle Sam.
With the portraits of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant in the background, Nast’s illustration played an important role in developing the popular image of Uncle Sam. Consequently, Nast helped to solidify some of the principles from which the nation is founded: that all people are equal and free in the United States.
Nast’s image of Uncle Sam evolved over the years into the image that is now popular in twenty-first-century America. However, though the image of Uncle Sam has changed over time, his message remained the same concerning the country’s goals and objectives.
On September 15, 1961, the eighty-seventh U.S. Congress adopted the figure of Uncle Sam as a national symbol of the country. Uncle Sam, along with the Statue of Liberty, is generally considered the two most recognizable representations of the United States. Also, based on the popularity of the Uncle Sam recruiting posters, other countries promoted their patriotic characters, such as England’s Lord Kitchener.
Books about Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner
Keller, Morton. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Ketchum, Alton. Uncle Sam: The Man and the Legend. New York: Hill and Wang, 1959.
Nast, Thomas. Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1967.
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