Satire and Political Cartoons: A Historical Slideshow

The militant Islamic attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris have raised questions around the world. Such as, how does the right to free speech relate to the right of religious freedom? How does religious beliefs intersect with satire? Does a free press have an unlimited right to poke fun at any subject matter?

To help provide some background on the use of political criticism through the medium of cartoons, here are several historic examples of political cartoons and engravings throughout periods of United States history. Some of these might strike you as odd, as funny, or perhaps even shocking.

King Andrew the First

King Andrew the First. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-1562]

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-1562]

Most likely published in 1833, this is one of the more famous political cartoons in U.S. political history. President Andrew Jackson is drawn as a traditional monarch with scepter, krong, and ermine robes. This cartoon was meant to criticize Jackson’s order to remove federal money from the struggling Bank of the United States. Critics of Jackson felt that he went beyond his presidential authority by tampering with the Bank, so they depicted him as a kingly ruler who was unconcerned with the rule of democratic law.

An Interesting Family

An Interesting Family. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-57752]

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-57752]

This caricature by Edward Williams Clay depicts President Martin Van Buren as an opossum. The “family” are Thomas Hart Benton, John C. Calhoun, and newspaper editor Francis Preston Blair.

A group of vultures waiting for the storm to “Blow Over”–‘Let Us Prey’

A group of vultures waiting for the storm to 'Blow Over' - 'Let Us Prey' / Th Nast. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsc-05890]

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsc-05890]

Thomas Nast was perhaps the most well known American cartoonist of the nineteenth century. During the tremendous group of urban areas combined with steady modernization and industrialization, there were many social criticisms to be drawn. Here Nast depicts William “Boss” Tweed and his political gang of supporters as birds of prey picking over the bones of New York City. Tweed was the most famous city “boss” of the New York political machine Tammany Hall.

Swallowed!

Swallowed! Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsca-25438]

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsca-25438]

This 1900 illustration depicts Populist Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan threatening to swallow the Democratic Party donkey mascot. Bryan’s populist run for the White House was seen by this cartoonist as a threat to the election chances of the Democrats, who might normally have captured the votes that were being “eaten” by Bryan’s campaign.

A Good Month’s Business

Good Month's Business. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-2794]

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-2794]

During times of war, very pointed caricatures are often used as propaganda to sway the public to one side of a political argument. This 1918 poster pulled few punches. It depicted the German nation as stereotypical red-skinned, horned devils happily counting up the results of World War I.

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Click on the book cover to learn more about McGraw-Hill Education’s coverage of U.S. history in the networks title United States History and Geography. Photo credit: McGraw-Hill Education

Click on the book cover to learn more about McGraw-Hill Education’s coverage of free speech  in the network title “United States Government.” Photo credit: McGraw-Hill Education

Click on the book cover to learn more about McGraw-Hill Education’s coverage of free speech in the network title “United States Government.” Photo credit: McGraw-Hill Education

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What Do You Think? Look carefully at these historical images. Are any of them particularly shocking to you? Which one is the most inflammatory? Do you think newspapers, magazines, and Web sites would publish similar cartoons today? Have they published worse cartoons than these?