American Essence

‘Join, or Die’: Ben Franklin’s Warning of a Divided America

BY Deborah Hommer TIMEJanuary 4, 2022 PRINT

Benjamin Franklin published “Join, or Die”—now considered to be the most famous colonial political cartoon—on May 9, 1754. It appeared in “The Disunited State,” an editorial in his Pennsylvania Gazette, which was the most successful newspaper in the colonies at that time. The symbolism of the cartoon’s fragmented snake is significant, and the message is simple: If we do not unite, we shall die at the hands of our nemesis. It was such a powerful message that it was used again during the American Revolution, and in other wars and crises that were to come later in America.

Epoch Times Photo
“Benjamin Franklin,” circa 1785, by Joseph Siffrein Duplessis. (Public Domain)

Let’s review the significant events that led up to the publication of this most famous political cartoon. In 1669, French explorer Sieur de La Salle discovered the Ohio River. During the 1700s, the Ohio River Valley (present day Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky) had bountiful hunting grounds, a flourishing fur trade, and a river that served as an integral transportation corridor. This important Ohio River Valley was claimed and coveted by both France and Britain, in their competitive pursuit of control and ultimate imperial domination over the North American continent. This rivalry led to the French and Indian War—beginning in 1754 and ending in 1763.

The Start of the French and Indian War

Major George Washington arrived at Fort Le Boeuf (in today’s northwestern Pennsylvania) on December 11, 1753, with orders to remove the French fort. He met with French Commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, who denied that this contested Ohio River Valley belonged to Britain. The Virginia legislature had determined that the French were trespassing on British territory and must be driven from their forts.

In the spring of 1754, both nations attempted to persuade Native American Indians to side with them. Depending upon their interests, and what they felt was a greater threat to their communities, some Native Americans sided with France, while others sided with Britain, and still others remained neutral. The French and British, with their respective Indian allies, assembled military forces and built forts, resulting in skirmishes in which both sides attempted to capture the other side’s territory. Tensions escalated, culminating in the seven-year French and Indian War.

Separate Parts Are Weaker Than a United Whole

It was not lost on the prescient Benjamin Franklin that the American colonies were caught in the middle of a heated dispute between longtime rivals Britain and France, and their respective Indian allies, over who owned the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. The American colonies had not yet picked a side. But they needed to. Separate parts can be defeated more easily than a united whole.

After Franklin published the Join, or Die cartoon, other newspapers in the colonies followed suit and reprinted his article, some with and some without the actual cartoon. In this cartoon, a snake is divided into eight disjoined pieces, each representing a different colony. The head of the snake represents the New England colonies (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island), geographically located at the northernmost part of the British colonies. After New England, the descending order was New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania (including Delaware), Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina (Georgia was added later). The tail of the snake represents the southernmost area of the colonies, with the disjoined pieces winding and weaving in sequence from north to south.

Epoch Times Photo
‘Join ,or Die,’ a political cartoon. (Public Domain)

The snake is divided into pieces to illustrate that the 13 colonies were split on whether the colonists should stand with Britain, stand with France, or stay neutral. The disjoined snake, as separate pieces depicting their disunity, illustrates that these colonies were weaker individually than they would be as a united whole.

It was a common myth at that time that a snake, if rejoined after being cut up into pieces, could come back to life. Franklin’s editorial was intended to galvanize the colonies to join the British in fighting against the imminent threat of the French and their Indian allies. This threat of French and Indian aggression was real. French intruders were converging in western Ohio, and the expectation was that more were coming, intending to ruin the frontier colonies by establishing French settlements. The British had recently suffered a military loss to the French. Franklin warned that if the colonies did not unite and join with Britain, and win, the French and Indians could encroach on the colonies, and they all could die.

In the myth, the rejoined snake comes alive, and the 18th century colonial reality had a similar outcome. Franklin’s campaign to join the colonies in a collective effort with Britain to defeat the French was successful. The separate colonies mobilized as a united whole and joined with Britain to defeat the French and their Native American allies. These seven years of war culminated in Britain winning enormous territorial gains on the colonial frontier.

Franklin’s message of mobilizing the separate British colonies as a unified front was the first time these colonies became a collective formidable force; but the image was so powerful that it lived on well beyond the French and Indian War. A decade later, that same image of unity was revived during the Stamp Act crisis, which led to the Revolutionary War and American independence. Although both sides used Franklin’s Join or Die cartoon 100 year later during America’s Civil War, even that North-South conflict could not dim Franklin’s image as a symbol of his call to unite.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

You May Also Like