January 28, 2015

A national symbol – Uncle Sam

Since its foundation, the U.S. has been depicted by symbols but perhaps the most dominant symbol for the U.S. and its government has been Uncle Sam. It is believed that the symbol of Uncle Sam originated from the War of 1812 in Troy, New York.

During the War of 1812, Troy was an important market town and transit point for food and munitions for the U.S. Army. Troy supplied the large army camp located 15 miles south of Greenbush, New York, and the town’s location meant that it was a critical supply route for U.S. operations on Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and northern New York.

The term Uncle Sam appears to have first been mentioned in the spring of 1813 in the printing of a broadside. Six months later, on September 7, 1813, the Troy Post carried an antiwar Federalist article that spoke of the “ill-luck” of the war that “lights upon UNCLE SAM’S shoulders.” The article goes on to explain, “This cant name for our government has got almost as current as ‘John Bull’ (for the British). The letters U.S. on the government wagons, etc. are supposed to have given rise to it.”
Uncle Sam Wilson

Who was Uncle Sam? In 1830, the New York Gazette published an article that linked Uncle Sam to a Troy beef packer name Samuel Wilson who was described as a warm-hearted person. Wilson was known locally as Uncle Sam, apparently because he employed many of his relatives.

One story goes that an individual employed by Wilson asked what the initials U.S. on beef boxes stood for, while another replied jokingly that it meant Uncle Sam, meaning Samuel Wilson. Many of Wilson’s workers enlisted in the U.S. Army, allowing this story to spread. This story has been widely credited as the origin of Uncle Sam and even the U.S. Congress endorsed it on September 15, 1961, when a joint resolution was adopted stating: “Uncle Sam’ Wilson, of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s national symbol of ‘Uncle Sam.’”   

After its first appearance, Uncle Sam showed up in numerous newspapers during the War of 1812. The Federalists often used the term derisively when referring to the government as one newspaper referred to a group of half-starved and neglected war wounded as “Uncle Sam’s hard bargains.” Later on the Boston Gazette referred to army musicians as “a band of Uncle Sam’s Music.”

After the war, the term lost its negative connotation and eventually replaced Yankee Doodle and Brother Jonathan in public prints. Uncle Sam was first depicted in a cartoon in 1832, but it was not until the 1870s that Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast formalized Uncle Sam’s iconic image. By 1917, the image became even more popular when James Flagg added “I Want You” to the image in a recruiting poster. Today Uncle Sam is synonymous with the U.S. government and is recognized around the world.