Brother Jonathan


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Brother Jonathan

Brother Jonathan

While Uncle Sam is now regarded as the universal symbol of the United States, he is actually an adaptation of Brother Jonathan, an even earlier National Symbol. Prior to the Civil War, Brother Jonathan was our primary symbol, and during the Civil War years, the mantle was passed from Brother Jonathan to Uncle Sam.

Brother Jonathan was a fictional character that personified the entire United States, and he can be traced all the way back to the founding fathers. Between 1776 and 1783, "Brother Jonathan" was a term used by the British Loyalists to describe the Revolutionary Patriots. It is generally believed that the character was based on Jonathan Trumbull (1710-1785), who was the Governor of Connecticut. It is reported that George Washington often said: "We must consult Brother Jonathan" when faced with a difficult decision.

It is interesting to note that in editorial cartoons and posters, Brother Jonathan often had many of the characteristics we now associate with Uncle Sam.  In the political cartoon above, which is from the January 11, 1862 edition of Harper's Weekly, Brother Jonathan is pictured with a top hat, coat with long tails, and striped pants . . . all characteristics we now commonly associate with Uncle Sam. In fact, at first glance, most people would think the character in the cartoon is Uncle Sam.

As we study the political cartoons and posters of the Civil War years (1861-1865), we see a transformation in which Brother Jonathan is replaced by Uncle Sam.  At the outbreak of the war, almost all material featured Brother Jonathan.  By the close of the war, Uncle Sam was firmly established as the symbol of the country, and Brother Jonathan was pretty much out of the picture.

This transition is more than just a peculiar piece of trivia, and more than just a historical oddity.  The transition represented a change in the fundamental nature of how we viewed ourselves as a country.

Brother Jonathan was a symbol of a Nation made up of a group of equal and somewhat autonomous states.  Jonathan was a symbol of our brother and our equal in another state. Jonathan symbolized a Nation in which the States were primary, and the federal government was secondary.  Uncle Sam, on the other hand, represented the federal government.  As an Uncle, he was our elder, our superior, and our protector.

The transition from Brother Jonathan to Uncle Sam was accompanied by a peculiar transition in grammar.  Prior to the Civil War, while Brother Jonathan was our symbol, the words "United States" were treated as two words with "States" being plural.  For example, you would see sentences like this:

 "With the end of the Mexican War, the United States are at peace"

During the Civil War, the dialect changed, and "United States" became a singular word.  United States would be followed by the word "is" instead of the word "are".  For example:

"With the end of the Civil War, the United States is at peace"

Uncle Sam became the symbol of a nation in which power resided at the federal level, replacing Brother Jonathan, who was the symbol of a Nation in which the power resided at the state level.

The Civil War settled this issue, and with the issue being settled, Uncle Sam became an enduring symbol for the United States.


Historical Pictures of Brother Jonathan

(Click on Thumbnails to be Taken to that Page)

Brother Jonathan and John Bull

Brother Jonathan and John Bull

Brother Jonathan and Trent Affair

Brother Jonathan and the Trent Affair

Brother Jonathan Cartoon

Brother Jonathan Cartoon


John Bull an Brother Jonathan

Brother Jonathan






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