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Join, or Die is a famous political cartoon created by Benjamin Franklin and first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. The original publication by the Gazette is the earliest known pictorial representation of colonial union produced by a British colonist in America. It is a woodcut showing a snake severed into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initial of a British American colony or region. However, New England was represented as one colony, rather than the four colonies it was at that time. In addition, Delaware and Georgia were omitted completely. Thus, it has 8 segments of snake rather than the traditional 13. The cartoon appeared along with Franklin's editorial about the "disunited state" of the colonies, and helped make his point about the importance of colonial unity. During that era, there was a superstition that a snake which had been cut into pieces would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset.
At that time, the colonists were divided on whether to fight the French and their Indian allies for control of the land west of the Appalachian Mountains, in what came to be known as the French and Indian War. It became a symbol for the need of organized action against an outside threat posed by the French and Indians in the mid 18th century. Writer Philip Davidson states that Franklin was a propagandist influential in seeing the potential in political cartoons. Franklin had proposed the Albany Plan and his cartoon suggested that such a union was necessary to avoid destruction. As Franklin wrote,
"The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty of bringing so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common defense and Security; while our Enemies have the very great Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse...."
Franklin's political cartoon took on a different meaning during the lead up to the American Revolution, especially around 1765-1766, during the Stamp Act Congress. British colonists in America protesting British rule used the cartoon in the Constitutional Courant to help persuade the colonists. However, the Patriots, who associated the image with eternity, vigilance, and prudence, were not the only ones who saw a new interpretation of the cartoon. The Loyalists saw the cartoon with more biblical traditions, such as those of guile, deceit, and treachery. Franklin himself opposed the use of his cartoon at this time, but instead advocated a moderate political policy; in 1766, he published a new cartoon "MAGNA Britannia: her Colonies REDUC'D" Because of Franklin's initial cartoon, however, the "Courant" was thought of in England as one of the most radical publications.
The difference between the use of "Join or Die" in 1754 and 1765 is that Franklin had designed it to unite the colonies for defense against France, but in 1765 American colonists used it to urge colonial unity against the British. Also during this time the phrase "join, or die" changed to "unite, or die," in some states such as New York and Pennsylvania.
Soon after the publication of the cartoon during the Stamp Act Congress, variations were printed in New York, Massachusetts, and a couple months later it had spread to Virginia and South Carolina. In some states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, the cartoon continued to be published week after week for over a year.
The cartoon has been reprinted and redrawn widely throughout American history. Variants of the cartoon have different texts, e.g. "Unite or Dead", and differently labeled segments, depending on the political bodies being appealed to. During the American Revolutionary War, the image became a potent symbol of Colonial unity and resistance to what was seen as British oppression. It returned to service, suitably redrawn, for both sides of the American Civil War.