Uncle Sam and John Bull: Friends and Imperialists

Sep 12, 2013

Every American knows Uncle Sam. He recruits for the Army and occasionally appears on stilts at Fourth of July parades in freakishly long red-and-white striped pants. But did you know that he has international friends? One good friend in particular is John Bull.

Turn-of-the-century Americans must have known this British acquaintance of the bearded, American father-figure, since they showed up together in many political cartoons. Short and rather portly next to the tall, skinny Uncle Sam, the two nevertheless appear to be great allies. Several images from the humor magazine Puck, catalogued in the Digital Library, show the two variously toasting each other, holding up a peaceful world together, and sitting in judgment on other nations.

I find one cartoon in particular to be very revealing about the imperialistic interests of the two nations, and it reveals a major, but often forgotten, event from Roosevelt’s presidency. A cartoon titled “The duty of great nations” shows Uncle Sam brooding over some gathering clouds labeled “Philippine Complications,” while John Bull tries to reassure him by pointing to a monument of “Civilization,” composed of representations of the countries in Great Britain’s empire with Britannia ruling at the top. The caption reads, “Don’t get discouraged, Sam! I’ve had just that sort of trouble for three hundred years, while I’ve been building this monument. It has cost many human lives and much money, but the whole world, as well as England, has benefited by it.”

The duty of great nations

The duty of great nations, February 15, 1899. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.

Roosevelt was involved in the Philippine-American War from his days as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he strongly supported American imperialistic involvement there and in other countries—particularly Cuba, as his organization of the volunteer cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders shows. However, Roosevelt’s championing of the spread of American-style “civilization” around the world was not free of contention. The United States at the time was strongly divided between expansionists and anti-imperialists, and allegations of military misconduct and torture created a political crisis during Roosevelt’s first term as president.

This series of cartoons with Uncle Sam and John Bull hints at the complexities of world events that go on while the two gentleman friends attempt to uphold their vision of the world.


Gregg Jones, Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New York: New American Library, 2012), 42, 162.

Amy Bishop completed her MS in Library and Information Science with a Certificate in Special Collections at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2013. She joined the University of Iowa Library Special Collections this fall as a Project Archivist.

Posted by Amy Bishop on Sep 12, 2013 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)  |  Share this post

Rick Marschall said,

Specifically, John Bull was having headaches (and bellyaches and backaches) with the Boers in South Africa at this time. Worse, in casualties and visibility, than our sorry time in the Philippines. McKinley resolved, though somewhat reluctantly, to commit to (against) the islands "in order to Christianize them," rather beyond his presidential purview. It is a remarkable, little discussed, feat of TR's presidency that he was able to sublimate, in the world's view, the open sore that was the "Philippine Problem." PUCK had many such cartoons, celebrating the Imperial character of a 20th-century Uncle Sam, in glorious tandem with John Bull. In interesting contrast, LIFE ran many cartoons on the same theme -- but criticizing the situation, showing the two icons drunk with power, slaughtering natives, grasping after lucre, etc.

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