LESSON PLAN: Analyzing Election Cartoons
A Brief History
Generally, political cartoons can be defined as a caricature of a well known person, place
or idea that is usually distorted or exaggerated to convey humor and/or a message. One
of the earliest forms of caricature in Western culture goes back to Leonardo da Vinci in
his drawings of deformity to define beauty.
More familiar forms of caricature for propaganda purposes are found in the Protestant
Reformation and Martin Luther’s socio-religious reforms. A politically evolving
merchant class was one of the strongest supporters of the reformation and crucial to the
success of Luther’s reforms. The high illiteracy rate influenced the use of illustrations,
usually printed on broadsheet posters or pamphlets, to convey messages to a large amount
of people with the greatest amount of comprehension.
One of the best examples of the use of visual protest can be found in two wood cuts
published in a pamphlet called “Passional Christi und Antichristi” which contrasts actions
of Jesus with the Church hierarchy seen below. The image on the left depicts a well
known Biblical episode of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple. In sharp
contrast, the image on the right shows the Pope writing indulgences as the common
people pay hard earned money for “forgiveness.”
By the eighteenth century, the political cartoon had become a substantial form of
commentary examining serious issues with humor and designed to affect the viewer’s
opinion. As western culture became more complex new subjects became available for
discussion and the appeal and influence of cartoons on public life grew.
It is widely believed that the first American cartoon
was Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” created in
1754 which had an explicit political purpose to
support his plan for an intercolonial association to deal
with the Iroquois Native Americans.
Though his proposal was