Uncle Sam

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Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty

Since his "birth" in 1813, Uncle Sam has appeared in political cartoons, army recruitment posters and magazine covers. He has participated in nearly every historical and cultural event of the last two centuries, from the War of 1812 to music by the Grateful Dead. He even had his own comic book. And on Nov. 4 he will be at rallies and on posters, urging every American to participate in the most patriotic day of all: Election Day. A look underneath the top hat:

• Uncle Sam was, believe it or not, a real person. During the war of 1812, American troops near the Canadian border received barrels of pork and beef from a Troy, New York meatpacker named Samuel Wilson. Wilson stamped "U.S." on the barrels — because they were going to the U.S. military — and the soldiers joked about gifts sent from "Uncle Sam".

• By 1813, the term appeared in local newspapers, referring by now to anything that came as a gift from the government. Within a year, it had spread around the country.

• The first known likeness of Uncle Sam appeared in an 1832 political cartoon. The character was clean-shaven and draped in the American flag.

• He wasn't the first character created to personify the United States. Before the fictional Uncle Sam came the Revolutionary War-era Brother Jonathan. Brother Jonathan wore striped pants, a hat and a long military jacket (Uncle Sam's fashion inspiration, apparently).

• Between 1832 and the Civil War, Uncle Sam was portrayed in everything from pajamas to eveningwear. He was young, old, fat and thin. At one point he was even a tantrum-throwing toddler. It wasn't until 1856 that Uncle Sam grew his first beard, which he would alternately gain and lose until Abraham Lincoln was elected President four years later. Through Lincoln, the Union became associated with the image of a tall, lanky man with a beard — an image that transferred, and stuck, to Uncle Sam forever after.

• Uncle Sam's defining portrait — the finger-pointing, bewhiskered gent of the "I Want You" World War I recruitment posters — were painted by James Montgomery Flagg, a LIFE Magazine illustrator. Flagg's drawing first appeared on the July 6, 1916 cover of Leslie's Weekly, with the title "What are You Doing for Preparedness?" It became a national ad campaign a year later.

• Uncle first hit the funny pages in 1940, with an appearance in the National Comics series, published by the now defunct Quality Comics. In the series, Uncle Sam was a Revolutionary War soldier whose soul merged with the spirit of Liberty. He was killed in battle but remained on Earth to fight for freedom. He briefly starred in his own comic book, Uncle Sam's Quarterly, which was published from 1941-1943. After a long hiatus (although he was memorably parodied by Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman during the Vietnam War), Uncle Sam returned to comics in a 1973 issue of The Justice League of America in which the League traveled to an alternate reality, where Nazis had won World War II and Uncle Sam was a guerrilla leader. The issue was successful enough to give Uncle Sam and his Freedom Fighters their own comic from 1976-1978.

• From "I Want You (To Vote)" campaign buttons to appearances as political rallies, Uncle Sam's election campaign contributions have been varied. During Hillary Clinton's first U.S. Senate campaign in 2000, the Democratic Party frequently sent a young volunteer dressed as Uncle Sam to her opponent's campaign events, to publicly ask him to disclose his tax returns.


"If Uncle Sam needs, I'll be glad to assist him." Quote from a spring 1813 broadsheet, the first time the term appeared in print

"Loss upon loss, and no ill luck stirring but what lights upon Uncle Sam's shoulders," The editors of the Troy Post, Sept. 7, 1813. This is frequently but incorrectly cited as the first use of the term

"It may be gratifying to the surviving friends of Uncle Sam to learn that the most of his Southern children have appointed the Hon. Jeff Davis as overseer, and declare their intention, with his assistance, to wrest the old family mansion from its present vulgar occupants." A fake obituary of Uncle Sam that appeared in the June 1, 1861 issue of the North Carolina Standard

"Every generation of American life re-creates Uncle Sam in its own image." Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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