Uncle Sam’s Origin Story: The Birth of an American Icon

August 10, 2023Matt Fratus
Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam is often portrayed as a symbol of the United States government, and, more specifically, the military. But who is this mysterious patriot? And why is he so determined to get YOU to join the Army? Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For more than a century now, Uncle Sam has been the literal poster boy (well, octogenarian) for the United States federal government. He is a familiar face to Americans young and old, especially those who came of age during wartime. With his star-spangled stove top hat, withering gaze, and ramrod-straight index finger forever aimed at the face of whoever happens to look his way, there’s no mistaking Uncle Sam for anything but a man who wants you to kick some ass for his beloved country. 

So who is Uncle Sam really? Where did he come from? And why is he so hell-bent on getting YOU to join the US Army? Well, to answer those questions, we must journey back through American history — all the way, in fact, to the very beginning. 

Uncle Sam can trace his lineage back to another fictional American patriot and warmonger known as Brother Jonathan. As an idea, at least, Brother Jonathan long predates the 1776 American Revolution, as the name was used as a derogatory term to describe British Puritans who opposed the Royalists during the English Civil War. Later, after the same republican fervor took root in the Americas, the term was recycled as a nom de guerre for New England colonists rebelling against British rule.

Brother Jonathan, Uncle Sam

Brother Jonathan served as a forerunner to Uncle Sam and helped unify the colonists during the American Revolution. Photo courtesy of the New England Historical Society.

For years, Brother Jonathan was nothing more than a concept — a freedom-loving boogeyman devoid of form or face. That changed after America won its independence, when cartoonists began depicting Brother Jonathan in their work. The most popular rendition portrayed him as a white-haired man of genteel New England stock — dapper, dignified, and tactfully braggadocious. He usually appeared wearing a top hat and striped pants, which was apparently the fashion in those days. 

In time, such depictions of Brother Jonathan became ubiquitous in editorial cartoons and patriotic propaganda until the character was more or less universally accepted as an avatar of the quintessential Yank. Then, around the War of 1812, Brother Jonathan started to undergo a metamorphosis, one that would ultimately transform him into the Uncle Sam we know and love today.

According to legend, Uncle Sam’s namesake was Sam Wilson, a meat packer from New York who became mildly famous for supplying beef rations to the US Army in barrels that he stamped with “US.” Since the republic was still in its infancy at the time, many soldiers didn’t realize that the US stood for United States, and mistook the acronym for Wilson’s personal stamp. Thus, as the story goes, troops started calling the rations “Uncle Sam’s.”

James Montgomery Flagg's familiar Uncle Sam poster used in World War I military recruiting makes a revival appearance near recruiting headquarters on E street in Washington on Dec. 8, 1961. AP photo by Bob Schutz.

After the press learned that soldiers in the trenches were calling their food “Uncle Sam’s,” the story became national news. But it would take some years before the American public came to know Uncle Sam as anything more than just a name. His image underwent various permutations over the years, as different illustrators attempted to mold the concept into suitable human form. But it wasn’t until the American Civil War that the famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast finally managed to get the details right. 

At the time, Nast had enough star power to turn Uncle Sam into a bonafide celebrity. His resume included creating the contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus, the donkey logo for the Democratic Party, and the elephant logo for the Republicans. However, his black-and-white drawings of Uncle Sam, which appeared in several issues of Harper’s Weekly throughout the 1870s, failed to capture the national imagination. For whatever reason, Americans still weren’t ready to say goodbye to Brother Jonathan.

“I Want You for U.S. Army” by James Montgomery Flagg, ca. 1917. Poster via the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03521.

The years passed and before long the world was at war. On July 6, 1916, as the US anticipated its future involvement in the First World War, illustrator J.M. Flagg debuted his own rendition of Uncle Sam in the literary and news magazine Leslie’s Weekly. This image was accompanied by a caption that asked  readers: “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” 

It was only after the US began sending troops to Europe that the military started featuring Flagg’s illustration on military recruiting posters. In this version — which is the version most people are familiar with today — the caption reads: “I Want You For US Army.”

Read Next: ‘I Want YOU’: 5 of America’s Best WWI Recruitment Posters

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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