How America Got Today's Uncle Sam

Samuel Sullivan

Uncle Sam is the most iconic personification of the United States. He evolved over the course of 100 years until his final form was established in 1916 during World War I. Since then, he has experienced lasting popularity as a staple of American culture.

The famous army recruitment poster from 1916, where Uncle Sam points directly at each American with the message “I Want YOU For U.S. Army,” remains the most iconic image of Uncle Sam today.

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(Uncle Sam poster by James Montgomery Flagg/Library of Congress)

The effectiveness of the poster in its goal of recruiting troops is up for debate. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson decided to institute a draft after lower than expected American volunteers to fight in World War I.

The poster, however, remains recognizable 100 years later and is still a staple of American culture. Since its creation, Uncle Sam's evolution in terms of appearance has stopped, but where did Uncle Sam come from?

Uncle Sam's origins date back to the early 1800s. He is not just a comic character created in the mind of an artist. Uncle Sam was a real person who went by the name of Samuel Wilson.

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(Photo of Samuel Wilson/Wikimedia Commons)

According to Inventing American Tradition by Jack David Eller, on September 15, 1961, Congress officially recognized Samuel Wilson (pictured above) as the source of one of America’s most iconic symbols Uncle Sam:

“Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives that the Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of Uncle Sam.”

When the legend of Uncle Sam began, Wilson was in his mid-40s. It was the War of 1812, and Wilson, who had been a meat-packer from Troy, New York for many years, was appointed meat inspector for the U.S. Army.

Wilson started sending barrels of meat to nearby soldiers in Greenbush, New York, and the barrels were recognized as Wilson’s by some of the troops. The label of “U.S.” was either misunderstood or conflated with Wilson’s nickname of Uncle Sam. Of course, the U.S. on the barrels stood for the United States.

With the initials U.S., it is easy to see why Uncle Sam caught on as a figure to represent the United States. According to History, before that image came about, a cartoonist named Thomas Nast began popularizing a cartoon image of Uncle Sam in the late 1860s. During the late 1800s, Uncle Sam first sported his white beard and American flag suit, and top hat.

Although today’s Uncle Sam bears some resemblances to Wilson, the iconic representation was based on somebody else.

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(Lord Kitchener Wants You By Alfred Leete on Wikimedia Commons)

Alfred Leete’s 1914 poster Lord Kitchener Wants You was a key promotional tool to encourage British men to volunteer for the army. It featured Great Britain’s Secretary for War Lord Kitchener, a man with a serious mustache and a more serious stare.

According to The Conversation, hundreds of thousands of British men volunteered to fight in World War I after the poster was released. Many other factors led to the high levels of volunteerism amongst British men, such as social pressure, peer pressure, and an aggressive recruitment campaign. Still, the poster of Kitchener was popular and effective.

The Lord Kitchener poster, especially his pointing finger, influenced the 1916 Uncle Sam poster’s illustrator.

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(Photo of James Flagg/Library of Congress)

James Montgomery Flagg is the illustrator of the iconic Uncle Sam, I Want YOU for U.S. Army poster, but there is also a striking resemblance.

Look at his face (above); if you aged it until the hair turned white, added a white-starred hat with blue trim and a white goatee, you would see none other than the iconic Uncle Sam. Flagg based Uncle Sam’s face on his own.

According to Travis Andrews of the Washington Post, Flagg’s self-influenced depiction of Uncle Sam was so effective it was printed at least 4 million times in the final year of World War I. It became so popular it was used again to recruit troops during World War II.

Including the Uncle Sam poster, Flagg designed 46 propaganda posters for the U.S. during World War I. Flagg’s Uncle Sam, aside from the new face, was also more muscular and powerful than the previous depictions.

Flagg’s Uncle Sam fits how many Americans see America, strong, fervent, and patriotic.

Context

Many Americans wanted to enter World War I soon after it began in 1914. On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania’s sinking increased those desires, but President Woodrow Wilson stayed peaceful. President Wilson was reelected on a peace platform in 1916, but it was clear war loomed on the horizon.

Flagg’s reimagination of Uncle Sam deepened feelings of patriotism during the key months leading up to the U.S. officially entered the war. It had a similar effect as Leete’s poster featuring Lord Kitchener had on the British citizens.

President Woodrow Wilson appeared before a Joint Session of Congress on April 2, 1917. He said:

“It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war…but the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments…for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

Uncle Sam represents President Wilson’s words. He is strong enough to stand up and fight against tyranny to preserve democracy and freedom.

Final Thoughts

Today, Uncle Sam is not only used to promote patriotism and recruitment for the military. He is used throughout American culture. I recently saw Uncle Sam wearing a mask and gloves to promote safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, when I look at Uncle Sam, I see Wilson, Lord Kitchener, and Flagg, as well as the distinguishable personification of the U.S. that I value as an American.

There has never been a time when America has been so politically divided. America needs Uncle Sam and what he stands for more than ever.

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I find joy in delivering well-researched and compelling articles. I am a lifelong learner, teacher by profession, and writer by calling.

Bethesda, MD
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