How did Uncle Sam become a symbol for the United States?

You never know where Uncle Sam will make an appearance. David McNew/Getty Images

By Associate Professor of Graphic Design, Iowa State University
2021 Dec 06

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How did Uncle Sam become a symbol for the United States? – Henry E., age 10, Somerville, Massachusetts

Most Americans easily recognize Uncle Sam as a symbol of the United States or a national nickname. Typically portrayed as an older white man with a long white goatee and a top hat, he’s almost always decked out in red, white and blue attire.

His image represents the U.S. government in political cartoons, or as a stand-in for the American people everywhere from soccer games to political rallies.

He has come to represent a patriotic ideal in popular culture. In the Marvel Universe, Captain America’s costume resembles what Uncle Sam wears. That character is not only strong, but compassionate.

The most familiar Uncle Sam image of all time is an Army recruiting poster designed by James Montgomery Flagg in 1917. In it, Uncle Sam proclaims “I WANT YOU,” while sternly pointing directly at the onlooker.

That World War I publicity campaign worked so well that the government used the image again to recruit soldiers and other members of the armed forces during World War II.

Uncle Sam points at the onlooker in an iconic 'I Want You for the U.S. Army' recruitment poster.
Artist James Montgomery Flagg designed this iconic 1917 recruitment poster. Library of Congress

‘Columbia’ and ‘Brother Jonathan’

Uncle Sam isn’t the only symbol that U.S. artists and illustrators have used to convey political issues of the day.

One of the earliest symbolic stand-ins for the United States was “Columbia,” a female icon usually dressed in a toga.

In one famous depiction, she’s seen mourning President Abraham Lincoln, joined by Britannia, another female character who personifies England, and a formerly enslaved person whose plight remains unclear.

A sorrowful Britannia, standing, lays a wreath on Lincoln's shrouded body while Columbia weeps as she clutches the U.S. flag and a freed enslaved person mourns.

Britannia consoles Columbia while a formerly enslaved person weeps in this 1865 image by the artist John Tenniel. The Cartoon Collector/Print Collector via Getty Images

So where did Uncle Sam’s name come from? According to a resolution Congress approved in 1961, it originated with meat supplier Samuel Wilson of Troy, New York. During the War of 1812, he marked his materials for military use with “U.S.” Workers at the time would tell a joke along the lines that “Uncle Sam” Wilson was feeding the Army.

Perhaps not coincidentally, two African-American Marvel superheroes are named Sam Wilson: “The Falcon,” who goes on to become Captain America following Steve Rogers’ retirement, and Samantha Wilson, who assumed the role of Captain America in the recent Spider-Gwen series.

Brother Jonathan holds a scythe in a 19th-century postcard.

‘Brother Jonathan,’ an early U.S. symbol, may have gradually turned into Uncle Sam. Kean Collection/Getty Images

But there was another figure resembling Uncle Sam called Brother Jonathan who emerged earlier.

That personification of the United States was possibly modeled on John Trumbull, a Colonial Connecticut governor who opposed British rule during the War of Independence. Brother Jonathan may have morphed into Uncle Sam around the time of the Civil War, before fading away.

In an 1876 advertisement, this young, slender man who symbolized the nation wore clothing that echoes the American flag. He looked a lot like a younger and cleanshaven version of Uncle Sam.

It’s possible that the lankiness and facial features that Uncle Sam inherited from later depictions of Brother Jonathan were a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln.

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Paul Bruski does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.


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