Politics and the American Sense of Humor



If incongruity is at the heart of humor and what makes people laugh, as some theorists have maintained, then nowhere is there a greater disparity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and our failure to achieve it, than in American politics.

The democratic system posits higher values than we can live up to—not only life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness for heaven’s sake!  Not to mention equality, justice, and freedom of speech.  And then there are the politicians entrusted with achieving them.  We still laugh, unfortunately, at Mark Twain’s quip, “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”

A gauge of the success of our system is our willingness to make fun of ourselves and celebrate our failures with the horse laugh.  We hold nothing above ridicule—the law, government, religion, or the President—and we seek redress through satire.

Rather than be discouraged, the use of humor encourages us to try again and see if we can’t get it right the next time.  Laughter is a healthy corrective, and it serves to adjust our hopes and expectations to the reality of what’s actually possible in this increasingly precarious world.

Little wonder then that the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding.  One of the earliest political cartoons to appear in a newspaper was attributed to Benjamin Franklin in the May 9, 1754 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  The crude drawing portrayed a snake cut into separate portions like the states, with the injunction “Unite, or Die,” a warning that political survival in the colonies depended on union and mutual respect.  Not much humor there really, except in the odd choice of the snake, given all its symbolic weight, as the image of the emerging nation.

We would not have truly belletristic writing in America until Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper several decades after the founding of the nation.  One reason for this may have been the fact that the minds of the leading intellectuals were mainly involved in working out the details of the social and political structure of the commonwealth.  Most of the writing, therefore, addressed practical economic and political problems, as well as theological questions.

There did seem to be room for humor however.  As early as 1647 Nathaniel Ward ridiculed what he saw as too much religious tolerance and freedom for women in the colonies in The Simple Cobler of Aggawam.  Almost a century later, Thomas Morton, of Maypole fame, turned the spyglass around in the other direction and made fun of Puritan bigotry in New English Canaan (1737).  Ebenezer Cooke in Maryland laid a comic Hudibrastic curse on the entire new world in The Sot-Weed Factor (1708).

As periodicals and newspapers developed, the columns were promptly filled with humorous essays and satires on the absurdities and pomposities of the emerging social and political classes.  Franklin, the Connecticut Wits, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, Seba Smith, Francis Whitcher, and Marietta Holley were among them, the last two women also having their say.

Soon major schools of humor would emerge in New England and the Old South, which would in turn produce Mark Twain, after whom neither American literature nor humor would ever be the same.  As for political humor, do we have a more profound and funnier statement on the conflict between the individual conscience and the laws of the state than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)?

The example of Twain’s comic accomplishments would inspire many other writers to follow, such as James Thurber,  Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, Woody Allen, and Garrison Keillor, to name only a few.  A strong strain of humor has persisted in American literature.

But just as surely as these writers were observing and commenting on the national scene and the human condition, so too were the editorial cartoonists in the pages of the newspapers.  Although Franklin and Paul Revere are credited with early political cartoons, it wasn’t until Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler in the nineteenth century that they became a major force.

Nast’s satiric vision was so penetrating and influential that his cartoons seemed to have an effect on national affairs.  One of his Civil War drawings is credited with assuring Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, and his unrelenting attacks on Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies contributed to his downfall and imprisonment.

Although few would have such direct influence, many notable comic artists would follow Tweed’s path into political cartooning as a profession, such as Rollin Kirby, Jay “Ding” Darling, Herbert L. Block (Herblock), Bill Mauldin, Patrick Oliphant, Paul Conrad, and Jeff MacNelly.

Do readers pay attention?  Sometimes with startling results.  While mostly readers respond with letters of complaint, in 1987 a reader was so incensed with a cartoon by Tony Auth in the Philadelphia Inquirer that he broke into his office, trashed it, and warned that if it wasn’t for his religion and humanity, he would have killed the cartoonist.

More recently, in the January 29, 2006 issue of the Washington Post, a cartoon by Tom Toles criticized statements about the war in Iraq by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld through use of a symbolic figure of an American soldier who has lost both arms and legs.

A dew days later, on February 7, the Post published a letter attacking the cartoon as “callous” and “reprehensible” signed by the Chairman and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the only time in memory that a single letter had been signed by all five members for any purpose, much less a cartoon.  The letter did not address the political point of the drawing but only the use of the amputee figure as “beyond tasteless.”

On the same day as the cartoon by Toles appeared in the Post, the pages of the newspaper carried the first story about what would prove to be the most profound and powerful response to a cartoon in history, what has become known as the Danish cartoon incident.

A daily Danish newspaper had published on September 30, 2005, twelve cartoons criticizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad as a test of freedom of speech, the editor understanding that Islamic tradition forbade any pictorial portrayal of the prophet as a hedge against idolatry.  He may also have understood that any ridiculing of the prophet, as had been demonstrated by Salman Rushdie’s lampoon of him in Satanic Verses, would constitute blasphemy deserving of the death sentence.

Protests, demands for an apology from the editor and the Danish government, and legal complaints were lodged for a year by Muslim groups before it erupted into an international furor.  Danish embassies were closed in Muslim countries, boycotts against Danish trade and products were instituted, and riots broke out in several countries leaving many injured and a considerable number dead.

Editors in the United States and abroad who chose to reprint the cartoons were accused of inciting further violence, while those who did not were condemned for giving in to repressive pressure to gag freedom of speech.  A few resigned or lost their jobs.

However, such radical responses as these are rare in the history of the political cartoon.  Mainly the drawings serve the same function as does all successful humor in providing a useful reality check.  Walt Kelly, former editorial cartoonist and creator of the popular political comic strip Pogo, once put it best: “Humor should not be regarded as the sweetening around a sour pill.  It is something that clears the air, makes life more real, and therefore less frightening.”



Copyright © M. Thomas Inge

10 responses

  1. Step into the world of Will Rogers. His status as a native American as a member of one of the nations made him an outsider. His cowboy heritage and family history were truly his core and not an act. The jokes and quips he threw out with his casual rope tricks were welcome during our “Great Depression”. Of course, biting political humor was not as crude and simple minded as today. My favorite observation ties into your posting; “Politicians are elected with promises and leave with excuses.”

  2. […] While there are many reasons that this labor day might not be the happiest, there are crucial ways in which humor might be valuable in addressing social problems.  As Brenda Frink examines in her article on humor and feminism, humor can illuminate social inequalities and satirize problems through inversion and impersonation.  As Shelley Fisher Fishkin argues in the article above, humor can be a powerful tool for social change.  M. Thomas Inge’s piece provides a great primer on the history of political humor. […]

  3. […] Most viewed essay–Politics and the American Sense of Humor—-49 […]

  4. […] American Politics:  M. Thomas Inge’s post, “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” was this site’s inaugural post as we went “public” in August.  Readers […]

  5. […] M. Thomas Inge’s earlier post pointed out, political cartoons have long been a major form of humor in American political […]

  6. […] and the issues help shape the political conversation.  As M. Thomas Inge noted in his essay “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” “the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country […]

  7. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    A re-post of M. Thomas Inge’s piece, “Politics and the American Sense of Humor.” This piece marked our official launch into the world one year ago today.

  8. […] Politics and the American Sense of Humor […]

  9. Hello There. I discovered your blog the usage of msn. This is an extremely neatly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I will definitely return.

  10. […] specifically focused on pedagogy, but they do touch on related questions.  Tom Inge’s Politics and the American Sense of Humor launched the website just over 2 years (and 185k views) ago.  Michael Kiskis’s The Critics […]

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