Symbols are the foundation upon which human society is built. Operating at a different level than language and more complex forms of communication, the symbol and icon contain minute connotations which combine to produce images and reactions which almost precede thought. The nature of symbols is elemental to the formation of both individual and group identity.
Symbols, especially those used within the political arena, serve two significant and inter-related purposes. The first is to serve as a place holder for an individual or group. The icon becomes interchangeable with the object it signifies and is rallied around, or hated, as the case may be. Essentially, the symbol is provides a simplistic marker for the symbolized.
The symbol can also stand in for concepts and ideas as well. As holders of meaning, these symbols are then associated with the icons representing an individual or group in order to imply that they possess various characteristics. These kinds of symbols, in conjuncture with those representing specific identities, provide both those inside and outside of the group with an easily grasped icon with which to relate the group and clues on how to relate to it.
The question of the origin of these symbols -- whether they come from inside or outside the group signified -- is an important part of the history of American symbology.
While the figure of Uncle Sam can trace its origins to the War of 1812, it is the culmination of a tradition of American iconography which started much earlier. Since the first Europeans returned to their homelands with stories of a virgin land, America has been a land constantly in the midst of identity crisis. While the continent was initially identified with a series of conceptual icons -- which represented nature, freedom, etc. -- it was not long before the colonies began to acquire distinct cultural and political personalities.
The early symbols of the Americas were often naturalistic and/or animalistic. The continent was associated with the wild, for obvious reasons. It was also, however, a land associated with the feminine characteristics of the unknowable -- a place outside of the civilized world. The savage was the first human icon of the new world, and was most often female. The Indian Princess, specifically, was a popular signifier of the new world. As the continent became more and more tame, however, so did the Indian Princess begin to lose her sense of the alien and was increasingly portrayed as a typical European woman in native garb.Colonization and the expansion of European civilization into the New World brought to America a tradition of male iconography which was representative not of a concept, but of a type of individual. Spawned in initially in the New England area, the new American icon represented popular opinion -- both at home and abroad -- of the average American citizen.
The expansion of the idea of this myth of the "average" American man was assisted by the advancements in the media which transmitted the symbols. While they were initially transmitted only through oral traditions, songs, and plays, this did not allow for a standardized concept of the characters like Yankee Doodle and Brother Jonathan, the foundations of American male symbols. The advent of the printing press, however, not only helped in the distribution of a standardized image, it also allowed for a wider distribution along more flexible class boundaries.
The subsequent result of this new technology was a tradition of symbols which were simple both visually and analytically. The goal of this new kind of icon was the quick recognition and comprehension by a wide ranging audience which encompassed with largest possible segment of the society. This lowest common denominator was much more easily swayed by a simple and cleverly written cartoon than the most brilliant and complex of speeches.
The forerunner of today's soundbite, the cartoon catered to the fifteen second attention span of the common American. It also allowed for the possibility of reaching the illiterate and foreign-born. Democracy had expanded political power to new groups. It was up to the cartoonist to expend them political understanding.