Benjamin Franklin and the Declaration of Independence

join or die political cartoon

Authored on

June 28, 2018

On May 9, 1754, Benjamin Franklin published the political cartoon “Join, or Die” in the Pennsylvania Gazette, a Philadelphia-based newspaper that he owned. One of the oldest known political cartoons, this image was originally designed to rally the American colonies to behind the British cause in the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

The pro-Britain cartoon is usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin himself, and yet, just twenty two years after its publication, on June 11, 1776, a then-seventy-year-old Benjamin Franklin was appointed to a group that would go on to create the Declaration of Independence. Joined by John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and the primary author of the document Thomas Jefferson, this so-called Committee of Five was tasked with putting to words the feelings of many of the colonists at the time that independence from Britain had become necessary, something that might have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

The idea of American independence was indeed controversial in the 1770s, but was in large part driven by the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which was a significant reason why many of the founding fathers seemed to have such a complete shift in their opinion on the idea of being subjects of the Crown. The reason for this being that the French and Indian War, and the larger and more global Seven Years’ War of which it was a part, was expensive and the British Parliament chose to impose new tax regulations on its colonies in order to pay off their war debts.

Further, the French and Indian War had done much to galvanize the idea of an American identity and set up the basic military framework for what would eventually become the Continental Army.

Benjamin Franklin primarily served as the editor of the Declaration of Independence. His changes were believed to have been minimal, but, when the document went before the entire Continental Congress, the draft was more thoroughly changed by the larger body from Jefferson’s original text. The final document was passed on July 2, 1776 and ratified on July 4, 1776. The American Revolution, which began in 1775, would continue until 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776
Library of Congress / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

In 1776, Franklin had already accomplished many of the things he is best known for today, but would go on to sign not only the Declaration of Independence but also the Treaty of Paris, as well as the Constitution that established the United States government as we know it today. And the cartoon, “Join, or Die,” despite having once been a rallying cry for supporting the British, has become an enduring symbol of American unity.


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