A crucial tool for examining political ideologies, historical occurrences, and people’s or, more correctly, authors’ impressions and analyses of them is the political cartoon. The American 1890s are one of the eras with a wealth of political cartoons that are a useful source for analysis. It was the era of American imperialism when the expansionists’ objective was fundamentally based on the notion of white Western dominance (Offenburger 2018). Although the expansion’s main goals were the country’s growth and defense, the methods need to be severely criticized. This essay tries to analyze the substance of the 1899 cartoon “School Begins” to critique US policy and situate the comic from a larger historical perspective.
To communicate their message, cartoonist employs a variety of strategies or tactics. Though not every cartoon uses all of these strategies, the majority of political cartoons do. The cartoonist uses simple items or symbols to represent more complex ideas or concepts. The cartoonist frequently gives objects or individuals labels to express clearly precisely what they represent. To emphasize a point, the author occasionally overdoes or exaggerates a person’s or an object’s appearance.
One can infer that this is a critique of the New American Imperialism from the cartoon itself and the ending. The process of teaching itself refers to the idea of expansionists’ superiority over new territories and the lack of interest in the institutions and cultures of indigenous people. To highlight this imposed ideology, the author uses symbolism: the process of ‘schooling’ stands for a broader concept of American colonialism.
Another author’s technique of criticizing the New imperialism is an exaggeration. Uncle Sam, representing the US, is ostentatiously big and masculine. The ‘newcomers (Cuba, Hawaii, Porto Rico, and the Philippines) are depicted as dull, ignorant, and inferior (Dairymple 1899). In contrast, the new states look neat and cultured (Dairymple 1899). Native Americans and Black people do not seem to have many opportunities to get an education (Dairymple 1899). They are willfully excluded from the educational system, and one native individual who attempts to catch up with civilization cannot even hold a book properly.
The cartoon’s historical setting is the 1890s’ American imperialism. The cartoon was created in 1899, a year after the US had annexed areas from Mexico and established the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas (Martinez 2017). After Russia sold it to the US, Alaska also joined the US. Spain surrendered away the Philippines, a key strategic island, and its Caribbean colonies as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Uncle Sam holds a button and has a book about self-governance on his desk in the movie “School Begins.”
The book is paradoxical because the U.S. does not genuinely support self-government when it retains colonies against their wishes without providing them with any type of self-determination or participation in the national government. When Roosevelt first said his famous phrase about talking gently and carrying a great stick to go far, the switch carried by Uncle Sam served to signify the brutal nature of American growth (Martinez 2017). The switch can now be seen as the great stick, which has come to represent American imperialism. Particularly it represents the period in the wake of the Philippine Insurrection and the country’s incursions into Latin America following the adoption of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (Martinez 2017).
The cartoon mostly features four different types of characters. First, there is Uncle Sam, the main figure, who serves as both a teacher and an ambassador for America in the late 1890s (Dairymple 1899). Second, the Philippines, Hawaii, Porto Rico, and Cuba are brand-new nations that have recently come under US control (Dairymple 1899). The following US states are then visible: Arizona, Alaska, Texas, California, and New Mexico (Dairymple 1899). These are the states that joined the US a number of decades ago. Finally, one can observe black and Native American children.
For imperialist America, the significance of the new territories was to exploit resources and increase American dominance. Expansionists supported their program with a number of justifications, including the desirability of new markets.and the aim of extending republican institutions throughout the world. This program was based on a superiority mindset that justified the exploitation of the territories and heightened racial tensions in the United States.
Overall, political cartoons were a potent tool for criticizing US political agenda and conduct. The basic idea of white US domination over the native peoples of conquered countries is depicted in the cartoon “School begins.” This cartoon makes the crucial fact that black people and US indigenous people are excluded from the “schooling process.” The cartoon featured items with strong symbolic meaning, such as the battleship, cigars, book, or switch. The items play a significant role in the artist’s vision of American expansionism. Since the comic’s publication, these items have acquired more symbolic meaning. This portrayal reflects the political objective of the day, which excluded them completely from participation in political and cultural life.
Dairymple, Louis. “School Begins.” Puck, 1899.
Martinez, Santiago. “U.S. Expansionism in the Gilded Age: Arguments in Political Cartoons.” Miami University. vol. 2, no. 1, 2017.
Offenburger, Andrew. “Populism and imperialism: Politics, culture, and foreign policy in the American West, 1890-1900.” The Annals of Iowa, vol. 77, no. 4, 2018, pp. 431-433.