Overview In this activity you will learn how to analyze political cartoons and interpret their meaning and significance.

Historical Background: Critical analysis of political cartoons involves understanding the historical background or context of the event or issue being depicted.

Who Says A Watched Pot Never Boils


"Who Says a Watched Pot Never Boils"

Enright, W.T., artist. "Who says a watched pot never boils?" 1924. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003654798/.
(accessed October 12, 2012.)

This cartoon wouldn't mean much to us if we didn't know about the Teapot Dome scandal of the early 1920s.

To understand a political cartoon, do some research to uncover the historical events the cartoonist is depicting or referring to.

Persuasion Techniques: Political cartoonists use a variety of techniques - symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, irony, and analogy - to get their message across and persuade you to see their point of view.

Shotgun Wedding


"Shotgun Wedding"

Burck, Jacob, artist. "Shotgun wedding." c1943. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/acd1996001619/PP/.
(accessed October 12, 2012.)

In this cartoon the artist exaggerated the size of the bride - "Inflation" - in comparison to the groom - "Congress" - to make the point that pressure groups were forcing a reluctant Congress to accept a high rate of inflation.

When you analyze a cartoon, consider the techniques the cartoonist is using to persuade you.

Message: One can infer or draw conclusions about the cartoonist's message by careful observation of the details in the cartoon. What objects, people, or activity do you see? What is happening? What can you conclude about what is going on from your observations?

Minority Cause


"Minority cause shouting 'organized propaganda' at Congress"

Johnson, Herbert, artist. "[Minority cause shouting 'organized propaganda' at Congress]." c1912. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/acd1996004436/PP/.
(accessed October 12, 2012.)

What objects, people, or action in this cartoon give you clues to its meaning? In this case, the message is quite clear.

The cartoon depicts the responsiveness of a member of Congress to the "Organized Propaganda" of a small, but vocal, group

Opinions: The political cartoonist is expressing one opinion or point of view. It's important to clearly understand the cartoonist's opinion as well as to consider what different opinions might exist about the event or issue.

An Awful Blot


"An Awful Blot"

"Cartoon." 1914. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004000340/PP/.
(accessed October 12, 2012.)

The artist who created this cartoon clearly felt that child labor prevalent in the early 1900s was a blot on our country.

Although many shared this opinion and worked diligently to enact laws against it, some saw child labor as a necessary evil or even an economic necessity.

Questions: Careful analysis of political cartoons - like any primary source - will lead you to new questions. What do you wonder about as you study a cartoon? What might you like to do more research on?

King Andrew the First


"King Andrew the First"

"King Andrew the First." 1833. Print/Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008661753/.
(accessed October 12, 2012.)

This political cartoon depicts President Jackson and his efforts to fight against the Second Bank of the United States.

The image of Jackson trampling the Constitution is a strong one - as is the depiction of Jackson as a king. One question that comes to mind is what specifically did Jackson do that led the cartoonist to portray him in such an unfavorable light?

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Choose a Cartoon Choose a cartoon to analyze.

Editorial cartoon showing two men, "private interests" and "huge campaign funds," discussing how much it would cost to buy "U.S. Senate seats."

Block, Herbert, artist. "How much do you figure this one would cost?" 1950. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/00652199/. (accessed October 9, 2012.)

Cartoon shows a group of Congressmen (mindful of approaching 1954 elections), trying to figure out how to cross a deep gorge (labeled "Political Hazard") to reach a sack of money labeled "Pay Raise."

Fischetti, John, artist. "But on the other hand." 1953. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/acd1996003501/PP/. (accessed October 9, 2012.)

This cartoon, created after the 1930 election shifted control of the House to Democrats, depicts a warning to the incoming Congress not to tie the hands of Republican President Herbert Hoover.

Shafer, Claude, artist. "Don't tie the President's hands." 1930. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/acd1996006114/PP/. (accessed October 11, 2012.)

This political cartoon depicts the influence of rich industrial tycoons on Congress by showing the Senate chamber dominated by powerful trusts, under a sign proclaiming: "A Senate of the monopolists, by the monopolists, and for the monopolists."

Keppler, Joseph, artist. "The Bosses of the Senate." n.d. Lithograph. From the United States Senate: Art and History Collection. http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Ga_Cartoon/Ga_cartoon_38_00392.htm. (accessed October 11, 2012.)

Cartoon shows a man (labeled "Congress") sitting on a branch of a large tree (labeled "Budget"), calling "Timber" as he cuts off a very small branch. Depicts ineffectual efforts of Congress to reduce spending.

Marcus, Edwin, artist. "Not much of a cut." 1949. Drawing. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/acd1996005737/PP/. (accessed October 11, 2012.)

Choose a cartoon above; then click the Continue button
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Analyzing Political Cartoons Analyze your chosen political cartoon. In the boxes below, answer each question carefully
Criteria Type Your Explanation Progress: 0/11
What is the Historical Background?
What is the Cartoon Saying?
What Persuasion Techniques were used?
What, if any, Action is being advocated?
What is the cartoonist's Bias on this issue?
What other Opinions might there be on this issue?
What Researchable Questions about this topic come to mind when you think about the cartoon?
Is the issue still Relevant today? Explain.
How well does this cartoonist express the Main Point of the cartoon (whether you agree or not)?
Poor Very Well
How could the cartoon have been Done Better?
What was your Favorite part?
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Conclusion Political cartoons have been a major form of commentary on our government and the workings of Congress for hundreds of years. Through systematic, thoughtful analysis of political cartoons you can gain a broader perspective on the events and enduring issues in our country's history.
Some Things to Keep in Mind...
  • Find out about the background of the cartoon.
  • Recognize the persuasion techniques cartoonists use.
  • Observe details in a cartoon to infer its message.
  • Understand that the cartoonist is expressing one point of view - look for others.
  • Use your cartoon analysis as a springboard for further research.

Remember to before leaving this activity if you would like to save or print your answers.

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