Throughout history writers, storytellers, and satirists have used characters to represent different groups, persons, or nations. The United States has Uncle Sam, a national personification who represents the ideas, values, and actions of the United States, as seen by the illustrator or writer. Before Uncle Sam there was another national personification that represented English speaking peoples, John Bull. Created in the early eighteenth century, for over two hundred years John Bull was seen as the ideal Englishman. However the use of his image for propaganda or satire has sharply declined in the last century. What is the history of John Bull, and why has this character fallen out of use?
Today characters like Uncle Sam or John Bull are associated with visual mediums such as political cartoons or propaganda posters, however John Bull’s first appearance was not visual but literary. In 1712 John Bull was created as the protagonist of a series of political pamphlets titled Law is a Bottomless Pit; The History of John Bull, by John Arbuthnot. The pamphlets told the story of a country squire named John Bull and how he took Philip Baboon to court over his inheritance of the late Lord Strutt’s estate. The story was a satire of the War of Spanish Succession, with the late Lord Strutt representing King Charles II of Spain, Philip Baboon representing the House of Bourbon, and John Bull representing England. In this court case John Bull serves as the lawyer for Philip Baboon’s cousin, Esquire South, who represents the Austrian Hapsburgs.
John Bull is characterized as a simple tailor, who is very patriotic and relies on common sense. Before the death of Lord Strutt John Bull and Nic. Frog, who represents the Dutch, send a letter asking for Lord Strutt to make accommodations for the two of them in his will, or they will take his successor to court. This instance represents the threats that England and Holland made to Spain and the House of Bourbon near the death of King Charles II. In Chapter Four of Part One, John Bull and Nic. Frog, supported by middle class tradesmen brought Philip Baboon and other characters representing other nations and institutions to court. Arbuthnot was a Tory, who were usually portrayed as land owners. John Bull is portrayed as a dimwitted, middle class Whig. John Bull did not like to be governed by others and was quick to quarrel. However he was easily flattered and deceived. Ultimately, John Bull was not meant to be a positive representation of England, but rather a negative portrayal of the Whigs.
John Bull also had relatives who played a role in this early portrayal. John Bull’s mother, who is not named, is characterized as being sensible, sober, and discreet. She represents the Church of England. She tries to be unoffensive to as many as possible, and tries not to find offense in the actions and words of others. Though not ostentatious, she did not find a problem with possessing the finer things of life. This is how Arbuthnot and other Torries saw the Church of England. He also had a sister named Peg, who represented Scotland. She is described as being poor, pale, and malnourished. She had a cold and drafty living space. She was head strong and always squabbled with her brother John, just as England was always in conflict with Scotland. Peg would be married to a man named Jack, who represented Presbyterianism, who would tame her to a degree. John Bull’s mother would not see many appearances past Law is a Bottomless Pit, but Peg would see use in other mediums until the end of the eighteenth century.
Though his first appearance was not a positive portrayal, as the eighteenth century moved forward this character would be appropriated by the very people it was intending to mock, and eventually it would become a symbol representing all of England by the end of the century. John Bull would mostly make appearances in visual mediums after his debut in Law is a Bottomless Pit.
By the time of the American War of Independence, John Bull was fully a representation of England as a whole, but not yet a representation of Great Britain. In a 1779 political cartoon published by J. Phillips we see John Bull dozing off while on duty, holding up a staff, and on top of the staff there is a hat that says “Liberty” on it. To Bull’s right there is a Scotsman who is holding off a Frenchman with one hand, while helping hold up Bull’s staff with the other. Kneeling on the ground to the right of Bull there is a Dutchman who is picking John Bull’s pocket, and an American Indian, representing the American Colonists, reaching for the Liberty Hat on top of the staff. In this depiction it appears that John Bull, meaning England, is not focused on bringing the American Colonial Rebels into line, leaving the Scottish Regiments to do the heavy lifting. However the Scots are incapable of holding off everyone, leaving the Dutch free to take advantage of weakened English shipping, and the Americans continuing to reach for independence.
Another comic from a year later in 1780 expresses similar frustrations. In this cartoon John Bull is depicted as an actual bull, and he has knocked a Spaniard into the air. To the right of the bull there is a Frenchman, with an American Indian hiding behind him. And behind John Bull there are several leaders from Parliament holding on to the bull‘s tail. In this comic the cartoonist is expressing frustration with Parliament holding back England’s full force to put down the American Rebels and the French. In 1780 it appeared to many English that they were close to victory and could win if Parliament was not restraining their military might. We see here an occasional theme of making John Bull more animal like when the cartoonist is trying to express the strength of England.
The era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was the golden age for John Bull as a character in political cartoons. There is a glut of comics from artists on both sides of the Atlantic. James Gillray, a British engraver, drew a large number of cartoons during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In 1796 he published a cartoon that depicted John Bull riding a thin horse. He is coming from the direction of place labeled by a sign as “Constitution Hill” and going down a trail labeled by a sign as “Slavery Slough via Beggary Corner.” On the road are a number of highwaymen with hats on the ground asking for loans. This comic is taking a jab at the policy of threatening to pass a new tax on citizens if they didn’t loan money to the government, frequently referred to as the “forced loan.” Ten years later Gillray publishes another comic about taxes. In this cartoon we see a tax collector knocking on the door of a London townhouse. We see John Bull with his wife and children through an open window on the second floor. The family is clearly in dire financial straits, but the tax man, labeled by the comic as the “Friend of the People”. Here we see the same cartoonist complaining about the same issue ten years apart. These comics show John Bull as an English commoner, upset with constant taxation.
(the 1796 Comic)
(The 1806 Comic)
John Bull was not just used to attack the British government, but to attack foreign governments as well. In 1803 a cartoon depicts a shirtless John Bull in sailor’s pants standing in the English Channel, staring across at a caricature of Napoleon Bonaparte in France inside a castle. John Bull is calling Napoleon out to fight, but Napoleon is not coming out.12 This comic was published after the British declared war on France in 1803, and were waiting for Napoleon to fight them at sea. Napoleon is depicted in his stereotypical shortness, and is portrayed as a coward who will not challenge the British in open waters.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Americans were making use of John Bull in their own political cartoons, especially during the War of 1812. A comic by William Charles, a Scottish born American, depicts John Bull in a red British Army uniform paying a pair of American Indians for White American scalps, with the title of “A Scene on the frontiers as practiced by the ‘humane’ British and their ‘worthy’ allies.“ Another cartoon from this time period depicts both John Bull and Napoleon being lectured by Lady Columbia, an earlier national personification of the United States, on free trade and open navigation of the seas. Napoleon states that because he is an emperor that he will not learn a lesson, and John Bull, holding a pamphlet that says “Power Constitutes Right”, says that he will read a different lesson. In these two cartoons John Bull is once again being used as a figure of insult toward British policies. However unlike in his original appearance in Law is a Bottomless Pit, where he is used to insult only the Whig Party, overseas he is being used to insult the entire nation.
The character of John Bull would also become the go to symbol for representing British humiliation. A cartoon from 1813 depicts John Bull, dressed as King George III, and another national personification of the United States, Brother Jonathan, dressed as President James Madison, in a boxing match. Brother Jonathan has just punched John Bull in the nose, leaving him bloody. This comic was made to celebrate an American naval victory.
Another comic would depict John Bull, this time as an anthropomorphic bull, being chased out of Baltimore by American troops, representing the American Victory at the Battles of Baltimore and Fort McHenry. This comic was a sequel to one earlier that year that also depicted John Bull as an anthropomorphic bull, dictating terms to the defeated Americans after the Battle of Alexandria, Virginia.
Another cartoon from 1813, depicts an upright bear, representing Russia, attempting to negotiate a deal between a proud Lady Columbia, and a kneeling John Bull, mostly in human form, but possessing bull’s horns. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars John Bull had become a symbol representing Britain at home and abroad. When used at home he was a sympathetic countryman, frustrated with the policies of his own government, while abroad he was a symbol to embody the actions of the British government.
For the rest of the nineteenth century John Bull retained the same purpose as it had before. However, at the turn of the twentieth century his use began to change. We begin to see political institutions (and those that support them) begin to use the character to represent their own policies in a positive light. An 1899 comic depicts both John Bull and Uncle Sam, with baskets on their backs, climbing a mountain. In these baskets are people from non-white countries representing the areas that both the United States and the United Kingdom had colonized. At the top of the mountain there is a golden pedestal that says “Civilization”. On the mountain there are rocks that say “superstition”, “Barbarism“, and”Brutality”, among other stereotypes whites had of non-white peoples. This was one of many comics illustrating Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden. This was also a time when the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom began to form. Many comics from this era show John Bull and Uncle Sam side by side, or back to back, dealing with similar issues such as the Boer War for Britain, and the Philippine War for America.
In the early twentieth century we begin to see the decline in the use of John Bull in political satire. The character of John Bull is co-opted by the Conservative Party to attack the policies of the Liberals. In one of these propaganda posters we see John Bull by a stable inspecting an animal who’s front half is a donkey but its back half is a horse. Liberal Party statesman David Lloyd George is standing next to the Donkey, trying to pass it off as a horse to John Bull. On the back end that looks like a horse it says “Socialism”, while on the front side with the Donkey head it says “Liberal Budget.” In this poster we see the conservatives portraying the Liberal Party as socialists who are trying to deceive the British public, represented by John Bull.
In another Conservative Party poster we see John Bull tied up by a sash that says “Free Trade Budget”, while being pushed toward a cliff by characters representing France, Germany, the United States, and Russia. Behind all these characters there is a walled city with a sign that says “The World’s Markets.” These posters were criticizing the Liberal Party government, and they wanted to portray these policies and those who proposed them intending harm to the British People, in the form of John Bull.
The world wars would mark the end of John Bull as a frequently used character in political cartoons. We begin to see John Bull on posters encouraging Britons to enlist in the army or to buy government bonds. In one poster we see John Bull in his Union Jack Vest and blue waistcoat, and white trousers. Behind him stands a line of British soldiers. He is pointing to the observers of the poster and asking “Who’s Absent? Is it you?”
In a victory bonds poster from Canada we see John Bull standing in front of a fleet of Canadian ships, and to the side of him it says “He’s our best customer, but he needs credits. Buy Victory Bonds.”
In World War II we see similar posters. Aside from the famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, another poster used to keep spirits and productivity up was one that depicted John Bull, standing on the Island of Great Britain alone, in his Union Jack Vest, rolling up his sleeves, and around him the poster says, “We’re up against it! We work, or we want.” John Bull fell out of use during the early twentieth century because the average Briton did not identify with the character. He used to be someone who represented the people, rather than the government. He now looked like an upper-class snob who was disconnected with the people.
John Bull had an interesting evolution as a character. Originally used as an insult by Torries against the Whigs, he would eventually be used by their successors, the Conservatives, as a positive character representing the British people. Alongside those two points of evolution we saw the character go from representing the British people who were frustrated with the policies and actions of their government to being the symbol of their government’s policies. And now his use is so infrequent we must ask whether the myth of John Bull is dead? If it is dead, than it is because those in government tried to fit John Bull into a role that did not fit his myth. He was an embodiment of Anglo-Saxon common law, of wisdom and governance coming from the people, rather than rights and privileges coming from the sovereign. John Bull is dead. So how much longer will his American cousin survive?