Uncle Sam is instantly recognizable to most Americans as a symbol of the United States or a national moniker. Almost invariably dressed in red, white, and blue, he is pictured as an elderly white guy with a long white beard and a top hat. In political cartoons, his picture serves as a stand-in for the American people at anything from soccer events to political rallies.
In popular culture, he has come to symbolize a patriotic ideal. Captain America’s outfit in the Marvel Universe is based on Uncle Sam’s. Not only is that character powerful, but it is also caring. Uncle Sam’s most recognizable picture comes from a 1917 Army recruitment poster drawn by James Montgomery Flagg. Uncle Sam declares in it, “I WANT YOU,” while severely pointing at the observer.
That World War I PR effort was so successful that the government used the picture again during World War II to attract troops and other armed services, members. Uncle Sam is not the only symbol American painters and illustrators utilized to communicate contemporary political themes. “Columbia,” a female image often draped in a toga, was one of the first symbolic representations of the United States.
In one well-known representation, she is portrayed grieving President Abraham Lincoln with Britannia, another female figure who personifies England, and a previously enslaved individual whose fate is unknown.
So how did Uncle Sam get his name? According to a 1961 congressional resolution, it started with New York meat seller Samuel Wilson. Throughout the War of 1812, he inscribed “US” on his military supplies. At the time, workers would joke that “Uncle Sam” Wilson was feeding the Army.
The personification of the United States may have been based on John Trumbull, a Colonial Connecticut governor who fought British control during the American Revolutionary War. He may have evolved into Uncle Sam during the Civil War and then vanished. This young, slim guy embodied the country donned attire that echoed the American flag in an 1876 advertising. He resembled a more youthful, clean-shaven Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam may have received his slight build and facial traits from later representations of Brother Jonathan as a homage to President Abraham Lincoln.