Constitution expert: Political cartoons, newspapers paved the way for Constitution's ratification

Akhil Reed Amar, one of the leading legal scholars in the nation, visited Grand Valley’s Pew Campus September 15 as the keynote speaker of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies’ Constitution Day program.

A native of Ann Arbor, Amar graduated from Yale Law School in 1984, clerked for Judge Stephen Breyer before Breyer’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and is currently Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University. 

While history books may credit James Madison as the Father of the Constitution, Amar credits another Founding Father — George Washington.

Panelist answers question from audience member
Legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar, right, answers a question from an audience member during the Q&A session of his keynote address.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
Audience member holding a book
An audience member holds a copy of Akhil Reed Amar's book, "The Words That Made Us: America's Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840."
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
Audience listening to speaker at Loosemore Auditorium
A crowd of about 100 people gathered to hear legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar speak on September 15.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

As a military commander, Amar said Washington understood the need for a centralized government following the Revolutionary War. After dissolving the Continental Army and resigning his commission as general, Washington sent letters to the state governors, imploring for a union.

“Throughout the early and mid-1780s, Washington had advocated for a truly indivisible continental union,” said Amar. “Washington proclaimed that it was ‘essential to the well-being, I may even venture to say, the existence of the United States as an independent power that there be an indissoluble union of the states under one federal head.’”

Reading an excerpt from his recent book, “The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760 - 1840,” Amar addressed how political cartoons and newspapers helped lay the groundwork for the nation’s birth and sparked the Constitution’s support and ratification among the states.

Specifically, Amar considers Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die,” 1754 cartoon of a rattlesnake split in eight parts to be the first “meme,” spreading around the world via the period’s main medium, newspapers. 

Join, or Die illustration by Benjamin Franklin
Legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar considers Benjamin Franklin's 'Join, or Die' 1754 cartoon of a rattlesnake split in eight parts to be the first 'meme,' spreading around the world via the period's main medium, newspapers.
Image credit - Wikimedia

“The Constitution and newspapers grow up together, and Americans are debating first principles in remarkably democratic ways, with words, yes, but also with images,” said Amar.

The cartoon originally expressed Franklin’s sentiments of the colonies uniting not against the British, but the French during the French and Indian War. As the call for independence grew, the public’s and cartoon’s focus turned to the British.

After the colonies gained their independence, the image morphed from one declaring the colonies unify against the British to one urging the states unify as a nation.

Published by Benjamin Russell in the Massachusetts Centinel, the cartoon showed a series of pillars — each representing a state ratifying the U.S. Constitution — as the foundation upon which a nation could be built. 

1780s political cartoon
This political cartoon published by Benjamin Russell in the Massachusetts Centinel illustrates the states which have ratified the U.S. Constitution as pillars upon which the nation will be built.
Image credit - Library of Congress

“We must not underestimate Russell’s democratic genius with these simple cartoons, which in their own way made a powerful constitutional argument not so different from (Alexander) Hamilton’s Federalist essays,” said Amar.

As vital was the mission for the young nation’s citizens to understand the ramifications of a U.S. Constitution, Amar believes it’s even more paramount to understand what the document means in today’s political climate. 

“You have rights, but also responsibilities,” said Amar. “Every four years we pick a president, and you are the hiring committee, and you need to understand what the president needs to do and what the rules are.

‘“The first thing the president has to do is raise his or her right hand and pledge to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. If you don’t know what the Constitution actually means, how are you going to pick the right person?”


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