Uncle Sam

Born: 1810-XX-XX

The character of Uncle Sam is a fictional personification of the United States, and especially the government of the United States. He originated in the early part of the nineteenth century and ultimately eclipsed earlier characters that represented the United States, such as Columbia and Brother Jonathan. There are numerous theories for the source of the name, the simplest of which is that it grew out of humorous attempts to expand the abbreviation U.S. for United States. A popular long-standing origin story is that the name Uncle Sam originated during the War of 1812, inspired by Samuel Wilson of Troy, New York, who supplied meat to the United States Army during the conflict. Wilson was reputedly commonly and fondly known as Uncle Sam, and when the goods that he supplied to the Army were labeled “U.S.”, it was joked that the abbreviation stood for Uncle Sam rather than United States, and thereafter the nickname began to be used to represent the government itself. More recent scholarship, however, has shown that the name was in colloquial use in the United States Navy as early as 1810, well before the outbreak of the War of 1812. The name grew in popularity during the course of the war, and this increase may have been inspired by Wilson and his labeling practices. The nickname was initially invoked pejoratively in the Federalist press of the northern states to oppose the War of 1812 and criticize the United States government, but by the 1820s it was used more widely and with both negative and positive connotations.

Graphic depictions of Uncle Sam did not appear in earnest until the mid-nineteenth century, with early political cartoons depicting him with a variety of likenesses and costumes. Whereas the character of Brother Jonathan, who stood in for the people of the United States, was portrayed as younger and more inexperienced, Uncle Sam was portrayed as an older man who represented the government rather than the nation. On the advent of the Civil War and attendant unease over the strength of the government, depictions of Brother Jonathan took on more of the qualities associated with the more mature Uncle Sam, and as the two figures merged, Uncle Sam became the dominant personification of the United States. Over time, the character was more frequently depicted as bearded, and this trait was cemented during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency when Uncle Sam and Lincoln were often conflated in cartoons. The contemporary depiction of Uncle Sam as a white-haired, bearded man in striped pants and a top hat began to be standardized in the 1870s through the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Albert Matthews, “Uncle Sam,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society new ser., 19 (April 1908), 21-65; Alton Ketchum, Uncle Sam: The Man and the Legend (New York: Hill and Wang, 1959); Donald R. Hickey, “A Note on the Origins of ‘Uncle Sam,’ 1810-1820,” The New England Quarterly 88 (December 2015), 681-92.