Who was Uncle Sam?
As Americans, we often hear the name “Uncle Sam” and personify it with the United States, freedom, and the United States Flag. When hearing Uncle Sam, a specific, exquisite picture comes to mind. A picture of a proud American dressed in red, white, and blue pointing directly at you. The monumental picture of Uncle Sam is one that, although was created in 1917, over a hundred years ago, is still well-known today and proudly portrays the American idea and pride. But do you really know who Uncle Sam was? Was he a great American soldier or politician? A founding father? Was he even a person or just someone drawn up in order to get Americans excited about joining a war?
Did you know that the term “Uncle Sam” was coined after a man named Samuel Wilson? Samuel Wilson wasn’t a founding father or an important American Soldier, but a man who delivered barrels of beef to the United States army during the war of 1812. Wilson was a businessman from Troy, New York and lived from the years 1766-1854. During his youth, Wilson served in the American Revolution at the young age of 15. After his service, he decided to settle in New York where he began the meatpacking facility with his brother. The barrels of meat that they shipped had the stamp “U.S.” on them which indicated that they were property of the United States. However, it started to become acquainted with “Uncle Sam”, Wilson’s nickname.
So, Wilson is the person the term is stemmed from, but there is controversy over whether or not that is the origin of the famous phrase. “Uncle Sam” was mentioned in the “Yankee Doodle” song which was popularized before the War of 1812 and Samuel Wilson. The song appeared in 1775, some 37 years earlier.
There was also once a woman who was the personification of our great nation in the early twentieth century. Her name was Columbia, aka Lady Liberty, and she predated the country by about 40 years. Columbia mainly represents the nation as a whole, whereas Uncle Sam personifies mainly our government.
The great symbol of Uncle Sam expressed the nation and eventually became a physical picture in the mid to late 1800’s. Thomas Nast, a popular cartoonist, began putting a face to the name by drawing up a picture of the famous phrase. He continued editing the picture, eventually adding the white beard and the famous red, white and blue, stars and stripes suit. However, the iconic picture that is famously associated with Uncle Sam, was created in 1917 as a military recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg. Since then, everyone equates that picture with Uncle Sam.
Whether the famous picture looks like Samuel Wilson is still up for debate. A picture from the era of Wilson’s death shows him with the white hair and similar expression, so it is tempting, as well as it would make sense, that the picture would be made to look like its eponym. However, it is reported that Flagg used his own face as inspiration for the prominent poster.
Uncle Sam was an icon that was advertised and used on everything including butter, coffee, garden ads, etc. Although the term started in the 1800’s, it wasn’t until the early 1960’s that the U.S. government declared Samuel Wilson the forefather behind Uncle Sam. Over 100 years later
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and Samuel Wilson was finally recognized as the true icon he is, but Americans today still don’t know who he is.
Did you know that George Bush declared September 13th “Uncle Sam Day”? In the Proclamation 6016 of September 5, 1989 Busch states, “To honor Samuel Wilson on the anniversary of his birth and the occasion of the bicentennial of the City of Troy, New York, the Congress, by Public Law 100-645, has designated September 13, 1989, as "Uncle Sam Day" and has authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in observance of this event.
He says, “NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim September 13,1989, as Uncle Sam Day and call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fifth day of September, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and fourteenth”. You can read the full proclamation here.
This seems like a pretty monumental, important day, right? Did you know that September 13th was Uncle Sam Day before reading this post? When you look up on Google “What day is September 13th, your search results probably say that it is International Chocolate Day. Chocolate is delicious, but as an American, Uncle Sam Day is more important.
Uncle Sam is still popular, although not nearly as admired as he was in the early 1900s, it still is an important symbol of patriotism in America today and an important part of our history. Next time you see the symbolic Uncle Sam picture or hear his name, remember who he was and the antiquity behind his name.