Capturing the Patriotic Spirit of Uncle Sam

By Peter Kreitler
Palisades News Contributor

The United States of America, born in 1776, is a relatively young country, yet we have created, and for good reasons, important symbols that help guide us as we continue to strive to make a more perfect union.

We have a song by Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to inspire us; a flag authorized on June 14, 1777, to remind us of our liberties; a Liberty Bell rung to proclaim that liberty throughout the land; and a figure named Uncle Sam who represents all Americans. As he was described in Treat ‘Em Square, a 1920s magazine for veterans: “The whole figure embodies picturesque conservatism, shrewd politics and above all, unbounded patriotism.”

Uncle Sam leads workers on this January 1941 American Legion cover.

Uncle Sam leads workers on this January 1941 American Legion cover.

In addition, we have erected monuments in Washington, D.C. calling us continually to reflect on our history, and paintings such as Washington Crossing the Delaware and The Spirit of ‘76, which speak of our national heroism in times of crisis.

Yet too frequently these iconic elements in defining our national character are relegated to a few hours of discussion in a civics class a long time ago.

As Dan Rather noted recently in a New York Times article, “We need more patriotism, not nationalism,” and I add: Learning about the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Liberty Bell, the night of September 14, 1814, and Uncle Sam will bring about a greater understanding of why patriotism is more important today than ever. The promotion of nationalism simply diminishes the great value of a patriotic citizenry. 

The July 1917 Signs of the Times shows Uncle Sam blowing the bugle to invite everyone to national service when the U.S. entered the first World War.

The July 1917 Signs of the Times shows Uncle Sam blowing the bugle to invite everyone to national service when the U.S. entered the first World War.

These outward and visible symbols of patriotism all have wonderful back stories, such as the one about Samuel Wilson of Massachusetts, who became affectionately known as Uncle Sam. (The magazine covers adjoining this article are drawn from the Kreitler 1777 Patriotic Magazine Collection: 1839-2017.) 

In the July 1976 issue of Parade magazine, author Fred Blumenthal wrote: “Probably not one American in 10 knows that the legend of Uncle Sam is based on a real citizen whose life spanned 88 years. Born in 1766 in eastern Massachusetts, Samuel Wilson witnessed Paul Revere’s ride and the skirmish of Concord. He moved with his family to Troy, New York, where he spent the rest of his life and was buried in 1854.”

The July 1917 cover of Bull shows Uncle Sam straining with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The July 1917 cover of Bull shows Uncle Sam straining with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

As the story has been passed down through the decades, and historians have debated the details, the most widely shared tale is that during the War of 1812, Sam

Wilson sold meat to the U.S. government, and his meat barrels were delivered to the military throughout the northeast.

This 1965 issue of the Mexican magazine Siempre depicts Uncle Sam as a policeman carrying a big stick.

This 1965 issue of the Mexican magazine Siempre depicts Uncle Sam as a policeman carrying a big stick.

Wilson, a man with an infectious personality, was known for the integrity of his business practice, and highly regarded by locals and soldiers alike. Jokingly, and with affection, people began to call him Uncle Sam, and the name stuck. Today, two centuries later, we celebrate his birthday on September 13 as Uncle Sam Day (since 1989).

More importantly, perhaps, than this brief historical vignette, is an examination of the varying portrayals of this representative figure.

A smiling, welcoming Uncle Sam tips his hat to representatives from nations throughout the world on the November 1913 cover of The Telephone Review.

A smiling, welcoming Uncle Sam tips his hat to representatives from nations throughout the world on the November 1913 cover of The Telephone Review.

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