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The Men Behind Uncle Sam, An American Icon

Did you know that Uncle Sam was based on a real person? Credit: National Calendar Day.

The look of the man on the poster is striking.

There is a seriousness to the steely blue eyes set over high cheekbones; his face is framed by long white hair and a matching goatee. For emphasis, a right forefinger is pointed straight at you.

His attire is intriguing; a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, a blue coat, and a white shirt accented by a red bow tie.

What does not appear is his name; none is required.

Looking at Uncle Sam brings to mind the actions of several individuals who made the man on the poster a reality to be remembered.


Sam Wilson: The Original Uncle Sam

Born on September 13, 1766, Sam Wilson served during the American Revolution.  After the war, he moved to Troy, New York where in 1793 he opened a meat packing business.

Wilson earned a reputation of honesty and friendliness, and many of Troy’s residents referred to him as “Uncle Sam.”

When the War of 1812 with Great Britain commenced, American soldiers needed food supplies.  The federal government contracted with Wilson to supply an Army encampment near Greenbush, New York with 2000 barrels of pork and 3000 barrels of beef.

He labeled the barrels “US” for United States, but to the soldiers at Greenbush – many of whom were from Troy – they took the lettering to mean “Uncle Sam.”

The name stuck with the Army, and at the war’s end the idea of an “Uncle Sam” began to grow.


Amos Doolittle and Thomas Nast: The Promoters

Jonathan Trumbull was the only colonial governor to side with the colonists during the Revolution. For his loyalty, General George Washington reputedly nicknamed him “Brother Jonathan.”

After the war, artist Amos Doolittle began to draw  an illustration of Brother Jonathon as an inspiration to the nation during the War of 1812.

Tall, humorous, clean shaven, plain-spoken and simply dressed in a long-tailed blue coat and red-and-white striped trousers, Brother Jonathon served the purpose and went on to inspire a growing America during the early to mid 1800s. 

This perception began to change during the Civil War when cartoonist and caricaturist Thomas Nast modified Doolittle’s Brother Jonathon into what would become today’s Uncle Sam.

An early version of Uncle Sam as illustrated by Thomas Nast. Credit: Thomas Nast.

Nast’s version looked a bit like President Abraham Lincoln; he was a lanky, serious looking, older man with a white beard attired in a stars-and-stripe suit topped with a stove-pipe hat.

This newer image of Uncle Sam had taken hold in the America public’s perception of the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

World War I would sharpen that view.


James Montgomery Flagg: The Self-Portraiture

As the war overtook Europe in 1916, the editors of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper wanted male Americans to consider enlisting in the military in case the country went to war.

James Montgomery Flagg, one of the nation’s most successful illustrators, was chosen to create a cover to illustrate the point.

With no model to work with and short on time, the tall and lanky Flagg used his appearance – piercing blue eyes, a narrow nose, and wavy hair – as the starting point for his now famous illustration of Uncle Sam. 

Flagg’s creativity was apparently furthered by Alfred Leete’s 1914 British recruiting poster of Britain’s Lord Kitchener, a military hero pointing at the viewer with the words, “Your Country Needs YOU.”

After adding wrinkles, whiskers and white hair, Flagg’s illustration appeared on the July 6, 1916 cover of Leslie’s over the headline, “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”

Nine months later when President Woodrow Wilson took the nation into World War I, Flagg’s illustration reappeared as an Army recruiting poster with the caption “I Want YOU for U.S. Army.”

The government printed four million posters during 1917 and 1918; and during World War II millions more were printed.

The familiar Uncle Sam poster that still serves today as a call to duty. Credit: James Montgomery Flagg.

The Power of Uncle Sam

The poster became a firm part of the American experience, and on September 7, 1961 Congressional approval made Uncle Sam a permanent presence in American history.

Recognizing the enduring quality of the symbol and the bicentennial of Troy, New York, President George H.W Bush proclaimed September 13, 1989 as the first National Uncle Sam Day.

Uncle Sam is a reflection of an ongoing chapter of the American story, written by a nation which produced Sam Wilson, Amos Doolittle, Thomas Nast and James Montgomery Flagg. Today an iconic figure, the stern visage known at a glance is a silent reminder of the sacrifices borne by generations of Americans in preservation of our liberty.

Read about how Thomas Jefferson continues to impact the nation — even two hundred years since his passing.


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