Q&A: Who was ‘Uncle Sam’?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, sam-antics…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the deal with “taught” and “taut”?

A: Two completely different words. Nothing to see here.

Q: Hi AWC. I saw America celebrating Independence Day last weekend and it got me wondering. Who exactly is – or was – “Uncle Sam”?

A: Do you mean it’s not one of your relatives? You always have a story about an uncle or aunt doing something.

Q: Nope, not one of mine. Although I do have an eccentric uncle named Swepson – he drives miniature trains on the first Sunday of each month.

A: How nice.

Q: So I’m guessing Uncle Sam was in charge of America at one point? Or something. Was he the president? 

A: There have been no US presidents named Sam or Samuel. Or any name beginning with S for that matter.

Q: Okay, so who is he?

A: “Uncle Sam” is indeed a symbol of the United States of America. And he surfaced in the 1810s during the American war with Britain.

Q: Wait! (Wait for it.) I thought the Revolutionary War was in the 1780s? The one Hamilton and all the hip-hop rappers and dancers fought in?

A: No, not that one. Hamilton had gone the way of Biggie and Tupac by the time this second conflict rolled around.

Q: Oh, so Napoleon then?

A: Not really. He was busy trying to invade Russia and inspiring an 1812 Overture to be written 70 years later. It is true that the French had been busy fighting the British for years prior and the US decided it would be a good time to declare war on them too. It was all a bit of a mess, and no one really was fully prepared for what was essentially a land grab of Canada and the Gulf regions.

Q: Yeah, but WHO was Sam?

A: One theory has it that he was a New York meat packer named Samuel Wilson, who supplied rations to soldiers during this war. Others claim it was already a term that had been in use by the army and that it came from an alternative abbreviation of the U.S. (Uncle Sam/United States), documented from as early as 1810.

Q: So they just created some pretend mascot?

A: Oh, it was all the rage back then! Britain had created their own, with “Brittania” ruling the waves from 1740, and a union-jack-wearing character named “John Bull” established around 1712 as an archetype Englishman. In reply, America had embraced “Columbia” as their female mascot (we spoke about it previously here), so this added a male character to the ranks.

Q: Ranks being the operative word!

A: Indeed, because Uncle Sam would become very well known for stirring up national pride. Future president Ulysses S Grant had the nickname “Uncle Sam” while at West Point Academy in the 1840s, due to his “U.S” initials, and the character would make appearances in cartoon form here and there. But he didn’t really get a proper look or true branding campaign until World War I in 1917. 

Q: The famous “WANTS YOU” poster?

A: Yes and no. The original was actually Britain’s moustached Lord Kitchener “WANTS YOU” from a 1914 poster. But then, when the US entered the war a few years later, they copied that idea. For the first time, Uncle Sam got the look he has kept till today – an old white man with a goatee, top hat (with stars), blue coat and red-and-white striped pants.

Q: And he’s pointing at the viewer?

A: That’s the one. “I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY” it said in rather clunky grammar. Of course, the “U.S ARMY” in question was “Uncle Sam’s Army”.

Q: Any other fun facts about Uncle Sam?

A: September 13th is officially “Uncle Sam Day” in America – designated back in 1989 because it was that original meat packer Samuel Johnson’s birthday. So despite the convenient “U.S.” connection, it seems everyone likes a proper human origin story.

Q: And what a meaty story it was!

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