Join. Or Watch Our Republic Die.
Carl Jung underscored the power of symbols. Benjamin Franklin understood their value. Now elements of modern conservatism are showing a preference for autocracy over democracy. It’s time to reclaim our symbols.
“I’m so blue, I thought you were mine to subdue…”
Rewind to the 18th century: the concept “Liberal Democracy” comes right out of the Founders’ playbook. Drinking deeply from the font of Enlightenment wisdom, their awareness and activism created a nation that was the most radical, severe, audacious act of progressive liberalism the modern world had ever known.
In establishing a constitutionally-limited democratic Republic, these brave souls were willing to commit what was at the time high treason: rebelling against an autocratic monarch who demanded that we, as his subjects, pledge fealty to him (“I’m so blue I thought… You were mine to subdue…”). The more conservative, Tory-led colonialists fell in line behind the king. This, despite his crimes, cruelty and abhorrent policies towards the colonies.
To say nothing of his madness.
Fast forward to 2020: in the recent impeachment (non)trial in the U.S. Senate, President Donald Trump’s lawyers argued, in their interpretation of Article II of the Constitution, that a president can do virtually anything as long as he thinks his actions “in the best interest of the country”— even if that simply means engineering his re-election.
Clay Jenkinson, host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour characterized the President’s defense as “essentially unlimited authority to behave in any way he wishes, including pressuring foreign governments to announce an investigation against his principal political rival. In this situation, Congress was the peoples’ last guardrail against Presidential excess, and the Senate decided to kick down that guardrail. In doing so, the U.S. Senate greatly diminished Constitutional restraint, due process, accountability, Congressional oversight, checks and balances and the separation of powers doctrine, thereby removing the backstop of the U.S. Constitution. We now have what amounts to an elective monarchy in the United States.”
Four things happened on the last day of January 2020. 1. We crossed the Rubicon - The United States was envisioned as a…
We should have seen this coming
The fear induced by 9/11 fostered a movement: create an exceedingly strong presidency or “Unitary Executive.” The argument then, and on full display at the moment, is the idea that the President’s powers aren’t limited by Congress. Or not much. Historically that is a radical and dangerous idea. Is there now a trend — conscious or not — for an even stronger executive, moving us towards autocracy and an unchallengeable monarch?
Are they aware [this is] antithetical to the Constitution of the Republic they purport to hold so dear?
I often find it ironic today when I see license plates and banners of the Gadsden Flag. It was a symbol of Revolutionary War ardor, the coiled snake warning tyrants “don’t tread on me.” The modern day Tea Party adopted the flag as its symbol in 2010, signaling a fiscally conservative political movement to lower taxes and the national debt. It also called for smaller government. But all appearances suggest that consolidating the power of the President — at least this current president — is far more important than any principle of the movement, i.e., staunching the national debt or keeping government small. For all of its anti-tyrannical “don’t tread on me” sentiments, nothing seems to supersede aggrandizing the power of this Unitary Executive. Are they aware that the Gadsden flag symbolizes rebellion against autocracy? That consolidating power in one person is tyrannical in and of itself? And antithetical to the Constitution of the Republic they purport to hold so dear?
Jung: Man and His Symbols
Carl Jung, the famed Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who wrote Man and His Symbols, delved deeply into archetypes, the collective unconscious and symbology. Jung reminds us that the power of symbols lay in their ability to transform and redirect instinctive energy. In abstract form, symbols are spiritual ideas; in action, they are rites or ceremonies. Sometimes adopting and utilizing those symbols can energize a movement more than the content of the ideas themselves. Modern conservatism has been quick (and effective) in adopting symbols from our national heritage. Over the last two generations, the more autocratic elements of conservatism have co-opted the symbolism of the Bible, Jesus, the flag, patriotism, the Constitution, the original tea party (including the Gadsden flag) and righteous rebellion— as if they were the original defenders of such notions.
Join, or Die
If you are on social media, you see and know the power of memes to drive home an argument and influence others. But the tactic of using a viral image to persuade people goes back, long before the existence of the Internet or Facebook. One of the earliest practitioners of deploying memes was Benjamin Franklin. In 1754, Franklin published what is considered the first editorial cartoon “Join, or Die” depicting a snake severed into pieces that symbolized the American colonies.
Although Franklin originally designed the image for use during the French and Indian War (1754–1763), it was so powerful and persuasive that it took on a life of its own. A few years later, in the prelude to the Revolutionary War, colonists repurposed it as a symbol of their unity against British rule. In 1774, Paul Revere used a version of it in the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy newspaper, as did several other colonial newspapers that promoted the developing rebellion against British rule.
The snake symbology was important for two reasons:
1. To Loyalists, the serpent represented Satan, deception and the spiritual fall of man, proving the treachery of revolutionary thought. To Patriots however, the snake depicted wisdom, vigor and cohesiveness, especially when the colonies united for a common purpose. By closely examining colonial newspapers and images, one notices that Franklin’s cartoon not only represented the political unity of the American colonies, but evoked symbolic spiritual ideals during the Revolution. Franklin wrote that people of ancient times had recognized the serpent as an emblem of “wisdom” and “endless duration.” Just like Moses’s brazen serpent which represented extended life, Franklin suggested that the rattlesnake symbolized the vitality and virtue of the American colonies. If Patriots continued to seek what the snake cartoon exemplified, Franklin inferred, the Revolution, freedom and the ensuing Republic would endure.
2. Additionally, the severed snake image may have drawn upon folklore of the time, which included the belief that a snake cut into pieces could come back to life, if its various parts were reunited before sunset. The snake was a potent symbol with positive connotations to the colonists, according to Donald C. Dewey, author of the 2007 book, The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons. “Snakes meant regeneration and renewal, because they shed their skins,” he explains. Franklin’s cartoon had another advantage. “Literacy was not high in that day,” Dewey observes, so the drawing and its message provided a way to reach colonists who might not have been able to read his editorial. An instrumental note given today’s social media environment.
As the American colonies came to identify more with their own communities and the concept of liberty, rather than as vassals of the British empire, icons that were unique to America became increasingly popular. The rattlesnake, the bald eagle, the American Mohawk Indian head and the mason-inspired singular “third eye” came to symbolize American ideals and society.
It is time to set the story straight
“What government shall we have, Mr. Franklin?” was asked as he exited the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 onto the streets of Philadelphia. His infamous answer was — ironically uttered by both sides at the recent impeachment trial— “A republic, if you can keep it.” His political cartoon from some thirty years earlier turned out to be prophetic, not only as it related to the Revolution, but also at the time of the Civil War reminding us that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Thankfully, in that latter instance, the snake “reunited before sunset.”
The same warning holds true with today’s historic polarization.
We can join behind the original vision of our Founders, or watch our Republic die.
Everything this nation has worked for to ensure freedom and liberty is on the line. The current administration and its supporting movements have forgotten this, magnifying their misapprehension that somehow they are the keepers of this sacred vision. We can join behind the original vision of our Founders, or watch our Republic die. Whatever one thinks about Mr. Trump is now immaterial, because what has been on trial is the capacity of a republic to self-correct before it is too late. In a strange twist of irony, Donald Trump is now the least of our worries.
For Americans who are deeply concerned with the country’s direction, given the tone and actions of this administration, it is time to adopt the symbols and metaphors long associated with the great liberal democracy of the United States.
Franklin’s “Join, or Die” is a good a place to start.
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 Clay Jenkinson, host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour, airing on NPR-affiliates nationwide, from his Facebook account, January 31, 2020.
 “Symbol,” Frith Luton, Jungian analyst and psychotherapist https://frithluton.com/articles/symbol/.
 How Ben Franklin’s Viral Political Cartoon United the 13 Colonies, The History Channel, http://history.com/news/ben-franklin-join-or-die-cartoon-french-indian-war.
 Join or Die: Political and Religious Controversy Over Franklin’s Snake Cartoon, Journal of the American Revolution https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/01/join-die-political-religious-controversy-franklins-snake-cartoon/#_edn4
 Op. Cit., How Ben Franklin’s Viral Political Cartoon United the 13 Colonies
 Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadsden_flag#cite_note-7
 Op. Cit., Clay Jenkinson, host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour, from his Facebook account, January 31, 2020.