A cartoon for all times?
R.J. Matson’s political cartoon appeared in The Daily Sentinel on Memorial Day, but it is just as appropriate for Independence Day.
The graphics are simple and symbolic. The flags represent our country while the tombstone honors patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice. The pen and inkwell represent free speech, a right for which our soldiers have always fought.
Matson’s caption adroitly spins the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword," used by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his play "Richelieu" in 1839.
The adage exemplifies metonymy, defined by Webster’s as “a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used in place of another associated with or suggested by it.” So, what Bulwer-Lytton really meant was that words wield more power than warfare.
Other examples of metonymy are the crown for the British monarchy, the press for journalists and the White House for the President.
If this cartoon could have been published in the summer of 1776, readers could hardly be expected to recognize an allusion to a literary work that would not appear for another 63 years. The flags would have to look different, of course. All else, however, could remain the same.
The cartoon’s art and words might well have sustained members of the Second Continental Congress as they hammered out significant differences in deciding whether to break away from the crown. A key figure among them, Thomas Jefferson, might have found the cartoon especially heartening. It was Jefferson who took on the daunting task of drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Our Founding Fathers knew that George Washington’s ragtag army needed moral support along with food, arms and uniforms. Jefferson’s powerful words, though revised by his fellow congressmen, surely gave tired, hungry soldiers impetus to fight on. The Declaration of Independence may not have contained fighting words, but it did contain words for which to fight.
On a hot July day in Philadelphia nearly all of our nation’s founders were finally persuaded to vote in favor of the declaration. As our struggle for freedom then wore on, Washington’s “sword” must have been mighty grateful to Jefferson’s “pen.”