April 27, 2012

Uncle Sam

Alan Sked's inaugural lecture at the LSE focussed on national icons: Professor Sked talked about the iconographic figures of the past- Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Lincoln etc- and spoke about the way in which those individuals had developed a mythic histories. Sked is obviously right on this broad point- and we can see how far that's true when we look at more obscure figures who have become national icons. Take Sam Wilson for example. A US merchant in the 1812 war who sold food to the US army, Sam Wilson became through a series of accidents (chronicled here) the image of America. He became Uncle Sam. The point about this is that Sam Wilson was a pretty ordinary person- he had none of the glamour of a Lincoln or a Frederick, wasn't ambiguous or anything special at all.

Why was he remembered? Ultimately that isn't a question that can be answered- there isn't a particular reason save for a catchy name and a clever set of poster makers why Sam Wilson should have been remembered. What's interesting about him though is that it demonstrates the need that the young republic had for some kind of myth. The US was founded in 1776: Uncle Sam lived through both its founding and the other great traumatic event of its early history, its war with its former colonial master Britain between 1812 and 1814. Before 1776, the US had been 13 individual colonies- diverse religiously, economically and racially from each other. The divides that split America right up until the modern era were geographic, focussed on states. To keep this country together, it needed mythic figures- Washington, Revere, Jefferson- who could become a focus for allegiance. In a sense, Sam's generation gave rise to so many of these icons because Sam's generation was the generation that made the United States. The essential icon in that sense was and is Lincoln: the President who stopped seccession.

That draws me though to a final point- and it reflects back on Professor Sked's lecture and a lot of the way that we view history today. Uncle Sam was a useful image for the United States because it reaffirmed national unity, it helped keep national peace. Historians may look at the man behind the image and say that he wasn't the same as the image that was eventually projected of him: indeed they may look behind some images like the image of John Bull and say he never existed. That's missing the point. The point of the image isn't that someone like that existed- its that someone like that was imagined to exist. National icons have a function and the function is the interesting bit about them as icons. We might want to study some of them independently- Lincoln to understand how a federal system can split into warring factions for example- but that's not studying their status as icons. As icons what's interesting is what they do and how they are used within political debates and discussions: how they become the substance of people's imaginations. This is where history can become innately political because if an icon is the meaning of a myth, destroying the icon is in some sense destroying the myth. But some myths are useful to us in politics...


goodbanker said...

Does this apply (kind of) to Norman Wisdom in Albania?

p.s. is everything OK? why the prolonged silence?