Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


A Political Cartoon

We have selected a cartoon as the document because many texts include cartoons. As you use your textbook, keep in mind that the illustrations can be used to create interesting classroom lessons. We offer here an approach to analyzing political cartoons, as well as a sample cartoon from the holdings of the National Archives.

The chart included hem is designed to enable students to analyze any political cartoon. The questions on the chart begin at the basic level of comprehension and build to a higher level that requires the use of interpretive skills. You may wish to assign the first questions on the chart to individual students and to discuss the higher level questions with the class as a group. Keep in mind that cartoons are also excellent vehicles for vocabulary development.

In preparation for using the cartoon chart, you may wish to discuss the nature of symbols with your students. As an exercise, you can ask your students to develop their own visual or written symbols for people (teachers, principals, parents); institutions (school, home, local "hangout"); or ideas (energy conservation, political philosophies, fads). Students might also be asked to develop a list of common American symbols frequently used by cartoonists (Uncle Sam, John Q. Public, the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, etc.).

We recommend that you use political cartoons as a summarizing activity at the end of a unit of study. Because cartoons are symbolic, subtle, and ironic, the more background information that students bring to the cartoon, the better able they will be to grasp the cartoonist’s meaning.

The Cartoon in Historical Context

By 1917, 19 States had already adopted their own laws concerning the prohibition of alcohol. On December 18, 1917, the Congress adopted and submitted to the States an amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The 18th Amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the States on January 16, 1919, beginning a 14-year period of national prohibition of alcohol.

For many Americans, such as members of the popular Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, the ratification of the 18th Amendment culminated an extensive campaign against the moral and social evils of alcohol. Many more Americans, however, supported prohibition as a patriotic act to help conserve grain and fruit needed to support the United States war effort during World War I. Ironically, by the time the amendment was ratified the pressures of war had passed.

From the outset, the 18th Amendment provoked controversy. Opponents of prohibition attacked the government’s efforts to enforce the law. They pointed to the widespread illicit liquor traffic, racketeers and gangsters, and corruption in government as proof of the amendment’s failure. Supporters acknowledged the shortcomings in enforcement of the law but gave credit to the amendment for the general prosperity that existed in the country between 1923 and 1929.

The Wickersham Commission
Despite arguments to the contrary, it was evident by 1929 that enforcement of the 18th Amendment was ineffective. President Herbert Hoover, in response both to public demand and his own personal convictions, appointed a commission to study the problems of law enforcement, with particular emphasis on prohibition. Hoover designated former Attorney General George Wickersham as the head of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, popularly known as the Wickersham Commission. The 11 other Commissioners included such distinguished public figures as Secretary of War Newton Baker, U.S. Circuit Judge William Kenyon, and Dr. Ada Comstock, president of Radcliffe College. Each of the Commissioners headed a subcommittee that investigated and reported on the effectiveness of one aspect of criminal law enforcement (the police, juvenile delinquency, penal institutions, etc.). The Commission’s report on enforcement of prohibition, however, was the part of this $100,000 study that attracted the most public attention.

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The Wickersham Commission presented its report to the President on January 20, 1931. The Commission members disagreed among themselves on the question of prohibition enforcement, but the majority opinion was to support the continued existence and enforcement of the 18th Amendment. Two members voted for its repeal, six for its modification (but not to the extent of allowing the manufacture of light wine and beer), and four for further efforts at its stringent enforcement.

Political cartoonists satirized the Commission’s report as a waste of taxpayers’ money, because the Commissioners arrived at no new solutions to the prohibition problem. So disgusted was the public by the government’s failure to enforce the law consistently that by 1932 the Democratic National Convention included the repeal of the 18th Amendment in its platform. The strong Democratic victory in November of that year pushed the Congress to approve an amendment for repeal. The 21st Amendment was ratified in less than a year by the necessary three-fourths of the States, and by 1933 national prohibition was over.

The cartoon reproduced here, "The Big Specialist Reports His Findings," appeared in the Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) on January 21, 1931, and is found as part of the Subject Files of Editorial Cartoons, 1930-1931, Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Record Group 10.

Suggestions for Followup Student Activities

1. Based on the information in the cartoon, write a paragraph describing the Wickersham Commission findings.

2. Collect several political cartoons and use the chart presented here to analyze the elements of each cartoon.

3. Design a cartoon that illustrates your opinion on a specific issue of interest to you.

4. Compare and contrast a political cartoon with one of your favorite comic strips. What are the differences in the symbols, characters, and messages of each?


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Chicago: "A Political Cartoon," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 118–121. Original Sources, accessed July 15, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CIH5NFRS7H7138W.

MLA: . "A Political Cartoon." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 118–121. Original Sources. 15 Jul. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CIH5NFRS7H7138W.

Harvard: , 'A Political Cartoon' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.118–121. Original Sources, retrieved 15 July 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CIH5NFRS7H7138W.