Are political cartoons valuable as a historical source?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Political cartoons are a very good historical source.  However, we should be careful not to read too much into them.

Political cartoons are a very good source for historians because they can teach us a great deal about what people thought about certain issues at certain times.  For example, looking at the cartoon in the link below that has to do with Haiti, we can see a few things.  We can see that people in the US at the time were prone to having racist attitudes.  This is shown in the caricature of the black baby.  It shows that Americans believed that the government of Haiti was very weak.  Finally, it shows that Americans believed that it was acceptable for the US to intervene in the affairs of other countries.

All that said, we must be careful about attributing these views to all Americans.  A political cartoon is just the view of one person.  We can assume that other people felt the same way that the cartoonist did, but we cannot be sure. 

Thus, political cartoons are a great historical source as long as we are careful not to assume that all Americans of their time would have held the same attitudes that the cartoonist did.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Are political cartoons a valuable historical source?

Yes, political cartoons are a valuable historical source.  However, we must be sure that we do not overdo our confidence in them as sources.

Political cartoons are valuable because they can tell us something about the attitudes that people had at a given time in history.  For example, let us look at the political cartoon that is shown in the “harpweek” link below and discussed in the eNotes link.  This comes from 1888.  If we look at this cartoon, we can see that the issue of “trusts,” or monopolies, was a major issue for the people of this time and place.  We can also see that there was some degree of distrust of these large companies on the part of the people.  The cartoon shows us this because it shows Carnegie portraying a monster as a “trustworthy beast.”  The cartoon is helpful, then, because it shows us that this was a major issue and it shows us how some people thought about that issue.

But we do have to be careful when using these sources.  We have to realize that not all people would have agreed with the cartoon or even cared about the issue presented in the cartoon.  Therefore, we cannot be too confident in using cartoons to tell us what people thought.  They might or might not have agreed with the content of the cartoons.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on