One of the Nation’s First Ever Political Cartoons, the Federal Pillars, Celebrating the Ratification of the Constitution

This rare printing shows South Carolina's ratification, forecasts Virginia's eventual ratification, and shows the pillars prominently at the top of the page

On March 24, 1784, Benjamin Russell launched a newspaper, The Massachusetts Centinel. The Centinel overflowed with arguments for the new Constitution, and with exultation as one state after another ratified it. Russell devised a cartoon showing each state as a column for the new federal edifice, adding a new column as word...

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One of the Nation’s First Ever Political Cartoons, the Federal Pillars, Celebrating the Ratification of the Constitution

This rare printing shows South Carolina's ratification, forecasts Virginia's eventual ratification, and shows the pillars prominently at the top of the page

On March 24, 1784, Benjamin Russell launched a newspaper, The Massachusetts Centinel. The Centinel overflowed with arguments for the new Constitution, and with exultation as one state after another ratified it. Russell devised a cartoon showing each state as a column for the new federal edifice, adding a new column as word of each ratification came in. Each pillar is labeled by a state in order of its ratification, beginning with Delaware and ending with Massachusetts. This cartoon is among the first political cartoons ever printed in the United States, and it is recognized as the first cartoon series.

Ratification of the Constitution by the State of South Carolina occurred on May 23, 1788 by a Convention presided over by Thomas Pinckney. It was the eighth state to do so. On June 2, Virginia met to consider and ratify it.

Russell’s now-famous cartoon celebrated as the succession of states ratified the Constitution.

The Massachusetts Centinel, Boston, June 11, 1788, containing one of the most elusive issues of this famous Boston title and one of the cherished “pillar cartoons”. It is replete with Constitution-related content.

The front page contains a letter signed in type by the President of the South Carolina Convention, Thomas Pinckney, proposing small suggested changes to the Constitutional text and other notes from the state’s deliberations.

The inside contains the pillar cartoon, noting South Carolina has ratified the Constitution, the 8th state to do so. The text immediately beneath the engraving is headed: “Eighth Pillar” with the text beginning: “As we predicted in several preceding papers, so has the fact been verified. Since our last the pleasing intelligence of the accession of another PILLAR in support of the Grand Federal Superstructure has been received…the influence of the decision of the State of South Carolina on the other states that have not yet had opportunity to adopt the Constitution, must be the most favourable. The particulars of this event follow:…” and what follows is a lengthy report from Charleston noting the details of S.C. ratifying the Constitution.

Following the news from South Carolina is a report from Virginia beginning: “The Federal Constitution will be adopted by us. The reception & discussion it met with from your State have removed the film of prejudice from the eyes of many well-meaning men of our state. They have agreed to speak well of it…North Carolina generally follows this state & it is probable she will join us in the decision of this great national & all important question…”.

Responding to this news the pillar cartoon shows the S.C. pillar fully raised, and the pillar noted “Virginia” partially elevated with the note “It will rise.” and the New Hampshire pillar still lying on its side.

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