Brother Jonathan. Encyclopedia of American Folklore

A caricature of the American common man, popular from the late 1700s until the mid19th century. Brother Jonathan descends from Yankee Doodle and sires Uncle Sam. His fictive life spans the years from the end of the American Revolution to shortly after the Civil War, when he appears in hundreds of political cartoons, in countless humorous anecdotes printed in almanacs and jest books, in popular verse, and most importantly in American theatrical comedies. During the heyday of his popularity in the first half of the 19th century, he was a major American icon whose crude ruralisms reflected backwoods demeanors of American settlers. He came into prominence when into his hands the spirit of Jacksonian democracy placed the political reins of a fledgling nation. Over the course of his life, he took on many guises. As a manservant, Jonathan was fiercely loyal to his master and country; as a shrewd peddler, he profited from his customer’s dull wit; as a cracker-barrel philosopher, his backwoods simplicity and practicality confounded sophisticated politicians. He rolled up his sleeves and tore into challenges that faced the young nation and sought to present a strident warning to any power, foreign or internal. Brother Jonathan received his formal introduction to American audiences in Royall Tyler’s successful comedy The Contrast (1787). In the play, Brother Jonathan is transplanted from the Vermont backwoods to the streets of New York City, where he encounters alluring prostitutes, the mysteries of the theater, and the stilted affectations of urban sophisticates. Although Tyler pokes at Jonathans naivete, his honest simplicity serves as a foil against the foppish mannerisms and shallow pretenses of city dwellers. In later plays, the figure of Brother Jonathan prides himself on his strong individualism and fierce nationalism. Through him, the American nation presented itself to the world. During the second war of independence (War of 1812), Jonathan took up the banner of patriotism, extending his popularity across the seaboard states and the burgeoning frontier. Playwrights in particular re-created Jonathan in many of their dramatic productions, representing the American everyman, fiercely independent, stubborn, and sly. Between acts of other dramas, actors who were posed as Brother Jonathan dressed in the outfits of country bumpkins recited. They extended monologues complete with satire and country vernacular speech. Eventually, Jonathan figured in cartoons and in almanac humor. Nearing mid-century, the image of Brother Jonathan began to lose its freshness and its popular appeal. Jonathan was depicted more and more as an ordinary American, less identified with his New England roots. Gradually, he began to appear as a reactionary, who offered tirades against immigrants and progressive political movements. Shortly after the Civil War, the figure of Brother Jonathan had outlived its usefulness, and only occasionally did he appear in British magazines as a caricature of Americans in general.

Richard Sweterlitsch


Dorson, Richard M. 1940. The Yankee on the Stage: A Folk Hero of American Drama. New England Quarterly 13:467–493. ——. [1946] 1969. Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. New York: Russell and Russell. Matthews, Albert. 1901. Brother Jonathan. Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 8:94–126. ——. 1935. Brother Jonathan Once More. Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 32:374–386. Morgan, Winifred. 1988. An American Icon: Brother Jonathan and American Identity. Newark: University of Delaware Press.