There was a real-life Uncle Sam. This symbol of the United States government and of the national character, in striped trousers and top hat, was a meat packer and politician from upstate New York who came to be known as Uncle Sam as the result of a coincidence and a joke. The proof of Uncle Sam’s existence was unearthed only a quarter of a century ago, in the yellowing pages of a newspaper published May 12, 1830. Had the evidence not surfaced, doubt about a real-life prototype would still exist, and the character would today be considered a myth, as he was for decades.
Uncle Sam was Samuel Wilson. He was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, on September 13, 1766, a time when the town was known as Menotomy. At age eight, Sam Wilson served as drummer boy on the village green, on duty the April morning of 1775 when Paul Revere made his historic ride. Though the “shot heard round the world” was fired from nearby Lexington, young Sam, banging his drum at the sight of redcoats, alerted local patriots, who prevented the British from advancing on Menotomy. As a boy, Sam played with another youthful patriot, John Chapman, who would later command his own chapter in American history as the real-life Johnny Appleseed. At age fourteen, Sam joined the army and fought in the American Revolution. With independence from Britain won, Sam moved in 1789 to Troy, New York, and opened a meat-packing company. Because of his jovial manner and fair business practices, he was affectionately known to townsfolk as Uncle Sam.
It was another war, also fought against Britain on home soil, that caused Sam Wilson’s avuncular moniker to be heard around the world. During the War of 1812, government troops were quartered near Troy. Sam Wilson’s fairdealing reputation won him a military contract to provide beef and pork to soldiers. To indicate that certain crates of meat produced at his warehouse were destined for military use, Sam stamped them with a large “U.S.” —for “United States,” though the abbreviation was not yet in the vernacular. On October 1, 1812, government inspectors made a routine tour of the plant. They asked a meat packer what the ubiquitously stamped “U.S.” stood for. The worker, himself uncertain, joked that the letters must represent the initials of his employer, Uncle Sam. The error was perpetuated. Soon soldiers began referring to all military rations as bounty from Uncle Sam. Before long, they were calling all government-issued supplies property of Uncle Sam. They even saw themselves as Uncle Sam’s men.
The first Uncle Sam illustrations appeared in New England newspapers in 1820. At that time, the avuncular figure was clean-shaven and wore a solid black top hat and black tailcoat. The more familiar and colourful image of Uncle Sam we know today arose piecemeal, almost one item at a time, each the contribution of an illustrator. Solid red trousers were introduced during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The flowing beard first appeared during Abraham Lincoln’s term, inspired by the President’s own beard, which set a trend at that time. By the late nineteenth century, Uncle Sam was such a popular national figure that cartoonists decided he should appear more patriotically attired.They adorned his red trousers with white stripes and his top hat with both stars and stripes. His costume became an embodiment of the country’s flag.
Uncle Sam at this point was flamboyantly dressed, but by today’s standards of height and weight he was on the short side and somewhat portly. It was Thomas Nast, the famous German-born cartoonist of the Civil War and Reconstruction period, who made Uncle Sam tall, thin, and hollow-cheeked. Coincidentally, Nast’s Uncle Sam strongly resembles drawings of the real-life Sam Wilson. But Nast’s model was actually Abraham Lincoln. The most famous portrayal of Uncle Sam—the one most frequently reproduced and widely recognized—was painted in this century by American artist James Montgomery Flagg. The sternfaced, stiff-armed, finger-pointing figure appeared on World War I posters captioned: “I Want You for U.S. Army.” The poster, with Uncle Sam dressed in his full flag apparel, sold four million copies during the war years, and more than half a million in World War II. Flagg’s Uncle Sam, though, is not an Abe Lincoln likeness, but a self-portrait of the artist as legend.
During these years of the poster’s peak popularity, the character of Uncle Sam was still only a myth. The identity of his prototype first came to light in early 1961. A historian, Thomas Gerson, discovered a May 12, 1830, issue of the New York Gazette newspaper in the archives of the NewYork Historical Society. In it, a detailed firsthand account explained how Pheodorus Bailey, postmaster of New York City, had witnessed the Uncle Sam legend take root in Troy, New York. Bailey, a soldier in 1812, had accompanied government inspectors on the October day they visited Sam Wilson’s meat-packing plant. He was present, he said, when a worker surmised that the stamped initials “U.S.” stood for “Uncle Sam.”
Sam Wilson eventually became active in politics and died on July 31, 1854, at age eighty-eight. A tombstone erected in 1931 at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy reads: “In loving memory of ‘Uncle Sam,’ the name originating with Samuel Wilson.” That association was first officially recognised during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, by an act of the Eighty-seventh Congress, which states that “the Congress salutes ‘Uncle Sam’ Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National symbol of ‘Uncle Sam.’ “
Though it may be stretching coincidence thin, John Kennedy and Sam Wilson spoke phrases that are strikingly similar. On the eve of the War of 1812, Wilson delivered a speech, and a plan, on what Americans must do to ensure the country’s greatness: “It starts with every one of us giving a little more, instead of only taking and getting all the time.” That plea was more eloquently stated in John Kennedy’s inaugural address: “ask not what America will do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”