The American Gladiators

Published:May 18, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1861, the British humor magazine Punch published the above cartoon, by John Tenniel.

In an arena formed of cotton bales, President Lincoln (still shown as clean-shaven) and the newly-elected President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, square off as gladiators before an audience comprised of black slaves, one of whom sits in imperial state [cf. April 29, 1865]. The caption’s reference to “Emperor Caesar” may be ironically intended, as Caesar was a popular slave name.

The two combatants are armed with Bowie knives rather than the Roman gladius short swords. Each also has a pistol tucked into his belt, reflecting European perceptions about American violence and lawlessness (in many countries it was illegal for ordinary citizens to carry firearms). Lincoln holds a shield emblazoned with a representation of the national flag of the United States, while Davis’ shield bears the “Stars and Bars” flag […]

Tenniel was the original illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and helped to invent the modern political cartoon.