According to legend, Brother Jonathan came into use during the American War for Independence. Brother Jonathan soon became a stock fictional character, developed as a good-natured parody of all New England during the early American Republic. He was widely popularized by the weekly Brother Jonathan and the wildly popular humor magazine Yankee Notions. A phrase attributed to Gen. George Washington, "We must consult Brother Jonathan" is used in New England to this day, at Yale University, to celebrate the part the northern colonies played for independence from Great Britain.
In editorial cartoons and patriotic posters outside New England, Brother Jonathan was usually depicted as a long-winded New Englander who dressed in striped trousers, somber black coat, and stove-pipe hat. He much resembled Abraham Lincoln shortly before his assassination, who by donning the same famous props of Brother Jonathan put himself forth as a representative of New England in the minds of the American public well acquainted with the Brother Jonathan of the popular press. Inside New England, "Brother Jonathan" was depicted as an enterprising and "go-ahead-itive" businessman who blithely boasted of Yankee conquests for the Universal Yankee Nation.
Surpassing John Bull, the legacy of Brother Jonathan spread and endures to this day. During the American Civil War, many of the distinctive traits of Brother Jonathan were reflected in beloved Abraham Lincoln's presidential style. After 1865, the garb of Brother Jonathan was emulated by Uncle Sam, a common personification of the continental government of the United States.
The term dates at least to the 17th century, when it was applied to Puritan roundheads during the English Civil War. The term came to include residents of colonial New England, who were mostly Puritans in support of the Parliamentarians during the war.
A popular folk tale about the origin of the term holds that the character derives from Jonathan Trumbull (1710–85), Governor of the State of Connecticut, which was the main source of supplies for the Northern and Middle Departments during the American Revolutionary War. It is said that George Washington uttered the words: "We must consult Brother Jonathan" when asked how he could win the war. That origin is doubtful, however, as neither man made reference to the story during his lifetime and the first appearance of the story has been traced to the mid-19th century, long after their deaths.
The character was adopted by citizens of New England from 1783 to 1815, when Brother Jonathan became a nickname for any Yankee sailor, similar to the way that G.I. is used to describe members of the U.S. Army.
During the War of 1812, the term "Uncle Sam" (= U. S.), appeared for the first time. Less frequently than old "Jonathan," Uncle Sam, appeared in newspapers from 1813 to 1815, and in 1816 he appeared in a book.
First published in 1842, the weekly newspaper Brother Jonathan, issued out of New York, exposed North America to the character named "Brother Jonathan". First published in 1852, Yankee Notions, or Whittlings of Jonathan's Jack-Knife was a high-quality humor magazine that used the stock character to lampoon Yankee acquisitiveness and other peculiarities. It, too, was issued out of New York, which, before the Civil war, was a rival with neighboring New England. A popular periodical with a large circulation, people both inside and outside New England enjoyed it as good-natured entertainment. These jokes were often copied in newspapers as far away as California, where natives encountered Yankee ships and peddlers, inspiring Yankee impersonations in comedy burlesques. Brother Jonathan: or, the New Englanders was also the title of a book, released in three volumes, by John Neal. This was published in Edinburgh, illustrating the impact that the crafty New England character had on British literature.
Around the same time, the New England-based Know Nothing Party, which Yankee Notions also lampooned, was divided into two camps—the moderate Jonathans and the radical Sams. Eventually, Uncle Sam came to replace Brother Jonathan, and by the end of the century, after the "Yankee" section had won the American Civil War, the victors applied "Yankee" to all of the country, and likewise, "Uncle Sam" was applied to the Federal government. In time (principally over the course of the late 19th century), Uncle Sam came to represent the United States as a whole, supplanting Brother Jonathan.
The phrase "We must consult Brother Jonathan" is used officially in New England to this day, although rarely. It appears on the graduation certificates of Yale University's Trumbull College, also named for Trumbull.
- Yankee Notions in Google Books.
- Teach Us History - Here, "Brother Jonathan" is clearly a representative of a "Yankee," a New Englander, administering pear-juice to John Bull on behalf of Admiral Perry, during the War of 1812.
- James D. Hart (12 October 1995). The Oxford Companion to American Literature (6th. ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-19-506548-0.
- Gould, Dudley C (2001). Times of Brother Jonathan: What He Ate, Wore, Believed in & Used for Medicine During the War of Independence. Southfarm Press. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-913337-40-0.
- The first printed usage of "Jonathan" as a generic name for a representative Yankee in the Oxford English Dictionary (second edition) is from 1816.
- Hathi Trust Digital Library
- Note: Just as during the War of 1812 Brother Jonathan fought the enemy "John Bull", so did the North again fight Johnny (for example, Johnny Reb meant a Confederate soldier). However, the song, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" was sung on both sides, Yankee and American.
- "Uncle Sam", Dictionary.com; accessed 2013.09.18.
- "Trumbull College History".
- 1862 Harper's Weekly Brother Jonathan Cartoon
- The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan - complete 1827 text w. illustrations