A spectacular rarity from the run-up to the War of 1812, being two broadsides printed on a single sheet, one attacking Britain and the other Napoleon and both surmounted with large, bizarre and crudely-powerful woodcuts.
During these years American relations with Britain and France were fraught in the extreme. Locked in conflict, the two European powers were attempting to starve one another’s commerce by enacting policies of systematic predation on neutral shipping. The American merchant fleet suffered terribly, and by one estimate the British and French seized in aggregate nearly 1500 American vessels in the years 1803-12. Even more inflammatory than the seizures was the British policy of impressing American sailors claimed to be British nationals, in order to meet the enormous manpower needs of the British navy. At the same time Americans were appalled by the bloody-mindedness of the French, as demonstrated first by the Terror and Napoleon’s aggressions on the Continent.
The accumulation of outrages led first to President Jefferson’s 1807 embargo against British and French commerce and ultimately served as the casus belli for the American declaration of war against Great Britain in June 1812. It has been argued, however, that the real reason for war came from the land-hungry “War Hawks” under Henry Clay, who sought justification for an invasion of British Canada. They played up the fantasy, current since early in the Revolution, that most Canadians had little loyalty to the Empire and were only waiting for an opportunity to join the American republic.
These extraordinary broadsides touch on many of these themes and are most unusual for their attack on both European powers, at a time when most American commentators tended to lean Federalist and pro-Britain or Republican and pro-France.
At left: A Dialogue on the subject of the present War
The full title of the broadside at left is A Dialogue on the subject of the present War between John Bull, Defender of Monarchy in Great Britain, Canada, Spain, Ireland and France, and Uncle Nicky, just returned from a mission to Napoleon, but now bearer of dispatches to the Department of War, London. The conceit is a conversation in which “Uncle Nicky”—that is, “Old Nick,” or the Devil—warns John Bull and advises him on measures “to suppress this republican spirit among the yankees.”
Uncle Nicky begins by relating an encounter near “a little town they called Washington:”
“I happened to overtake three men upon the road ; one I took to be a Jeffersonian, the second a Clintonian, and the third a Madisonian…. We must take Canada said the Jeffersonian ; nothing sounds to me like Canada exclaimed the Madisonian ; my patience is almost exhausted—my sword is yelping for blood to the handle ; we must have Canada, cost what it will, replied the Clintonian; have a little patience, well take Canada next fall.”
Uncle Nicky then warns John Bull that “if measures are not immediately taken to suppress this republican spirit among the Yankees, we know not what it may grow to. There is certainly a hornet’s nest [word or two lost] and if not destroyed it may one day swarm…” John Bull concurs, articulating an early instance of “Domino Theory” logic: “if my subjects in Canada [word or two lost] prove refractory, become independent, and grow [word or two lost] nation, the British isles will borrow the example…” Uncle Nicky’s advice follows:
“if Canada, should try to become a republic, as I have predicted, you should neither spare men nor money to suppress republicanism : but if it should prevail, I will send them one by and by that will rule them with a rod of iron. You must also blockade their ports, intercept their commerce with other nations whether dependent or independent ; you must not stick at trifles.”
This text is surmounted by a large and bizarre triptych of cuts captioned “Johnny with His Front and Rear Guard.” At center is “Johnny in His Morning Gown” being addressed by a winged demon at left, presumably Uncle Nicky himself. To Johnny’s right is another cut, apparently depicting a parent chastising a child, an apt metaphor for the proposed treatment of Canada.
At right: Father Abaddon… delivering a council of war to Napoleon
The broadside at right recounts an imagined lecture delivered to Napoleon by “Father Abaddon, formerly Prince Regent of all the lower regions round about Tophet” (Abaddon, a destructive demon, makes a few appearances in the Old Testament, while Tophet was a location in ancient Jerusalem where Canaanites practiced human sacrifice.) Addressing Napoleon as a son, Abaddon begins by counseling him to avoid sentiments of “Conscience, Simplicity, Pity, Tenderness, Love Good, Truth, Fidelity, &c. &c,” and rather to “cultivate a closer correspondence with those much valued old friends of our’s, viz. Bribery, Avarice, Deceit, Intrigue, Hate Good, Shed Blood, Hard Heart, Cruelty, Oppression, &c. &c.” After more such advice, Abaddon offers some choice thoughts about the United States:
“…if thou couldst but get her under thy thumb she would afford you a vast revenue of men and money ; to attempt it by force at present would be fruitless, therefore you must have recourse to fraud, and that too by inches ; for there is that old bug bear Britain stands right in the way ; now to obviate this embarrassment thou must chuse agents.”
By agents, the author may be referring to those Republicans whose sympathies still lay with France, even after Napoleon’s horrors in Europe and his depredations against American commerce.
Above this text is another group of large cuts, if anything more bizarre than the one to the left. Titled “Bona and His Life Guard,” it depicts a demon—Father Abaddon—offering advice to Buonaparte—shown in a rather odd action pose, sword raised—while Abaddon’s two demon offspring cheer their father on: “Don’t forget Quebec Dadda, we will have a good draft there.” “Stick up to him dadda.”
Dating, attribution and rarity
The broadside is unsigned and undated, but the crudely-powerful woodcuts and particularly the language indicate that it is unquestionably American. The poem at the base of the Father Abaddon broadside is telling:
“Johnny Bull and Bonapart / Disturb our neutral peace, / For Johnny wants our yankee sheep, / And Bona wants the fleece.
“Johnny Bull and Bonapart / Would force us into war ; / Much fitter they’d restore our ships, / With our brave yankee tars.”
It can almost certainly be dated to 1808-1812, during Madison’s first term. A terminus ad quem is provided by the aforementioned poem, the final verse of which refers to British intervention in the Peninsular War, which began in August 1808. The lack of reference to actual conflict in America indicates that it was issued before the June 1812 American Declaration of War against Britain.
The only other mentions I find of the broadside are in an Anderson Galleries catalog of April, 1920 and the Report of the Librarian of Congress… for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30 1920, the latter treating it as a New York imprint with an attributed date of 1812. The timing strongly suggests that these refer to one and the same copy.
It is worth noting the existence of a stylistically-similar and equally-rare broadside, Hieroglyphics of John Bull’s Overthrow, held by the American Antiquarian Society and Lilly Library and tentatively dated to 1812. This title is listed in the same Anderson Galleries catalog, adjacent to Johnny with His Front and Rear Guard, with the note “probably printed in Vermont in or about 1814.”
In all, an intriguing, spectacular and extraordinarily rare piece of Madison-era graphic Americana.
Neither broadside in OCLC or Shaw-Shoemaker. Anderson Galleries, Sale 1490 (April, 1920), lot 2467 (“Curious woodcuts at the top, crudely colored.”) Report of the Librarian of Congress… for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30 1920, p. 166 (Johnny with His Front and Rear Guard only, though most likely the Library purchased the Anderson Galleries copy and catalogued it carelessly.) Not in OCLC.