Zion Besieged and Attacked… “perhaps the most complex and labyrinthine political cartoon ever made”

[Zion Besieged and Attacked, 1787]. [Philadelphia: William Poyntell, Jan. 1787.]
Etching on laid paper, 13 ¾”h x 17 ¼”w at neat line plus wide margins, early hand color. Gently toned, minor foxing, soiling and staining. Pencil notations identifying perhaps a dozen figures. Withal, superb condition for a separately-issued 18th-century American satirical print.

A large, fantastically-intricate and impossibly rare 1787 political cartoon featuring among others Benjamin Franklin and a talking owl, all reflecting ongoing controversy about the meaning of the American Revolution.

On September 28, 1776 Pennsylvania ratified the most democractic of the early state Constitutions, providing for a unicameral legislature, elected annually; an elected, term-limited Executive Council; a weak President elected by the legislature and Executive Council; and suffrage extended to all tax-paying males. The new Constitution was supported primarily by Philadelphia artisans and the state’s agricultural interests, with the strongest opposition from supporters of the old Penn proprietorship and the mercantile classes (Confusingly, these factions coalesced came over time to be known respectively -as “Constitutionalists” and “Republicans”.)

This anonymous political cartoon must be understood against the broad backdrop of this ongoing controversy. But it seems to have been occasioned by a particular event, namely the legislature’s revocation in 1786 of the charter of Robert Morris’s Bank of North America and the ferocious reaction thereto (Morris, bankers, and banking references are all featured prominently.)

Franklin was at the time serving a three-year term as President of the Council and must have found himself in a difficult position: He had helped write the Constitution of 1776 and, having gotten his start as a printer, was sympathetic to the artisans who backed it; but he was also a successful businessman, understood the importance of banking in a national economy, and had even purchased a single share of the Bank of North America as a sign of support.

Zion Besieged and Attacked
As was often the case with politically-controversial material the cartoon is neither titled, signed nor dated, but fortunately we have the following advert placed by Philadelphia printer, printseller, stationer, and early American collector of medieval art William Poyntell (1756-1811).

“JUST PUBLISHED, [:] A New HUMOROUS CARICATURE PRINT, [:] ZION besieged and attacked, 1787, [:] Intended as a Check to Aristocracy by a Friend of Democracy. [:] “Hold the mirror up to Nature, shew Vice its own image, [:] “Virtue her own likeness, and the very age and body of the [Times [:] “Its own form and pressure.” [:] A few of the above PRINTS are left for Sale at [:] W. Poyntell’s Map and Print Shop, [:] In Second-street, corner of Black-Horse Alley. [:] Price Three Shillings and Nine-pence.” (Pennsylvania Journal or Weekly Advertiser, Jan. 31, 1787, p. 3)

 The cartoon is a riot of imagery, including among other things a fortress whose defenders—including a portly Franklin at far right–wave a “Franklin & Liberty” banner, a demon, a satyr, a talking owl, an “aerostatic machine”, and caricatures of a host of American luminaries. An explanatory broadside issued by Poyntell (Evans #20908) offers the following explanation: “The Constitution of Pennsylvania is represented by a Fortification built on a Rock, and defended by the Friends of Liberty. Besiegers, the Balloon Army, in 3 grand Divisions.” The Library Company of Philadelphia is rather more helpful:

“A fitting representation of a turbulent era, Zion Besieged and Attacked is perhaps the most complex and labyrinthine political cartoon ever made…. Zion was the 1776 constitution of Pennsylvania attacked by its enemies of the left and right. In an extravagant imbroglio of politicians, demons and beasts, the artist also vents his spleen on banks, medical practices, the rising interest in ballooning, pamphleteering and printing with the vision of a latterday Breughel. Seemingly, any politician, regardless of state, was included in this political genealogical chart. Robert Morris, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and others are featured in caricature. It is lamentable that an artist of such imagination did not identify himself or leave more of his enigmatic work. Perhaps because the voters were put to sleep or were too mesmerized with decoding the cartoon, a revised constitution with a bicameral legislature was ratified in 1790.” (Library Company of Philadelphia, Made in America: Printmaking 1760-1860, pp. 8-9)

While intended for local consumption, the deeper significance of Zion Attacked and Besieged is to be found by placing it in a national context: By early 1787 the glow of the victory in the war with Great Britain had long faded, leaving behind the realities of a weak central government under the Articles of Confederation, mountains of national and state-level debt, and profound disagreements about the meaning of the Revolution itself. Raising the stakes was the ongoing violence of Shays Rebellion, an agrarian revolt that had broken out in central and western Massachusetts in the Summer of 1786.

All this prompted the calling in May 1787 of a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, which ultimately resulted in the scrapping of the Articles and passage of the Federal Constitution… a constitution modeled, not incidentally, more on that of Massachusetts than of Pennsylvania. Indeed, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was itself replaced in 1790 by a more conservative document with many of the features of the Federal version.

The cartoon is extraordinarily rare: I find institutional holdings only at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Library of Congress, and no record of another having appeared on the antiquarian market.

In all, a superlative 18th-century American political cartoon, for its size, complexity, rarity and condition one of the finest I have seen.

Murrell, American Graphic Humor, p. 32, fig. 26. OCLC 879307216 (Library of Congress only, as of March 2022). Not in Evans or Bristol.