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Still America's Favorite Uncle

By Eugene Langley / July 2, 1998



The American saga is full of heroes, real and imagined. Some of them are a mixture of both: Lewis and Clark, Davy Crockett, Dolly Madison, Johnny Appleseed - Uncle Sam?

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At age 14 Samuel Wilson ran away from his parents' home in Arlington, Mass., to join the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Later, nearly penniless, he moved to Troy, N.Y., to begin a meat-packing business.

Wilson worked hard and became known for his honesty and good sense. By the time America was fighting the British again in the War of 1812, Wilson had become a prominent businessman. He was appointed inspector of provisions for the US Army in New York and New Jersey.

A group of high-ranking visitors toured Wilson's Troy plant in October 1812. They were curious about the initials on the barrels of preserved beef. What did "E.A.-U.S." mean?

An anonymous workman replied that "E.A." stood for Elbert Anderson, the contractor for whom Wilson worked. "U.S.," the worker joked, was for "Uncle Sam" Wilson. (It really stood for United States.) The allusion caught on, for Wilson was popular and seemed to embody the plain-spoken American character.

In 1868, America's first great political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, created the Uncle Sam we know today: a lanky figure with whiskers, striped hat, striped pants, and stars wherever they fit.

By World War I, Sam was on a recruiting poster declaring "I Want You" as he pointed a strong forefinger straight at "you." The artist, James Montgomery Flagg, had posed for the poster himself.

Uncle Sam may wear blue jeans and a baseball cap today, but on editorial pages across America he's still grappling with the weighty issues of taxes, foreign policy, and scandal. And yet he's as frisky as ever. Why, when I sketched him the other day, he was swinging on a star.