Another Roosevelt Rides the Range: “Big Stick” Symbolism in 1930s Political Cartoons

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM
Washington Room 5 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Victoria Grieve, Utah State University
If the frequency of political cartoons is proportionate to the “conflictedness” of a given era, the 1930s were rife with disagreement, debate and discussion. This paper is concerned with the ways in which popular visual culture, particularly political cartoons, participated in the political and economic debates of the Depression years, often personified in Franklin D. Roosevelt. Exaggeration and distortion are staples of graphic satire, but to be most effective to political discourse, political cartoons must be rooted in some semblance of factual reality. If the goal is to influence public opinion, the artist must use widely and instantly understood symbols, slogans, referents and allusions to exploit the cultural literacy of his public. I focus on just one example of the ways graphic artists relied upon the ability of viewers to select, organize, and project information. I argue that both supporters and critics of the New Deal constructed a hostile relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and various opponents through use of the “big stick” analogy. This analogy relied upon the viewer’s historical knowledge of FDR’s distant cousin, Teddy Roosevelt, and his famous dictum, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Whereas TR was referring to foreign policy, in the 1930s graphic artists depicted FDR wielding a big stick to tame domestic problems; an oppositional Congress, Wall Street, and investment bankers were the more frequent targets of FDR’s stick in aftermath of the 1932 election. But by 1937, FDR’s “big stick” was shown increasingly as a tool of oppression and dictatorial power, particularly during the uproar over his court-packing plan. I argue that the “big stick,” itself a compelling symbol mobilized by Teddy Roosevelt, changed in response to contemporary circumstances, while still providing useful shorthand for cartoonists.


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