National Cartoonists Day: An Iconic Civil War Cartoon from Milestone Visual Documents in American History

May 5 is National Cartoonist Day, and to celebrate we are highlighting a cartoon featured in Milestone Visual Documents in American History. This 3-volume reference set focuses on visual images as documents to be analyzed and understood in their own right, just as written documents are. Including primary sources from early America to the present day, this set features iconic photographs, paintings, cartoons, maps, and more. Take a look at one of our visual documents below!

“Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler” Cartoon


John L. Magee



Image Type



Illustrates the violence between antislavery supporters and those who favored extending slavery after the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act


This political cartoon from 1856 depicts the violence at the heart of the battle between slavery opponents. The significance of political cartoons can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where the use of satire was used in tragedies and comedies. Satire was a lighthearted way of making the people aware of what was happening in society on the political, economic, cultural, and eventually global spectrum. Political cartoons combine satire with caricature in a reference to a timely and often controversial event. In other words, the cartoon is meant to enlighten the public in a (usually) whimsical manner.

Caricatures are meant to be a little over the top and rather exaggerated, but caricature is only one of the two main elements associated with a political cartoon. The other is relevance to a current event that will be familiar to the audience. At first glance, a political cartoon may appear to be humorous, but it is important to analyze the details of the image for clues about the societal atmosphere of the time. Politics can highly nuanced, to the point that many people find it difficult to understand the major issues or the political jargon that often accompanies a written explanation. Political cartoons provide an alternative way to present and explain such issues; they illustrate topics that are often controversial in a way that simplifies or humanizes them and makes them relatable.

About the Artist

This political cartoon was created by John L. Magee, an artist who was born in New York. The year of his birth is rather a mystery, with some sources citing 1804 and others citing sometime in the 1820s. Early in his career he created various lithographs and engravings for publishing companies in New York, including the firm of James Baillie and Nathaniel Currier. During the 1840s through the 1850s, Magee produced illustrations for various children’s books. Three of his works, including perhaps his most famous painting, The Mischievous Boy, were on exhibit at the National Academy of Design, and he also exhibited at the American Art Union. For at least two years, from 1850 to 1852, he is credited as having his own business in New York at 34 Mott Street. Around 1852, Magee decided to move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he also established his own firm and continued to work as a lithographer and political cartoonist. His work became more politically focused in his later years, reflecting the volatile time in the United States. In addition to “Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler,” Magee also created “Satan Tempting Booth to the Murder of the President” and “Death Bed of Abraham Lincoln.” He was listed as a genre lithographer as late as 1870 in the Philadelphia census report; however, after the 1860s there is no record of new material from Magee.


“Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler” was created to reflect a turbulent time in United States history. By 1856, when John Magee produced this political cartoon, the American political system was deeply divided on the issue of slavery. In fact, up until Congress passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery had been dealt with in a precarious manner, if at all. The Missouri Compromise was the first legislation that attempted to face the slavery issue head on, and its very attempt to do so illustrated the deep divide within the country. The divide extended to government itself, as could be seen in the political platforms of the two major parties at the time, the Whigs and the Democrats. The Whigs were not necessarily the party of abolitionists, but they did believe that the federal government should retain more control over the nation’s affairs. The Democrats, on the other hand, felt that the power of the federal government should be limited and that individual states should have more power. This was a time of clear-cut division within America: federal government versus state governments, antislavery versus slavery, and Whigs versus Democrats. The Missouri Compromise merely quieted the storm temporarily.

After the U.S. War with Mexico ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the shortcomings of the Missouri Compromise became apparent. The United States acquired over a half million square acres of land, including present-day California, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. The question arose as to whether these new territories should be admitted as states that allowed or disallowed slavery after criteria for statehood was achieved. The Compromise of 1850 temporarily settled the turmoil but ultimately caused more issues than it solved, particularly in the Kansas and Nebraska territories.

 As more settlers migrated into the Kansas and Nebraska territories, the question of slavery was once again a main issue. A proposal from Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois was to allow settlers, primarily white males, the power to determine whether the territories should be admitted as free states or as slave states. This was known as popular sovereignty and essentially removed the decision over slavery from the government and placed it directly with the settlers. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854 and emphasized the idea of popular sovereignty within each of the respective territories. Violence erupted as settlers representing both sides infiltrated Kansas and Nebraska, each feeling justified to have the ultimate decision in response to the slavery question. Kansas was nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas” as the violence escalated and the already existing divisions became even deeper.

 Explanation and Analysis of the Document

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, violence erupted in the United States, and the primary targets were antislavery settlers, known as freesoilers, in Kansas. The violence stemmed from the policy of popular sovereignty, proposed by Senator Stephen Douglas in the Compromise of 1850, which directly placed the slavery decision in the hands of the white settlers in Kansas and Nebraska. As the population within each of the territories grew, the violence against the freesoilers escalated, earning Kansas the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” This was a popular topic among artists such as John Magee, and several political cartoons were created to explain and make sense of the bloodshed that occurred between those who favored and those who opposed the extension of slavery.

The Free Soil Party was rather short-lived, lasting only from 1848 to 1854, but it had an enormous impact in the years leading up to the Civil War. The party was created after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, which ended the U.S. War with Mexico. Although the treaty may have silenced any disputes with Mexico, the slavery question about the newly acquired territory was not settled. Those who supported the Free Soil Party opposed the extension of slavery, reasoning that even though the federal government could not end slavery in states where it existed already, it should take an active stance in disallowing slavery in new territories. This was reflected in the party’s slogan “Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.” The Free Soil Party felt that the federal government should exercise more control and have more of a voice on the matter the individual states. This voice deepened the divide between the main two political parties at the time, the Whigs in the North and the Democrats in the South.

This political cartoon showcases a freesoiler bound to a platform labeled “Democratic Platform” and featuring Kansas and other place names, representing the Democratic platform that supported the movement of slavery into western territories. The freesoiler is being restrained by two recognizable men from the Democratic Party: presidential nominee James Buchanan and Senator Lewis Cass. The two men who are shoving a Black man into the gaping mouth of the freesoiler are Senator Stephen Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, also prominent members of the Democratic Party. This demonstrates the clear division between the two political parties, the division between the federal government and the state governments, and the power difference between the Democrats and the bound and helpless freesoiler. While this scene is the most noticeable at first glance, there are several other details worth mentioning.

 Although the platform clearly spells out “Kansas,” the words “Cuba” and “Central America” can also be seen upon closer examination. This is in reference to the Democratic Party’s future ambitions to extend slavery not only into western territories within the United States but also into areas outside the United States. This also suggested the desire to acquire more territory, thus growing America’s status in global markets.

Two other mini scenes are illustrated in the background: to the left is an image representing the burning and destruction of land, and to the right a dead man is portrayed hanging from a tree. The former refers to the literal destruction of land owned by freesoilers and the violence that resulted from the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The latter refers to lynching, which was used as a terrorist tactic by white supremacists. Lynching was especially prevalent in the South from the 1830s through 1960s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act escalated such behavior, but more people were made aware of these atrocities thanks to the efforts of investigative journalist Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), who documented and published widely about the prevalence of lynching as part of her anti-lynching campaign. This awareness also made it possible for artists such as Magee to incorporate such themes into their work.

—Commentary by Belinda Vavlas