Statues… and Prime Ministers, Presidents and Monarchs
(Graeme is currently enjoying a Summertime respite from his usual duties drawing editorial cartoons. In the meantime, please enjoy this illustration highlight of things on offer for purchase through his Redbubble online shop. Graeme’s daily satire returns on September 1, 2020.)
Statues are getting pulled down on past leaders because the bronze cast honour bestowed upon them are based on long ago glorification among long dead elites, whose decisions and actions are offensive to modern day sensibilities. Those dead elites aren’t around anymore to keep their idols polished, nor the narratives about them sanitized. One might argue our ancestors and their leaders had thoughts and outlooks antithetical to our own, and it’s important to know the good AND the bad about them.
Canada’s Prime Minister gets acclaim and respect for his role in the formation of the nation, yet Sir John A. Macdonald‘s government also enacted a racist head tax to prevent Chinese people from entering after the completion of the CPR, as in the much celebrated “iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea“. This after 17,000 labourers from China were brought in to accomplish Macdonald’s dream of a cross country railway.
A great Founding Father, the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, gets acclaim for being the principal architect of the Declaration of Independence and penned the statement “all men are created equal”. This, despite owning 600 African slaves over his lifetime as a wealthy landowner.
The Magna Carta is a royal charter of rights sealed with the stamp of approval by England’s King John in 1215. To this day it’s a celebrated omnibus act that brought about many reforms including guaranteed access to swift justice and the trial by jury system. King John himself was a man of dubious character, with many mistresses, illegitimate children, and not a lot of morals. His accepting of the Great Charter was essentially a gesture to quell rebellion from barons who were sick and tired of his reckless behaviour, incompetence, and disastrous military conquests.
Interpretations of historical figures change with every generation with broader cross sections of cultures increasingly deliberating on legacies from the past. Taking down statues does not erase history but it does destroy the blind glorification aspect of figures from our past. Taking down statues in public squares removes insult to injury aspect of glorification that has shown to continue to this day.
Political power is something I’ve always held a great interest in observing. Whether it’s hereditary, oligarchy, or democracy, to view how the cream rises to the top is a very fascinating thing indeed.
I grew up in Canada, and when I was young and well aware that we had a Prime Minister and a Queen representing the highest offices in the nation, it was what I saw south of the border that I realized the power and influence of Presidents went global in significance. From the chronologies of humble beginnings, the pursuits of power, the victories, the challenges, the familiar trappings of office, the mystiques, and the legacies defining a period of time on this planet’s history, it made me wonder what it took to become President of the United States.
I embarked on learning about the Presidents, courtesy of my family’s World Book Encyclopedia, which had wonderful profiles of every one of them complete with full page portraits. It was my introduction to the familiar placemat style of chart showing each U.S. President, which I recall spanned from George Washington to James E. Carter. Every night before dinner I’d flip through pages, and commit all their names to memory.
Alas, not being American made me unqualified to ever hold that position. So, I looked closer to home and studied Canada’s Prime Ministers. That naturally led to an interest in history, and politics, which paved the way to university life in the nation’s capital, and finally, editorial cartooning.
In 2014, I embarked on an experiment to cater to a niche audience interested in Canadian Prime Ministers. Fortunately, I live in a young country with half the number of leaders compared to the United States. My drawings have seen some nice sales, with my most popular drawing being the rather obscure and short lived in-between Prime Minister, Sir Charles Tupper. Perhaps people are enamoured by his impressive sideburn chops!
My caricatures of Presidents have seen a bigger number of sales since posting them back in 2015. Based on sales, the earlier Presidents enjoy greater popularity than the newer ones. George Washington, John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt are among the most popular. The President whose caricature has garnered the most sales is Lyndon Johnson. Out the blue I’ll see an order made for a child’s sized t-shirt with a full bodied caricature of, say, Chester A. Arthur, and wonder what the story is behind that sort of purchase (a man, by the way, who arguably possessed the most handsome mutton chops of all Presidents.)
My latest series is the Kings and Queens of England. Another fascination I have for the history that the monarchy is steeped in, which I’ll have more to say in the next entry.
My caricatures on products are designed to stir a bit of fun, interest, and reflection on the pursuit of history knowledge. Whether they’re on t-shirts, or socks, cups or coasters, they’re a little reminder of the interesting characters who’ve shaped history. If you love history, or know someone who does, these are great ways to express that passion.
Just remember, unlike a statue, you can toss a t-shirt in the laundry basket, rather than roll it into a nearby harbour.