Uncle Sam Day (September 13th)
It may not be celebrated with the fanfare of the 4th of July, but when it comes to symbolizing the spirit and patriotism that makes America great, Uncle Sam Day has its own special place. In 1989, when then-President George H.W. Bush delivered the proclamation below, I was a junior in college and living in New York-the birthplace of Uncle Sam himself. Of course, at the time his meat company was supplying rations to soldiers stationed in Troy, Samuel Wilson had no idea of what he—and his iconic image—would come to represent. This was the 1800s, after all. No internet. No cell phones. You couldn’t just text somebody a jpeg of a local newspaper’s political cartoon and have it go viral. Nope, back then, word traveled the old-fashioned way: slow, and mostly by word of mouth.
That didn’t stop the likeness of good ol’ Sam Wilson from taking root and becoming popular, however. People were familiar with Uncle Sam—and more importantly, what his likeness stood for—even before James Montgomery Flagg’s illustration broke big on the “I Want You For U.S. Army” recruitment poster.
In 1989, on your typical college campus, you probably didn’t see a whole lot of jumping up and down over the presidential proclamation or the ceremony surrounding making September 13th Uncle Sam Day. You know how it is—beginning of the new semester, the dorm crowd just settling in, first week of classes, trying to figure out how to pay for your books (or, just how battered a copy from a previous owner you could live with), etc.
That Fall semester, on the outside of a small snack stand that was technically off-campus, you couldn’t miss the old “I Want You” poster someone had put up. As you walked off campus, there it was, with the stern-faced Sam staring right back at you.
Usually, what you’d see posted on that wall were student ads and posters for upcoming concerts. When The Ramones played Fordham one year, that wall was how I first found out about the gig. Same as when The Smithereens came to play the school cafeteria. Bands, ads for people selling books or futons or offering/looking for tutoring help. That was the norm.
But Uncle Sam caught everyone’s attention that semester because that poster stayed up. From opening day of classes through homecoming to the season’s first basketball game all the way until midterms. Bad weather couldn’t take care of Uncle Sam. Other handbills tacked up were there one day and gone the next. The steam coming off the hot dog cooker and the oily grease from the french fries couldn’t alter his resolve, either.
Looking back, it only makes sense. The image you see on tin signs, replica posters, and of course, as many spoofs of the images as The Boulevard of Broken Dreams poster has spawned, continue to stand out, even today. Who hasn’t seen the original, or a version of the war bonds poster, with Uncle Sam draped in the flag? Any number of recruitment posters for the armed forces? The representations of Uncle Sam gritting his teeth and rolling up his sleeve, fist-clenched, in the wake of the September 11 attacks? The impossibly long-legged man with the beard standing tall over the nation, smiling proudly and holding a flag pennant? The more you think about Uncle Sam images, the more that come to mind.
September 13th is here again. It might not be a day you organize a barbecue for, but besides the Statue of Liberty, what other symbol of what America stands for even comes close to the hard-working guy in the stars & stripes top hat insofar as embodying what America is all about?
Not a bad way to be remembered, huh?
Proclamation by George Bush Sr September 5, 1989 as follows:
The tall, white-haired figure of Uncle Sam — his stern, sagacious face graced by a flowing beard, and his distinguished top hat adorned by stars and stripes — is a beloved symbol of the United States. Recognized around the world, the striking visage of Uncle Sam recalls the pride and strength of the American people, as well as the freedom we enjoy.
One of the most familiar renditions of Uncle Sam is found on the James Montgomery Flagg recruitment poster used during World War I and World War II. With its now-famous headline, “Uncle Sam Wants You,” this poster urged men and women to help defend our way of life by enlisting in the Armed Forces. Today, the figure of Uncle Sam continues to remind us of the great risks and personal sacrifices endured by generations of Americans in the quest for liberty.
In 1961, the Congress recognized Samuel Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of this celebrated American symbol. Hardworking and self-reliant, Samuel Wilson was a man of unwavering integrity. He was also an important source of food for the Army during the War of 1812. The marking “U.S.” stamped on casks of meat that his packinghouse prepared for American troops represented “Uncle Sam” to many soldiers and eventually the name was associated with the U.S. Government itself.
During Samuel Wilson’s lifetime, which spanned the exciting years of 1766 to 1854, Americans won our country’s independence; formed a system of self-government under our great Constitution; explored and settled the frontier; and raised the hopes of freedom-loving peoples around the world. Because the character derived from his nickname embodies the proud and industrious spirit of the American people, it is fitting that we pause to remember “Uncle Sam” Wilson and his place in our Nation’s history.
To honor Samuel Wilson on the anniversary of his birth and the occasion of the bicentennial of the City of Troy, New York, the Congress, by Public Law 100-645, has designated September 13, 1989, as “Uncle Sam Day” and has authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in observance of this event.
Now, Therefore, I, George Bush, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim September 13, 1989, as Uncle Sam Day and call upon the
people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.
In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this fifth day of September, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-nine, and of the
Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and fourteenth.