The subject of this caricature – the baleful economic consequences arising from an inept government pigheadedly pursuing a disastrous foreign policy decision – feels rather prescient at the moment. It’s a modified American copy of a earlier British print on the woeful progress of the nation’s progress in her war against the rebellious colonists. As was often the case in this period, the vehemence with which British satirists attacked their own government meant that their prints could be copied and sold in enemy nations. We know that direct copies of this design were produced in France and Holland as well as America.
The original version was titled A picturesque view of the state of the nation for February 1778 and it was published in the edition of the Westminster Magazine for that month. The following text was published on the opposing page to explain the design:
I. The commerce of Great Britain, represented in the figure of a Milch-Cow.
II. The American Congress sawing off her horns, which are her natural strength and defence: one being already gone, the other just a-going.
III. The jolly, plump Dutchman milking the poor tame Cow with great glee.
IV and V. The Frenchman and Spaniard, each catching at their respective shares of the produce, and running away with bowls brimming full, laughing to one another at their success.
VI. The good ship Eagle laid up, and moved at some distance from Philadelphia, without sails or guns, … all the rest of the fleet invisible, nobody knows where.
VII. The two Brothers napping it, one against the other, in the City of Philadelphia, out of sight of fleet and army.
VIII. The British Lion lying on the ground fast asleep, so that a pug-dog tramples upon him, as on a lifeless log: he seems to see nothing, hear nothing, and feel nothing.
IX. A Free Englishman in mourning standing by him, wringing his hands, casting up his eyes in despondency and despair, but unable to rouse the Lion to correct all these invaders of his Royal Prerogative, and his subjects’ property.
The American version was published two years later. As well as changing the date in the title, the engraver also changed the name of the distant city from Philadelphia (which had been evacuated by the British in June 1778) to New York. The text, which was etched into the same plate as the image in this version, has also been changed, with point VI being erased from the plate and the subsequent bullet points renumbered. This is interesting as it suggests that an earlier image of the same design may have been published in America in 1778, when the text was still relevant, and that the plate was then amended and reissued two years later. If that was the case then there do not appear to be any surviving copies of the earlier American edition of this design. Point VII, now renumbered VI, has also been changed to read:
VI. A distant view of Clinton and Arnold in New York, concerting measures for the fruitless scheme of enslaving America – Arnold, sensible of his guilt, drops his head and weeps.
This version of the print has previously been attributed to Paul Revere, although there does not appear to be much of a rationale for this beyond the fact that Revere was known to produce copies of English satirical designs. It’s due to go up for auction in the US in a couple of weeks and carried an estimate of $600 – 800 (£480 – 640).