The character John Bull first appeared in 1712 in the work The History of John Bull, authored by John Arbuthnot, Queen Anne’s physician. In this satirical work of fiction Bull was a minor cloth trader, â€œwho found himself embroiled in a law suit with his European neighbours; Nicholas Frog (the Dutch), Lewis Baboon (Louis Bourbon of France), Philip Baboon (the king of Spain), Esquire South (the Austrian archduke), Sister Peg (Scotland), and various others.â€ The work was meant as an attack on Whig foreign policy and on the financiers who were benefiting from English intervention in Europe (in the War of the Spanish Succession). John Bull wasnâ€™t the first English character to be portrayed as an â€œarchetypal Englishman; blunt, irritable, and prone to take to the bottle, nor the first association of Englishness with bovine characteristics: the bull, the ox, and beef had often symbolized the English nation.â€ However, he would eventually come to symbolise those traits.
By the 1760s, depictions of John Bull depended on who was drawing him, and for what purpose. Bull was usually shown to be a nationalist, but not one who cared much for war, as that meant higher taxes. As Miles Taylor puts it, his enemies (The Scots, the French) might change, but â€œhis reputation as a down-to-earth, liberty-loving, beer-drinking, and pugnacious admirer of all things English remained intact.â€ Only a few cartoonists, alarmed at the radicalism of the French revolution (1790s), depicted John Bull as a negative embodiment of democracy; common and coarse. Interestingly, even when drawn in a positive way, John Bull also had severe shortcomings: he was easily tricked by schemers, and lacked any real foresight. Thus he wasnâ€™t so much the ideal Englishman as perhaps the epitome of the ways in which many English saw themselves.
In the immediate post Napoleonic war period (after 1815), some radical cartoonists turned John Bull into their standard bearer, as the tax-loathing, free-born, honest, hard-working man presented a nice contrast to the decadent and over-mighty ruling elite. The ruling elite meanwhile tried to claim him as their own, such as when John Bull tired to help the reactionary George IV obtain a divorce. By the mid-19th century however, John Bull was less of a politically-charged figure. He was now as largely politically neutral, with the Punch cartoons of the 1840s giving us the squire that most of us associate with John Bull today: â€œa portly, ruddy-cheeked and side-whiskered farmer, with boots and a shabby hat, and an aggressive mastiff at his side.â€
For much of the 19th century, negative portrayals of John Bull were left up to foreigners, with John Bull presented as an aggressive English imperialist, taking what he wanted when he could, especially in the non-European world. Arguably this negative, xenophobic image has become incredibly important, as today the sort of people who summon up John Bull are not the low-tax individualists, but the BNP and their ilk (another symbol they have managed to steal).
Yet near the end of the 19th century, John Bull was again becoming politicised in Britain. As more people got the vote in 1884, the idea that a minor squire could epitomise their nature seemed outdated. John Bullâ€™s perceived nationalism then came under attack during the Boer war at the turn of the century. For Canon Scott Holland at the time, the John Bull stereotype was â€œludicrously obsolete- fat in an age when the fat man’s day is past and gone. John Bull has no brains. He embodies, in his fatuous good-humour, in his farmer’s suit, in his obvious provincialism, the British horror of ideas.â€ He was no longer the epitome of everyday Englishness, and now spent a period of time being depicted (in a positive way), as a critic of Liberal policy, clad in a top hat and Union Jack waistcoat.
After the First World War John Bull tended to recede into the background, increasingly used, and seen, as a conservative and imperialistic figure. Since then, he has tended to spend much of his time being used in advertising campaigns, yet remains a more complex figure that many give him credit for.
(Much of this came from Professor Miles Taylor’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s (ODNB) entry on ‘John Bull’. To subscribe to the ODNB’s daily lives, click here).
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