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[Detail] Millions of acres, Iowa and Nebraska, 1872


Satire is the use of irony, wit, or derision to attack human weakness or foolishness. For centuries, social and political critics have used satire to make their points. American satire dates from at least the 1700s (Benjamin Franklin used satire in his Poor Richard's Almanack) and continues to be popular today.

American Time Capsule contains a number of examples of satire's use as a tool for social and political criticism. In 1774, a satirist writing under the pseudonym Ebenezer Snuffle lampooned the Sons of Liberty's fervor in a set of 15 resolutions that contained the following items:

"12. RESOLVED, That because Boston is undeservedly chastised, all the other Colonies ought to be chastised deservedly.

13. RESOLVED, That it is a General Mark of Patriotism, to eat the King's Bread, and abuse him for giving it.

14. RESOLVED, That the best Way of approving our Loyalty, is to spit in the said King's Face; as that may be the Means of opening his Eyes.

15. RESOLVED, lastly, That every Man, Woman, or Child, who doth not agree with our Sentiments, whether he, she, or they, understand them or not, is an Enemy to his Country, wherefoever he was born, and a Jacobite in Principle, whatever he may think of it; and that he ought at least to be tarred and feathered, if not hanged, drawn and quartered; all Statutes, Laws and Ordinances whatsoever to the contrary notwithstanding."

From "At a Meeting of the True Sons of Liberty"

Read the entire list of resolutions and answer the following questions:

  • What is the point of this parody on the resolves of patriot committees?
  • How does "Ebenezer Snuffle" use the parody to ridicule the resolutions of the New York Sons of Liberty?
  • Why do you think the writer used satire as a means of answering resolutions directed at British colonial policy?

Nearly 200 years later, in 1968, opponents of Rev. Ralph Abernathy's Poor People's March on Washington circulated the broadside "A Deal You Can't Afford to Miss!" Read the broadside and identify how those who opposed the march used satire to ridicule the movement.

  • How does the author of the broadside use irony, wit, or derision to attack the Poor People's March?
  • Why do you think the writer used satire as a means of showing his or her views on the Poor People's March?
  • Do you think this approach is more effective than, say, an essay? Why or why not?

In your textbook or another resource, find an example of satirical writing by a historical American satirist, such as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, or Will Rogers. Also find an example of contemporary satire; this example might be written, a cartoon, or performed live (e.g., stand-up comedy, a mock news program).

  • Based on your analysis, what are the essentials in writing a good satirical tract?
  • How effective is satire in calling attention to an issue?
  • Use what you have learned about satire to write a broadside highlighting a current or historic example of human weakness or foolishness.