National Personification Investigation

January 31, 2021

This is another topic from Boris Johnson's Churchill Factor. Johnson referenced someone named John Bull. I write down all new things when I'm reading. Usually I look it up later in a process I call Disco. But knowing who Mr. Bull was seemed important to the story.

So meet Mr. Bull:

John bull

If you're an American, John Bull might remind you of Uncle Sam. He should. Because they're both a form of propaganda called national personification. And that's the topic for today.


That's a huge word to say giving human qualities to something. In the case of a national personification, you are giving human qualities to the ideals, the population at large, or government of a country.

These aren't real people who embody a nation—like say... George Washington—but rather images created purely for the purpose of representing a country.

However, in the case of Uncle Sam, his name did come from a real person. Sam Wilson was a meatpacker from Troy, NY who supplied the army in the War of 1812. He stamped his barrels with U.S. for "United States" but the soldiers started calling it Uncle Sam's.

Newspapers picked up the story and away the legend went. We still call the U.S. government Uncle Sam today.

Postage stamps vs. monuments

Not all national personifications are created equal. Some are majestic and almost god-like. You might turn one of these into an inspiring statue at the gateway to your country.

statue of liberty in NYC
Kirit Prajapati photo

Others are supposed to represent the everyman. Zé Povinho—Portugal's unofficial personification (picture below) is one of these. As is the USA's Uncle Sam.

ZĂ© Povinho

A war time icon

National personifications are often created, or thrust into popularity, during war. Uncle Sam became the go to symbol of the US government during the War of 1812. James Flagg—who used his own face for the drawing—created the most famous impression of Uncle Sam. Millions of copies of it were printed for recruiting during WW1 and WW2.

James Flagg Uncle Sam

John Bull first appeared around the turn of the 18th century. But he didn't rise to extraordinary fame until the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century.

Bull also played a large role in WW2. Though according to Historic UK, his popularity waned after the fifties. Here's a John Bull poster from WW1. And though I'm a bit biased (as an American), I think our recruiting posters were much better.

Oh well. Same team.


What other countries have national personifications?

Not every country has one. And the monument type is much more popular than the everyman. Here are some more examples: