‘Join or Die’: What History Can Teach Us About Beating Coronavirus

A protester demonstrating against social distancing measures in Raleigh in May. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Kim Mackey

September 23, 2020

Americans have united before during a war effort. Why can’t we do that during a pandemic? 

As a lifelong student and current teacher of history, I’m fascinated by the stories and symbols of our country.

We look to our history to explain our present and guide our future.

To teach teamwork we point to examples in our past when Americans joined together for a common cause – most notably during times of war.

COVID-19 has now killed over 200,000 Americans in just over six months but we have not yet launched a legitimate war on the virus within our borders.

We’ve launched three war efforts in part as a response to attacks on US ships: both World Wars and the Vietnam War.

We’ve launched many other military missions in the name of defending the integrity of other countries’ lands and people.

Yet here we are with 200,000 American lives lost and no end in sight yet we fail to unite and act to protect each other.

We would do well to learn from history and reflect on what it will say about us during this time.

Benjamin Franklin created the first American political cartoon which was a call to action for the colonies to unite and sign on to the Albany Plan of Union to support – you guessed it – war.  The segmented rattlesnake with the caption “Join or Die” implored American colonists to work together to defend themselves against the French and their native allies.

Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 ‘Join or Die’ cartoon, which became a rallying cry during the Revolutionary War, urged the American colonies to unite. (Image via Shutterstock)

This message deserves to be dusted off and amplified as our divided country watches fellow Americans die instead of joining together to fight off a biological invasion.

The rattlesnake symbol that has re-emerged is not Franklin’s call for collective effort, but the Gadsden flag whose coiled snake and “Don’t Tread On Me” message has been perverted these days to mean “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” even if it will save the lives of fellow Americans.

We are now asking a women-dominated profession and children to save us so we can “feel normal” again by reopening classroom doors despite our “red zone” status and failure to pay for safety requirements.

Those pointing out other countries have resumed school fail to acknowledge that those countries had a united front in combatting the spread and as a result are not seeing levels of the virus on the scale we continue to face.  Nonetheless they’re proving schools still face closures to troubleshoot outbreaks even with a much smaller prevalence of COVID-19 in their countries compared to ours.  In fact, some countries are regressing by reopening too quickly.

Besides, what happened to our country setting the standard for leading in times of crisis? Other nations have addressed the pandemic and as they return to pre-pandemic activities, we argue with each other over wearing masks or whether it’s worth the safety risk (read: other people’s lives) to reopen under-resourced school buildings.

Franklin’s “Join or Die” image from 1754 wasn’t enough to bring the Albany Plan of Union to fruition but it introduced the concept of uniting the colonies.  

The preference for autonomy over unity led to the failure of our first national government under the Articles of Confederation. 

In 2020, it’s time we learn from the past and improve on it by remembering Franklin’s “Join or Die” message.  For all the unity that has come from pointing to common enemies around the world, we must bring that same zeal to joining together to knock down the pandemic in our own backyard.


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