Analyzing Political Cartoons

Analyzing Political Cartoons

Political cartoons are an excellent way to assess the popular culture of a particular time period. This lesson will combine history and language arts by asking students to examine various political cartoons in order to analyze point of view, symbolism, and irony. This lesson will also help students understand various historical events. Students are asked to use their critical thinking skills to make inferences about a particular illustration or text while gaining historical knowledge.

There are six political cartoons that highlight various topics and teachers are encouraged to pick and choose the ones that they feel will fit best with their social studies lessons. Also, HSP has hundreds of political cartoons so if you find that you would like to use more on a specific topic, feel free to contact us for a full list of age appropriate cartoons for your classroom.

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will:

  • Learn how to analyze political cartoons.
  • Apply figures of speech such as Exaggeration, Irony, Analogy, and Symbolism.
  • Understand the author’s point of view.
  • Determine the importance of the historical moment.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. To begin this lesson, it is important to first discuss each of the Vocabulary words for analysis. You can use the examples given or come up with your own as you see fit. If your students have never seen some of the vocabulary words, this step will probably take a little longer, yet for students who are already familiar with the terms, this exercise will work as a refresher.

2. Next, go over with the students the vocabulary for historical context. These are people or terms that will show up in the political cartoons. Therefore, students should at least know the bare minimum in order to apply their background knowledge to the picture.

3. Now explore the Common Symbolisms worksheet with students. This will help them grasp common themes that will pop up in political cartoons, such as donkeys representing the Democratic Party, elephants representing the Republican Party, and rats representing dirt or filth, etc.

4. Once the students have sufficient background knowledge, you can begin to use the political cartoons listed under Primary Sources. While examining the illustrations, fill out the Political Cartoons Analysis worksheet. Make sure to walk students through the first cartoon pointing out how each of the vocabulary terms is represented by in the cartoon.

5. As you walk through the cartoons, by cartoon two or three, begin to let students work more independently, writing out on their own the symbolism, irony, point of view, exaggeration, and analogy.

6. As a final objective, ask students, individually or in pairs, to create a cartoon of their own which expresses their point of view on a specific topic. Ask them how they would use symbolism to show things in their everyday life, such as “Cleaning their room,”  “Lunchtime at school,” or “Snow Day,” just to give a couple of topic examples. 


Vocabulary needed for analysis:

Symbolism: Something that stands for something else. For example, a heart can be a symbol for love.
Irony: Words that mean that opposite of their usual meaning, for Example, a bald man named “Harry.”
Analogy: Comparison between two different things that may have similar characteristics. For example, he is as loyal as a dog or she runs as fast as a cheetah.
Exaggeration: Making something seem more that it really is, for example, telling your parents that if you do not get the toy you want, it will be the ‘end of the world.’
Inference: Conclusions reached based upon reasoning and evidence.  For example, if I draw a picture of a bug with a big red X over it, based on the evidence from the picture you could infer that I do not like bugs.

Vocabulary needed for Historical Context:

Abraham Lincoln: 16th president of the United States (1861-65). He was the president during the Civil War and he emancipated, or freed, the slaves.
Jefferson Davis: President of the South (confederacy) during the Civil War (1861-65).
William Taft: President of the United States from 1909-1913. Known for being a very large man.
George McClellan: A General for the North in the Civil War.
Inauguration: A ceremony that begins a president’s term in office.