After the British hastily evacuated Boston in 1776 following the successful siege, patriot soldiers reentered the city. They discovered straw dummies on Bunker Hill with notes pinned to their chests. “Welcome, Brother Jonathan,” the notes said. But who was Brother Jonathan?
Brother Jonathan, at various times and by various definitions, symbolized the entire United States. A forerunner of Uncle Sam, he existed as a fictional New Englander used to lampoon the region and its peculiar customs. Patriots also used the nickname for Jonathan Trumbull, governor of Connecticut.
The expression dates back to at least the English Civil War. Then, supporters of the Crown used it as a derogatory nickname for the Puritans and other opponents. Then the nickname expanded to include New Englanders, many of whom opposed the king.
Over time, the expression took on a life of its own. Historians have told an apocryphal tale of Washington meeting with his officers during the early days of the revolution. They desperately needed military supplies. “We must consult brother Jonathan,” Washington exclaimed—a reference to Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull.
Trumbull, the only colonial governor to side with the patriots during the revolution, did do much to arm and equip the revolutionary army. Washington expressed his thanks by calling him ‘first among patriots.’ But no one ever documented if Washington ever said that. Still, the notion of Brother Jonathan as a symbol of the American cause — like Britain’s John Bull — took hold.
In the days following the revolution, he gained a physical look. Cartoonists showed him as a lanky, long-winded New Englander with a beard, top hat and striped pants. In New England, he appeared as an enterprising, if boastful, businessman.
However, political cartoons depicted him differently around the War of 1812. And while he was used to humorously describe the customs of New Englanders, he earned wider fame in political cartoons representing the U.S. position on a wide range of affairs.
During the War of 1812, Brother Jonathan began giving way to Uncle Sam as the nation’s unofficial personification. However, the expression “We must consult brother Jonathan” lived on well into the 1900s.
In 1842, he appeared as the title of a New York-based magazine, which used him to lampoon the peculiar and acquisitive New England Yankee.
Maine writer John Neal titled a three-volume novel after him in 1825. In it, Neal depicts him as a “peaceable, stern, proud man.” In 1903, Rhode Island author Hezekiah Butterworth gave name to his biography of Jonathan Trumbull.
And Jules Verne in 1864 included him in his novel, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, in which members of a polar expedition — John Bull and Jonathan — both claim an island for their respective countries. Verne deleted the chapter, however.
Today, the phrase appears on the graduation certificates of Trumbull College at Yale University.
This story was updated in 2021.