An Uncanny Likeness

The Sordid History of Political Effigies

By Aimee Terravechia

Political effigies have been around since Medieval England, where mourners would celebrate the life of deceased political figures with the viewing of a richly adorned wax facsimile. Their use was mostly practical. The wax allowed for ample time and maximum exposure to the adoring masses during an era when bodies couldn't be preserved long enough for viewings. They were displayed on top of caskets and carted around cities on horse-drawn carriages. At first, these figures were predominately used to celebrate the people that they represented.

Before they were used in royal funerals, effigies had a sacred place in various religious rituals throughout the world. Wicker men -- giant bipedal figures crafted out of straw -- were often burned during spiritual services in pagan traditions. The burning was a powerful symbol of the will to change. During these rituals, the burning was seen as a cleansing act.

But when the ideology behind destroying effigies combined with a rise in political use, things began to get a bit muddled. By the mid-1600s, people in England were using effigies as a means of political protest, creating figures in the image of those they opposed, only to destroy them. Soon, they became a metaphor for political unrest, and even revolution.

One of the most famous uses of an effigy to demonstrate anger towards a political figure is the story of Guy Fawkes. Although modern Americans may recognize the name and face as a representation for the online hacktivist group Anonymous, Fawkes' roots are a bit more complicated. In 1605, he, along with other Catholics, conspired to upend British Parliament and their Protestant government by planting explosions beneath the House of Lords. His would-be political revolution was disrupted when his plot was discovered.  The failure was a huge blow to Catholics in the country and insured centuries of persecution. The national holiday that now commemorates the failed act of terrorism is celebrated by destroying effigies of the divisive figure. Up until the mid-twentieth-century, children were encouraged to go door-to-door collecting money to build their own effigies of Fawkes to later burn.  

America has its own history with effigies for use in political discord (you can thank our British roots for the inspiration). Effigies of stamp enactors -- a sort of colonial-era tax collector -- were often burned, hung, beheaded, and dragged through the streets in protests of taxation. Angry mobs in Boston and Williamsburg were among the most brutal to their respective tax enactor effigies. The real-life counterparts were compelled to flee their homes, resign their posts, even go into hiding at the site of their likenesses being mutilated. Who can blame them? Although not literally violent, the destruction of these effigies became a sort of metaphorical violence. They weren't just threats against the people that they represented, but also threats against a culture and society that weren't so easily purged.

Effigies were such a powerful tool during the Revolutionary Era that they inspired action (as well as anger). After a slew of effigy demonstrations across the colonies, the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 by Parliament in an attempt to calm down the unrest in the colonies. Effigies continued to be the banner flags of angry mobs and protestors throughout the New World -- rallying the already growing support for the call to independence. We all know how that ended.

Effigies continued to shape American politics. In 1841, President John Tyler witnessed an effigy of himself burned on the lawn of the White House after he vetoed a popular bill passed by Congress. In 1919, Suffragists burned an effigy of President Wilson after he made public statements against allowing women the right to vote.  During the Vietnam War protestors used effigies of Premier Ky and President Johnson to make their points.

Even in modern politics, effigies have found their place. Figures meant to represent Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and John McCain were all used as a means of protest during the 2008 Presidential election. Effigies of President Obama have continued to pop up throughout his presidency.

And now that a new presidential election season is here, effigies of the new slew of candidates are being made. Donald Trump seems to be the most popular one to craft out of papier-mâché and wax. Effigies of the Republican frontrunner have popped up in Mexico, the United States, and even Germany. Rubio's likeness has been spotted at protests as well. More recently, during his campaign in New Hampshire, a re-imagined robot version of the candidate also made an appearance. Although effigies of Hillary Clinton have been created in the past, she and Ted Cruz have remained unscathed by the use of these icons during their current campaigns.

So far, only one candidate has been able to inspire the original use of the political effigy -- that of praise and commemoration -- and that is Bernie Sanders (read into that what you will). A group of Bushwick-based artists created a giant effigy of the Vermonter that doesn't just look like the candidate, but also eats your student loans. The likeness is fitted with a paper shredder in its mouth -- making it a perfect tribute in both appearance and philosophy.

You're not likely to see any burning effigies this political cycle. The papier-mâché figures employed for protests haven't been lit on fire in this country since the mid-20th century. Modern effigies with any signs of trauma are often seen as legitimate threats against personal safety. A noose around the neck can spark a criminal investigation. Instead, their purpose has shifted from threat to mockery in most cases. The very act of making them has become a sign of political discord. The time and energy used to craft these likenesses is in and of itself an act of protest. Although they may not be inspiring any revolutions in the United States, they represent a very hands-on approach to American politics -- a sort of craftiness and ingenuity that one hopes won't soon vanish.

Published March 12th, 2016


Aimee Terravechia is a writer, teacher, and grilled cheese connoisseur. She is currently working on her second novel Memes Anonymous . She has written for The Powder RoomScary Mommy, and The Cubic Lane. Her fiction has been published in Apocrypha and Abstractions. When not writing she can be found teaching college composition and creative writing, herding cats, or wrangling her toddler.