Jack Ohman

Jack Ohman: I’m dialed in to history, but sometimes it’s just a cartoon

As you can probably imagine, I get all sorts of mail here about my cartoons and blogs. Actually, most of it is positive, so I can’t complain too much. I read it, I disagree, and, if the writer is even remotely polite, I respond in some way. I even respond if they aren’t polite. I draw the line at any mail that has swearing in it.

That’s the New Politeness. No swearing.

Recently, I drew a cartoon about the Supreme Court ruling on cellphone searches. I drew Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin sitting at a table, quill pens at the ready. Jefferson says, “Relax … I’ll put the cellphone privacy stuff in later …” The cartoon was widely reprinted; it even ran in The Boston Globe, the cradle of the American Revolution. .

This was a scene that portrayed the three men working on the Declaration of Independence. The drawing was very closely based on a famous painting from the period. Several readers objected to this.

I generally enjoy the give-and-take with readers, assuming, of course, that they adhere to my very low bar of not swearing. So I did enjoy the polite and interesting notes I received from two Bee readers, both observing in extremely microscopic detail that, in short, how could this scene as I drew it be historically accurate?

I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in U.S. history, graded blue books for several history classes and made some headway toward a master’s degree in history. My mind is clogged with all sorts of gooey U.S. history detritus, like The Whiskey Rebellion and the 1902 Newlands Reclamation Act, but I’m just a layman.

I do strive for historical accuracy in my work. I am always referencing some historical event, partly due to the subject matter and partly because I enjoy history. I would say, for example, that I draw Abraham Lincoln a bit too often, considering he’s been gone for 149 years.

I am a sucker for his ears, as I am for the ears of his currently serving successor.

So my correspondents asked me to explain myself. Shouldn’t this cartoon really be about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, and not the Declaration of Independence? Why would you mention cellphones in this scene when it’s clearly a constitutional question?

First, the Declaration really is all about one major theme: invasive activity by an unwanted entity. “Usurpation,” they called it. British authorities constantly hassled the colonists. Taxed. Imprisoned. Burdened by needless bureaucracy. All of it. All of this was indeed specifically mentioned in the Declaration. If they’d had cellphones in 1776, the British would have been more than happy to scroll through the colonists’ call history and photo library. I can envision Paul Revere texting, “one if by land, two if by sea,” and saving himself a midnight ride. And I’ll bet Jefferson and his pals would have mentioned it as one of the usurpations.

Second, quite a number of analysts noted that Chief Justice John Roberts clearly had the Declaration in mind when he wrote the majority opinion on cellphone privacy. No, the Supreme Court cannot specifically cite it as a legal touchstone, but they certainly bear it in mind, as they bear in mind all sorts of things, like something their uncle said in 1962, baseball analogies and election returns. So I was comfortable in making this connection.

Freud once famously said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a cartoon is, well, just a cartoon. It’s not a legal brief or an article in the Harvard Law Review.

I should have drawn Jefferson drawing a cartoon with that quill pen.

He’d get lots of interesting mail.