As the physical embodiment of all things American, Uncle Sam has been used to represent the likes of freedom, Big Brother, consumerism, fetus-snatching, and everything in between. But just over 200 years ago, this anthropomorphized flag of a man was an actual, living human being—and a too-weak-to-enlist one, at that.
When Samuel Wilson (born 1766) was told he wasn't strong enough to go into combat, the army put him on the path to meatpacking. And because Sam was such a well-liked guy, when the War of 1812 rolled around, troops that knew him felt like they were getting a taste of home whenever a barrel came in with Sam's trademark. As Priceonomics explains:
Wilson shipped the majority of these barrels to 6,000 soldiers stationed in Greenbush, New York, most of whom had grown up in Troy and knew Samuel. As the food came in, the soldiers immediately associated it with their hometown hero, "Uncle Sam." The "U.S." in Samuel's stamps came to bear a double-meaning for soldiers and officials, as an abbreviation both for "Uncle Sam" and the "United States." Back in Troy, a similar idea spread: when visitors on the docks inquired about the "U.S." stamp and the identity of Uncle Sam, a seaman replied, "Why, Uncle Sam Wilson! It is he who is feeding the army." The joke was repeated often in Troy, and spread to other provinces. Soon, all government provisions were referred to as "Uncle Sam's."
So yes, people really did take handouts from Uncle Sam—just instead of wads of cash it was barrels of raw meat.
Of course, some scholars aren't entirely convinced that this particular Uncle Sam is the Uncle Sam that inspired the vision of America incarnate, but it is the most widely agreed upon. You can read the rest about Uncle Sam's larger-than-life rise to infamy over at Priceonomics here.
Image: Flickr/Mo Riza