The Rising Glory of America

Despite Jefferson’s valiant efforts to justify American genius, by the second decade of the nineteenth century many thought that the Europeans’ jibes about America being a cultural wasteland might have been only too accurate after all. Where were the great writers, the great painters, the great playwrights? Despite the high hopes of the 1790s and the promise of being the most enlightened nation in the world, America seemed incapable of artistically creating anything that captured the attention of Europe. “Who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?” sneered the British critic Sydney Smith in 1820. Looking back, Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed that the country had failed to fulfill its earlier artistic promise. He thought his father’s generation had contributed little or nothing to American culture, certainly not in Massachusetts. “From 1790 to 1820,” he said, “there was not a book, a speech, a conversation, or a thought in the State.”1

Subsequent generations of Americans have tried to explain what had happened. The new nation, they said, was too provincial and too dependent on European and English forms and styles to create a distinctive American culture. Americans in the early Republic, they contended, were too unwilling to exploit their indigenous materials, and too timid to create a genuine native culture; instead, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, they had to wait for Emerson’s “American Scholar” address to declare their cultural independence from the Old World.

Yet this conventional view that Americans in the first generation of the early Republic were too provincial and imitative of Europe, echoed by many modern generations of scholars, misunderstands the cultural aims of the American Revolutionaries. The Revolutionary leaders never intended to create an original and peculiar indigenous culture. Despite all their talk of American exceptionalism and American virtue in contrast with European corruption, they were seeking not to cut themselves off from Europe’s cultural heritage but to embrace it and in fact to fulfill it. It is a mistake to view America’s post-Revolutionary emulation of Europe as a legacy of helpless dependence passed on from colonial days. Americans imitated European styles and forms not because in their naïveté they could do nothing else but because they wanted to. Their participation in European or English culture in the early years of the new Republic was intentional, undertaken with confidence and without apology. Their revolution was very much an international affair, an attempt to fulfill the cosmopolitan dreams of the Enlightenment.

Indeed, the Revolutionary generation was as cosmopolitan as any in American history. The Revolutionaries were patriots, to be sure, but they were not obsessed, as were some later generations, with separating America from the broad course of Western civilization. The Revolutionary leaders saw themselves as part of an international intellectual community, “the republic of letters.” “Why may not a Republic of Letters be realized in America as well as a Republican Government?” demanded Jeremy Belknap in 1780. “Why may there not be a Congress of Philosophers as well as of Statesmen?” America ought to “shine as Mistress of the Sciences, as well as the Asylum of Liberty.”2

Not only was the republic of letters based solely on merit, it transcended national boundaries as well. The American Revolution may have divided the British Empire, said Benjamin Rush, but it “made no breach in the republic of letters.” Despite the war, Americans were eager to install British scientists in the American Philosophical Society. “Science and literature are of no party nor nation,” said John Adams. When Benjamin Franklin was minister to France during the Revolutionary War, he issued a document to the English explorer Captain James Cook protecting him from American depredations at sea during his voyage of 1779. Franklin told all American ship commanders that they must regard all English scientists not as enemies but “as common friends of Mankind.” When an American captain seized a British ship with some thirty volumes of medical lecture notes, Washington sent them back to England, saying that the United States did not make war on science. Jefferson justified sending some seeds to a French agricultural society in violation of his own embargo on the grounds that “these societies are always at peace, however the nations may be at war. Like the republic of letters, they form a great fraternity spreading over all the earth, and their correspondence is not interrupted by any civilization.”3

Being members of this trans-Atlantic intellectual fraternity enabled some Americans like the artist Robert Fulton and the poet Joel Barlow to spend most of their mature lives abroad without any sense of expatriation. And it allowed many Americans, much to the surprise of later generations, to embrace the cultural fellowship of the painters John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West and the scientist Count Rumford despite their loyalty to Great Britain.4

The American Revolutionaries intended, however, to be more than participants in this “republic of letters”; they aimed to be its leaders. Many of them came to believe that the torch of civilization was being passed across the Atlantic to the New World where it was destined to burn even more brightly. And why not? America had everything going for it, declared Joel Barlow in 1787; “the enterprising genius of the people promises a most rapid improvement in all the arts that embellish human nature.”5

In light of their former colonial status and their earlier widespread expressions of cultural inferiority, their presumption of becoming the cultural leaders of the Western world is jarring, to say the least. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that the Revolutionary leaders and artists saw America eventually becoming the place where the best of all the arts and sciences would flourish.

Newspapers, sermons, orations, even private correspondence were filled with excited visions of future American accomplishments in all areas of learning. When the Revolutionaries talked of “treading upon the Republican ground of Greece and Rome” they meant not only that they would erect republican governments but also that they would in time have their own Homers and Virgils, in the words of historian David Ramsay, their own “poets, orators, criticks, and historians, equal to the most celebrated of the ancient commonwealths of Greece and Italy.”6

Such dreams, bombastic as they seem in retrospect, were grounded in the best scientific thought of the day. This grounding undercut the Buffon-bred view that the New World was an undesirable human habitat and helped to give Americans the confidence to undertake their revolution. They knew, as philosopher David Hume had pointed out, that free states encouraged learning among the populace, and a learned populace was the best source of genius and artistic talent. But more important in convincing Americans that they might become the future artistic leaders of the world was the idea of the translatio studii, the ancient notion that the arts and science were inevitably moving westward.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century some Americans had dreamed that the arts were on their way to their wilderness. Even the founding of Yale College early in the century proved to Jeremiah Dummer that “religion & polite learning have bin traveling westward ever since their first appearance in the World.” He hoped that the arts “won’t rest ‘till they have fixt their chief Residence in our part of the World.”7 With the publication in 1752 of Bishop Berkeley’s “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” (originally written in 1726), more and more Americans began to believe that the future belonged to them. Everyone knew that civilization and the arts had moved steadily westward—from the Middle East to Greece, from Greece to Rome, from Rome to Western Europe, and now, wrote Berkeley,

Westward the course of Empire takes its way,

The first four acts already past,

A fifth shall close the drama with the day;

Time’s noblest offspring is the last.8

With Berkeley’s poem reprinted in virtually every American newspaper and many magazines over the succeeding decades, more and more Americans became convinced that the arts were about to move from Western Europe to America, there to thrive as never before.9 As early as 1759 the unsympathetic British traveler Andrew Burnaby noted that the colonists were “looking forward with eager and impatient expectation to that destined moment when America is to give the law to the rest of the world.”10

So common became this theme of the translatio studii to eighteenth-century Americans that it led to the emergence of a new literary genre, the Rising Glory of America poem, which, it seems, every gentleman with literary aspirations tried his hand at. The most famous work with that title, “The Rising Glory of America,” was Philip Freneau’s and Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s 1771 Princeton commencement poem. In it they predicted that Americans would in time have not only their own states, “not less in fame than Greece and Rome of old,” but their own Homers and Miltons too. The poet John Trumbull echoed the same theme in predicting that painters, architects, musicians, and writers must inevitably find their place in this free and uncorrupted country:

This Land her Steele and Addison shall view,

The former glories equal’d by the new;

Some future Shakespeare charm’d the rising age,

And hold in magic chains the listening stage.11

Of course, not every American intellectual was sure of the New World’s ability as yet to receive the inherited torch of Western culture, and some doubted whether America’s primitive tastes could ever sustain the fine arts. Yet nearly all who became committed to the Revolution found themselves embracing a vision of America’s becoming not only a libertarian refuge from the world’s tyranny but also a worthy place where, in the words of Ezra Stiles, the enlightened president of Yale, “all the arts may be transported from Europe and Asia and flourish with . . . an augmented lustre.”12

THE REVOLUTIONARIES, OF COURSE, never saw these dreams realized. Indeed, the gap between what they hoped for and what actually happened in the arts was so great that many historians have never been able to take their dreams seriously. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss their hopes of America’s becoming the eventual repository of Western learning as empty bluster. Not only did the Americans mean what they said, but their earnest attempts to implement that meaning had profound effects on American culture. By conceiving themselves as receiving and fulfilling the westward movement of the arts, the Revolutionaries inevitably became involved in powerful currents of cultural change sweeping through Europe in the eighteenth century.

A century later these European currents would be labeled neoclassicism and disparaged as cold, formal, and sterile.13 Yet to those who participated in this eighteenth-century artistic transformation, including Americans, neoclassicism represented not just another stylistic phase in the development of Western art but the ultimate realization of artistic truth, a promise of a new kind of enlightened art for an enlightened world. From the early eighteenth century, in France and England especially, amateur theorists had worked to distinguish several of the arts—usually painting, architecture, music, and poetry—from other arts and crafts and had designated them as possessing special capacities for civilizing humans. Numerous treatises systematically combined these “fine arts” together because of the presumed similarity of effect they had on audiences, spectators, and readers. Out of such efforts not only was the modern conception of aesthetics created, but the idea of measuring and judging nations and peoples by their artistic tastes and contributions was also born. These eighteenth-century developments radically transformed the aesthetic and social meaning of art. Paintings and literature were being taken out of the hands of the aristocratic courts and narrow elites and were being made into public commodities distributed to all literate members of the society eager to acquire reputations for polish and refinement.14

There were two interrelated aspects of this neoclassical transformation of the arts. One involved the purposes of art; the other involved a broadening of its public. For too long too many of the arts, such as the rococo paintings of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, seemed to have been the exclusive preserve of courtiers and a leisured aristocracy. Devotees of the rococo style, it was thought, looked upon the arts as a means of private pleasure, amusement, and display, as diversions from ennui or instruments of court intrigue. Such frivolous arts could scarcely be paid any special public veneration; indeed, with the courtly emphasis on amorous dalliance, lasciviousness, and luxury the arts could only be considered sources of personal corruption, effeminacy, and decadence, and hence dangerous to the social order.

Americans knew only too well that the fine arts, like painting or sculpture, in Benjamin Rush’s words, “flourish chiefly in wealthy and luxurious countries” and therefore were symptoms of social decadence. Throughout his life, John Adams always had an extraordinarily sensuous attraction to beauty and the world of art. When he joined the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, he entered his first Roman Catholic church and, accustomed as he was to the stark simplicity of the Puritan churches of Massachusetts, was overwhelmed by the pomp of the service and the richness of the ornamentation. “Here is every Thing,” he told his wife Abigail, “which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination.” When he went to France in 1778 he was even more enchanted and overwhelmed by the beauty of Paris and Versailles, where “the Richness, the Magnificence, and Splendor is beyond all Description.” Yet he knew that such art and beauty were the products of a hierarchical church and an authoritarian monarchy. As a good republican he knew “that the more elegance, the less virtue, in all times and countries.” Buildings, paintings, sculpture, music, gardens, and furniture—however rich, magnificent, and splendid—were simply “bagatelles introduced by time and luxury in change for the great qualities and hardy, manly virtues of the human heart.” The arts, he said, could “inform the Understanding, or refine the Taste,” yet at the same time they could also “seduce, betray, deceive, deprave, corrupt, and debauch.”15

Since the arts were associated with the politeness and gentility that many eighteenth-century people, including many Americans, were eager to acquire, they became a serious problem for enlightened reformers. How could the arts be promoted without promoting their evil consequences?

The solution was to change the character and purpose of art. Since those who feared being corrupted assumed that the arts, particularly the visual arts, had powerful effects on their beholder, it took only a slight shift of emphasis to transform art from a corrupting instrument of pleasure into a beneficial instrument of instruction. By the middle of the eighteenth-century European and English philosophers were already redirecting the content and form of art away from frivolous and voluptuous private pleasure toward moral education and civic ennoblement. Infused with dignity and morality and made subservient to some ideological force outside themselves, the arts could become something more than charming ornaments of an idle aristocracy; they could become public agents of reformation and refinement for the whole society.

At the same time as the social purpose of art was transformed, the patronage of art expanded from the court and a few great noblemen to embrace the entire educated public. Indeed, the two developments reinforced one another. Cultivation in the arts became a central means by which eighteenth-century gentlemen sought to distinguish themselves. Wealth and blood were no longer sufficient; taste and an awareness of the arts were now necessary. Indeed, the English philosopher Lord Shaftesbury declared that morality and good taste were allied: “the science of virtuosi and that of virtue itself become, in a manner, one and the same.”16 Politeness and refinement were connected with public morality and social order. The spread of good taste throughout the society would make for a better and more benevolent nation.

Through the multiplication of newspapers, magazines, circulating libraries, and book clubs, through the public exhibitions of paintings and the engraving and distribution of prints, and through the formation of salons, subscription assemblies, and concert halls—through all these means Englishmen and other Europeans sought to exploit the arts in order to reform their societies. In the process they turned the arts into culture, into commodities, and created a central characteristic of modern life. The polite essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, the novels of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, the satiric prints of William Hogarth, the history paintings of Benjamin West, even the vases of Josiah Wedgwood, all in their different ways expressed this new moral and social conception of culture. All were efforts to meet the new desire of a public eager to learn how to behave, what to value, and why to be refined. To possess this culture—to have correct taste and an amateur knowledge of the arts and sciences—was to be a truly enlightened gentleman.

The effects of these developments on the arts and society were enormous. The arts became objects of special knowledge and examination, to be placed in museums and studied in academies. Enlightened writers and painters sought to embody new ethical qualities in their work—truth, purity, nobility, honesty—to counteract the licentiousness and frivolity of their predecessors. The artist was no longer a craftsman catering to a few aristocratic patrons; he was to become a public philosopher academically educated and speaking to the society-at-large. Just as enlightened scientists and statesmen were seeking to discover the universal verities that underlay the workings of the universe and political states, so too were artists urged to return to long-accepted standards of excellence and virtue for the sake of the moral improvement of humanity.

For most eighteenth-century philosophes the return to the first principles of truth and beauty meant a recovery of antiquity. The only way for the moderns to become great, declared the influential German theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his On the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (1755, Eng. trans. 1765), was “by imitating the ancients.” For Winckelmann and other neoclassicists, originality meant little more than a return to origins.17 Although Westerners, including the North American colonists, had long been involved with antiquity, the new enlightened interest in politeness and civic morality coupled with the archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the middle of the eighteenth century gave the classical past a new relevance, especially for those eager to emphasize republican values. The American Revolutionaries, in their images and writings, began playing down the martial qualities of antiquity and stressing instead its contributions to civility and sociability.18

Yet this new neoclassical use of antiquity was only the means toward a higher end—the discovery and imitation of Nature or those permanent and universal principles that transcended time, locality, and particularity. For Jefferson “natural” meant ideal, which is why he favored a “natural” aristocracy over an “artificial” one that was based on blood and family. Neoclassical art thus became a hostage against decline, a way of freezing time and maintaining an ideal permanence amidst the inevitability of social decay.

Comte de Volney’s Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolution of Empires was immensely popular in the United States—selling more than forty thousand copies within a few years of its publication in an English translation in 1795. Jefferson was so entranced by it that he began a new American translation, which he passed on to Joel Barlow to complete and publish in Paris in 1802. In addition to its anti-religious message and its indictment of monarchical tyranny and its celebration of liberty and equality, the book brought home to enlightened Americans the mortality of all states and reinforced their desire to build in stone and marble and to create depositories in order to leave to the future durable monuments of America’s cultivation and refinement. But the book also seemed to suggest that an uncorrupted republican government might evade the decline and decay that had beset all other governments.19

EVEN PRIOR TO THE REVOLUTION some colonial painters had aspired to making their art significant. One of the early patrons of Benjamin West in Pennsylvania had told him to forget portraits and devote himself to “illustrating the moral effect of the art of painting.”20 West went to Europe and never returned, becoming in time president of Britain’s Royal Academy and painter to George III. In a like manner John S. Copley of colonial Boston had yearned to make painting “one of the most noble arts in the world.” But he could not convince his fellow colonial Americans to have anything other than their portraits painted. In fact, they regarded him as a mere artisan and what he did as just another “trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a carpenter, tailor, or shew-maker.” In frustration Copley left for England in 1774—alas! a moment too soon, for the Revolution changed everything.21

In 1789 young John Trumbull (second cousin to the poet of the same name and a son and brother to governors of Connecticut), realizing what the American Revolution meant for the arts, turned down a request to become Jefferson’s personal secretary in order to pursue a career as a painter. He knew that in the past Americans had thought of painting as “frivolous, little useful to Society, and unworthy the attention of a Man who possesses talents for more serious occupations.” Yet he believed that the Revolution offered an opportunity to alter the role of the arts and artists in society. By “commemorating the great Events of our Country’s Revolution” in paintings and engravings, Trumbull hoped, he told Jefferson in 1789, “to diffuse the knowledge and preserve the Memory of the noblest series of Actions which have ever dignified the History of Man:—to give to the present and the future Sons of Oppression and Misfortune such glorious Lessons of their rights and of the Spirit with which they should assert and support them:—and even to transmit to their descendents the personal resemblance of those who have been the great actors in those illustrious scenes.” Trumbull went on to become the principal painter of the American Revolution, depicting some of its great events, such as The Death of General Warren at Bunker’s Hill and The Signing of the Declaration of Independence, and painting hundreds of portraits of its participants.22

Still, there was the problem of sumptuousness and decadence traditionally associated with art. If Americans were to exceed Europe in dignity, grandeur, and taste, they would need a new kind of art, something appropriate to their new independent status as a nation. Somehow they would have to create a strictly republican art that avoided the vices of monarchical over-refinement and luxury that were destroying the Old World. The solution lay in the taut rationality of republican classicism. It emphasized, as the commissioners who were charged with supervising the construction of public buildings in Washington, D.C., put it in 1793, “a grandeur of conception, a Republican simplicity, and that true elegance of proportion, which correspond to a tempered freedom excluding Frivolity, the food of little minds.”23

Although such neoclassical thinking was cosmopolitan, it also possessed a nationalistic imperative. In this new enlightened age, Americans argued, nations had to distinguish themselves not by force of arms but, as the Massachusetts Magazine declared in 1792, “by art, science, and refinement.”24 It was therefore not paradoxical for American writers and artists to speak of emulating the best of European culture and in the same breath to recommend the need for native originality. Urging the exploitation of native themes and indigenous materials or the investigation of American antiquities and curiosities did not violate the neoclassical search for the eternally valid truths that underlay the particularities and diversities of the visible world. Americans told themselves that they could “recur to first principles, with ease, because our customs, tastes and refinements, are less artificial than those of other countries.”25

The principal criterion of art in this neoclassical era lay not in the genius of the artist or in the novelty of the work but rather in the effect of the art on the audience or spectator. Consequently, someone like Joel Barlow could believe that his epic of America, Vision of Columbus (later the Columbiad), precisely because of its high moral and republican message, could exceed in grandeur even Homer’s Iliad.

George Washington certainly was impressed with Barlow, who labored over his six-thousand-line epic of future American greatness for twenty years. “Perhaps we shall be found, at this moment,” Washington told Lafayette in May 1788, “not inferior to the rest of the world in the performances of our poets and painters.” And he offered Barlow as an example of “a genius of the first magnitude; . . . and one of those Bards who hold the keys of the gate by which Patriots, Sages, and heroes are admitted to immortality.”26

The Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to put all these neoclassical ideas about art into effect. It created a sudden effusion of artistic and iconographic works, the extent of which has never been fully appreciated. Neoclassical themes, especially embodied in the classical goddesses Liberty and Minerva, appeared everywhere—in paintings, newspapers, coins, seals, almanacs, flags, weathervanes, wallpaper, and furniture.

All these icons and images were designed to bear moral and political messages. The Revolutionaries continually interrupted their constitutionmaking and military campaigning to sit for long hours having their portraits painted or to design all sorts of emblems, Latin mottoes, and commemorative medals. One of the most famous icons they created was the Great Seal of the United States (seen most commonly on the one-dollar bill).

Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams all took a stab at designing it—a measure of the importance they gave to the icons of the Revolution. Franklin proposed a biblical scene, that of Moses “lifting up his Wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh, in his Chariot overwhelmed with the Waters.” Jefferson suggested a similar biblical scene, “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness.” Adams proposed Hercules surveying the choice between Virtue and Sloth, the most popular of emblems in the eighteenth century. Since these designs proved “too complicated,” as Adams admitted, Congress turned the job over to the secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, who finally worked out the present seal. The emblazoned eagle on one side was a symbol of empire. The pyramid on the other side, perhaps drawn from Masonic symbolism, represented the strength of the new nation. The all-seeing eye on the reverse stood for providence. And the Latin mottoes, Novus Ordo Seclorum—” a new order of the ages”—and Annuit Coeptis—”He has looked after us”—were taken from Virgil.27

ALTHOUGH MANY AMERICAN LEADERS sought to use art to further the Revolution, no one could match Charles Willson Peale in creating icons. He became a one-man dynamo on behalf of the patriot cause, completing sixty-five paintings in the year 1776 alone.28 He was an extraordinary character—at one time or another artist, politician, scientist, tinker, and showman, yet remaining throughout his life, in his optimism and enthusiasm, as Benjamin Latrobe said, “a boy in many respects.”29

Peale began life as an apprenticed saddle-maker, tried his hand as an upholsterer, silversmith, and clock and watch repairer, but eventually turned to painting portraits for money. Unlike Copley and Trumbull, Peale never lost the sense that his painting was a kind of craft or “business,” not all that different from what he called “his other Trades.”30 Some gentry patrons, impressed with his artistic talent, sent him to London in 1767 to study with Benjamin West. When he returned to America in 1769, he threw himself into the Revolutionary movement. His radicalism cost him portrait commissions from wealthy Philadelphians, and at the end of the war he formally renounced politics and devoted all his energy to painting (sixty portraits of Washington alone), science, and raising his huge artistically inclined family, including such accomplished and prophetically named sons as Titian, Rembrandt, and Raphael. By the 1780s he was deeply involved in a variety of projects, ranging from an effigy of Benedict Arnold to a forty-foot-high Triumphal Arch spanning Market Street in Philadelphia and lit by a thousand lamps. Unfortunately, the arch caught fire and was destroyed, and its creator was nearly killed. But such disasters did not dampen Peale’s enthusiasm. In one way or another he became involved in nearly all of Philadelphia’s civic ceremonies during the 1780s and 1790s.

Peale’s most famous creation was his museum, which was designed, he declared, to promote “the interests of religion and morality by the arrangement and display of the works of nature and art.”31 When he opened it in 1786 in concert with his brother James, he knew that educating the public in enlightened republicanism had to be its main justification. Peale added to his Philadelphia gallery of paintings, especially of the Revolutionary leaders, some fossils and a collection of stuffed birds and wild animals. When interest in this menagerie picked up, Peale included a miniature theater with transparent moving pictures.

In 1802 the museum was moved to the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), where it became a profitable institution attended by thousands of visitors. Unlike the European museums, which tended to open their exhibitions only to select or privileged groups befitting Europe’s hierarchal societies, Peale’s museum was designed as a republican institution open to anyone who could pay the twenty-five-cent admission fee. Peale wanted an admission fee, but only a small one, “for if a Museum was free to all to view it without cost,” he said, “it would be over-run & abused—on the other hand, if too difficult of access, it would lose its utility; that of giving information generally.” By 1815 Peale’s museum was attracting nearly forty thousand visitors a year.32

In addition to the mammoth that he exhumed in 1802, Peale kept adding more and more creatures and curiosities to his museum, which he wanted to call the “Temple of Wisdom,” but declined to do so for fear of offending religious sensibilities. His museum became the repository for specimens and artifacts collected by official explorations into the West, including the Lewis and Clark expedition. He hoped that his museum would “bring into one view a world in miniature” and teach visitors the overall design and rationality of the universe. Contemplating “the beautiful uniformity in an infinite variety of beings,” he said in a notable address of 1800, would “raise us above ourselves.” His view of the universe was thoroughly taxonomic. He even placed his portraits above the natural history cabinets in order to stress the natural order of a world dominated by man. He hoped that young children might learn from the harmony of nature to refrain from “cruelly, or wantonly tormenting” insects and other natural creatures. Such knowledge, Peale said, would thus have the effect of “instilling and extending, as they advance in years, a sweet benevolence of temper toward their brethren.”33

ALWAYS THE GOAL of every cultural effort during these post-Revolutionary years was to instill the right feelings in the spectators. “Emulation,” seeing virtuous exemplars and becoming desirous of exceeding them, said Jefferson, was the best means of inculcating virtue in the society.34Anything that might inspire patriotic and republican sentiments, such as viewing Washington’s statue or one of his many portraits, was encouraged, and anything that smacked of European dissipation and luxury, even something as seemingly innocuous as a semi-monthly tea assembly in Boston in the 1780s, was criticized. In 1783 Jeremy Belknap urged Congress to display all the trophies taken from the British during the war, since the sight of them would “fan the flame of liberty and independence.”35 In 1787 the New England founders of Marietta, Ohio, aimed to inspire the new settlers with the right spirit by calling the public squares in the town Capitolium and Quadranou in emulation of the Roman republic. With similar hopes of instilling the proper republican attitudes, Jefferson in the 1780s proposed some extraordinary classical names, including Assenisipia, Pelisipia, and Cherronesus, for the new states of the West.

When compared to the extravagant French effort in the succeeding years under the direction of Jacques-Louis David to put the arts into the service of revolution and republicanism, the American attempts to exploit the fine arts for the sake of their Revolution and their new Republic may seem pale and feeble.36 Yet in the context of America’s undeveloped provincial situation in the eighteenth century and its relative lack of experience in the arts, the American Revolutionaries’ aims and achievements are truly astonishing.

On the face of it, the creation of a monumental city like Washington, D.C., in the midst of the wilderness is incredible. But it becomes comprehensible in light of America’s neoclassical aspirations, expressed, for example, in poet David Humphreys’s vision of the United States as a rebirth of the ancient Roman republic. “What Rome, once virtuous, saw, this gives us now—/ Heroes and statesmen, awful from the plough.”37 Even little Goose Creek off the Potomac was renamed the Tiber.38

Probably no other American had more effect on America’s public architecture than Jefferson, and no one emphasized the moral and public purposes of the arts more than he. He was “an enthusiast on the subject of the arts,” he said, and of all the arts, architecture was his special “delight.” He believed that nothing showed as much as “this beautiful art,” and he spent his life “putting up and pulling down” buildings. (Indeed, Americans in this period were almost totally interested in architectural exteriors and spent very little time on interior design.)39

From France in the 1780s Jefferson badgered his Virginia colleagues into erecting as the new capitol of the state in Richmond a magnificent copy of the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple at Nîmes from the first century A.D. This classical building, he explained, “has pleased, universally, for nearly two thousand years,” and it would be a perfect model for republican America. Indeed, the purpose of erecting such a Roman temple amidst the muddy streets of a backwoods town in Virginia, said Jefferson, was “to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, and to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and procure them its praise.”40 No matter that the Virginians had to interrupt their original plans and tear down some of what they had begun building to make room for Jefferson’s model. No matter too that a Roman temple was hard to heat and was acoustically impossible. Other considerations mattered more. With the erection of this Virginia capitol Jefferson single-handedly influenced the classical style of public buildings in America. And he helped to place a moral and civic burden on the arts that would prove difficult to sustain in subsequent years.

THE CULTURAL RELICS of these neoclassical dreams are with Americans still: not only in the endless proliferation of Greek and Roman temples but in the names of towns like Athens, Rome, Syracuse, and Troy; in the designation of political institutions like capitols and senates; in political symbols like the goddess Liberty and numerous Latin mottoes; and in poetry and songs like “Hail Columbia.” But the spirit that once inspired these things, the meaning they had for the Revolutionaries, has been lost and was waning even as they were being created. Indeed, much of the culture inherited from the Revolutionary period remains only as an awkward reminder of the brevity of America’s classical age.

With such high hopes and grandiose expectations the disillusionment among American artists and intellectuals in the years following the Revolution was profound. Culturally, the United States still seemed to be a provincial outpost of the British Empire. Most of the plays that Americans watched in the period were not American but British in origin and were performed by traveling British actors. Of the 160 plays professionally put on in Philadelphia between May 1792 and July 1794 only 2 were written by Americans. Even when native authors attempted something of their own, the English influence was inescapable. The play Independence, written in 1805 by the young South Carolina playwright William Ioor, was a perfect example. Despite its patriotic title, the play was based on an English novel, was set in England, and had only English characters. Seventy percent of the books Americans read were pirated English editions. About three-fourths of every issue of one of America’s leading magazines, the Columbian, was borrowed from British sources. Most of the songs Americans sang were British songs. The homes and gardens of Americans were copies of English styles, and often in retarditaire taste. In 1808 the artist William Birch issued his collection of engravings of The Country Seats of the United States of America, modeled on British publications dealing with the country estates of the English landed gentry and nobility, and found many eager buyers.41

So imitative were the arts that some Americans were ready to concede that they were European luxuries after all and thus dangerous to American republicanism. But others, such as Benjamin Henry Latrobe, were desperate to prove that the “arts have not an injurious, but a beneficent effect upon the morals, and even on the liberties of our country.” While Europeans could take the arts for granted, Americans could not. Since, as Latrobe pointed out, “our national prejudices are unfavorable to the fine arts,” the arts had to be repeatedly defended and justified. The peculiarly egalitarian and unstable character of American society, right from the beginning of the Revolutionary movement, had put the arts on the defensive.42

While eighteenth-century Europe had its own intellectual opponents of the arts (Rousseau being the most famous), there the debate over the place of the arts in society had been carried on for a century or more and had never endangered the legitimacy of art. But America’s inexperience with the fine arts and the greater rapidity and intensity of its republican social revolution in comparison with Europe’s forced it to telescope and compress its neoclassical transformation, leading to both the excited over-estimations and the exaggerated apologies, the “hothouse atmosphere of forced growth,” as historian Neil Harris has described it.43 Desiring to make the arts safe for republicanism, Americans placed a heavy moral and social burden upon them—heavier certainly than they bore in Europe—and left both the arts and artists little room for autonomy and originality. “While many other nations are wasting the brilliant efforts of genius in monuments of ingenious folly, to perpetuate their pride, the Americans, according to the true spirit of republicanism,” wrote Jedidiah Morse in his 1791 geographic reader, “are employed almost entirely in works of public and private utility.”44

It was evident that the arts in America had to be morally instructive and socially useful. But most Revolutionaries had assumed that the morality to be inculcated would be elitist and classical, emphasizing sobriety, rationality, and a noble stoicism. In the years following the Revolution, however, the morality of civic humanism became evangelicized and democratized, transformed into a shrill popular didacticism that sometimes ended up resembling little more than prudery. Since art was judged by the moral lessons it taught, ministers like Timothy Dwight drew no sharp distinction between the sermons they delivered and the poetry they composed—everything had to be edifying.45

The theater especially had a reputation for licentiousness and corruption and consequently had been banned in every colony except Virginia and Maryland. One of the rules of Harvard College during the early 1770s declared that any undergraduate presuming “to be an Actor in, a Spectator at, or any Ways concerned in any Stage Plays, interludes or Theatrical Entertainments” would for the first offense be degraded and “for any repeated offence shall be rusticated or expelled.” In New York City the Sons of Liberty had burned down a theater that had defied the law against theaters. In 1774 the Continental Congress had urged Americans to discourage “every species of extravagance and dissipation,” including “exhibitions of shews, plays, other expensive diversions and entertainments.”46 Throughout the war the Congress had continued to recommend the suppression of play-going; in 1778 it declared that anyone holding an office under the United States would be dismissed if he encouraged or attended the theater. (This at the very moment the commander-in-chief was putting on Addison’s Cato for the troops.) No one in 1789 could talk the old patriot Samuel Adams out of his belief that the theater subverted all those “Characteristics of a Republic which we ought carefully to maintain.”47

Everywhere during the 1780s and 1790s—in New York, Philadelphia, Albany, Charleston, Portsmouth, Providence, Boston, and elsewhere—disputes broke out over the establishing of theaters. Of course, in most communities there were well-to-do elites that enjoyed the theater and had no problem with such expressions of luxury as tea parties and theatrical productions. But they had to contend with growing numbers, especially among the middling sorts like William Findley, who feared the influence of the theater and resented those wealthy merchants and luxury-loving professionals who favored it. These middling opponents argued that the theater stimulated debauchery, seduced young men, subverted religion, and spawned brothels. Some argued that it was the theater that had done the most to corrupt England, and thus it helped account for Britain’s tyrannical behavior that brought about the Revolution. Others suggested that the theater contributed to the spread of the deception and dissimulation that were serious problems in America’s fluid society. “What was the talent of an actor?” asked the Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller, but the “art of counterfeiting himself, of putting on another character than his own, of appearing different than he is.”48 For many it seemed that the future of the new Republic itself had come to rest on preventing the performances of stage plays; “they only flourished when states were on the decline,” declared critics in Pennsylvania in 1785.49

Only with great difficulty were those gentlemanly elites who favored the theater able to have most of the laws against the stage repealed in the decades following the Revolution; and they did so largely by stressing the theater’s moral and civic purposes, sometimes sincerely but perhaps more often because these were the only justifications that could persuade an emerging middling popular culture obsessed with respectability. Washington loved the theater, but he had to defend it solely on the grounds that it would “advance the interest of private and public virtue” and “polish the manners and habits of society.”50

Elbridge Gerry tried to change Samuel Adams’s opinion of the theater by stressing that it was nothing more than a “school for morality.”51 In fact, plays had to be advertised as “moral lectures” or run the risk of being closed down. Shakespeare’s Othello was billed as “a Series of Moral Dialogues in Five Parts, depicting the evils of jealousy, and other bad passions.” So too was Richard III advertised as “The Fate of Tyranny,” Hamlet as “Filial Piety,” and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer as “Improper Education.” American theater managers cut and edited the imported British plays to the point where, as one critic complained, “the English comedy is reduced to the insipidity of a Presbyterian sermon.”52

Everywhere apologists for the much feared theater were compelled to argue, as William Haliburton of Boston did in 1792, that the theater was the best “engine” for reforming the morals of the society and for suppressing vulgar vices like gambling, drinking, and cockfighting.53 With clergymen exploiting theatrical disasters, especially the devastating 1812 fire in Richmond that killed seventy-one persons, as evidence of God’s just punishment for the evils of play-going, defenders were always hard-pressed to justify the presence of the stage in their communities. A Charleston, South Carolina, supporter told the people not to worry about the theater: the “morals and manners of this country are too chaste to leave reason to apprehend that any improper plays will be written here for perhaps centuries to come.” When a person left the theater, it was said, he should “have no doubt about what was right and what was wrong, . . . and should testify . . . that he came away a better man than he went.” With such rhetoric flying about, ambitious playwrights could scarcely think of themselves as anything but secular parsons.54

The new Republic seemed to have no place for idle pleasure. In comedies, the playwrights’ moral messages continually got in the way of humor. If there were to be amusement, it had to be what was commonly called “rational amusement.” The theater, wrote the sometime playwright and feminist Judith Sargent Murray, had to become “chaste and discreetly regulated.” Then “young persons will acquire a refinement of manners; they will learn to think, speak and act with propriety; a thirst for knowledge will be originated; and from attentions, at first, perhaps, constituting only the amusement of the hour, they will gradually proceed to more important inquiries.”55

Even the moral purpose of the arts was not always enough to justify them. Rather than simply describing the arts as benefactions to mankind, Americans felt compelled to measure them by their contributions to the country’s material prosperity, celebrating them, for example, as stimulants to the marble, granite, clay, glass, and cotton industries.56 In Benjamin Latrobe’s oration before the Society of Artists in 1811, which, he said, was “an attempt to remove the prejudices which oppose the establishment of the fine arts among us,” he hesitantly mentioned that, if necessary, “I could call up the spirit of commerce to aid me,” which he then proceeded to do, listing Josiah Wedgwood’s dishes, John Boydell’s prints, and other “demons of cupidity, and of avarice” on behalf of the arts.57

UNDER THESE KINDS of utilitarian pressures the distinction between the fine and useful arts so painstakingly worked out over the previous century was now blurred. Since no one had any doubt of the value of the useful arts in contrast to the fine arts, Joseph Hopkinson went to great lengths to show how helpful the fine arts would be to “the carpenter, the mason, nay, the mechanic of every description.”58 But it was difficult to justify the fine arts to a large public, and American writers and artists like Alexander Wilson, Robert Fulton, and Samuel F. B. Morse eventually found it easy and more profitable to move into the more defensibly useful endeavors involving science and technology.

Young Morse, like other American painters, had been eager to pursue “the intellectual branch of the art,” by which he meant history-painting, and in 1811 he went off to Europe to learn the art. Although his mother tried to set him straight—” you must not expect to paint anything in this country for which you will receive any money to support you, but portraits”—he returned from Europe with the “ambition to be among those who shall revive the splendor of the fifteenth century; to rival the genius of a Raphael, a Michael Angelo, or a Titian.” Above all, he said, he did not want to end up “lowering my noble art to a trade, . . . degrading myself and the soul-enlarging art which I possess to the narrow idea of merely making money.” The temptation was there, but he rejected it. “No, never will I degrade myself by making a trade of a profession. If I cannot live a gentleman, I will starve a gentleman.”59

But no one would give a commission for a history painting, and Morse was eventually reduced to traveling about New England painting heads for fifteen dollars apiece. His idealized picture of the Old House of Representatives, from which he hoped to earn a fortune on tour, was not moralistically theatrical enough for viewers, and the tour was a failure; Congress refused to buy the painting, and it ended up cracked and dusty in a New York warehouse. Ultimately, Morse was able to find monetary reward only by inventing the telegraph and the code to which he gave his name.60

The neoclassical and republican desire to bring the arts to a wider public, to involve the whole citizenry in enlightenment and cultivation, created a popular cultural monster that could not be controlled. Instead of refining the taste of the people, the arts themselves, in their attempts to comprehend the ever enlarging public, became vulgarized. The self-taught artist John Durand may have advertised that his paintings were in accord with the “best taste and judgment in all polite nations in every age.” But he knew that if he were to survive, he would also have to be willing, “either for cash, short credit, or country produce,” to “paint, gild, and varnish wheel carriages; and put coats of arms, or ciphers, upon them, in a neater and more lasting manner than ever was done in this country.”61 No one wanted any sort of painting but portraits or landscapes, and those artists who sought to commemorate great historical events on canvas had to turn their paintings into panoramas, oversized spectacles designed for carnival-like exhibition. John Vanderlyn’s effort to paint classical history, his Marius Musing amid the Ruins of Carthage, went unsold, and with well-to-do spectators, mostly Federalists, not all that eager to view anything French, even his huge panorama of Versailles lost money.62

The maudlin moralizing efforts of Parson Mason Weems to humanize George Washington for ordinary people were a vulgar perversion of the ennobling art of history-writing. Yet his brief popularized life of Washington, which included mythical stories such as young Washington cutting down the cherry tree, influenced American attitudes in ways that John Marshall’s five-volume biography could not.

Marshall, who published his life and times of Washington between 1804 and 1807, was interested only in the public life of the great man, and in his first volume not even that: it covered the entire colonial period and scarcely mentioned the subject of the biography. Unlike Weems’s biography, which concentrated on Washington’s boyhood and early manhood, Marshall’s second volume dismissed Washington’s youth in a single page.

Although John Adams assured Marshall in 1806 that his biography of Washington would create “a more glorious and durable Memorial of your Hero, than a Mausoleum would have been, of dimensions Superiour to the proudest pyramid of Egypt,” seven years later Adams told Jefferson that Marshall’s work had indeed become “a Mausolaeum,” resembling a pyramid that was “100 feet square at the base and 200 feet high,” and all part of what he called “the impious Idolatry to Washington.” Although Bushrod Washington, Marshall’s collaborator, blamed the poor subscription sales of Marshall’s Life of George Washington on the use of postal agents, who, he said, were mostly “democrats” who did not “feel a disposition to advance the work,” the volumes were in fact too long, too formal, and too slowly published to attract many buyers.63

By contrast, Weems’s fast-paced and fanciful biography sold thousands of copies and went through twenty-nine editions in two decades and a half following its publication in 1800. The public wanted Weems’s human interest stories, even if they were fabricated. Weems’s new sort of popular biography naturally disgusted some traditional reviewers, who said that the author “often transports us from a strain of religious moralizing . . . to the low cant and balderdash of the ranks and drinking table.” But it awed others, who feared that this outrageous peddler-preacher and his popular biographies were endowed with “the power of doing considerable good, and considerable mischief, among the lower orders of readers in this country.”64

Literature was supposed to be morally instructive, and most of the American novels published in the early Republic were intended to control sexual license and teach self-discipline, especially among young women. In fact, many of the novels, such as William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789) and Hannah Foster’s The Coquette (1797), were designed to replace the advice manuals, which were increasingly regarded, as one writer said, as “too generally tedious, and often uninteresting in the lively idea of youth.” Better to insinuate morality “through the medium of history or even of fiction,” which could “answer the same end, in a manner unquestionably more agreeable.”65

Since these seduction novels were supposed to be true, their descriptions of the illicit love affairs became more and more obtrusively exciting and the overlaid moral lessons more and more transparent and gratuitous. Although themes of seduction tended to dominate the stories published in the periodicals of the period, most people ended up reading these sensual tales not to be reformed but to be titillated. Many of the seduction novels seemed to make the socially unacceptable but passionate suitor more attractive than the male character that society and the young woman’s parents regarded as the appropriate mate. The writers railed against seduction, but at the same time they aroused sexual desire with erotically charged descriptions of the seductions. In Foster’s The Coquette, for example, the libertine male character spends the night in the room of heroine Eliza Wharton and is seen sneaking away in the early morning hours by one of Eliza’s female friends, who no doubt voiced the feelings of many readers in remarking: “My blood thrilled with horror at this sacrifice of virtue.”66

INSTITUTIONS THAT WERE PRIMARILY DESIGNED to benefit artists had a hard time getting established. Artists in America initially tried to organize, as artists in England did, in order to create a school of the fine arts that would, as an advertisement promised, “supersede the necessity and save the expense of a foreign education.” In 1794 Charles Willson Peale brought together thirty artists to form a society in emulation of the Royal Academy or the Society of Artists in England, to which he had belonged when he was in London. Peale’s academy was designed for art instruction and exhibitions of the artists’ works. The members of the society, which grew to over sixty in several weeks, called their organization “the Columbianum, or American Academy of the Fine Arts,” a takeoff of “Athenaeum,” which Americans in other cities were calling their institutions of cultural promotion. At the outset many of the members were foreign immigrants, especially English immigrants of middle age and often mediocre talent, including John James Barralet, Robert Field, and George Isham Parkyns, seeking to advance their careers in this new land of opportunity. These English immigrants, as Field told a colleague back home, saw a chance of “making a figure in an Academy of Arts and Sciences now establishing here, the plans of which is the most enlarged, liberal and grand of any in the world.” To top it off, he said, President George Washington would become its honorary patron just as King George III was the patron of the Royal Academy.

This proposal of the president as patron was too much for Peale and the Jefferson Republicans, who saw themselves as simply a group of workmen coming together for mutual advantage; and they attacked the Englishmen as men “who fancy themselves a better order of beings,” and “who started up from the hot-beds of monarchy, and think themselves lords of the human kind.” Giuseppe Ceracchi, the hot-tempered Italian neoclassical sculptor who had come to America in the 1790s with the aim of erecting a hundred-foot marble memorial to American liberty and its heroes, was especially incensed by the monarchical suggestion of the Englishmen, and a spirited debate in the press followed.

This debate and the expression of support for radical republicanism angered many of the English immigrants and other conservative members, and early in 1795 eight of them withdrew to form another organization. The two organizations fought for weeks in the press over their names, until, first, the English separatist organization collapsed, and then several months later Peale’s academy finally died as well.67

By the early nineteenth century supporters of the arts had come to realize that the English model of a learned academy of artists did not fit American conditions. If artistic institutions were to exist in America, they would have to be formed by prominent and well-to-do laymen and benefit not the struggling artists but a society very much in need of sophistication. The Society of Fine Arts in New York, formed in 1802 and later called the American Academy of the Fine Arts, set the pattern. Although its lay subscribers, such as Robert R. Livingston and the wealthy merchant John R. Murray, realized that such an academy might eventually help to “bring the Genius of this Country to perfection,” they knew that there was a far more pressing need for the society to improve the artistic taste of the public, including not just middling artisans but even their fellow wealthy merchants, lawyers, and landowners. Since “the great Mass of our Gentry . . . want a little of the Leaven of Taste,” lamented Murray, raising the gentry’s taste had to be the first priority. Livingston and the other laymen wanted to display pieces sent from Europe, copies of the paintings of old masters and casts, as Livingston put it, of “the most admired works of the ancient Greek and Roman sculptors.” Unfortunately, the American artists, who naturally wanted to display their own works, did not agree, and the academy divided and stagnated.68

A similar disparity of interests plagued the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, formed in 1805. The first exhibition, held in 1807, once again organized by Peale, was dominated by casts of European sculptures and several paintings by contemporary English artists and some old masters, which, since they came without labels, gave Peale a great deal of difficulty. He could not decide, for example, whether a picture entitled Cain and Abel was painted by Titian or Poussin.69

Having the wealthy lay patrons of the city encourage a love of art among the general public by these sorts of exhibitions was not what American artists wanted. They continued to desire an institution that would help them improve their craft and earn them some money. In 1810 a large group of Pennsylvania painters, architects, sculptors, and engravers—numbering a hundred within six months—tried once again to organize as the Society of Artists of the United States. At first the society tried to merge with the academy, but the different aims and interests were too great, and the effort failed. An attempt in 1809 to establish an academy of art in Boston came to nothing, largely because Gilbert Stuart, the great portrait painter and Boston’s leading artist in residence, objected on the grounds that “too often the founders of such institutions were endowed with more wealth than knowledge of art.”70

As long as artists were told that their primary task was to spread a knowledge of art throughout the society—in the words of William Tudor writing in Boston’s North American Review, to “feel something of a missionary spirit” in improving “the taste of the publick”—they could scarcely develop much sense of artistic autonomy. Indeed, as historian Neil Harris points out, “the intellectual and moral autonomy of American artists did not disappear under civic attack; it never existed.”71

These educational efforts to raise the people’s artistic taste often became so frantic that they created their own distortions. Precisely because Susannah Rowson’s racy story of seduction, Charlotte Temple (1794), went through forty-two editions in two dozen years, guardians of taste felt pressed to exaggerate the likes of British novelist Maria Edgeworth, whose heavily didactic novels ranked her, or so the North American Review claimed, among “the greatest reformers who have given a new direction to the faculties and opinions of mankind.” Andrews Norton, an important Boston Federalist intellectual and later professor of sacred literature at Harvard, even thought that Edgeworth’s works, all of which were intended to inculcate morality, integrity, and good sense, even at the expense of plot and character development, “entitle her to a reputation as enviable, perhaps, as that of any writer in English literature.”72

By the early nineteenth century these developments were reshaping American culture. In the pre-democratic world of the eighteenth century cultivation or learning was considered to be unitary and homogeneous, involving all aspects of the arts and sciences, and regarded primarily as a personal qualification for participation in polite society. Indeed, to be learned was the equivalent of being a gentleman. Cultivated persons had no doubt of the existence of vulgar bucolic habits like bear-baiting or eating with one’s hands, but they scarcely had seen these crude plebeian customs as some sort of popular culture set in competitive opposition to the enlightened republic of letters.

The Revolution and the relating of art to the public were not supposed to destroy the cultivated elite and threaten its standards but only broaden its sources of recruitment and elevate the taste of society as a whole. Yet the explosive expansion of literate middling sorts was having the opposite effect. The republic of letters was rapidly degenerating, “sliding,” as Federalist Theodore Dehon complained in 1807, “inadvertently into a democracy.”73

Many of the novels of the period were designed for untutored readers. They were small and easily carried and could be held in one hand. Their plots were straightforward, their vocabulary undemanding, and their syntax unsophisticated. Since they were often designed to instruct while they amused, they became an important means by which many marginally educated persons acquired an acquaintance with the larger world. The novels offered their readers who lacked a classical education Greek and Latin quotations conveniently translated. They also provided readers with devices—by contextually defining unusual words, for example—by which they could enlarge their vocabulary or improve their writing skills. Epistolary novels supplied models for readers to write their own letters. For women especially, novel-reading was a way of acquiring an education otherwise denied to them. In fact, all of these early American novels, observes their modern historian, “played a vital role in the early education of readers previously largely excluded from the elite literature and culture.”74

The playwright and critic William Dunlap had been convinced that the theater was the most powerful engine for promoting morality in the society. But by the early nineteenth century he had come to realize that a significant distinction had arisen between “the wise and good,” who learned “lessons [of] patriotism, virtue, morality, religion” from attending plays, and “the uneducated, the idle, and profligate,” whose tastes were so bad as to lead “mercenary managers” to put on “such ribaldry or folly, or worse, as is attractive to such patrons, and productive of profit to themselves.” Dunlap was torn between his desire to save the unenlightened and boorish populace from their degeneracy and his fear that they were corrupting the theater and turning it into “a breeding ground for ignorance and depravity.” He had tried to bring enlightenment to the populace, but people wanted only to be entertained. To keep his theater going he hired jugglers and acrobatic performers, including a man who whirled around on his head, with firecrackers attached to his heels. Even melodramas did not satisfy his audiences, and his theater went bankrupt in 1805. Dunlap had learned his lesson: he recalled that he was “one who had on trial found circumstances too strong for his desires of reform, and who, after a struggle of years (with ruined health and fortunes) gave up the contest without giving up the wish or the hope.” If the legitimate drama were to continue in middle-class America, it had to meet popular taste and share the stage with bizarre novelty acts.75

Painting was likewise popularized. Many of the trained artists who emigrated from England, such as George Beck, William Winstanley, and William Groombridge, some of whom had seceded from Peale’s Columbianum, were unable to make a living painting in America. Beck and Groombridge had to turn to schoolteaching, while Winstanley ended up copying Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of Washington before returning to England. But Francis Guy, another expatriate from England, prospered brilliantly where others had failed. Guy was trained as a tailor and dyer in England and in the 1790s fled to America to escape his debts. Unable to make it as a dyer, he, in the words of Rembrandt Peale, “boldly undertook to be an artist, although he did not know how to draw.” Nevertheless, without repudiating his occupational title as a dyer, he learned how to reproduce landscapes in a new and strange manner—by stretching over the window of a tent some thin black gauze upon which he traced an actual scene before transferring it to canvas. According to Peale, who concluded that Guy’s “rough transcripts from Nature . . . were really good,” this amateur artist “manufactured” these topographical pictures by the dozens and sold them for twenty-five dollars apiece.

That this self-taught artist was succeeding in Baltimore, while trained artists failed, enraged a female editor, Eliza Anderson, daughter of a distinguished Irish physician and fiancée of the French architect Maximilian Godefroy, who was exiled to the United States by Napoleon in 1805. Anderson could not get over the American tendency to believe that mere artisans—tailors and carpenters—could pretend to a taste in painting. Americans, she wrote in the Baltimore Federal Gazette in 1807, seemed unable to distinguish between the useful arts of artisans and the fine arts of real artists. “Apollo is somewhat aristocratic,” she claimed, “and does not permit of perfect equality in his court. . . . The Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit of workmen to their levees.” She advised Guy to return to his “soul-inspiring avocation of making pantaloons.” As for Baltimore, Anderson concluded, it was “the Siberia of the arts.”

Guy went on to become, along with the German immigrant John Lewis Krimmel, the English immigrant William Russell Birch, and the visiting Russian diplomat Pavel Svinin, one of the first genre painters in American history. These painters depicted people, buildings, and landscapes topographically, more or less as they were, not as the artistic conventions of the day dictated. Sophisticated critics like Eliza Anderson may not have liked their work, but many Americans did.76

Serious artists thought that genre scenes were too mean and lowly for their talent, and painters such as John Vanderlyn and Samuel Morse scorned the depicting of ordinary folk—except, said Vanderlyn, Italian peasants. With their lack of “fashion and frivolity,” Italian peasants, Vanderlyn declared, were close enough to nature to possess a neoclassical universality that was worth depicting. But most major artists would have nothing to do with such common and humble subjects. William Dunlap mocked the former sign painter Jeremiah Paul for his crude efforts at genre painting. Paul, he said, was “one of those unfortunate individuals who, showing what is called genius in early life, by scratching the lame figures of all God’s creatures, or every thing that will receive chalk or ink, are induced to devote themselves to the fine arts, without the means of improvement or the education necessary, to fit them for a liberal profession. . . . He was a man of vulgar appearances and awkward manners.”77

Too many men, middling men, men of vulgar appearances and awkward manners, it seemed, were participating in all the arts, and serious artists and many of the elite despaired over what they saw as the increasing vulgarization of taste. As the social distinction between gentlemen and ordinary people blurred, cultivation itself seemed to have descended, as Dunlap grumbled, to “a certain point of mediocrity.” The arts had become popularized, creating, complained disgruntled Federalists, a new kind of commodity culture, “widely and thinly spread,” whose contributors had become cultural “methodists,” “feebly grasping at everything . . . flying from novelty to novelty and regaling upon the flowering of literature.”78 Members of the literati who clung to traditional humanist standards of the republic of letters found themselves beset by an avaricious popular culture they could scarcely control, yet to which they bore a peculiar republican responsibility. “We know, that in this land, where the spirit of democracy is everywhere,” wrote young biblical scholar Andrews Norton in 1807, “we are exposed, as it were, to a poisonous atmosphere, which blasts every thing beautiful in nature and corrodes every thing elegant in art.” Nevertheless, these learned gentry like Norton believed that they had a special civic obligation to purify this poisonous atmosphere, “to correct blunders, to check the contagion of false taste, to rescue the publick from the impositions of dullness, and to assert the majesty of learning and of truth.”79

In the minds of many, the future of the new Republic had come to rest on the cultivation of its public. Because the cultural atmosphere was drenched with civic and moral concerns, artists and critics alike found it impossible to justify any sort of independent and imaginative existence in defiance of the public. Two nude paintings—Danae by the Danish immigrant Adolph Wertmüller and Jupiter and Io (renamed Dream of Love) by Rembrandt Peale—were exhibited in Philadelphia in 1814 to multitudes of paying viewers, but also to some intense criticism. Americans were naturally suspicious of the fine arts, wrote one critic in the Port Folio, but they have tolerated the arts “by representing them as able auxiliaries in the cause of patriotism and morals.” But the exhibition of the two nude paintings did nothing for patriotism or morality. Instead, their exhibition offered, daily, scenes of “seducing voluptuousness to the young and thoughtless part of the city” of Philadelphia, which was such “a quiet, decent, moral city.” True, admitted the critic, artists must be allowed “great latitude” for their imagination, and the critic “should be among the last to abridge the limits of their fancy.” But these two nudes went too far; they violated “every consideration of morals and decorum, and even ordinary decency.” He knew of “no apology for such licentiousness.”80

This sort of moralistic criticism led to the immediate withdrawal of the paintings and to a contrite public apology from the Society of Artists, which condemned the exhibition as “indecorous and altogether inconsistent with the purity of republican morals.” The dociety, which represented dozens of various Philadelphia artists, went on to express its “deep regret” over the way these exhibitions were “evidently tending not only to corrupt public morals, but also to bring into disrepute those exhibitions which experience has proved to be important in cultivating a chaste taste for the fine arts in our country.”81

Even the first copyright law in the country, adopted by Connecticut following the Revolution, put the needs of the society over the artist’s right to earn what the market would bear. An artist’s originality and individual inspiration could not count against such civic demands. When Wordsworth was criticized for writing too solitary and too unsocial a kind of poetry, what freedom from social obligations could an American poet expect?82 Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads was published only once in America before 1824. By contrast, Robert Bloomfield’s Farmer Boy and its cult of sympathy had five American editions between 1801 and 1814. Indeed, all the great English Romantic poets—Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley—were condemned or ignored in early nineteenth-century America, and Pope remained the most popular English poet until at least the 1820s.

The experience of painter Washington Allston reveals the tragedy of a romantic sensibility in a didactic neoclassical world. Born in 1779 in South Carolina, Allston was educated at Harvard where he became determined “to be the first painter, at least, from America.” In 1801 he sold his inherited Carolina property and took off for England, where he befriended Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He returned to America in 1808 in order to fulfill his destiny but ended up painting portraits, which were all that Americans seemed to want. Frustrated, he returned once more to England in 1811, where his romantic artistic impulses found some success. Three years after the death of his wife in 1815, he returned once more to America. He brought with him Belshazzar’s Feast, an unfinished canvas, which was supposed to become his masterpiece, but which over the next twenty-five years he never completed. When he declared in his Lectures on Art, published after his death, that “all effort at originality must end either in the quaint or the monstrous,” he may have been reflecting on his own inability to express himself fully in a society that did not value originality.83

Some artists, like Allston’s closest friend, Edmund Trowbridge Dana, rebelled against this suffocating neoclassicism. In 1805 Dana protested the great deference paid to the ancients. “One is hagridden . . . with nothing but the classicks, the classicks, the classicks!” he complained. He yearned for a literature of feeling. “In our day of refinement,” he said, “very little is directed to the fancy or heart; for, from some cogency or other, it is unfashionable to be moved. . . . Establishment has crowded out sentiment,” and readers were stuck with Alexander Pope and sitting “primly with Addison and propriety” instead of devouring Shakespeare. Dana wanted writers to appreciate that “the untutored gestures of children are more exquisite than the accomplished ceremony of courts.”84

But Dana’s was an isolated voice. Everywhere most American critics and artists urged the suppression of individual feeling and, instead, earnestly insisted on the moral and social responsibilities of the artist, an insistence that flowed not simply from the Americans’ legacy of Puritanism or from their reading the Scottish moralists but from their Revolutionary aspirations for the arts. So deeply involved was the neoclassical commitment to society that most American writers and artists became incapable of revealing personal truths at the expense of their public selves, unwilling to regard beauty, as George Bancroft declared as late as 1827, as “something independent of moral effect.” Indeed, the young Bancroft, who studied in Germany, found Goethe “too dirty, too bestial in his conceptions, and thus unfit for American consumption.”85 These were the sorts of sentiments that gave birth to the genteel society of the nineteenth century.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!