After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture
Joseph J. Ellis
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Through portraits of four figures—Charles Willson Peale, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, William Dunlap, and Noah Webster—Joseph Ellis provides a unique perspective on the role of culture in post-Revolutionary America, both its high expectations and its frustrations.
Each life is fascinating in its own right, and each is used to brightly illuminate the historical context.
work rendered certain general truths more comprehensible to the viewer. And William Hogarth, Reynolds’s contemporary, was in the process of revolutionizing the English art market by insisting that the moral messages contained in art be made accessible to a broader audience.41 But despite the long-recognized claim for art’s social utility, despite the realization that art not only gave aesthetic satisfaction but also channeled thoughts and feelings, there were in fact few established precedents
creates new forms out of nothing is a Romantic myth. . . . [The artist] can no more represent what is in front of his eyes without a pre-existing stock of acquired images than he can paint without the pre-existing colours which he must have on his palette.”55 In Peale’s case the aesthetic conventions of the classical tradition blended perfectly with his Enlightenment optimism to produce dignified distortions that made the Revolution appear more tame and reasonable than he knew it to be.
and popular taste, each of these eighteenth-century Americans assumed that the people-at-large would eagerly support American artists, poets, and playwrights who would soon rival Rembrandt, Milton, and Shakespeare. Expectations this excessive, you might say, are doomed from the start. But the belief that revolutionary America was on the verge of a cultural explosion appears nonsensical to us mainly because we know it did not happen. Eighteenth-century Americans not only lacked the advantage of
He survived a bout with the yellow fever, but his poor health combined with the financial pressures to produce constant depression. “Oppressed with disease and debt,” he confided to his diary on January 1, 1805, “I commence another year of life with sentiments of gloom and self-approbation.” Such sentiments were not misguided: the next month his creditors forced him to declare bankruptcy. He lost all his property in New York and Perth Amboy, the theater closed its doors, and his theatrical career
the need for the violent tactics of French radicals in America. While many Federalist newspapers advocated military action against the Democratic-Republican clubs that patterned themselves after the French Jacobins, Webster wished that “editors would all agree to let the clubs alone—publish nothing for or against them. They are a plant of exotic and forced birth: the sunshine of peace will destroy them.” What was essential in France was inappropriate in America, he observed, and he trusted that