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Literature and the Arts in the Revolutionary Era

Literature and the Arts in the Revolutionary Era

By the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), American writers had ventured beyond the Puritan literary style and its religious themes and had developed styles of writing that grew from distinctly American experiences. (The Puritans were a group of Protestants who broke with the Church of England; they believed that church rituals should be simplified and that people should follow strict religious discipline.) The colonial fascination with science, nature, freedom, and innovation came through in the writings of the Revolutionary period. The colonists developed their own way of speaking as well, no longer copying the more formal style of British writers. (Noah Webster's Blue-Backed Speller, published in 1783, helped to standardize the new American version of English.)

Author David Hawke offered an example of the American literary style in The Colonial Experience. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), he noted, "took the seventeenth-century saying 'Three may keep counsel, if two be away' and converted it into 'Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.'"

Some of the best literature of the colonial era described everyday life in New England and, in the process, depicted aspects of the fledgling American character. The colonists who would form a new nation were firm believers in the power of reason; they were ambitious, inquisitive, optimistic, practical, politically astute, and self-reliant.

What colonial children read

Up until about twenty-five years before the Revolutionary War began, the reading material for American children was restricted basically to the Bible and other religious works. Gradually, additional books were published and read more widely. Rivaling the Bible in popularity were almanacs. Children loved to read them for the stories, weather forecasts, poetry, news events, advice, and other assorted and useful information they contained. The most famous of these was Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, first published in 1732. Franklin (see box titled "The Many Sides of Benjamin Franklin") claimed to have written Poor Richard because his wife could not bear to see him "do nothing but gaze at the Stars; and has threatened more than once to burn all my Books… if I do not make some profitable Use of them for the good of my Family." We have Poor Richard to thank for such lasting sayings as: "Eat to live, and not live to eat"; "He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas"; "Little strokes fell big oaks"; and "Early to bed and early to rise/Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

All the American colonies had printing presses by 1760, but Americans and their children continued to rely on England as the source for most of their books. A London publisher by the name of John Newberry (1713–1767) is said to have had the greatest influence on children's literature in pre-Revolutionary America. He began publishing children's books in the 1740s. Most of them were educational, with titles such as A Museum for Young Gentlemen and Ladies or A private tutor for little Masters and Misses (1750; a how-to book on proper behavior) and The Pretty Book for Children (1750; a guide to the English language).

Books were quite expensive in the 1700s, though, so children usually advanced from the Bible and religious verses straight to adult-type literature. Especially popular in that category were storybooks such as Robinson Crusoe and Arabian Nights.

Prior to the Revolution, schoolbooks were imported from England and were available only to the wealthy. These books stressed self-improvement through hard work and careful spending. Such qualities, it was believed, could lead to wealth, which was the lesson learned in the popular storybook Goody Two-Shoes: The Means by which she acquired her Learning and Wisdom, and in consequence thereof her Estate [everything she owned](1765). Goody Two-Shoes was a girl named Margery Meanwell, an orphan who was thrilled to receive two shoes to replace her one. She rose from humble beginnings, learning to read and later becoming a teacher; she went on to marry a wealthy man and matured into a "Lady" and a generous person.

The role of satire in the Revolutionary era

Up until the Revolutionary era, the Puritans who had settled New England had a profound influence on what was printed in the colonies: nearly all publications centered on a religious topic of some sort. The Puritans frowned on dramatic performances, as well. But by the mid-1700s, the Puritan influence was fading. In 1749 the first American acting troupe was established in Philadelphia. Seventeen years later, America's first permanent playhouse was built in the same city; in 1767 the Southwark Theatre staged the first play written by a native-born American, Thomas Godfrey's (1736–1763) Prince of Parthia.

By the mid-1760s, political writings by colonists were increasingly common and more and more forceful in nature. James Otis (1725–1783), a lawyer from Boston, published The Rights of British Colonists Asserted and Proved in 1764. And the hated Stamp Act, a tax law passed by the British in 1765 (see Chapter 4: The Roots of Rebellion [1763–1769]), prompted an even greater outpouring of writing of a political nature. (Parliament, England's lawmaking body, passed the Stamp Act to raise money from the colonies without receiving the consent of the colonial assemblies, or representatives.)

One of the most popular forms of political writing was satire, especially plays, essays, and poems. Satire pokes fun at human vices and foolishness. While most satiric works were written by men, some of the best-known plays of the day were written by a woman named Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814).

Warren was the sister and wife of two patriots (James Otis and James Warren, respectively) and an eager participant in the political meetings held so often at her home. She was strategically placed in Boston to follow the events leading up to the American Revolution. Her first political drama, The Adulateur, was published anonymously (without her name) in Boston in 1773, soon after the shocking publication of Governor Thomas Hutchinson's (1711–1780) letters revealing his anti-patriot views (see Chapter 4: The Roots of Rebellion [1763–1769]). Not surprisingly, Warren's gift for satire was directed at pro-British leaders. The play's last words are spoken by a character based on Warren's brother, James Otis. Although he foresees war, he also predicts fame, victory, and eternal prosperity for the party of liberty.

During the war, Warren wrote several other dramatic satires that actively promoted the revolutionary cause, but her plays were never performed on stage. They were read by many people, though, and were performed privately for Warren's family and friends, including prominent Revolutionary figures such as Samuel, John, and Abigail Adams (see Chapter 4: The Roots of Rebellion [1763–1769].)

Other notable satirists put the war on stage. John Leacock's play The Fall of British Tyranny, which was performed in 1776, portrayed the notorious Battle of Bunker Hill (see Chapter 6: Lexington, Concord, and the Organization of Colonial Resistance) and the military discussions of American war leader George Washington. In plays by Warren and Leacock, Americans appeared as mythical or real figures from Greek and Roman days. In Warren's Adulateur, for example, the characters inspired by James Otis and his friend Samuel Adams are renamed Brutus and Cassius (early Roman political leaders). Audiences enjoyed the game of identifying the dramatists' thinly disguised portraits of public figures.

Benjamin Franklin, who seemed to be able to do anything, produced a long stream of political satires making fun of British policies. In his 1773 Edict by the King of Prussia, for example, he drew parallels between the settlement of England in the fifth century by Germans (then called Prussians) and the settlement of America. His intention was to show how ridiculous it was for Great Britain to think that just because she had settled America, she had the right to lay heavy taxes on her subjects. (The British held just the opposite view.) In the Edict, the King of Prussia makes the same trade and tax demands on the former German colonists in England that England was making on the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s.

American lawyer and poet John Trumbull's (1750–1831) epic poem "M'Fingal," first published in 1776, became the most popular satirical poem of the American Revolution. The silly hero, M'Fingal, is a clownish Loyalist who argues at a town meeting that tyranny (unjust, severe, and often cruel rule) is justice. He is bested in this battle of words by the patriot Honorius, a character apparently based on American statesman (and, later, U.S. president) John Adams.

Poetry and popular songs of the Revolutionary era

As was true of most American arts before the Revolution, the Puritan influence on music was strong. The first songbook published in the colonies was the 1640 edition of the Bay Psalm Book. (Psalms [pronounced SOMS] are religious songs.) Another popular type of American music was the tavern song. Both psalms and tavern songs were forms of "community singing."

By the time of the Revolution, music in the colonies had not changed very much. Bostonian William Billings (1746–1800), who was the first important American composer, published six books of music, much of it original, including instructions on styles of singing to make it more lively. Billings mixed the serious with the humorous. His religious song "Chester" was so popular that he rewrote the words during the Revolution, transforming it into a warlike version called "Let Tyrants Shake."

Revolutionary-era songwriters wrote to inspire their listeners. Songs about the events of the day were especially popular because everyone—even those who could not read or write— could join in. American poet and wit Joel Barlow (1754–1812) wrote: "One good song is worth a dozen addresses or proclamations." Some patriotic songs were written by established writers of serious works. For example, John Dickinson (1732–1808), author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to Inhabitants of the British Colonies, also wrote the popular "Liberty Song." But most songs seemed to come out of nowhere as anonymous or cooperative productions, evolving as people added to and altered the verses. Some of these songs have survived to the present-day, among them the ever-popular "Yankee Doodle." Originally a derogatory (DUR-oga-tore-ee; negative and belittling) ditty sung by the British (it depicted New Englanders as fools), this folk song later became the battle cry of the colonial forces.

Poetic expressions of patriotism were popular as well. Philip Freneau (1752–1832) produced so many well-written and stirring patriotic poems that he became known as the Poet of the American Revolution. Freneau became the new country's first lyric poet; that is, he wrote in a new, more personal, and more emotional style than had ever been known before.

One of the best-known Revolutionary-era poets was Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), an African American slave from Boston. Her poems, which were even more successful in England than in the colonies, ranged from those on Christian topics, to translations of the Latin poet Ovid, to patriotic odes (poems designed for singing). She was so popular that one of her patriotic verses added to the vocabulary of the Revolution: in her 1775 poem to General Washington, she coined the usage of "Columbia" to refer to the new United States.

The role of wartime literature

Words may have been just as important as weapons in the Revolutionary cause. Patriotic writings came in many varieties. Some were crude efforts designed to sway public opinion to a cause, others were well-reasoned political arguments, and some were collections of inspirational verse.

In 1776 English-born political writer Thomas Paine (1737–1809) published a pamphlet titled Common Sense. This immensely popular work called for equality, freedom, and complete separation from Britain. According to Paine, the move toward independence was pure "common sense." Albert Marrin commented in The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution, "Tom Paine did more than anyone to change American minds in favor of independence…. Common Sense had the right ideas at the right time and became the first American bestseller…. Paine lit a fire that leaped across America."

Well before the release of Paine's Common Sense, other writers put forward arguments that paved the way toward independence. John Dickinson (1732–1808), author of the

"Olive Branch Petition," did not ask for independence from England as much as for legal justice for Americans in matters of taxation and representation. The character he portrayed—the gentleman farmer—was convincing because it represented many American ideals: industry (hard work), honesty, frugality (conserving; not being wasteful), education, and common sense.

As the war progressed, firsthand accounts of the fighting seized people's attention and kept them firm in their goal of defeating the British. Revolutionary soldier Ethan Allen (1738-1789) of Vermont wrote about his experiences as a prisoner of war. His wartime book, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen's Captivity (1779), praised the courage of his Green Mountain Boys (an irregular army unit) and condemned the British. General Washington believed the book helped keep the Revolutionary cause alive during a particularly critical period in the war. Allen was famous before he wrote his book, but many ordinary people—women as well as men—also wrote about their Revolutionary War experiences.

By the end of the war, American writers were firmly established as important contributors to a uniquely American national identity—an identity separate from the colonists' European roots. Many of the writers who rose to prominence during the Revolution became even more famous after it was over. Mercy Otis Warren wrote a three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), which appeared under her own name—a remarkable accomplishment in an era dominated by male writers.

The role of the press in colonial America

The earliest American newspaper on record was published in the South in 1638. By the time of the American Revolution, there were forty–two newspapers being printed in the colonies, with the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies represented evenly. About a third of the newspapers were Loyalist in tone (they favored the preservation of colonial ties to Britain). The majority of the colonial newspapers were issued weekly and were purchased by subscription by several hundred people. But many more colonists actually heard the news, which was read aloud in taverns.

Sharing the news by reading it aloud in public places served two purposes: 1) it made the news available to those unable to pay for a paper, and 2) it informed people of current events even if they were unable to read. (At the time of the American Revolution, almost half the male population was illiterate.)

Colonial newspapers provided different information than modern papers do. A typical colonial paper, sometimes called a broadsheet or broadside, was four pages long (a large sheet folded in half and printed as four pages). The front page was filled with advertisements. The other pages carried reprints of news stories from other papers and the text of speeches and sermons. The papers also offered poetry, letters, essays, and editorials (statements of opinions). Many editorials were unsigned so that the authorities could not find and punish the colonial authors who urged the colonists to rebel against English rule.

In colonial America prior to 1775, information was shared by people traveling by horseback, on foot, or by ship. News arrived slowly and was eagerly awaited. The newspapers were one way for patriots to share their messages of the benefits of declaring the American colonies' independence from England. At this point in time, each colony considered itself a separate entity. By showing the colonists that they had something in common (their grievances against England), the

newspapers helped forge a sense of community among the colonies. This feeling of unity—of being one nation—was vital to the colonies' success in gaining their freedom from England.

Arts of the Revolutionary era

Before about 1750, wealthy Americans imported most of their artworks and home furnishings from England. As more and more artisans (crafters) arrived in the New World, they began to produce goods that rivaled the best England could turn out. Other American artists admired the sophisticated styles of Europe, but they were comfortable with a range of tastes and styles. Boston patriot Paul Revere (1735–1818), for example, made everything from fine silver and pewter bowls to a set of false teeth for General Washington.

The early eighteenth century brought European painters to the colonies. They pleased their wealthy customers by imitating successful European styles, often producing portraits of rich colonials posed as they might have been in an English portrait. A rich man who had earned his money in trade, for instance, might be depicted standing at a window gazing out at a ship.

As the century progressed, young American artists began to paint in a new way. Artists like Benjamin West (1738–1820), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) represented the finest in American artistic achievement. Their subjects were portrayed in the act of pursuing everyday endeavors. Copley depicted patriot John Adams standing with a document in one hand and pointing at another on his desk, apparently in the middle of writing a speech. Likewise, he portrayed

Paul Revere in his work clothes, sitting at his work table near a teapot he had made.

The arts developed slowly in the New World. John Adams believed that this was the way it should be, because there was more important and practical work to be done first. In John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words, Adams declared: "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

For More Information


Adams, John. John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words. Edited by James Bishop Peabody. New York: Newsweek, 1973.

Allison, Robert J. American Eras: The Revolutionary Era (1754-1783). Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Becker, Carl L. Benjamin Franklin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1946.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes from the Life of Benjamin Franklin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.

Emerson, Everett, ed. Major Writers of Early American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.

Fleming, Thomas. The Man Who Dared the Lightning: A New Look at Benjamin Franklin. New York: William Morrow, 1970.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Edited by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall. New York: Norton, 1986.

Nye, Russell B. The Cultural Life of the New Nation, 1776–1830. New York: Harper, 1960.

Tyler, Moses C. The Literary History of the American Revolution: 1763–1863. New York: F. Ungar, 1957.

Wright, Louis B. The Cultural Life of the American Colonies, 1607–1763. New York: Harper, 1957.

Web Sites

Campbell, D. Brief Timeline of American Literature and Events: Pre-1620 to 1920. [Online] Available (accessed on December 6, 1999).



Avery, Gillian. Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621–1922. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995, pp. 892–911.

Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard's Almanack, 1733-1758. In Benjamin Franklin: Writings. New York: Library of America, 1987, pp. 1181–1304.

Hawke, David. The Colonial Experience. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

Johnson, Paul. "The Role of Benjamin Franklin." In A History of the American People. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Web Sites

"Franklin, Benjamin." DISCovering U. S. History. [Online] Available (password required) (accessed on January 25, 2000).

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 2: Colonial Period: 1700–1800—An Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature—A Research and Reference Guide. [Online] Available (accessed on December 6, 1999).

The Many Sides of Benjamin Franklin

American printer, politician, inventor, and writer Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) hailed from an extremely large lower-middle-class family. (He was one of 17 children.) Because the Franklin family had only enough money to get by, young Ben received just two years of formal schooling. But hard work and success early in life allowed him time later on to devote to scientific experiments, political affairs, and public service. He is even credited with establishing America's first circulating library.

In 1729 Franklin bought the struggling Pennsylvania Gazette (later called the Saturday Evening Post) and transformed it into a profitable publication. While pursuing daring new scientific research—in 1751 he published New Experiments and Observations on Electricity—Franklin became involved in colonial politics, first as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and later as America's spokesperson in England. He is

remembered as a key leader in the fight for American rights. As early as 1754 Franklin had outlined his Plan of the Union, charting the course for colonial unity and independence from Great Britain. He later served as a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Loyalist Writers during the Revolutionary Era

Not all colonists supported the war effort; many wanted to maintain political ties with Britain. Their "Loyalist" philosophy was represented in the works of poets Jonathan Odell (1737–1818) and Joseph Stansbury. Loyalists' writings and their mixed feelings about American independence lasted throughout the war and beyond. Jonathan Boucher (1738–1804), an English clergyman and Loyalist writer who spent sixteen years in the colonies, fled to England in 1775. After the war he wrote a Loyalist interpretation of the conflict, A View of the Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution (1797). Although he disagreed with the patriot cause, he admired its leader and dedicated his book to George Washington.

Patience Wright, Sculptor and Spy

The first known professional portrait sculptor in America was a woman. Patience Lovell Wright (1725–c. 1785) worked with wax, molding realistic busts (representations of a head, neck, and upper chest) as well as hands and faces. Sometimes her life-size hands and faces were attached to clothed figures. She turned to this line of work in 1769 after her husband died, leaving her with five children to support.

In the mid-1770s Wright moved to London, where her artistic skill and odd mannerisms (a loud voice and intense stare) attracted the attention of many important people. She listened to their gossip, and when the American Revolution began, she was able to pass on useful information to the American patriots. She sometimes hid messages in the wax heads she made of important British politicians, then sent the heads to her sister Rachel in Philadelphia, who forwarded the messages to General Washington.

Source: Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America. New York: Crowell, 1968. See also "Wright, Patience Lovell" in The Britannica Encyclopedia of American Art. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973, p. 610.

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