1754-1783: The Arts: Overview
1754-1783: The Arts: Overview
Provincial versus Cosmopolitan. Before the Revolutionary era, men and women living in the British Colonies did not think of themselves as “Americans” but rather as British citizens and colonists. They imagined that they were ambassadors of culture, bringing European civilization to the wilderness of the new world. In Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America (1725), first printed in America in 1752 and reprinted dozens of times in the third-quarter of the eighteenth-century, the English bishop George Berkeley described an ideal of translatio, the transmission of the highest expressions of human development—arts, letters, music, and all those forms of culture—which testified to the moral superiority of Anglo-European character and society to all other peoples. History showed that the great achievements of ancient Greece and Rome had eventually given way to barbarism and ignorance, but perhaps in these colonies to the West this cycle of empire and decline might be broken. America, Bishop Berkeley wrote, was like a rising sun, a growing plant, the final act in the epic history of mankind, the place where the progress of human reason and culture might find their highest realization and their lasting home.
Pursuit of Culture. Even in a society where living conditions were “rude” compared to London’s refinements, colonists aspired to a cosmopolitan cultural standard. Americans imitated the fashions and manners of the civilized world that lay across the Atlantic. Wealthy Virginia planters attended balls, where humble young men might use their skills in dancing to win prestige and perhaps marry into the gentry. Maryland gentlemen gathered together for the conversation and pleasure of society in the Tuesday Club of Dr. Alexander Hamilton. Even middling folk hung prints by British artists such as William Hogarth, or read gossip about British actors in their local newspapers. The mass circulation of printed sheet music, lithographs, and books of all sorts put many forms of culture in reach of colonial Americans, helping them to identify themselves as members of the British world, while also reminding them of the provincial quality of life in colonial cities and towns.
Cosmopolitan Standards. The Enlightenment concept of culture that Bishop Berkeley and so many others celebrated in the eighteenth century assumed a difference between cosmopolitan and provincial ways that was both fixed in time and place, but which could also move. Patriot propaganda before the Revolution attacked the cultural refinements of England being imported into the colonies as decadent and corrupt luxuries that proved the mother country’s civilization was already in decline. At the same time they pointed to provincial simplicity of colonial ways as evidence that the new United States might allow the rebirth of the civilization and civic virtues of the ancient republics. The arts of the Revolutionary era are particularly interesting because they express the inherent tensions of this enlightenment conception of culture in translatio from the old, cosmopolitan world to the new, provincial world. Especially during the Revolution, the question of how to define this distinction, and what social and political meanings to invest in them, became of crucial importance. Were the British innately superior to colonial Americans? Or were the artistic forms of civilization things that could be imitated, in the same way that one learned to wear a new suit of clothes or that genteel character could be practiced through the repetition of refined speech, movement, and other acquired habits of elegance?
The Politics of Culture. The distinction between politics and culture did not exist for colonial Americans. Eighteenth-century politics gave ample opportunity to indulge in satire, hyperbole, and sensationalism. The thoughts of radical Whig thinkers such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, for example, profoundly influenced the literature as well as the politics of the Revolutionary era. Well before the Revolution the anonymous use of newspapers and pamphlets for the spirited expression of dissent were an accepted and pervasive feature of civic life. Attacking opponents in the mass media of the day, writers questioned the public fitness of leaders by pointing to the corruption of their private character or predicting dire consequences from their actions. Because politics was the preserve of educated gentlemen, this public debate tended to be governed by the stylistic conventions that displayed one’s wit and erudition. Benjamin Franklin, for example, taught himself how to write by copying the artful rhetoric of Gordon and Trenchard’s Cato’s Letters (1723). Politics was a literary game governed by formal conventions of politeness and civility: the acceptance of one’s political views depended on one’s mastery of a certain style of writing and argument that expressed the character of cultivated gentlemen in print. One’s right to speak as a citizen was justified by demonstrating an ability to play this game by its literary rules; with few exceptions the literature, no less than the politics, of the Revolutionary era was a club that excluded those women, working-class men, and non-Englishmen who were denied the privilege of advanced learning and the social authority that came with it.
Enlightenment. The most educated Americans of the Revolutionary era were part of a transatlantic culture that debated questions of politics, philosophy, and science throughout the eighteenth century, and that was committed to a set of values derived from the Enlightenment: the importance of secular learning; faith in man’s capacity to know and define the laws of nature, society, and history; and the power of reason to control the human passions and perfect the institutions of public life. The leaders who declared American independence and drafted a new government developed theories of natural right, the social contract, and civic virtue, which they learned as members of this international network of ideas and intellectuals. At the same time, however, the particular circumstances of political protest before and during the Revolution encouraged the emergence of different styles of thinking and writing, in which reside the beginnings of a new American literature. Political tracts by John Dickinson and Thomas Paine, as well as the poetry of Philip Freneau, explored themes and issues faced by the colonies and promoted an awareness of American identity. American writers imitated, but also transformed, the cultural forms they had inherited from Britain. Americans learned to imagine their political independence not only through Whig-Republican ideology and the values of the European enlightenment but also through homegrown styles of political activism and evangelical religion.
War and Propaganda. During the crises created by the Stamp and Townsend acts, many colonists boycotted British imports. It was common during these crises to denounce all consumer goods from abroad—whether musical instruments, clothing, or tea—not only as symptoms of European cultural corruption but also as tools of political tyranny: by leading patriots into debt and dissipation, the habits of “luxury” would undermine the moral discipline, manly strength, and Spartan simplicity of Americans. Independence was not only a political goal but a cultural ideal. To exercise disinterested civic virtue depended on being free from external obligations, which would be impossible if Americans slavishly imitated British refinement. While boycotts typically are economic and political means to mobilize a population against external threats or to conserve scarce resources in times of war, they also have a symbolic function. Theater in the colonies, for example, was both a vehicle for propaganda and a symbol of the political conflict with Britain. Theater was banned in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 1750s and 1760s and outlawed by the Continental Congress in 1774 because it was viewed as a cultural import that threatened to undermine colonial character with European refinements. At the same time, both Patriots such as Royall Tyler and Mercy Otis Warren and Loyalists such as Jonathan Sewall and General John Burgoyne used satirical drama to promote or attack the patriot cause.
Rising Glory of America. Before and during the Revolution, literature and arts became forms of propaganda, used to incite hostility towards the Empire and to generate a new sense of cultural identity amongst people who had considered themselves British subjects. The nonimportation agreements encouraged the growth of cultural institutions in the colonies: printers, instrument makers, and activity in all the arts were stimulated by the boycotts. Of more importance, however, was the emergence of a new, self-conscious awareness of cultural difference, of the “Rising Glory of America,” as Philip Freneau and Henry Brackenridge titled their 1772 poem. It was impossible for the colonists to go to war with Britain without inventing a morally charged sense of national purpose that defined the stakes of indepedence in the most ideological and dramatic terms. The self-sufficient Yeoman farmer became less a mark of American backwardness than a symbol of virtuous freedom. Even when anonymous poets published their attacks on British policies in colonial newspapers in the 1760s, or when Freneau, Brackenridge, and Jonathan Trumbull developed the first significant body of poetry about American culture in the 1770s and 1780s, they continued to rely on the allegorical and neoclassical forms of British literature of the era.
Myths of American Virtue. Before and during the Revolution, artists and writers began to think about what it might mean to be American rather than British. During this period two distinctive myths emerged that would become major touchstones for how future Americans would understand their values and define their culture as truly independent from the old world of Europe. In his Autobiography (1868), which he began writing in 1770, Benjamin Franklin turned his own life into a humorous and inspiring story of the “self-made man.” A boy born into a large and modest household without the privilege of formal education leaves Boston in order to make a name and a life for himself in Philadelphia. Through his own hard work, his will to “improve” himself, and his careful management of the impressions he makes on people a provincial working-class youth finds success, happiness, and fame in his own land and the capitals of Europe. In writing about his own life Franklin was offering advice on how one ought to live, making himself into an example that other Americans might follow. Published in hundreds of editions over the last two hundred years, Franklin’s Autobiography has been one of the most popular and enduring sources for the ideals of American culture in which individual character counts for more than heredity.
People of Nature. Living in a society that was overwhelmingly rural, Franklin’s contemporaries in the Revolutionary era embraced another myth, of American’s special relationship to nature, which also celebrated the opportunities and virtues that this new world made possible for ordinary individuals. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a French immigrant who settled in New York, portrayed rural life in the colonies as a place where oppressed peoples of Europe could pursue their own self-interests, free from the tryanny of European monarchy, the Catholic church, and feudal society. Told from the point of view of a farmer and informed by European philosophy about the “noble savage,” Letters from an American Farmer (1793) is the first America text to explore the question, “What is an American?” Like Franklin, de Crèvecoeur idealized American character in terms of simplicity, sobriety, and frugality, but he linked these values not with the individual powers of self-invention in the city, but with the discovery of an innate, universal goodness through life on the soil. Like Philip Freneau’s poems such as “The Wild Honey Suckle” or James Fennimore Cooper’s nineteenth-century novels about the wilderness, Letters offers a romantic vision of European culture being redeemed and purified through the absence of refinement in America. In this new Eden, through the struggle of families to cultivate their land and become self-sufficient, away from the corruptions and distractions of civilization, Americans would discover the true meaning of independence and realize the universal human rights to property, liberty, and happiness.
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