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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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Activities: Context Activities

A New Rome: Neoclassicism in the New Nation

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George Washington (1800)

[1639] Charles St. Memin, George Washington (1800), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4619].
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In Act III of Royall Tyler's The Contrast, the model American character, Colonel Manly, delivers an impassioned soliloquy: "When the Grecian states knew no other tools than the axe and the saw, the Grecians were a great, a free, and a happy people.... They exhibited to the world a noble spectacle--a number of independent states united by a similarity of language, sentiment, manners, common interest, and common consent." Manly's speech may sound strange to modern readers since his disquisition on ancient Greece seems to have little to do with the play's setting in eighteenth-century New York. Indeed, even the first reviewer of Tyler's play complained that the soliloquy seemed out of place: "A man can never be supposed in conversation with himself, to point out examples of imitation to his countrymen." Yet Tyler's seemingly unmotivated inclusion of comments on ancient Greece in his play was perfectly in keeping with the fascination with classical antiquity that characterized the early national period. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the United States, in search of foundational models to replace its former reliance on Great Britain, turned to examples from the ancient world, particularly the Roman republic, and, to a lesser extent, ancient Greece. Americans associated classical Greece and Rome with the virtuous, anti-aristocratic political and cultural ideals they hoped would prevail in the United States. Ancient Romans founded the first republic--a representational government in which power is held by the people and representatives are charged with the common welfare of all the people in the country--and Americans were anxious to emulate this model. Their growing interest in the art and culture of the ancient world was part of an aesthetic movement known as neoclassicism. The American neoclassical ideal did not entail a lavish imitation of ancient forms but rather demanded a modern interpretation and revitalization of old forms.

Neoclassicism may have found its most congenial home in the political climate of the new United States, but it did not originate there. The neoclassical aesthetic arose in Europe around the middle of the eighteenth century, an irony that many Americans, who wished to believe they were rejecting European examples, chose to ignore. In any case, classical models caught on quickly in the early republic. By the end of the eighteenth century, American newspapers and almanacs regularly quoted lines from Horace and Virgil. Correspondents to these periodicals often signed their pieces with Roman pseudonyms. (The authors of the Federalist Papers--Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison--famously adopted the pen name "Publius" in honor of one of the founders and consuls of republican Rome.) George Washington was so fascinated by the self-sacrificing Roman patriot Cato that he had a play about him staged at Valley Forge to entertain and educate the American troops. After the Revolution, American army officers formed an honorary society named after the Roman hero Cincinnati. Even the names of some of the branches of government--"Senate" and "Congress," for example--hearkened back to the ancient Roman republic.

Neoclassical ideals also permeated American art and architecture. Artists eagerly adopted Roman models, creating statues of political and military leaders like George Washington wearing togas and crowned with laurel wreaths. Influenced by archaeological discoveries in Greece, Rome, and Egypt, furniture makers like Charles Honore Lannuier and Duncan Phyfe created pieces that incorporated classical motifs and design. But it was in architecture that the American neoclassical aesthetic achieved its best expression, a fact that was largely the result of Thomas Jefferson's commitment to infusing American buildings with classical principles of order and reason. Jefferson's passion for architecture was reinforced by his experiences in Paris, where he lived as the American minister to France from 1785 until 1789. Impressed both by the beautiful new houses built in Paris in the late eighteenth century and by ancient structures such as the Maison Carée (a Roman temple in Nimes), Jefferson was anxious to reproduce and translate the French neoclassical aesthetic into American buildings.

When the Virginia legislature called upon him to find a designer for the Virginia State House, Jefferson decided to design the building himself. He created a neoclassical temple based on the model of the Maison Carée, thus symbolically infusing the site of the Virginia state government with ancient republican values of harmony and simplicity. Jefferson also modeled his own gracefully proportioned home, Monticello, on classical principles. A record of Jefferson's varied architectural ideas, Monticello was designed and redesigned many times in accord with its owner's ever-changing interests. In its final form, the house was built to resemble a single-story dwelling, even though it has two floors, and was divided into public and private areas arranged around a central parlor. Situated on an immense hill, Monticello commands an expansive view of the surrounding landscape, its central dome acting as a sort of symbolic eye asserting control and mastery over the countryside beneath it. Although Monticello is justly celebrated as an expression of Jefferson's aesthetic values, his true masterpiece is the design for the University of Virginia. Conceived of as an "academical village," the central campus of the university is composed of five neoclassical pavilions which housed five different branches of learning, along with a central domed "temple of learning" (based on the Pantheon in Rome) which housed the main library. Jefferson intended teachers and students to live together in this complex, working and residing in an integrated expression of the educational mission of the university. Jefferson also had an important hand in the design of Washington, D.C., the new federal city created as the site of the national government. Because the city was built from scratch on a rural landscape, Jefferson and the other planners were able to plan it as a carefully designed exercise in neoclassical order and harmony. Although bureaucratic disorganization, a lack of funding, and land use problems prevented the project from ever living up to its designers' visions, Washington, D.C., was conceived of as a grand neoclassical city made up of orderly avenues and imposing government buildings. The White House and the Capitol Building were the first to be designed and constructed, though each took longer to complete than expected and neither is a true example of neoclassicism. Noted neoclassical architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, however, used his influence to add an American neoclassical touch to the Capitol once he was appointed Surveyor of Public Buildings in 1803. When he designed columns for the Senate wing and Senate rotunda, Latrobe Americanized the classical forms by substituting cornstalks and tobacco leaves for the traditional Corinthian acanthus decorations on the capitals of the columns. Latrobe's celebrated "corncob and tobacco capitals" exemplify the ideals behind American neoclassicism: they borrow from classical sources with originality and freedom, combining the stateliness of a traditional form with a tribute to American agriculture and natural productions. Although Latrobe certainly did not intend it, the agricultural decorations on the Senate building also serve to remind viewers that, just as Greece was a city-state whose economy was indebted to the institution of slavery, so was America's economy built on the slave labor that produced tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar crops.

  1. Comprehension: Why did so many Americans celebrate classical Greek and Roman traditions and aesthetics? What characteristics of ancient Greece and Rome made them appealing models to the young nation?

  2. Comprehension: What is neoclassicism?

  3. Comprehension: Examine the photographs and design plans for Monticello and the University of Virginia featured in the archive. What do Jefferson's architectural projects have in common? What ideals inform the design of the campus? What kind of educational environment was Jefferson trying to construct at the university? How might the ideals that structure the buildings he designed be reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which is, in a sense, an "architectural plan" for the government of the new nation?

  4. Context: Phillis Wheatley's poetry is often categorized as "neoclassical." What literary characteristics might make her work analogous to the neoclassical artifacts featured in the archive?

  5. Context: The early American republic, like Greek democracy, was based on "equality," but for both communities equality could mean either (a) isotes: "proportionate equality or harmony," or (b) isonomia: "equal participation, the order of equality." For those who believed in isotes, one's rights and privileges were proportional to one's merits, rather than distributed in common shares to all members of society. Which of the writers in this unit believe in which kind of equality? What reasoning is behind their beliefs, and how do you know? Which of these values are reflected in neoclassical buildings such as Monticello and the University of Virginia? To what extent is our contemporary society based on either isotes or isonomia?

  6. Context: Examine the original plans for Washington, D.C., featured in the archive. How does the design of the city uphold neoclassical ideals? Now examine the photographs and maps of present-day Washington, D.C. To what extent does the contemporary city live up to the plans of its designers? How does it diverge from them?

  7. Exploration: Think about the designs and constructions for some contemporary American public buildings and/or monuments that you have seen (the Vietnam memorial, urban museums and skyscrapers, or government buildings, for example). What values do these examples of twentieth- and twenty-first-century public architecture reflect? How do these structures compare to eighteenth-century neoclassical structures?

  8. Exploration: While the Puritans believed that they were constructing a "new Israel" or a "new Jerusalem" in America, many Revolutionary-era leaders believed they were constructing a "new Rome." How do these models differ from each other? What values are inherent in structuring a society as a rebuilding of Jerusalem? Of Rome? Can you think of any other historical periods or cities that have served as models for the American nation?

[1186] Christopher Pearse Cranch, U.S. Capitol (c. 1841),
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.
Washington, DC, was conceived of as a grand neoclassical city composed of orderly avenues and imposing government buildings. The White House and the Capitol were the first to be designed and constructed, though each took longer to complete than expected and neither is a true example of neoclassicism.

[1331] Thomas Jefferson, Monticello Floor Plan (n.d.),
courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
A record of Jefferson's varied architectural ideas, Monticello was designed and redesigned many times in accord with its owner's changing interests. In its final form, the house resembled a single-story dwelling, even though it has two floors, and was divided into public and private areas arranged around a central parlor.

[1639] Charles St. Memin, George Washington (1800),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4619].
Painting of Washington crowned by a laurel wreath, modeled after portraits of such classical Roman leaders as Julius Caesar.

[3700] John Plumbe, Capitol's East End before Extension (1846),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3595].
Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building, showing classical columns and frieze.

[6821] Robert King, A Map of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia (1818),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The city that L'Enfant had originally conceived of as "Washingtonople" had undergone many changes by the year that this map was drawn, including repairs made necessary by the War of 1812.

[7378] John Collier, Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville, VA (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USW36-756].
Monticello, which means "little mountain" in Italian, was a lifelong passion for Jefferson. The house is an excellent example of Roman neoclassicism, with its columned porticoes and classical central dome.

[7772] John Trumbull, General George Washington Resigning His Commission (c. 1823),
courtesy of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Architect of the Capitol.
On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief, and thereby established civilian, rather than military, leadership of the government.

[7781] Anonymous, University of Virginia (n.d.),
courtesy of the National Park Service.
Although Monticello is justly celebrated as an expression of Jefferson's aesthetic values, his true masterpiece is the University of Virginia.

[9025] E. Sachse & Company, View of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville & Monticello, Taken from Lewis Mountain (1856),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [G3884.C4:2U5A35 1856.E2 Vault].
This panoramic view of the University of Virginia and its surroundings emphasizes Jefferson's classically influenced architectural style.

[9033] Peter Charles L'Enfant, Plan of the City Intended for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States (1791),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [G3850 1791.L4 1887].
L'Enfant claimed that his plan for the capital city was "whol[l]y new"; it incorporated radiating avenues to connect significant focal points with open spaces and a grid of streets to be oriented north, south, east, and west.

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