Sunday, December 5, 2010

America Guided by Wisdom: A Neoclassical Allegory of American Exceptionalism

by Michael Kaplan

America Guided by Wisdom.  Benjamin Tanner after John James Barralet, Philadelphia, 1815-1820.

On the fore ground, Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom, is pointing to a shield, supported by the Genius of America, bearing the arms of the United States, with the motto UNION AND INDEPENDENCE, by which the country enjoys the prosperity signified by the horn of plenty at the feet of America. The second ground is occupied by a Triumphal Arch with the Equestrian Statue of WASHINGTON placed in front, indicating the progress of the liberal arts. On the third ground, Commerce is represented by the figure of Mercury, with one foot resting on bales of American manufactures, pointing out the advantages of encouraging and protecting Navigation, signified by an armed vessel under sail, to Ceres, who is seated with emplements of Agriculture near her. The Bee Hive is emblematic of industry; and the female spinning at the cottage door, shews the first and most useful of domestic manufactures.

—Benjamin Tanner’s descriptive text.

I first saw this print many years ago in Samuel Eliot Morrison’s The Oxford History of the American People. Engraved by Benjamin Tanner after a design by John James Barralet, America Guided by Wisdom is an evocative visual allegory of what American exceptionalism meant to the post-Revolutionary generation. The print draws on the Neoclassical tradition of the Enlightenment, where the United States was often portrayed as an idealized Roman Republic reborn. Issued in Philadelphia between 1815 and 1820, in the wake of Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, the print expressed the heady nationalistic optimism that the republic had been reborn in the forge of the War of 1812, a second war of independence against Great Britain. Barralet used classical imagery and the symbolism of Greco-Roman mythology to vindicate the triumph of America’s exceptional republican liberty. America, guided by the wisdom of the benevolent deities while engaged in the pursuits of commerce, would now enjoy a golden age of peace and prosperity.

Educated Americans, in the years during and after the American Revolution, were far more familiar with the language of classical iconography and symbolism than we are today. They would understand the print’s allegorical themes without much difficulty. But by 1815 American society was democratizing; middle- and working-class white people were exercising more influence in the cultural marketplace. So the publisher thought it wise to provide a descriptive text (above) for the benefit of those not privileged to have had a classical education.

John James Barralet (ca. 1747-1815) was an Irish artist of French descent. He studied at the Dublin Society’s school and later taught art, first in Dublin, and in the 1770s in London. Most of the drawings that he exhibited in his London years focused on neoclassical themes then in vogue at the Royal Academy. Barralet returned to Ireland in 1776 and remained there until emigrating to Philadelphia in 1795. Though Barralet had been considered an artist of some promise in Ireland, in America he attained only marginal success. He took whatever commercial art work came his way to keep body and soul together; on more than one occasion, Baralett and his two motherless children had to scrounge for food, firewood, and clothing.

William Dunlap, writing a history of American art and design in the 1830s, described Barralet as “having all the volatility of France united with Hibernian prodigality and eccentricity. . . . He was a man of talent without discretion or any thing like common prudence; prodigally generous, and graspingly poor. As represented to me, he had the wildest portions of the French and Irish characters whimsically united in him.” On one occasion Barralet locked his children in a closet while a French general sat to have his portrait painted. Barralet’s erratic temperament sabotaged his partnerships with other artists. Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Barralet had been engaged by Alexander Lawson to design pictures which Lawson would then engrave. The most famous of these was General Washington’s Resignation, published in 1799 (see below). But, as Dunlap wrote, “the union of the Scotchman, a downright matter-of fact, industrious and warm-hearted man, with this flighty genius, was that of oil and vinegar.” The partnership broke up amidst mutual accusations. Despite his poverty Barralet persevered with his art. Eccentric in his personal behavior, Barralet nonetheless insisted on sticking to the artistic conventions in which he had been trained. His importance lay in his ability to interpret American exceptionalism to a public that wanted to see it expressed in the language of neoclassical allegory. America Guided by Wisdom was one of Barralet’s last works, and one of his most compelling.


Barralet divided his composition into a “foreground,” a “middle ground,” and a “third ground.” In the foreground stands Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom (Greek Athena), pointing to a shield bearing the arms of the United States and the inscription “Union and Independence.” The shield is held up by a seated woman of classic beauty, in a headdress with long dark hair, and flowing dress and cape. This figure is known to art historians as “The Plumed Goddess,” a label coined by E. McClung Fleming. Contemporaries, though, referred to her as “America” or “The Genius of America.” She was also portrayed as “Liberty” and “Columbia.” Until the 1780s the most common allegorical representation of America was as an Indian princess. The American Revolution, steeped in the ideas and imagery of Greece and Rome, unleashed a neoclassical revival in the new republic. The Indian princess symbol was given a Greco-Roman makeover, transforming her into a Greek goddess. The Plumed Goddess, Fleming writes, was “always depicted near a classical pyramid, altar, pedestal, or urn usually dedicated to the memory of George Washington and other Revolutionary heroes, and very often accompanied by an assortment of figures from classical mythology.”

Lying at the feet of The Plumed Goddess, in her guise as The Genius of America, is a cornucopia filled to overflowing with American produce. The descriptive text explains that it is by “Union and Independence” that “the country enjoys the prosperity signaled by the horn of plenty, at the feet of America.” On the ground between America and Minerva are a spear and a gorgoneion, a shield with the image of the head of Medusa. In Greek mythology the gaze of Medusa could turn a man to stone. Medusa was killed by the hero Perseus who cut off her head and presented it to Athena who put it on her shield.

Cameo of the Emperor Augustus wearing a gorgoneion, c. 20 AD.

A gorgoneion from a second century AD Roman sarcophagus

The gorgoneion is a very ancient symbol of power with roots deep in prehistory. Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas traces it back to the Sesklo culture of the Neolithic Balkans around 6000 BC. Gimbutas believes such early gorgoneia were associated with the cult of the Mother Goddess and represented “dynamic life energy.” Of course Barralet would not have known this, but he does try to convey the dynamic energy of commerce in his design. In Greek and Roman antiquity gorgoneia were used as devices to ward off enemies. They could be found in temples and on dress, dishes, weapons, and coins throughout the Greco-Roman world. By keeping the spear and shield with the gorgoneion partly hidden, Barralet implied that with the end of the war such weapons were no longer needed. They would be kept in reserve while the arts of peace and commerce could flourish once more. And to emphasize this, rays of sunlight emerge from behind the clouds, looking much like the stripes of the flag, to illuminate the figure of America. This was also a sign that Divine Providence would favor America and a promise of better times to come.


In the middle ground of the print, Barralet placed an equestrian statue of George Washington in front of the triumphal arch. On the base of the statue is a plaque listing the years of Washington’s birth, death, and inauguration as president. Barralet tried to convey a dual message here: a celebration of Washington’s military victories and the progress of the liberal arts. Barralet was emphasizing a point that Washington himself had made at the end of the Revolutionary War. Victory in war, securing the nation’s independence and sovereignty, made the peaceful pursuits of art and commerce possible. This is an example of what historian Ian Morris calls “the paradox of violence.” The wars and civil wars that were an inevitable part of the process of empire building and nation building eventually created peace, prosperity, and an upward arc of social development. The ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 BC), in the epilogue to his famous law code, justified his wars of conquest as part of the process of nation building. Having created an empire through war, Hammurabi wanted to be remembered as the king who brought peace and prosperity to his people. “I annihilated enemies everywhere,” he proclaimed, “I put an end to wars, I enhanced the well-being of the land, I made the people of all settlements lie in safe pastures, I did not tolerate anyone intimidating them. . . . I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely in my lap. They prospered under my protective spirit, I maintained them in peace, with my skillful wisdom I sheltered them.” Clearly Hammurabi believed in the eighteenth century BC, as Washington did in the eighteenth century AD, that victory in war was the necessary precursor to the blessings of peace. Ancient Babylon, like modern America, would prosper under the guidance of wisdom, in this case provided by the god Shamash through his servant King Hammurabi. (Please note, Babylon is now Iraq. Saddam Hussein was no Hammurabi.)

Hammurabi receives symbols of authority from Shamash, god of wisdom.
From the top of the Hammurabi law code stela in the Louvre.

Andrew Jackson, too, understood this process of nation building when he told his victorious troops after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, “The weapons of warfare will be exchanged for the utensils of husbandry, & the wilderness which now withers in sterility & seems to mourn the desolation which overspreads it, will blossom as the rose, & become the nursery of the arts.” Jackson went on to explain, “But other chastisements remain to be inflicted before this happy day can arise. How lamentable it is that the path to peace should lead through blood & over the carcases of the slain!! But it is in the dispensations of that providence which inflicts partial evil, to produce general good.”

In June of 1783, as the Revolutionary War was coming to an end, Washington sent a circular letter to the state governors in which he put forth his understanding of how victory in war opened the door to a boundless future for America. Announcing his intention to step down as commander in chief of the army and return to private life, Washington offered parting advice to his countrymen on how to make the most of their victory.

The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.
Most providential, Washington believed, was that the United States had been born in an age of enlightenment. The eighteenth century had produced advances in the natural sciences and the social sciences—knowledge of history, society, and government—unprecedented in human history.

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had ameliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.
In short, America was perfectly placed to be guided by wisdom. The tides and fortunes of history had given Americans a near miraculous opportunity to create an exceptional culture of liberty and prosperity. The way to do this was to establish a strong national union grounded in justice, the rule of law, and popular sovereignty. And if Americans failed to make proper use of what was theirs for the taking, Washington warned, “and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.” Barralet was no doubt familiar with the circular letter, which historian Joseph Ellis called the most lyrical piece Washington ever wrote. It was widely circulated and expressed the American public’s own understanding of the source of their new nation’s strength and future prospects. In America Guided by Wisdom, Barralet transformed Washington’s ideas from the circular letter, about the sources of and prospects for American exceptionalism, into neoclassical visual allegory.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Consumation, 1834-1836. Rome reborn on western shores.

While Washington was leading America’s fight for independence, back in England, Edward Gibbon was working on his historical masterpiece, The History of the Decline of Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon had spent more than a decade pondering why such a mighty civilization as Rome should collapse, a process he called an “awful revolution.” Gibbon was convinced that Rome’s decline and fall in the three centuries that followed the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 AD) had relevance to his own time. It was “a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.” And Gibbon was right. It was only in the eighteenth century that Western Civilization had regained the levels of social development and sophistication originally reached under the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries. Many thinkers of the European Enlightenment believed that the glory and achievements of Rome would be reborn in the new American republic; a republic led by its very own Cincinnatus, George Washington.

As early as 1775, George Washington was being venerated as a divinely inspired leader, a special favorite of the goddess of wisdom. Phillis Wheatley, a twenty-two-year-old slave in Boston, and the first known African American woman poet, wrote an ode to Washington filled with neoclassical imagery of the goddess lending her support to the glorious cause of America. “The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair, / Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair: / Wherever shines this native of the skies, / Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.” Wheatley expressed, perhaps for the first time, the idea of Washington as first in war and first in peace. “Shall I to Washington their praise recite? / Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fright. / Thee, first in peace and honours,—we demand / The grace and glory of thy martial band. / Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more, / Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!” Wheatley concluded her poem with a call to arms. Washington, guided by the goddess of wisdom, would lead America to her glorious future:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine.
Wheatley’s poem was early evidence of the emerging cult of Washington. The commander in chief was being transformed into the mythic figure of Cincinnatus, a transformation to which Barralet would add some finishing touches.

General Washington's Resignation.  John James Barralet, Alexander Lawson, 1799. 
“. . . the plow awaits the plowman.”

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

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