|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
—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
|Cameo of the Emperor Augustus wearing a gorgoneion, c. 20 AD.|
|A gorgoneion from a second century AD Roman sarcophagus|
Hammurabi receives symbols of authority from Shamash, god of wisdom.
From the top of the Hammurabi law code stela in the Louvre.
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.
Washington believed, was that the 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. United States
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.
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, America 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. Washington
|Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Consumation, 1834-1836. “Rome reborn on western shores.”|
Washington was leading America’s fight for independence, back in , 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 England 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 Rome 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 . “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 America 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 Washington, guided by the goddess of wisdom, would lead to her glorious future: America
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,
! Be thine. Washington
Wheatley’s poem was early evidence of the emerging cult of
. The commander in chief was being transformed into the mythic figure of Cincinnatus, a transformation to which Barralet would add some finishing touches. Washington
© 2010 Michael Kaplan
|General Washington's Resignation. John James Barralet, Alexander Lawson, 1799. |
“. . . the plow awaits the plowman.”
© 2010 Michael Kaplan