After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture
Joseph J. Ellis
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Through portraits of four figures—Charles Willson Peale, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, William Dunlap, and Noah Webster—Joseph Ellis provides a unique perspective on the role of culture in post-Revolutionary America, both its high expectations and its frustrations.
Each life is fascinating in its own right, and each is used to brightly illuminate the historical context.
in the legislature, or a fiercely independent thinker. He had developed a personal perspective and style that defied conventional explanations or stereotypes; in fact, his dissatisfaction with the political or ideological labels available in postrevolutionary America was central to Brackenridge’s perspective. In place of the youthful enthusiasm and advocacy of the 1770s, he had fashioned a new way of seeing the emerging American society that anticipated many of the insights Alexis de Tocqueville
of birds which had departed the cold and tyrannical European continent and “cast a fondly wistful eye on the pure climate of the western sky.” They were supposedly landing all over America in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. “Behold, Appollo seeks this liberal plain,” Paine insisted, “And brings the thespian goddess in his train.”28 Dunlap’s History of the American Theatre confirmed this enthusiastic vision. From small and meager beginnings, so the story went, and after a century of
obviously not a villainous act. Indeed, Dunlap structured André so as to contrast two different versions of virtue, two different national ideals, one on the wane and the other on the rise, neither palpably ridiculous. Washington insists that André’s attractive personal qualities and Bland’s emotional ties to André must be subordinated to larger, more impersonal considerations. The essence of virtue for Washington is the ability to replace personal and individual preferences with rational
judgments of the communal welfare, in this case not only the welfare of the present generation but also of generations to come. Dunlap uses another character, a senior American officer named M’Donald, to express the strongest case against Bland’s scheme of values. M’Donald argues that Bland is the victim of “Misleading reason,” which places stumbling blocks in the way of “true virtue.” Bland’s affection for André, claims M’Donald, is rooted in the passions and in personal sentiment. “These things
two different apprehensions left him truly neutral. His constant reiteration of his disinterestedness also harked back to the 1780s, when he had promised himself, and anyone else who would listen, that his chief goal was public service and not personal advancement. His frequent announcements of editorial independence and his refusal to engage in name-calling were declarations of virtue from a man who had endured years of criticism and self-doubt because of his highly visible ambition. Now he