Class Warfare – Early Republic Style

Everywhere during the 1780s and 1790s—in New York, Philadelphia, Albany, Charleston, Portsmouth, Providence, Boston, and elsewhere—disputes broke out over the establishing of theaters. Of course, in most communities there were well-to-do elites that enjoyed the theater and had no problem with such expressions of luxury as tea parties and theatrical productions. But they had to contend with growing numbers, especially among the middling sorts like William Findley, who feared the influence of the theater and resented those wealthy merchants and luxury-loving professionals who favored it. These middling opponents argued that the theater stimulated debauchery, seduced young men, subverted religion, and spawned brothels. Some argued that it was the theater that had done the most to corrupt England, and thus it helped account for Britain’s tyrannical behavior that brought about the Revolution. Others suggested that the theater contributed to the spread of the deception and dissimulation that were serious problems in America’s fluid society. “What was the talent of an actor?” asked the Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller, but the “art of counterfeiting himself, of putting on another character than his own, of appearing different than he is.”48 For many it seemed that the future of the new Republic itself had come to rest on preventing the performances of stage plays; “they only flourished when states were on the decline,” declared critics in Pennsylvania in 1785.49

Wood, Gordon S. (2009). Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) (Kindle Locations 10217-10227).

 

Well, there is more than class warfare here (and of course using the term is somewhat anachronistic, and is used in some ways for mere effect, but you get my point) – obviously there is also the religious angle to consider.  Indeed, it was in part because of such attitudes by the middling sorts that Unitarianism was able to triumph at a number of American universities.

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Didactic Art

The principal criterion of art in this neoclassical era lay not in the genius of the artist or in the novelty of the work but rather in the effect of the art on the audience or spectator. Consequently, someone like Joel Barlow could believe that his epic of America, Vision of Columbus (later the Columbiad), precisely because of its high moral and republican message, could exceed in grandeur even Homer’s Iliad.

Wood, Gordon S. (2009). Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) (Kindle Locations 10085-10088).

 

I can think of few things more tiresome than this sort of attitude.  I believe it illustrates just how uncomfortable many elements of the early republic were with the population around them.  In fact, they apparently feared truly democratic art in the same way that cultural conservatives have always feared it up to this day.

Time Zones

I must have WordPress set an incorrect time zone; the time it has for each of my postings is way, way off – by seven or eight hours as far as I can tell.  Right now it is 9:15 PM; let’s see what it lists as the posting time.