The History of America: The Birth of American Culture
While the new American settlers were busy growing tobacco and building city churches in their new environment, European immigrants who moved to America didn’t cease being or wanting to be Europeans. In fact, they wanted to reshape their new homes and cities into what they had left behind in Europe instead of attempting to create their own new society. American culture didn’t actually exist at this time, as a majority of what could be considered culture in the new world was brought from other countries. However, culture was soon to become a major part in American life. Literature, portraits, religion and other important factors would eventually flower into the basis of American culture, even though it seems that they would piggy back off of English culture for quite some time before sparking into something much more.
Throughout the courses of history, culture can easily be split up and classified into three separate categories:
- Vernacular or Folk Culture —
- a piece of culture that was made for only a small group of people, such as a neighborhood, family, or a small community filled with similar people, such as a specific tune for a fiddle or a handwoven quilt. Vernacular culture is the smallest category, and we won’t focus that much in this post.
- Urban Culture —
- a piece of culture that has a broad acceptance and/or understanding position in a large group of town dwellers, and something that is sold as a specific kind of culture in a society. Usually urban culture becomes a method for making cash in a broad area, such as a local newspaper.
- Elite Culture —
- a piece of culture that happens to be the product of a skilled profession, oftentimes with complicated meanings and symbolism that can only be understood or appreciated by men of higher class or intelligence. Elite culture is usually purchased by rich men as a chance to impress or display their new prize, even though they have little to no idea of its true purpose or meaning. Art, sculptures, engravings, etc. can be elite culture.
In this specific time in New England, the most common culture would have to be the elite kind. Without a culture of their own, the people of the Americas still enjoyed that of mostly England. And, of course, New England would be the perfect cradle for a booming start to culture in this new world.
New England had the things necessary for culture to spread. It had much more organized networks for exchange, which benefited the start of urban culture. Not only this, it had a large class of professional intellectuals who were incredibly skillful and conscious producers of complex literature and art. As we talked about in previous posts, religion would prove to make yet another mark on the growing cities of America through the idea of publishing sermon lectures in a form of readable literature. Not only this, a wide spectrum of poetry came from the works of Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672), Michael Wigglesworth (1631 – 1705), and the most prominent of them all during this time Edward Taylor (1642 – 1729). Taylor was said to be the most talented, complicated, and mysterious of English writers.
Another thing that America lacked originality in during the time was portrait painting. In America, there was no real entertainment in landscape and scenery painting, yet portraits were often common. Robert Feke (1707 – 1752), John Greenwood (1727 – 1792), Joseph Badger (1708 – 1765), and John Simbert (1688 – 1751) were all interesting painters during this time period that focused on line-styled portraits.
John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) as born on July 3rd in Boston as the son of two Irish immigrants. However, his father would pass away ten years after Copley’s birth, and his mother would quickly remarry a Boston engraver who would introduce him to the world of small guilds of Boston portrait painters, containing the names of the men above.
Feke, Greenwood, and Badger all painted to order, and they were generally described as line-filled, heavy handed, and almost entirely without or with very bland background. This was so the portrait would focus on the subject and not distract the eye further than a bland background could. Simbert, however, was the first to ever be trained during this era in America to do elite portrait painting, something very common in England. And until his eyesight began to fail during the 1740’s, Simbert was considered the undisputed master of American painting.
John Singleton Copley was an admirer of European styles of art. As a result, Copley’s portraits (such as the famous Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow, painted in 1774), had several angles and the touch of his brush seemed light compared to the heavy handed practices of men like Feke. The colors in Copley’s paintings were incredibly brighter than other styles of art during the era, with rose colored flesh and yellow highlights being introduced to Americana paintings.
In 1765, Copley produced his finest portrait, called “Boy with a Squirrel”. It was incredibly English styled, and he didn’t attempt in the least to make it normal compared to the other art in this time in America. This made Copley a sensation, and the painting was sent to London. Critiques and reviews labeled it as “the best to be made on these occasions.” If he wanted to rise in the world of art, however, it was clear that Copley would have to study and further change his styles. After debating with himself for quite some time, he left America in 1774 and headed off to London, never to return to the land of the free where he was born.
If one were to carefully look at “American” culture during this time, one would easily see that it wasn’t “American” at all. The poets wrote in English styled patterns, the portrait painters had began to take English ideals and copied elite English culture into their art. After Copley left for London, it became a life goal for most painters to be able to leave America entirely and set up shop in England for the rest of their days and devote themselves entirely to their artwork.
Benjamin West (1738 – 1820), who was born outside Philidelphia, was the son of an inkeeper who happened to be Quaker. Unlike Copley, who lived through most of his career in America, West received an early opportunity to leave the provinces known as America and leave for Europe after a ship master promised him free passage to Leghorn, Italy. His merchant friends raised funds for him to afford his studies overseas, and from 1760 to 1764 Benjamin West studied art in Italy, and afterwards he settled in London. There he set up a studio and began to paint scenes from history. Unlike many artists at the time, he used landscapes. The Death of Wolfe at Quebec (circa 1770) painting is said to be one of his finest. Although the landscape was “North American”, it was easy to see that the people in the painting and the style of art itself were English. While West did in fact paint American-based scenery, once he made it to England, he never felt the urge or had an interest to return to those very scenes himself.
Another piece of culture wold be music. And William Billings (1746 – 1800), a Boston composer, would soon create the basis for “American music.” Musical life, at first, was least likely to develop its own culture in America due to the fact that English music from all three cultural categories was simply too cheap and simple to import from Europe to the colonies. It was easily bought and easily brought over from England, and that made it increasingly difficult to develop and have the urge to make their own domestic music. Puritans had produced a book of songs in America in the year 1640 known as “The Bay Psalm Book”, but the early versions of said book only contained words, not music. It was expected for puritans to sing them to popular tunes that were already known by the congregations — all of which were formed in England.
William Billings published “The New-England Psalm-Singer” in 1770, and it soon became an amazing hit. People in New England slowly started to become composers before the printing of this book, but their works were simple mocks of already existing English music. Billings, however, was a different story entirely. Billings is an interesting character in history. He was physically disabled with a shriveled hand and a blind eye, yet he possessed something not too many people were gifted with during the era — a sharp tongue, a fine ear, and a massive, vivid musical imagination. His book “The New-England Psalm-Singer” contained 126 songs, some composed in five and six part harmony, all written by Billings himself. He did not borrow any English sources of music.
Success encouraged Billings to produce three more musical books throughout his life. “The Singing-Master’s Assistant” was printed in 1778, quickly followed by “Music in Miniature” in 1779 and “The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement” in 1781. Although successful, Billing’s finances drained by 1790, and he lived the last ten years of his life on random oddball jobs until his death in 1800. However, he would write two more books before dying, one before his funds dried and one afterwards, “The Suffolk Harmony” in 1786 and “The Continental Harmony” in 1794. He had hoped to rise to the elite culture of music, yet it was obvious that he realized that, in America, it was a growth and alternate addition to English styles than a refinement and creation of an American one.
Now, moving forward, the earliest colleges in America revolved around philosophy. Harvard, created six years after Winthrop’s fleet landed on the shores, taught Aristotle’s philosophy. For centuries, Aristotle was said to be the last word on all philosophical matters, and before 1600 everyone accepted this. But waves of changes in society and culture itself would soon end that, and the Harvard way of teaching philosophy, as it began, would quickly become obsolete.
In 1620, Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) published his book known as “The New Instrument of Learning”, which questioned why anyone should accept Aristotle’s — or anyone else’s — philosophy on how the world around them worked. Bacon encouraged students to study nature directly, something that had never been considered during Aristotle’s way of studying — which included forming conclusions and reading. This new philosophy started the ideals of the enlightenment.
Moving to the future, England was hit hard by Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. While Aristotle had taught that a stone falls due to the fact that it shares a common quality with the earth and longs to be attached to it, Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) observed and reported that natural and mechanical laws controlled the reasoning behind a stone — or anything for that matter — fell to earth. Aristotle claimed humans were composed of earthly body and heavenly soul while John Locke (1632 – 1704) showed how humans were nothing more than a product of their own senses and experiences.
Cotton Mather (1663 – 1728) was the grandson of New England’s first generation’s best ministers (John Cotton and Richard Mather), and at the age of fifteen he graduated from Harvard. It is said that he knew Latin so well he could listen to a sermon in English and take notes in Latin as he listened. He originally attempted to advance into a career in medicine due to a lisp, which he believed would stop him from succeeding in the ministry business, but as time progressed, his speech impediment cleared. In 1683, he was called to be the assistant to his father, Increase Mather (1639 – 1723), who served as the head minister of Boston’s North Church.
Cotton, like many, accepted Newtonian physics due to the fact that they seemed sensible and harmonized perfectly with the Calvinist idea that God made the world exactly how he wanted. He even applauded Isaac Newton for his work, and quickly attempted to throw the teachings into one of America’s strongest religion. Eventually, Cotton Mather would get involved with the Salem Witch Trials.
However, not everyone thought the information provided by men like Newton and Locke fit perfectly into Calvinism. Many men during this time turned to the idea of deism, that God created the universe and walked away from it to let it run by its own laws. And perhaps one of the most famous deists of all time would be none other than Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. In 1723, he quit his apprenticeship and moved to Philadelphia, where he began working for others. By 1727, he had opened his own printing shop, and before he turned 40, he had become wealthy enough to retire from his shop and have his portrait painted in a specific style — the elitist style of English paintings.
Franklin began reading these new philosophies and didn’t believe in them, but however, he accepted the idea of deism even more afterwards. He believed that God created Earth as a clock, and after he created it, he hung it on the wall and moved on to the next project, leaving the “clock” Earth to tick and function on its own, restricted to its own limitations. Shortly after this, he became extremely interested with electricity. In the 1740’s, he demonstrated how electricity and electrical energy worked through many documented trials, but the true fame came in 1752 when Franklin arranged his famous experiment.
It included a silk kite and a metal key. Franklin had sent the kite into a rainstorm and was very happy to see the lightning strike the damp kite and stream downwards towards the metal key. This showed that lightning was not only made of electricity, but that it could be easily manipulated by humans if they understood the laws and limitations of nature.
Publication of this experiment gave Benjamin Franklin an honorary degree from Harvard and the satisfaction and respect from nearly every scientific union in Europe.
In his life, Franklin would found the first library, formulate scientific plans, organize fire committees, and much more. This founding father always wanted to be thought of as a respected English gentleman, and thus had himself painted that way.
Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), at the age of thirteen, went to Yale University. During his philosophical studies, he came up with three famous questions:
- Are our five senses really the source of our ideas?
- Where did these ideas in the mind come from?
- Does the mind possess a sense, so to speak, whereby the mind is able to perceive the ideas which God raises in it?
These questions called out everything the people in America, and even Europe, had based their religious culture on. Jonathan Edwards thought this as the sense of the heart, which he defined as a combined response of human personality mixed with the divine thought of God. He claimed something deists had cast away as wrong — that God is needed for everything, not only food, crops, and advancement, but for every idea the human mind could think of.
This cultural revival was provoked by Edwards’ questioning.
And we’ll pick up there in the next addition. That concludes post seven of The History of America in Less than 100 Posts. In the next post, we’ll be focusing on the cultural revival of America, The Great Awakening.