Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 127 lessons | 5 flashcard sets
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Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
You might find a painting like this one - or a copy of it - on the walls of many American homes. And though not many people know the artist's name (it happens to be Albert Bierstadt), his work typifies so much of what was happening in American culture in the antebellum years.
Just the fact that so many people have copies of beautiful or inspiring artwork hanging on their walls is itself an outgrowth of a group of artists to which Bierstadt belonged, known as the Hudson River School. Bierstadt's painting depicts the Yosemite Valley in Yellowstone National Park. It's a beautiful illustration of what is often called the 'American Spirit' - these combined concepts of nationalism, romanticism, Manifest Destiny, optimism, grandeur and so much more. Even most of the music, literature, and entertainment of this time period draw heavily from these themes.
In history classes, you focus so much on politics and conflict. But in this lesson, we get to look at the birth of mainstream American culture in the years before the Civil War. Americans didn't form many distinct artistic and cultural characteristics until the 1800s. But then after the War of 1812, there was a burst of uniquely American culture, and a distinct identity from that of their colonial parents emerged. This period in literature is called the American Renaissance, though the phrase seems an apt description of all aspects of American culture at the time. Many European visitors from this era noted that everything about America seemed different - bigger - though some of it was an outgrowth of European sentiments.
Romanticism, for example, was a reaction to the hyper-rational, scientific approach of the European Enlightenment that said all experience had to be observable and measurable to be valid. Of course, the American Revolution did owe its origins to Enlightenment ideals. But Romanticism didn't exactly throw out the Enlightenment; it just validated emotional experience, too. As a whole, Romanticism affected visual art, music, and literature. Unfortunately, history was also influenced by Romanticism, as stories of the past were sometimes colored incorrectly through the Romantic lens. The Romantics wanted heroes and villains and drama; while rigid attention to detail was so much like that hyper-rational Enlightenment stuff they were trying to shake off.
You might know that Romanticism was not strictly an American movement. For example, Beethoven was a Romantic composer from Germany. But the Americans did it - well - bigger than everyone else. Its style fit so well with the American ideals of individualism, freedom, the goodness of nature, and morality over religion. Another important theme was nationalism. Romanticism was especially influential in American painting and literature.
Artists had been painting the American people for 200 years. But no one had been painting the American landscape. When a man named Thomas Cole took a boat ride up the Hudson River in 1825, he was inspired to paint the scenery, and thus was born the Hudson River School: a movement of artists who created romantic landscapes of the Hudson River Valley. A second generation of artists painted beyond the geographic borders of the Hudson, depicting the grandeur of the American frontier and nationalistic themes of discovery, exploration, and settlement. Though few of the artists are household names, their work helped people fall in love with this new and expanding nation. They also opened up the art world to the middle class. You didn't have to be part of the privileged aristocracy to see, understand, and appreciate art. A group of Hudson River School artists founded New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, introducing a new form of public entertainment.
Romanticism also influenced American writers. In this period, we see novels, short stories, and poems instead of the sermons and essays of the colonial period. Just like the visual art, Romantic literature emphasizes emotion, freedom, personal experience, and morality. Unlike the painters, many American authors and their works are household names: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, many poems by Walt Whitman, and countless stories by Edgar Allan Poe.
Female writers also finally had a voice in this era of American literature. Emily Dickinson is a well-known American poet of the day who wrote prolifically about the theme of individualism. Other women were especially adept at weaving in the political issues of the day. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and very influential in the abolition movement. Louisa May Alcott became famous after publishing Little Women. On the surface, it's a coming-of-age story written for children about four sisters whose father is away at war. But on a deeper level, the book explores the struggle between women's traditional, subservient social role and the growing desire to pursue their own goals in life and to achieve political equality.
We're not quite done with Romanticism yet. Because of its emphasis on individual feelings and its rapturous experience of nature, Romanticism gave birth to a very American philosophical movement called transcendentalism. At its core, transcendentalism emphasized the belief that by communing directly with nature, humans could transcend the sensory world and reach the supernatural. Intuition was much more important than fact, imagination better than the senses. People were born good but were corrupted by the institutions of society. As such, the transcendentalists inspired a number of very progressive reform movements aimed at improving society such as abolition, feminism, and education. Transcendentalism's legacy can still be seen in Americans' tendency toward self-reliance.
The most important transcendentalists were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson told Americans to stop imitating other people and just be themselves. He encouraged Americans to ''Hitch your wagon to a star!'' and set high personal goals and standards. Two of his best-known works are an essay titled, simply, ''Nature,'' and another called ''Self-Reliance.'' Henry David Thoreau didn't just write about theory, he put it into practice. For two years, he lived in the wilderness near Walden Pond, built his own cabin and tried to be completely self-reliant. He wrote about this experience in a famous book called Walden. Thoreau also became well-known for an essay titled ''Civil Disobedience,'' in which he encouraged Americans to stop paying taxes when the government was corrupt.
Americans also flocked to traditional (and not so traditional) religions in this era. It was a time of growth for a new generation of American church denominations and kindled the concept that faith was a private matter, between God and an individual's heart. You can learn more about this movement, known as the Second Great Awakening, in a separate lesson in this course.
The mid-1800s also saw the dawning of several utopian communes. Though they had varying goals, by definition, utopians are trying to create a perfect world. Brook Farm, the earliest such community, was founded on transcendental ideals and agricultural communism. While Brook Farm was a financial failure lasting only a few years, the Oneida Community (a religious commune) thrived. Its members became infamous for their very progressive beliefs about open sexual relationships. And though the commune fell apart after its founder fled the country ahead of statutory rape charges, their silverware business continued to grow. Oneida flatware has earned a place in many traditional American households to this day.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known more commonly as Mormonism, was also introduced in America in this period. Although founded in New York's so-called 'burned over' district and largely adherents of common beliefs at the time, the Mormons gained the ire of their neighbors for their practice of polygamy. After being forced progressively farther west, the Mormons blazed a trail to what was, at the time, Northern Mexico. Today, Utah is part of the United States, and though the Mormon faith is a lasting congregation, many of its founding principles (including communal living and polygamy) have ended.
It's impossible to summarize all of the trends and popular forms of culture and entertainment in a nation over half a century. So, let's just look at a few highlights.
First of all, we know from our discussion of communes that Americans loved joining groups. Social clubs, intellectual societies, fraternal organizations, charitable associations, religious affiliations - you name it. They also loved a good spectacle: traveling performers, circus acts, freak shows. Charles Blondin delighted crowds by walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls in 1859. He upped his game several times with stunts like performing the feat blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, walking on stilts and sitting on a chair he balanced on the rope.
Though Americans weren't creating much in the way of music, opera, or theater, they did manage to make two new contributions to show business. First of all, black-faced minstrel shows were introduced as a uniquely American genre. And P.T. Barnum made a rock star out of a Swedish opera singer. He brought Jenny Lind to New York City, marketed her shamelessly, auctioned off tickets (rather than selling them) and then sent her on tour across the country. Tens of thousands of people attended her concerts. Lind's celebrity was the first - but certainly not the last - of its kind for a musician.
Let's review. In the half century before the Civil War, Americans began to mature culturally, creating several of their own new phenomena and transforming some European trends into something bigger. Romanticism took root in American painting and literature, especially. The Hudson River School popularized landscape painting and introduced art museums to the American people. Romantic literature reached great heights in America, making household names out of several authors. Several notable authors were also women, including Louisa May Alcott.
Many Romantic themes were translated into a philosophical movement called transcendentalism, founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and popularized by Henry David Thoreau. Religion reflected the same trends, and several new religious groups were founded, including utopian communes, such as the Oneida community. In general, American pop culture included joining groups and witnessing amazing spectacles.
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Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 127 lessons | 5 flashcard sets