arts During the Revolutionary War

By Awet Amedechiel

By the mid-to late-eighteenth century, many colonial settlers had overcome survival difficulties, especially in the established urban settlements, and were able to partake in artistic endeavors. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1763, "after the first cares for the necessaries of life are over, we shall come to think of the embellishments." Nevertheless, art for the sake of art was not a popular sentiment in the British colonies. More often than not, homegrown artistic activities were strongly attached to practical affairs. Music was performed as part of religious services. Artisans applied their artistry to items for the home, as well as civic buildings and monuments. The idea was to endow common items and activities with beauty, thus enriching everyday life, what might be termed "externally justifiable" art. Thus, there were more architects and furniture-makers than painters and sculptors; more almanacs than novels; and more hymns than operas.

The creative activity that took place among the European-Americans was generally on the amateur level, since there was a dearth of skilled artists and artisans, and few institutions in which to acquire professional training. Architecture was a field in which the self-taught amateur dominated, so that amateur architects, carpenters, and builders played a major role because of the lack of professional architects. Peter Harrison was one such architect, known for designing the Touro synagogue and the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island. James Gibbs' Book of Architecture (1728) was a popular tome among these gentleman architects, with its depictions of famous and elegant European buildings, including the works of Sir Christopher Wren. Architects would study the pictures and design adapted versions for their own needs. The Christ Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the First Baptist Meetinghouse in Providence, Rhode Island, were both designed by amateur architects based on a depiction in Gibb's book of Wren's St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. In many Native American societies, however, the arts, often intimately connected with religious and social rites, were well developed, and skilled craftsmen and artists were regularly produced. Indigenous music and dance, including those required for religious rituals, as well as poetry, pottery, sculpting and carving, beadwork, and other art forms were respected and integral parts of many Native American societies. Despite the ignorant fear and cultural prejudice with which many Europeans reacted to Native American art, the tribes which survived the arrival of the Europeans continued to support the arts as natural and necessary parts of life.


In New England and parts of the Middle Colonies, the influence of religious groups, such as the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania, created artistic strains characterized by simplicity in fields such as architecture, furniture-making, silversmithing, and music. In frontier areas, the effort of survival was too taxing to allow enough social energy to foster complex, non-utilitarian art forms, so simplicity was adopted out of necessity. Those whose tastes and pocketbooks demanded more generally turned to imported culture from Europe. Southern plantation owners, able to exploit the cheap or free labor of indentured servants and slaves, were eager to emulate the lifestyle of the English elite and European nobility. They imported culture in huge doses, sending their children to Europe for a refined education, having their portraits painted by European artists, buying the latest fashions from London and Paris, and building homes based on European models. This supported the sentiment that there was something inherently superior about European culture, and that the emerging American culture, with its Native American, African, and European influences, was incapable of producing the kind of socially-acceptable refinement which many of the social-climbing plantation owner class so desperately sought. Up to that point, most settlers thought of themselves as Europeans in America, and so their desire was to bring their home cultures to their new homes. Once they arrived and faced the competing cultures of Native Americans, African-Americans, and other European immigrants, their pre-conceived notions of "culture" were disturbed. Many British colonialists made strong attempts to reassert cultural dominance, especially in the Southern colonies. Nevertheless, American artists of stature managed to emerge from among the amateur copycats. Two notable examples were James Singleton Copley and Benjamin West. Both artists were born in 1738, achieved early success, and subsequently moved to England. West maintained his ties with his American home, supporting the patriot cause and encouraging young American artists studying abroad. Copley, however, was married to a Tory and had his life threatened by mob violence. The two painters' styles were very different, with West's works being characterized by softness and romanticism, while Copley's works had a more severe, penetrating quality. Ironically, the patriot West was known for his paintings of the nobility, while it was the Tory Copley who portrayed figures from a wide range of social stations, including the revolutionary silversmith Paul Revere.

As with the "highbrow" arts, domestic arts for American consumers were based on European models. In Philadelphia, American furniture artisans became known for their Chippendale-style furniture. In Newport, Rhode Island, John Goddard and John and Edmund Townsend were also known for high-quality furniture that could compete with imported pieces. New England mud cottages with thatched roofs were modeled on English country huts, although traditional patterns had to be adjusted to accommodate the harsher New England climate. The Dutch-Americans in New Amsterdam maintained their Walloon-style brick homes, while the Swedish-Americans in Fort Christina built Swedish-style stone houses. Down south, however, rather than building homes like those appropriate to their social station in England, many English-Americans took their newly acquired tobacco fortunes and attempted to imitate the lifestyles and architecture of the English landed gentry. Thus, they developed the colonial Georgian style for Southern mansions and plantation houses.

The literature of the British colonies was dominated by essays, books, and pamphlets on various nonfiction topics. Much of the best-written non-fiction of the pre-Revolutionary period came from clergymen and other religious writers. The Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century produced clergymen-writers, the most famous of which was Rev. Jonathan Edwards. In addition to religious and moral topics, history was a popular subject for non-fiction books, so that colonies like Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York had their histories chronicled, and the five nations of the Iroquois were the subject of a historical tome. Journals and correspondence, both actual and fictionalized, were frequently written and occasionally published. Almanacs and didactic volumes were ubiquitous. As British-American relations worsened, much American nonfiction turned to political issues, with John Dickinson's Letter from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the inhabitants of the British Colonies (1768) and Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) being two of the most effective examples.

Although fiction was represented in the colonies, indigenous belles-lettres could not survive in the pre-Revolutionary colonies. A great deal of literature, especially fiction, was imported from England. Not until after the Revolutionary War would the first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789), be published. American writings which were not strictly practical were only one cut above the everyday in tone, if not quality. Since low literacy levels, competition from European books, and a degree of pragmatism in the emerging American psyche produced a limited audience for more refined literature, many American writers had to keep in mind the interests of British audiences if they wanted to sell their writings widely. Some writers, following the example of painters West and Copley, traveled to Britain for greater opportunities. Poet Phillis Wheatley even obtained the patronage of English nobility.

Theatrical arts were embraced and rejected by various segments of colonial society. In Annapolis and Charles Town, British theatrical troupes played to welcoming audience drawn from the wealthy secularized leisure class. Plays by British writers such as William Shakespeare, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and William Congreve were performed by professional actors such as the famous Thomas Kean, as well as students. In other cities, such as Boston and Philadelphia, which were heavily influenced by Puritans and Quakers respectively, huge protests resulted from attempts to bring theatrical performances to the colonies. Despite this, the first play by a native-born American, The Prince of Parthia, was written by a Philadelphia poet, Thomas Godfrey, and produced in 1767. Music developed along two paths - the sacred and the secular. Ministers, concerned about the future of church music, called for an improvement in musical education. The response to this call was the rise of the singing-school movement, in which independent American singing instructors would travel across the colonies to provide the musical education. From this movement emerged the New England School of Composers in the 1770's. These composers, including figures like William Billings, Daniel Read, Jacob French, Jacob Kimball, Samuel Holyoke, and Oliver Holden, used the distinctive "Yankee" feature of the "fuging tune." They would begin a choral hymn with the melody in tenor voice, then allow the other voices to enter in turn, creating a fugue-like sound without strict adherence to the compositional practices of such European composers as J. S. Bach. In 1770, Billings published a collection of his hymns, which became popular with churches both in and outside New England.

Beyond the sphere of the church, secular ballads became a popular form of entertainment, sometimes imported from England, sometimes created by Americans. The first recorded performance of an opera in the British colonies was the ballad opera Flora, or Hob in the Well., performed in 1735 in the courtroom at Charleston, South Carolina. Other British ballad operas, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, became popular, although more "refined" Italian operas would not come to North America until the nineteenth century. What seems to be the first American opera, James Hewitt's Tammany, was not staged until 1794. Nevertheless, more and more urbanites became interested in hearing performances of European art music. Public concerts with foreign performers began in New York, Boston, and Charleston, and organizations such as the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston, begun in 1762, sponsored musical events and increasingly called upon home-grown talent.

Once revolutionary fervor began to sweep the colonies, the practical bent in the emerging American persona embraced the arts as propaganda. Patriotic writings were published and discussed among the literate: pamphlets and essays such as James Otis' Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved of 1764 and Thomas Paine's Common Sense of 1776 were widely read and exerted an important influence on the solidification of patriot support. For the illiterate masses, Republican lyrics were added to new and familiar ballads, spreading the themes of the revolution. Political cartoonists supported the struggle for independence by depicting England as an old ogre of the past, while showing the emerging nation to be unfairly oppressed, but nevertheless full of hope and potential. In addition to Paul Revere's deliberately inaccurate depiction of the Boston "Massacre," one of the most famous political images of the war was Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" drawing, published in his Philadelphia Gazette on the eve of the Albany Congress, showing a snake split into sections with the names of each colony labeling each segment. Such words, songs, and images, often depicting actual stories of the courageous acts of patriotic Americans or vital issues of the day, served to rally widespread support for the Continental troops and their cause. Art was even involved in espionage. Patience Lovell Wright, a sculptor who modeled her wax figures after famous contemporaries, smuggled secret information to American forces in Philadelphia, concealed in her works of art.

Despite the strong influence of the "Old Country" on the emerging colonial arts, a beginning attempt was made to forge a homegrown artistic culture. The republican ideals of the revolution, in many ways diverging from European social and political structures, led the way for a uniquely American style. This conflict and interaction between European and American, as well as the related issue of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture, was to influence the entire history of art and culture in the United States.