War, whether it takes place in modern times, in ancient Greece or the eighteenth century, embodies specific values of the cultures that take part in them. The Revolutionary War was no different, and considering its unique status as the struggle out of which this country was founded, in many ways it became the cornerstone of the values that would later pervade American culture. We may find examples of these values located in the paintings of George Washington, our founding father and national hero, as portrayed by Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart.
Lastly, we shall examine how men such as John Trumbull tried to memorialize Washington and the values he embodied. In order to best understand these values, however, one must first analyze the events leading up to the war and the outcome of the war itself. The Revolutionary War was fought between the British empire and the colonies in North America from 1775 to 1783. Before the revolution most people in the North American colonies considered themselves loyal servants of the crown and believed that they have same rights and obligations as people in Britain.
However, under the doctrine of mercantilism the British considered the colonies more of a resource to be utilized for the benefit of their own economy and had little respect for the colonists. Mercantilists held that a nations wealth consisted primarily in the amount of gold and silver in its treasury. Accordingly, mercantilist governments imposed extensive restrictions on their economies to ensure a surplus of exports over imports (Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil 1). Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, said that in mercantilism the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer (Smith 1).
The future Americans disliked this thievery, and began to protest the unfair trade policies. These differences in beliefs led to a vicious circle of colonists acting against what they saw as unfair policies and harsh British reactions, followed by stronger response from the colonies, until the escalating tensions erupted into the Revolutionary War. As the colonists started rejecting the Crown they also started paying more attention to the idea of democracy. But before Democracy was victorious, the power of the monarchy had to be dealt with.
The colonial army proved no match for the well-armed British and suffered an embarrassing series of defeats in the Battle of Brooklyn Heights. By the end of 1776, Quebec, New York City and much of New Jersey were in British hands. However, during Christmas week, General George Washington, who had retreated into Pennsylvania, crossed the Delaware River back into New Jersey and sneaked up on British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton. This was a decisive victory, that boosted the strength and morale of American forces.
With the help of French naval forces the British Royal Navy was defeated on September 5th at the Battle of the Chesapeake. The outcome of this struggle was the recognition of independence in the thirteen southernmost of the colonies, as well as lightly settled territories west to the Mississippi River. This affirmed the right of the colonies to live by democratic ideals, including the ownership of property and the right to liberty. One of the most talented painters born in North America during British rule was Charles Willson Peale. A skilled painter, Peales artistic career was focused on politics before and after the war.
In 1779 the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commissioned him to paint a full-length portrait of George Washington that commemorated the victories at Princeton and Trenton and to rally pride and patriotism in the people. The painting, titled George Washington at Princeton, shows him standing at the battlefield near the site of his victory, not far from Nassau Hall of Princeton College. Washington does not appear majestic despite being in his soldiers uniform and with a group of prisoners beyond him. It seems as if he doesnt want the artist to display him as a grand monarch.
He is not idealized, but painted with great realism and detail; his pale face, tilted posture, and crossed legs show his exhaustion from the battle. Despite the destructiveness of the war throughout the portrait, there is this feeling of importance of the occasion. Over his Continental uniform he wears the broad blue ribbon that helps distinguish him as the Commander-in-Chief. The wearing of this ribbon had been adopted by general order on July 14, 1775 to help identify Washington as he passes through the picket lines during battle (AFA lobby cards).
This fancy silk ribbon represents more than his official status, but also the hope the young nation places on him, he who was originally taken from home and recruited to fight in the army like so many others. It looks as out of place on him as he does in the battlefield, and only adds to our sense of his humility. The two cannons symbolize two successful battles; the captured German flags indicate the Battle of Trenton, and the fallen British flag commemorates the Princeton battle. Peales work portrays Washington as an intelligent hero, filled with humility, pleasant and filled with an unassuming strength (G. W. at Princeton, Peale, AFA).
The second portrait worthy of examination is The Lansdowne Portrait, painted by Gilbert Stuart, portraying George Washington at the end of his career as President. Here we are able to note Washingtons achievements and accomplishments since the Revolution. We immediately notice the difference in the surroundings and in Washingtons appearance. The colorful composition and George Washingtons proud, healthy and welcoming posture symbolizes the flourishing of the American Republic that only seven years previously has enacted its constitution.
Wearing elegant black clothing instead of a loose uniform, he now resembles more of a noble philosopher. Washington is also shown completely at ease, his awkwardness replaced by an aura of nobility. Some of the smaller details of the painting are also significant, some being factual and others invented to give symbolic meaning. The chair, with its inlaid American flag in gilded laurel leaves and stars, symbolizes victory, while the table with its bound ionic column legs (known as fasci- Roman emblem of authority), inlaid with eagles holding a bundle of arrows illustrate American victory at war.
On the table are two books: The Journal of Congress and The Federalist. Under the table three more are visible which prominently speak of Washingtons role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continentals Army (1775-17830), President of the constitutional Convention of Congress (1787), Signer of the Constitution (1787), and President of the United States (1789-1796) (AFA lobby cards). The differences between the two paintings are significant. Instead of depicting Washington leaning tiredly on a cannon in George Washington at Princeton, The Lansdowne Portrait shows him standing tall and gesturing expansively.
Where Peales Washington was the vessel of the countrys hopes, Stuarts Washington has already delivered on our hopes; he is now scholarly, possessing not just humility and cleverness but also wisdom and statesmanship. Washingtons sword is sheathed and pointed downwards, and when compared to the rainbow behind the column, one must recognize the significance; both form a symbol of union and the promise of peace and prosperity after the storm. Washington decided to retire after two terms as president, setting the precedent for the maximum number of terms for nearly every President to follow him.
In his Farewell Address, delivered to his cabinet in September 1796, Washington warned against the dangers of sectionalism the competing allegiances of North and South and East and West and the dangers of political parties (or factions). Perhaps most significantly, Washington urged that the U. S. adopt an isolationist course, avoiding entangling alliances with European nations. With the war over and the new government formed, Washington delivered the Farewell Address, in which he communicated his concern for the preservation of the Constitutional rights and the importance of sustaining the union.
He spoke of the difficulties by which this great goal was accomplished and how people are the ones responsible for promoting the prosperity of their country and their liberties. Washington had become a hero in war and an articulate statesman in times of peace, and leader to an entire nation. For these reasons it should come as no surprise that men besides painters wished to tell of his legacy and the values he represented.
John Trumbull, a painter, was one of Washingtons great many fans and desired to promote the values and knowledge of the Revolution and the new government as well as Washington and other important figures in its creation. In his own words, he desired to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in the history of man; to give to the present and the future sons of oppression and misfortune such glorious lessons of their rights and of the spirit with which they should assert and support them (Trumbull 340).
In his mind and the minds of countless other Americans, the Revolutionary War had become one of the greatest struggles since they began recording history. Trumbull begged for financial support from wealthy patrons, for he was not wealthy himself, and wanted to spread knowledge of Washingtons achievements throughout America. Washington had led the men who turned America from an English colony into a self-governing nation, and his ideals of liberty and democracy set a standard for future presidents and for the whole country.
People like Trumbull, Peale, and Stuart did not only want heroes, they wanted the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They wanted freedom and justice for all, they made the understanding that we are one nation under God and they wanted to help distinguish America from Europe. America was young, vigorous and strong compared to civilization in Europe. These colonists were desperately trying to create their own identity, which would separate them from England and any other country.
They were dedicated to live their lives of Christian brotherhood while being guided by the divine providence. They were dedicated to the expansion of human rights. The American Revolution was one of the most famous wars in the history of our young country. However it was not just a war. It was the war that gave our country independence and instilled the values that we cherish and strive for. We can find these values articulated in the portrayals of George Washington, which memorialize him in the same way as the following inscription on Mount Vernon:
Washington, the brave, the wise, the good, Supreme in war, in council, and in peace. Valiant without ambition, discreet without fear, confident without presumption. In disaster, calm; in success, moderate; in all, himself. The hero, the patriot, the Christian. The father of nations, the friend of mankind, who, when he had won all, renounced all, and sought in the bosom of his family and of nature, retirement, and in the hope of religion, immortality.