The Promised Land: Memory and Desire - Part 4
We are pleased to present a very special article in four parts, Wendell Garrett’s lecture, THE PROMISED LAND: MEMORY AND DESIRE, which opened the 55th Williamsburg Antiques Forum, February 2-6, 2003.
America in the middle of the 19th century was, in Emerson’s eloquent phrase, at "the cockcrowing and the morning star." Few doubted that the future would be better than the past, for progress was in the air and change meant improvement. Was not the steamboat better than the sailing ship; the steam locomotive better than the horse-drawn carriage; the textile machine more efficient that the hand loom; Christianity superior to paganism; and democracy preferable to monarchy? A succession of innovative and imaginative concepts were applied to the manufacture of household items, and these, cleverly simple but fantastically successful inventions, played a conspicuous role in the creation of the might industrial Northeast. For the young and vigorous nation, time pressed; speed was of the essence.
The world might be reconstructed morally within a generation if every man did his best, and they worked morning, noon and night to free slaves, reform drunkards, educate children and lay railroad tracks. They gulped their food and hurried from place to place as though the world would collapse if they neglected the real business of life for more than ten minutes of time. "The present year," Martin Van Buren said in 1838, in the mood of rising optimism congenial to a youthful nationalism, "closes the first half century of our federal institutions. It was reserved for the American Union to test the advantages of a government entirely dependent on the continual exercises of the popular will."
The Jacksonian age witnessed the so-called rise of the common man: there was an upsurge of admiration and respect for the rude majority who seized control of the government by electing the hero of the battle of New Orleans to the presidency; a democratic spirit emerged that repudiated traditional notions of deference and position. It was a romantic era which affirmed the rights of all men and was strongly influenced by the Revolution that had preceded. It. The same romantic vision of the world inspired Frederic Church to paint his vast canvases of Niagara Falls and William Sidney Mount to capture the everyday life of Americans in his genre scene. Mount sought to render with his brush the egalitarian tenets of Jacksonian democracy, and his adherence to these principles shows in his often quoted remark: "Paint pictures that will take with the public—never paint for the few, but the many."
During the rich confusion of this era, we became industrialized. We founded new towns and built old ones into cities; we constructed a new physical environment from steam, electricity, coal, gas, iron and steel; we wrapped the nation in railroad lines and telegraph cables; and we created a new life in an Eden that had embarrassingly outgrown its old patterns and institutions. We produced the most amazing gallery of powerful and picturesque personalities we have ever fostered – some ethically corrupt, economically ruthless and politically incompetent, others dreamers and reformers who carried utopias in their hands.
During the half century before 1860, a remarkable generation of inventor-entrepreneurs – the pioneers of American industrial enterprise – disrupted the traditional order and instigated a revolutionary system of manufacture based on interchangeable parts. Close on the heels of the first American Revolution followed a second revolution, heralded not by the thunder of cannon and the rattle of musketry, but by the whirr of factory machinery and the clang of locomotive bells.
Why did these Americans, who had only recently knit together remote settlements on the fringes of a continental wilderness, change a relatively static, traditional society into a dynamic society built on indigenous innovations in industry, commerce and agriculture? How does one account for the mechanical genius of an Alfred Hoggs who could turn our locks, or a Samuel Colt who could turn out revolvers, or a Cyrus McCormick who could turn out reapers in such incredible numbers and with such efficiency as to leave the British attending the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 dumbfounded?
A number of material reasons have been put forth for these remarkable advances: the absence in the New World of a restrictive feudal past; geographical isolation from the continent of Europe, which was repeatedly devastated by wars; a fertile, well-watered agricultural land; abundant wood in the Northeast for the charcoal smelting of widespread ore deposits and scores of streams to produce cheap power. But there are also cultural clues for industrialization. The ease of incorporating an enterprise and the legal protection of contracts were powerful stimulants to investment, just as the American acceptance of novelty stimulated manufacture. In this fragmented society, associations of master craftsmen or guilds were never able to exercise exclusive control over journeymen and apprentices. Exceptionally flexible workbench artisans and craftsmen who had to be jacks-of-all-trades may have been short on book learning or skilled craftsmanship, but they could build effective labor saving machines. Consequently, many artisans moved readily from making furniture to erecting milling machinery, or from building barns to constructing textile mills, or from working for wages to becoming entrepreneurs.
Symbolic of the tremendous growth of this period was the vision of Herman Melville. "We are the pioneers of the world," he wrote in 1850, "the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience our wisdom." Melville’s prophetic words aptly summarized both the reality and the promise of American life at mid-century. The American dream of unlimited opportunity rested on a fatalistic Calvinist belief in the inevitability of progress. To Lincoln, as to most of these countrymen, America represented a new kind of society, a land in which the corruption of the Old World could be avoided and where, for the first time, what he called the government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" could flourish. A generation was reared on the serialized success stories of Horatio Alger – a Harvard-trained Unitarian minister who retailed the much-worn plot of the ambitious village lad who rose through hard work to wealth and distinction in the city. And, there were living examples of great business leaders who had risen from small beginnings and were able to build for themselves mammoth homes, filled with choice furnishings – some old, some new – and to offer the most extraordinary philanthropies in history. In the tradition of the great merchant princes of the Renaissance, these men of new wealth of the Gilded Age became patrons and supporters of the arts, medicine, education, research, social reform and other forward-looking causes. Had the business men of this era not had a greater degree of social responsibility in the use of their wealth than legend credits them with, we would not have the University of Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller University or the Pierpont Morgan Library. At the same time we became industrialized, we also assumed what Santayana ironically called the Genteel Tradition of high culture. Many have criticized the scandals and boldest abuses of these captains of industry, but the important truth is that to a degree beyond that evident in any other society, this most amazing gallery of powerful and picturesque personalities in America came to consider it their proper function to subsidize culture for the public good. This is, in its own way, a unique American achievement. These were colorful decades of striking contrast, of contending aspiration, of new life crowding out the old; in these years were to be seen many portents for the future.
When Francis Henry Taylor published the first volume of his monumental and magisterial The Taste of Angels: A History of Art Collecting from Rameses to Napoleon in 1948 (at the time the Williamsburg Antiques Forum was founded), he promised a "subsequent volume" dealing "with European collectors of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of collecting in America." Francis Taylor, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Worcester Art Museum, died prematurely in 1957 at the age of 54. In some sense, we are in part filling in this lacuna left by Taylor ’s death a half century later.
This week, our speakers will be attempting to define and describe true collectors. Antiques collectors are neither odd nor are they ordinary; even though quite different as individuals, collection for each of them is (or was) at once an art and a response to impulses of great depth. By any measure, they are (or were) giants in their day who have cast a long shadow across the fields of American art, antiques and historic architecture. Young and old, amateur and professional – all of us owe a profound debt of gratitude to these collectors. They marked a new departure and essentially a modern one, best expressed in a moving inscription from Pericles chiseled into one of the massive interior pillars of the National Gallery of Art: "For the whole earth is the sepulcher of famous men (and women) and their story is not graven only in stone over their native earth, but lives far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives."
In the long view of history, the Promised Land, this new nation, was in abnormally rapid transition. At a speed and in a manner that startled the nations from which they and their ancestors had come, Americans moved from apparent insignificance to acknowledged prominence, from shaky beginnings to solid achievements. This "Empire of Liberty" – of which Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and their colleagues dreamed and spoke – was dedicated to:
the beauties of personal liberty
the security of constitutionalism
the rightness of democracy
the wrongness of class distinctions
the virtue of private property
the moral necessity of hard work
the inevitability of progress
and, above all,
the high destiny and glorious future of the United States.
In Redburn, Herman Melville gave this cosmopolitan belief its noblest expression in 1849, when Americans were deeply divided about the meaning of their history: "We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance."
It has now been nearly two centuries since the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville – who had just turned thirty – brought out his Democracy in America, yet that work remains the greatest interpretive work ever written on the United States and the classic analysis of the subtle and complex ramifications of democracy. Convinced that democracy was bound to spread, Tocqueville was not concerned exclusively, or even primarily, with America; he was writing for the benefit of his own people and of the people of the Old World in general. His book was a monument to his faith in democracy, but at the same time, revealed his misgivings over the disparity between the golden dream and the vulgar reality of the American experiment. He was filled with doubts when he contemplated the consequence of political democracy, social equality, universal free education, the mixture of peoples and races, and the new standards of material well-being. Could a federal system so extensive and so artificial endure? Could a democracy avoid degenerating into a tyranny of the majority over the rights of the minority? Could the arts and sciences flourish in a society that was committed to the doctrine of equality? Could morality prosper without an established church? Was sovereignty, ultimately, in the United States, or in the states? These were momentous questions debated with fiery oratory in the legislative halls of the state capitals across the breadth of this country.
What is the explanation of this insatiable curiosity about America by foreign visitors? And the interest in America which animated the best of them – and their number is large – was profound. No other people, it is safe to say, was ever so besieged by interpreters; none had its portrait painted, its habits described, its character analyzed, its soul probed so incessantly. They saw, from the beginning, that America held the key to the future; some even thought that the newest of nations held the key to the past as well.
"I confess," wrote the incomparable Tocqueville, "that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself – with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions – in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress." And, he added that "the question here discussed is interesting not only to the United States but to the whole world; it concerns not a nation, but all mankind."