The expansive future is our arena. We are entering on its untrodden space with the truth of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past We are the nation of human progress and who will, what can, set limits on our onward march? … The far-reaching, the boundless future, will be the era of American greatness.…
New York State Representative John Louis O’Sullivan, 1780s (, 8)
As one of the first groups of Europeans to seek to establish an independent nation, the Americans were anxious to confirm their identity. Now that they had cast themselves adrift from their heritage, some warned that this unprecedented social odyssey would not be able to survive without an antiquity to be revered, defended, and transmitted. Some expressed a fear that the new republic may have been born impotent and that only by some form of divine intervention would it be able to achieve a sustaining vitality. Others found comfort in a conviction that a uniquely American philosophy was emerging that promised that the past was irrelevant to the new nation. They argued that the Americans did not need ancestors because they themselves were ancestors, thus echoing John Locke’s statement that “in the beginning all the world was America.” (, 319) The citizens of the young republic thus declared themselves independent of national origins and obliged to place their faith in individual conscience set against new challenges. In what was to become a strong New England movement a few years later, the American Transcendentalists counted on the presence of the Divine in each person as a source of truth and a guide to action.
The new citizens therefore sanctified every incident as a substitute for European antiquity. The landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the first Thanksgiving, the Boston Tea Party, and other events were hallowed as sacred moments of the new nation. Shrines were erected at the bridge where the embattled farmers fired “the shot heard ‘round the world,” on the hill where the barricaded patriots were ordered not to fire “until you see the whites of their eyes,” and in the woods where George Washington prayed for divine guidance.
In compensation for the loss of their European roots, the disenfranchised colonists hastened to embrace every symbol that would help them create an instant history of their own. From Benjamin Franklin’s political cartoons to the ancient political and architectural forms that were adopted, every distinctly American aesthetic abstraction was cherished. These symbols still permeate the communal and decorative arts of the United States.
Every product that had figured in the struggle for independence acquired an historic patina and was destined to become a model for countless reproductions in the future. The silver bowl that Paul Revere made on the eve of the Revolution for the Sons of Liberty in honor of the 92 patriots who voted not to rescind their letter urging the other colonies to unite against the British is the most honored relic of the time. The Windsor chairs and the silver inkstand that were used in the signing of the Declaration of Independence are displayed proudly in Independence Hall. Even Franklin’s glasses, Washington’s surveying instruments, and Jefferson’s drawing tools have become venerated relics of the American political saints.
In what must have been the first corporate identity program ever undertaken in the country, the leaders of the young republic ordered the design and development of heraldry and instruments and monuments of state. They resolved that a national banner be sewn, that a seal be devised, that coinage be struck in the Roman decimal system, and that the fashionable orders of ancient Greece be adopted for official architecture. For designers these acts mark the origin of style employed with deliberate intent to define and project the philosophy and ideals of a client. Two of the symbols, the flag and the Great Seal, clearly illustrate the two ends of the spectrum of corporate identity—the flag as a natural product of inevitable evolution and the seal as the result of deliberate invention.
The first legislative action on record establishing the national flag was taken in June 1777, when the Continental Congress “resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” Despite the popular stories of the roles of George Washington and Betsy Ross in the development of the flag, the facts are that its general design was a natural extension of preceding English flags. Only the origin of the decision to substitute stars for the combined crosses of Saint George and Saint Andrew seems to be lost in history. The ancient sign of Saint George (a red cross on a white field) had served as the banner of the English from the fourteenth century until 1606, when King James I, by royal proclamation, ordered that it be united with Scotland’s sign of Saint Andrew (a white diagonal cross on a blue field) as evidence of an alliance of the two kingdoms. The King’s Colors, as it was called, was ordered to be displayed from the maintops of the king’s own ships. (Since other English ships were still permitted to carry Saint George’s red cross, it is quite likely that the Mayflower displayed that banner when she landed the Pilgrims at Plymouth.) In 1707, after ratifying the complete union of England and Scotland, Parliament ordered that the two crosses should be cojoined in the upper inner corner (the union) of a crimson banner. This new flag was commonly known as the Union flag.
The Union flag was used in America with other local banners until the colonies separated from the mother country. When George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in July 1775 after the battle of Bunker Hill, this Union flag was flown over his camp, still acknowledging (at least as far as the British believed) allegiance to England. It was during this encampment that the Continental Congress decided that the troops raised by the several colonies to oppose the English should henceforth serve as the combined forces of “the United Colonies of North America.”
In October 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized the establishment of the first Federal Navy, there was still no national flag for the 17 ships to sail under. However, by the end of the year a committee including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and Benjamin Harrison recommended that the crimson field of the English Union flag be changed to “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, emblematic of the union of the thirteen colonies.” (, 218) This Grand Union flag, still bearing the English and Scottish crosses in the union, was raised for the first time in January 1776 over Washington’s camp at Cambridge. The British, and perhaps even most of the Americans, did not realize yet that the new flag was symbolic of the struggle for complete independence that was to come. By the middle of the year it was flown (in Washington’s presence) at the reading of the Declaration of Independence in New York. After that, Washington had it flown over his fortifications and headquarters.
The Grand Union was the national flag of the Americans in September 1776, when Congress ordered the words “United States” be employed “where heretofore the words ‘United Colonies’ had been used.” Despite the Congressional resolution of 1777 establishing the stars and stripes, there is no evidence that General Washington or the armies of the United States ever used the new flag until 1783, after the Revolutionary War was over. The first flag of the United States with 13 stripes and 13 stars was flown until 1795, when they both were increased to 15 in recognition of the addition of the new states of Vermont and Kentucky to the Union. In 1815, as other states joined the Union, a commission recommended that the stripes be reduced to the original 13 and that a new star be added in the future in honor of each new state that joined the Union. In 1818 this resolution was passed by Congress.
For national colors the Americans had selected the red, white, and blue of their mother country, England, and of France, their great ally in the War of Independence. Somewhat after the fact, the first issue of Columbian Magazine in 1786 ascribed poetic value to the colors: “White signifies purity and innocence; red, hardiness and valour; and blue, the color of the chief, signifies vigilance, perseverence and justice.” (By some form of subconscious allegiance, the citizens of many countries show a preference for their national colors in applications that are not necessarily patriotic. More often than not the colors red and blue, with white as the background, are selected by Americans for the identity programs of major transportation, utility, and energy companies, and blue alone—red having been preempted by another political philosophy—appears with unsurprising frequency as the corporate color of major American manufacturers.)
On the same day that the Declaration of Independence was read, July 4, 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to devise the official seal that would bind all of the colonies (soon to become states) to commitments made in the name of the Union. The good intentions of this committee were dissipated in an effort to agree upon the appropriate symbolism for the new nation. Franklin insisted upon a historic analogy: Moses parting the Red Sea as the Pharoah and his legions were overwhelmed by the waters. John Adams argued that an illustration of Hercules resting on his club after his great labors would be more logical. And Jefferson proposed that the seal should depict the citizens of the united colonies as the children of Israel in the wilderness, guided by a glowing cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. With the assistance of du Simitiere, a French-lndian silhouette cutter and painter of miniatures, Jefferson combined all of the ideas into a proposal that was laid before Congress in August 1776. Congress did not accept this complex attempt to satisfy everyone. It did, however, introduce two elements, the eye of providence in a radiant triangle and the motto E pluribus unum, that were to appear on the final design.
After the rejection of the first seal design, two more unsuccessful attempts under other committees were made to satisfy Congress. Then in 1782, after the third proposal for the great seal had been rejected by the Congress, the whole matter was referred to its secretary, Charles Thomson, who called on William Barton to recommend a design. Although Barton’s first proposal was elaborate and impracticable, Thomson was able to draw from it key elements for the final design. He accepted Barton’s proposal for the reverse side as “a pyramid unfinished—in the zenith, an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory”—a motif signifying strength and duration. (, 33) The main face elements of Barton’s complex design were discarded except for the eagle that had served as a finial for the shield.
Barton’s final design, with Thomson’s revisions, was accepted by Congress in June 1782 as “the Device of the Armorial Achievement appertaining to the United States,” in which “the escutcheon or shield is borne on the breast of an American eagle, without any other supporters, to denote that the united states of America ought to rely on their own virtue. … the American eagle is displayed, holding in his dexter talon an olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows … and in his beak, a scroll inscribed with this motto—E pluribus unum …” and “the olive branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war, which is exclusively vested in Congress.” (, 33)
The number thirteen (the original number of colonies) dominates the seal. There are thirteen arrows. There are thirteen leaves and thirteen berries on the olive branch. There are thirteen bars on the escutcheon and thirteen stars in the glory over the eagle’s head. On the reverse, the unfinished pyramid has thirteen layers of stone and the motto Annuit coeptis (“God has favored our undertaking”) has thirteen letters. The Great Seal of the United States has gone through several modifications since its adoption, the most recent one done by the Tiffany Studios in New York City in the late 1800s.
Although the design of the Great Seal had transformed the aggressive imperial Roman eagle into one symbolizing the protection deemed essential to the young republic, not everyone was satisfied. Benjamin Franklin complained in a letter to his daughter, with whimsical petulance, about the selection of the eagle—he preferred the turkey. “For my own part,” Franklin wrote, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly.… Besides, he is a rank coward…. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave.…” (, 134)
To Franklin, as to other leaders of the young nation, it seemed necessary to begin the voyage into the political unknown by discarding whatever affection they may have had for England. He observed that “all things have their season, and with young countries as with young men, you must curb their fancy to strengthen their judgment.” (, 3) Yet after the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin moved comfortably in the high society of England and France even while such homilies were encouraging the simple life at home.
Thomas Jefferson expressed a similar concern about the influence of the Old World on young Americans. A youth should not be sent abroad, he wrote, because “he acquires a fondness for European luxury and dissipation and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country; he is fascinated with privileges of the European aristocrats, and sees with abhorrence the lovely equality which the poor enjoys with the rich in his own country: he contracts a partiality for aristocracy or monarcy; he forms foreign friendships which will never be useful to him, and loses the season of life for forming in his own country those friendships which of all others are the most faithful and permanent…” (, 636) Yet Jefferson studied architecture abroad after the war and sent home architectural models and books to guide his countrymen.
The temper of the post-Revolutionary period called for the leaders of the young republic to take a pious attitude toward the European image of luxury, aristocracy, elegance, and sophistication. George Washington, despite his personal affection for comfort and luxury, took a public position as champion of the simpler essentials of life. In order to emphasize the need for national austerity, this southern gentleman, whose garments had previously been tailored abroad, elected to wear a suit of Connecticut broadcloth for his second annual message to Congress in 1790. In this respect he was echoing the earlier position of Samuel Adams, who never wore or permitted his family to wear English clothing. Adams enthusiastically advocated boycotting English products as an effective way of protesting English restrictions on American manufactures. The second president, John Adams, was even more emphatic in his denunciation of the arts as the product of decadent societies and therefore dangerous fruit for a young country. He argued that in a democracy the people would be too busy earning a living to indulge in artistic affairs and, furthermore, that the Americans would not as yet have attained a level of sensitivity that would enable them to produce works of any significance.
This avowed suspicion of the arts as antithetical to the primary needs of the country made it psychologically easy for the national leaders to turn the attention of citizens away from the actual and fancied luxuries of their former rulers. However, although John Adams’s puritanical zeal may have been original with him and his contemporaries, it is much more likely that they drew philosophical support from rebel European intellectuals such as Rousseau, who wrote in Emile that luxury and bad taste were inseparable, and that styles were set by the rich in order to show off their wealth and by the artists in order to take advantage of it. John Adams’s position was even stronger. He questioned whether it was even “possible to enlist the fine arts on the side of truth,” because in his opinion they had been prostituted by superstition and despotism.
Presumably, Adams was convinced that this was a time not for self-indulgence, but for general austerity acknowledging the state of poverty that followed the Revolution. “It is not, indeed,” he wrote his wife Abigail from Paris, “the fine arts which our country requires: the useful, the mechanic arts, are those which we have occasion for in a young country as yet simple and not far advanced in luxury, although perhaps much too far for her age and character. … I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy … geography, national history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” (, 381)
Yet, in what Constance Rourke called the “fable of contrasts,” however much America’s leaders disavowed in public the cultural diversions that preoccupied the patricians of the Old World, they realized in private that, until a native American culture emerged, Europe would remain the fountainhead of aesthetic expression. They understood that even a young democracy would have need of monumental architecture, ceremonial furnishings, and heroic sculpture and paintings. For them and others of their day, not unlike those in contemporary social democracies, the fine arts were valued less for artistic expression than for historic content. The portraits of John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1818), and Charles Wilson Peale (1741–1827) reflect the intense idealism of the times. The panoramas of John Trumbull (1756–1843) and Benjamin West (1738–1820) glorified historic events of the colonists and their revolution. The next generation of artists would be caught up by an emerging technology and would combine invention and expression as their contribution to American culture, but for the moment patriotic symbolism prevailed.
Thomas Jefferson provides an excellent example of the conflict between practical necessities and aesthetic desires that prevailed in the minds of America’s leaders during the country’s infancy. Although he would reminisce later in 1825 that the first object of young societies was food and clothing, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (written between 1781 and 1783) he lamented that the first principles of the art of building were unknown in America. Furthermore, he wrote to James Madison that he was not ashamed of his enthusiasm for the arts, as their object was “to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and to procure them its praise.” (32, I, 433) It was while serving as Franklin’s successor as minister to France from 1784 to 1789 that Jefferson expanded his interest in democracy to include science and technology, the study of the fine arts and architecture in particular. Upon his return to the United States, Jefferson designed and had built Monticello, and equipped it with many of his own inventions. Later, as mentioned above, he was to design the main buildings of the University of Virginia. As the most prominent patron of the useful arts of the period, Jefferson was to play an important part in directing and shaping the American identity.
It was inevitable that the Americans should reject the elaborate architectural style associated with Georgian England and embrace the spirit of classical form that was sweeping Europe. They sensed in its serene orders a provident complement to the cultural needs of the American republic. The émigré English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) applauded the choice of the forms of ancient Greece and Rome as the Federal style of the United States because, as he put it, “The history of Greece refutes the vulgar opinion that the arts are incompatible with liberty.… Greece … lost her freedom only when she prostituted the fine arts to the gratification of vice.” ([58, II], 205)
The most important influence in promoting the Federal style was in all likelihood that of Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754–1825), the son of a Gobelin tapestry weaver, who had come to America in 1777 when he was 23 years old to serve as an engineer in the Revolution under Lafayette. His first design assignments after the war included the eagle emblem of the Society of Cincinnati, an altar screen for St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, and a gigantic banquet pavilion for the New York legislature’s celebration of the adoption of the federal Constitution. In 1787 L’Enfant remodeled New York’s old city hall, originally built in 1699, to serve the national government. (George Washington was inaugurated as president on this building’s balcony, and L’Enfant’s design would serve as a model for the reviewing stand at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933.) The Federal style of government buildings was to persist for a century and a half.
When George Washington established the location for the District of Columbia in 1791, he selected L’Enfant to develop a plan for the new capital city. L’Enfant’s design, in which the basic plan of Versailles was superimposed with a grid pattern, was an astute combination of imperial and democratic schemes. However, he pursued his assignment with such zeal that he alienated the commissioners who had been selected to supervise the project. As a result, just before the cornerstone of the new Capitol building was to be laid in a Potomac pasture, Washington was obliged to dismiss him. Later L’Enfant worked on the plans for Paterson, New Jersey, which Hamilton and other promoters of the Society for Useful Manufactures were founding as a factory town.
Charles Bulfinch (1763–1844) met Jefferson in Paris when Bulfinch was studying architecture, and returned to America to become a leading exponent with Jefferson of the Federal style. Bulfinch designed more than 40 churches and public buildings in New England, including the Massachusetts State House and Harvard’s University Hall. Still, he considered himself a gentleman first and an architect second; to him, architecture was but one of the accomplishments of a gentleman. Bulfinch failed financially as an architect because in “reaching desperately for perfection in the art of architecture, he quite forgot that America at the dawn of the nineteenth century was a mechanic’s rather than an artist’s paradise.” (, 99)
When, in 1792, the Commissioners of Federal Buildings announced a public competition for designs for the national Capitol and the president’s house, they were acknowledging the contention that existed among the gentlemen who considered that their classical education in history and style qualified them as architects, the émigré architects who had received professional training in their homelands, and the carpenter-builders who were experienced in the various arts of materials and construction. The idea for an open contest had been originally recommended to Washington by Jefferson in order to encourage the development of an architectural character that would be uniquely appropriate for the new nation. However, since the contestants had access to the same builders’ handbooks and architectural style books, it was natural that the designs submitted would be classical in character, with echoes of earlier colonial buildings and decoration often inspired by American motifs.
The design competition for the Capitol was won by the gentleman architect Dr. William Thornton (1759–1828). Five years earlier Thornton, who was born in the British West Indies and educated in England, had won the first architectural competition held in the United States with his design for the Philadelphia Public Library. However, between 1793 and 1828, when the Capitol was completed, the architects Stephen Hallet and George Hadfield, the architect-engineer Benjamin Latrobe, and the gentleman architect Charles Bulfinch all took turns in supervising its construction and the many modifications that were made. The Irish-born-and-educated architect James Hoban (1762–1811) won first prize for a design for the president’s house (later to be called the White House) in a competition that included, among others, an entry submitted by Thomas Jefferson under a pseudonym.
Benjamin Latrobe, of all of the designers practicing in the early days of the republic, comes closest to the contemporary ideal of a comprehensive designer. Latrobe’s sensitivity to the line between the gentleman architect and the professional architect is evidenced in his letter to Henry Ormond in 1808: “I believe I am the first who, in our own country, has endeavored and partly succeeded, to place the profession of architect and civil engineer on that footing of responsibility which it occupies in Europe. But I have not so far succeeded as to make it an eligible profession for one who has the education and the feelings of a gentleman.…” ([58, II] 67)
Latrobe was not only an engineer and architect, educated at the University of Leipzig with experience in practice in England, but also an accomplished watercolorist and furniture designer with a strong sense of ornament and style. He came to Virginia in 1796 to become engineer of the James River and Appomattox Canal. In 1800 he designed the Schuylkill River Waterworks to supply the city of Philadelphia, the first such water system in the United States. The system that he proposed depended upon the use of two low pressure rotative steam engines built in America by Nicholas Roosevelt after the plan of Boulton and Watt. Latrobe’s interest in the potential of steam power, which was then dramatically new, led him to design a steam engine for the Washington Navy Yard and to attempt (unsuccessfully) to build a steamboat in collaboration with Robert Fulton.
In addition to his engineering accomplishments, Latrobe was quite aware of the waves of architectural fashion from England that were washing the shores of the new republic. His architectural achievements range from the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore (the first cathedral based on the Roman plan to be erected in the United States) to his Parthenon-based losing designs for the Second Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to a mansion for William Crammond in the Gothic style. (Wayne Andrews credits the popularity of the Greek style to the publication in England in 1762 of the first volume of Stuart and Revelt’s Antiquities of Athens, and suggests that the interest in the Gothic style was stimulated by the Gothic castle that Horace Walpole built near London in 1750.)
After 1800, Thomas Jefferson, as the third president of the United States, appointed Latrobe to survey the public buildings in Washington. He made alterations to the White House, remodeled the Patent Office, and designed the south wing of the Capitol. After the Capitol was burned by the British in the War of 1812, Latrobe rebuilt parts of it, including the Hall of Representatives and the Senate Chamber. In the process he designed three column capitals in the Corinthian style, using as motifs the indigenous plants of corn, tobacco, and cotton. He also designed and had built a set of chairs and other pieces of furniture in the Greek style for the Blue Room of the White House. They were most likely built by the Irish craftsmen John and Hugh Findlay, who had established their workshops in Baltimore.
Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854), like the Findlay brothers, had been born abroad, although he was trained as a joiner and cabinetmaker in America. To many his name is virtually synonymous with the English Regency and American Federal styles of furniture, and the Greek lyre is almost considered his personal motif. More than other craftsmen of his time, Phyfe organized his workshops into a factory by simplifying his designs for volume manufacture. The high quality of his product, however, made him a wealthy man. Phyfe was one of the first Americans to bring his talents as a designer and manufacturer together to advantage.
Most architects, as well as carpenters, masons and builders depended upon imported handbooks to provide basic designs, plans and elevations, and details for replicating one style or another. However, Americans such as George Biddle, the Philadelphia architect, and Asher Benjamin (1773–1845), the Boston architect and teacher of architecture, also began to publish their own books of directions and designs for builders. Asher Benjamin’s first book, the Country Builder’s Assistant (published when he was 24 years old), was so successful that, with 6 other books by him that followed, it ran to more than 40 editions. These books did not slavishly copy their imported models, but rather adapted them to American conditions, allowing for the substitution of wood for the original stone and for the more limited skills and more carefully allocated time and energy of the workmen. Asher Benjamin had a particularly profound influence on American builders in the northeastern United States, where handsome churches and homes grace many early-nineteenth-century villages and towns. Most of Benjamin’s designs were Georgian in character, although later he advocated the Greek Revival style as being appropriate to the republican needs of America.
When one style of architecture begins to fade in value, another emerges to take its place by presuming to contain more integrity and to speak its cultural truth more clearly than its predecessor. Even while the Greek Revival style was still reaching its zenith of popularity, a new romanticism in design style was emerging that acclaimed the Gothic as less imperialistic and, therefore, more appropriate to a middle-class society. Today, although the classical style as such has disappeared from public buildings, its cool order still dominates them and its Georgian precedents still predominate in the preference for the Colonial style in American homes and furnishings.