The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
The Republic's Capital City

A small but significant number of those who experienced the Revolution cherished a tremendous vision of what the Revolution and its outcome promised for America's cultural future. As Joseph Ellis has described it, these Americans now possessed -- or imagined they did -- the one essential element, hitherto lacking, for releasing the creative energies of an already favored people. This was individual and civic liberty. An all-but-miraculous force, liberty would give wings to every conceivable endeavor. All other obstacles were negligible, now that the main one -- dependency -- had been swept away. Not only would there be prodigious advances in agriculture and industry, there would also be such a flowering of the arts, literary and all other kinds, as the world had not yet seen. In addition to the "Painting, Sculpture, Statuary," and "greek Architecture" envisioned by Ezra Stiles, John Trumbull announced that

This land her Steele and Addison shall view,
The former glories equal'd by the new;
Some future Shakespeare charm the rising age
And hold in magic chains the list'ning stage.

The dream was that of "an American Athens." 1

The dream would prove a mirage. The expected renaissance did not occur; the American Athens failed to materialize. That first generation would slip into a disillusioned old age still wondering what had happened -- or rather not happened -- and subsequent generations have been wondering ever since. With ref -- erence to the original meaning of "culture" -- making things grow in the earth -- the fields of post-Revolutionary America would of course be ever more bountiful. But under culture's later meaning, most of the country remained something of a wasteland for many years to come. We are still far from certain what all the reasons may have been.

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