Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America

Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America

Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America

Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America


Since the early decades of the eighteenth century, European, and especially British, thinkers were preoccupied with questions of taste. Whether Americans believed that taste was innate--and therefore a marker of breeding and station--or acquired--and thus the product of application and study--all could appreciate that taste was grounded in, demonstrated through, and confirmed by reading, writing, and looking. It was widely believed that shared aesthetic sensibilities connected like-minded individuals and that shared affinities advanced the public good and held great promise for the American republic.

Exploring the intersection of the early republic's material, visual, literary, and political cultures, Catherine E. Kelly demonstrates how American thinkers acknowledged the similarities between aesthetics and politics in order to wrestle with questions about power and authority. Judgments about art, architecture, literature, poetry, and the theater became an arena for considering political issues ranging from government structures and legislative representation to qualifications for citizenship and the meaning of liberty itself. Additionally, if taste prompted political debate, it also encouraged affinity grounded in a shared national identity. In the years following independence, ordinary women and men reassured themselves that taste revealed larger truths about an individual's character and potential for republican citizenship.

Did an early national vocabulary of taste, then, with its privileged visuality, register beyond the debates over the ratification of the Constitution? Did it truly extend beyond political and politicized discourse to inform the imaginative structures and material forms of everyday life? Republic of Taste affirms that it did, although not in ways that anyone could have predicted at the conclusion of the American Revolution.


Henry Cheever, an academy student in Massachusetts, was determined to hone his prose, molding it to meet the standards laid out by Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres and by Henry Home, Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism. He filled his commonplace book with epigrams culled from the works of Milton, Goldsmith, Dryden, and Pope. Keen to demonstrate his mastery of the fine style prescribed by the rhetoricians and exemplified by the poets, he set out to describe the summer sunset he had just witnessed. In July 1829, after beseeching the “Omniscient Potentiate” for guidance, he wrote that the “borders of the western horizon” glowed “like a golden flame,” their light punctuated by “blue pyramidial mounts like [a] sudden flash of spirit in raging roaring flames.” In crafting his tortured summer sunset, Cheever marked himself not just as a reader and writer but also as a looker, as an active and engaged spectator whose “golden flames” and “blue pyramidial mounts” derived not just from a particular way of reading and writing but also from a particular way of seeing.

Lucy Sumner, newly married and intent on embodying the virtues that spelled republican womanhood, had fallen into the habit of visiting Daniel Bowen’s Columbian Museum. The paintings, taxidermied birds, wax figures, and curiosities provided her circle with “rational and refined amusement,” especially when compared to the risqué and “disgusting” circus that had been attracting far more patronage than she thought proper. But Sumner valued the Columbian for more than its admirable collection. The museum encouraged a distinct— and distinctly rewarding—sort of spectatorship. When one spent time at the Columbian, she explained to her friend Eliza Wharton, “the eye is gratified, the . . .

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