What are the values of the Revolution and how are they portrayed?


January 10, 2004 Microsoft Word 97

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 it’s 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 nation’s 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, Peale’s 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 doesn’t 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