The 1700s brought more than just independence to the colonies; during this period, American art, architecture, and writing took off. The following sections describe the cultural flourish of this era.
Fine-arts painters got their start in America during the 1700s. At first, colonial artists focused on portraits — settlers wanted to be remembered, and cameras weren't an option. Benjamin West was the first American artist to train in Europe; when he saw a statue of Apollo, he realized it was no more handsome than an American Indian warrior. The following are a few prominent painters of early America:
- John Trumbull (1785) painted pictures of the American Revolution, in which he served briefly.
- Charles Willson Peale (1780) served in the Revolution, painting all the while. Peale could accurately be described as a Renaissance man, being good at carpentry, dentistry, optometry, shoemaking, and taxidermy.
- Benjamin West (1770) painted large-scale historic pictures. He said that when he was young, American Indians showed him how to make paint by mixing clay from the River Bank with bear grease in a pot.
You can check out early American art at the National Gallery of Art website (nga.gov).
Early American architecture styles were imported from Europe; even the log cabin is based on a Swedish model. Nobody lived in log cabins in most of Europe; the idea came from the northern Swedes during their short-lived colony in America.
The popular Georgian architecture (1750) was named after the Georges who were kings of England in the 18th century. Georgian style usually is defined by red brick walls that contrast with the white used for window trimming and cornices. A small porch often emphasizes the entrance. Regularity was a term of praise for Georgian architects, who used mathematical formulas to figure the proportion of windows to wall size. Georgian is the architecture of Williamsburg, Harvard, and many colonial buildings.
Literature, libraries, and the birth of American journalism
Colonial literature was very much in the shadow of the mother country; for years, many Americans assumed that only the English had the sophistication to write. This assumption began to change with the prejudice-shattering poetry of Phillis Wheatley (1772), a slave who had learned to write. Her memorial poem for George Whitefield (see "Changing Attitudes toward Religion" later in this chapter) caused such a stir that John Hancock and others examined her to make sure a black person could actually write such a work.
Benjamin Franklin (1776) would be remembered even if he weren't a famous Revolutionary War leader. His Poor Richard's Almanack, which he began editing 45 years before the Revolution, contained gems of thought quoted throughout the colonies. Among them is his reaction to the Great Awakening: "Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought an easier service, and therefore more generally chosen." Franklin proved that lightning was electricity and invented bifocal glasses, the efficient Franklin stove, and the lightning rod. He also started the first privately supported library in the country.
By the Revolution, around 40 simple newspapers were published in the colonies. Most of these papers were one-page weeklies, but they begin to reflect and mold public opinion. Peter Zenger (1734) was a New York newspaper printer who attacked the corrupt royal governor. He was hauled into court and charged with libel. The government didn't deny the truth of what he said but planned to throw him in prison anyway. In a landmark day for freedom of the press, the jury set Zenger free. Ever since, newspapers have had the right to publish the truth even if it upsets the government.