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Julia Skyban Values.doc
January 10, 2004
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What are the values of the Revolution and how are they portrayed?
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
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 this feeling
of importance of the occasion. Over his Continental uniform he wears the
broad blue ribbon that helps distinguish him as the Commander-in-Chief.
"The wearing of this ribbon had been adopted by general order on July 14,
1775 to help identify Washington as he passes through the picket lines
during battle" (AFA lobby cards). This fancy silk ribbon
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Charles Willson Peale, United States, George Washington, Lansdowne portrait, Battle of Trenton, American Revolution, Rembrandt Peale, Battle of Princeton
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