The American Dream – Great Books Helping the Vision Pt 1

*I am the American Dream. I am the epitome of what the American Dream basically said. It said, you could come from anywhere and be anything you want in this country. That’s exactly what I’ve done’*

Selection of books owned by Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress Washington D.C.

During the eighteenth century amateur archaeologists fanned out from England, France and Germany to the far reaches of Attica and the Roman Empire to measure and record in drawings the fabled ruins of the past. The books that they produced took men and women who saw themselves as ‘cultivated’ by storm; never before had the architectural and sculptural grandeur of antiquity been so loved and admired without actually having being seen.

There were many books readily available for either weekend or after dinner perusal and in a handsome form and their subsequent identification with the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome had as much to do with eighteenth century perceptions about early democracy, as it did with antique rules about ancient architecture and design.

Knowledge of the architecture at Rome became the nucleus for the plans made by many enlightened men and women who not only wanted to  build both their dream home but also a vision for life.

They seemed to hold the key for people like philosopher, statesman, diplomat, scientist, planter, architect, musician and scholar Thomas Jefferson, who was America’s outstanding early example of a Renaissance man, one whose thirst for knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more.

The vision they all shared flowed over into the production of great government buildings, such as the splendour of the Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

For America’s future president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) as a young man in search of ‘truth’ as indeed for many others, they were not just great leather bound books to leaf through and admire but contained texts that he could learn from.

Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance Man

As Jefferson had a huge interest in architecture its not surprising that he amassed a great many of the seminal books of his time in his collection.

Architectural style became bound up in politics when in 1715 two publications had a profound effect on the future of design and style.

The first was an English translation of 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’architettura with copperplate engravings by Giacomo Leoni who ‘improved’ on Andrea Palladio’s originals.

The second was a publication by Scottish architect Colen Campbell (1676-1729) of the first volume of his own Vitruvius Britannicus.

They were both considered scriptural texts about what was both beautiful and right. Jefferson wanted to open a window or a door onto a world for everyone that was all about founding a ‘new Rome’, one with a truthful vision, one that offered liberty, freedom and justice for all and this idea helped to shape the American dream.

Men and women of his all new age took up traveling in the expectation that the ‘ghosts of antiquity’ would help them supplement an education already emphasized by a resounding interest in the classical past.

American Grand Tourist Joseph Allen Smith by Francois-Xavier Fabre depicted overlooking the River Arno on his grand tour that included Italy, Russia and on mainland Greece and, he was the first American to visit - Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Joseph Allen Smith (1769 – 1828) was the first American grand tourist to travel in Greece, during his extensive European sojourn of 1793-1807. He and his colleagues believed strongly that rational thought focused on a problem would always produce a reasonable solution.

Smith was interested in a diplomatic career, as well as in antiquity. He had a passion for ancient art and became an important figure for the reception of ideas and knowledge about antiquity in America through his relationship with men and women who were busy growing American and European enlightenment.

He formed his own collection under the influence of Europe’s newly formed museums; and, by giving it to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, helped to found the American museum as an instrument for the instruction of the public.

Books from and about antiquity, along with the works of their contemporary, the Scottish born neoclassical architect Robert Adam (1728-1792 based in London were also highly sought after.

Painters and sculptors to a certain extent would also play their part in this new age, albeit in another practical role. They were essential recorders of contemporary life and experiences.

Without photography or film, the wonders of the excavations, and other sights of the Grand Tour that both English and American gentlemen now embarked upon, could only be recorded on paper or canvas, or as three dimensional figures in the medium of marble.

The climax of the influence of a pagan society on a Christian one was when two of the most important classic statues ever found from antiquity ended up in the Cortile delle Statue del Belvedere. (The Belvedere Courtyard at the Vatican).

Their imagery would influence, not only other artisans and sculptors, but also those drafting the type of wordy legislation that would both both benefit and suit a new, and more enlightened style of democratic society.

The exquisite statue of Apollo, The Sun God from Greek Mythology was one. Gnothi se auton Know Thyself is a famous Greek maxim, which was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of  Apollo’s temple at Delphi. It became known as the Apollo Belvedere.

German archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) Superintendent of Roman antiquities in Florence in 1763 announced in a famous passage I place at the feet of this statue the idea of it that I have given, imitating those, who placed at the feet of the simulacra of the gods, the wreaths that they could not place on their heads and so it became the summit touched by Greek Art in giving form to ideal beauty.

For those not familiar with Apollo he was, in ancient Greek mythology, the God of archery, music, poetry, the plague, oracles, the sun, prophecy, medicine and knowledge.

From all the images we have of him he was a handsome beardless athletic radiant youth, a favourite of the rest of the gods who represented harmony, order and reason. His father was Zeus, the most powerful of all the gods, his mother Leto a daughter of the Titans who ruled in ancient Greece’s golden age.

Apollo was all about light and truth. Being one of the favoured of the twelve Olympian Gods (they gathered together on the top of Mount Olympus).

Most of all however, Apollo was about the best that we can all endeavour to be.

Apollo enjoyed himself so much playing music that it became a joyous way of expressing thanks for a wonderful life. He was about helping people to meet the challenges of their day.

In 1734 the poet Alexander Pope began a poem “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man“.

Polymath Benjamin Franklin in 1750 observed how difficult the maxim was to live up to when he said “There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self” in his Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Other famous sculptures uncovered from antiquity were the Laocoon, the Farnese Hercules and Venus d’Medici and they were all copied in every medium. They penetrated the very sanctuary of Christianity itself, and their discovery marks the dawn of a conscious interest in classical sculpture.

The fame of the Belvedere Collection at Rome spread rapidly throughout the western world, published in books and in the letters and reports of artists, travellers and ambassadors.

They became more famous then than they are now.

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’**

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a visit to Europe, spending five years in Paris where his views would be forever altered by his many enchanted experiences. He voiced the aspirations of a new America as no other individual of his era, preferably in writing a skill at which he excelled.

As public official, historian, philosopher, and plantation owner, he served his country for over five decades.

For Thomas Jefferson collecting knowledge was the most important aspect of structuring and ordering his own personal universe. He believed in order and harmony, which was at the essence of ancient architectural style.

The way that he classified his own books, was based on a structure of knowledge that was always a vital and important part of his intellectual life – ‘I cannot live without books’ he once wrote.

Part of the Thomas Jefferson Library in the Library of Congress, Washington

He read and collected books on many diverse and different subjects, some that helped him know about practical things like how to brew beer, how to keep accounts, about the vagaries of housekeeping, the pleasure of gardens and how to improve the soil.

Then there were those that detailed the theory about revolutionary new ideas that were brewing abroad. What they were all about was broadening his knowledge base and inspiring him to take an active role in helping the vision of the American dream become a reality.

For Thomas Jefferson it must have been a bitter blow that his first library containing books left to him by his father burned to the ground and he was forced to start again.

At the time he developed a self discipline and regime that most of his friends and acquaintances found alarming, wherein he read or studied some 15 hours a day.

During bouts of intensive reading his only exercise was a mile long run at twilight.

He gained a close acquaintance with the major novelists, dramatists, poets, philosophers and the literary critics of his age.

Jefferson was a true eighteenth century ‘compleat’ gentleman, one who could hold his own in the greatest drawing rooms and salons of the day anywhere in the world by reason of his intellect, which had been honed by his serious interest in the life of the mind.

George Grenville, Earl Temple, Mary Countess Temple and Their Son Richard: 1780-82 painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

In 1763 Whig politician and the Leader of the Commons George Grenville became Prime Minister of England. He also held the office of First Lord of the Treasury. He ordered slashing cuts in defense expenditure, as well as additional income to pay for the upkeep of military forces retained.

He looked to America to find it, determined to move against tax evasion and tighten the enforcement of smuggling laws. He announced the intention of raising additional revenue from the colony to pay for British defense expenditure, by imposing a levy on legal documents, commercial papers, licenses, pamphlets and newspapers via the Stamp Act.

He and the King were both genuinely surprised by the heat of opposition.

Colonel Isaac Barre an Irish soldier of Huguenot descent in the British House of Commons stood and defended the rights of American colonists not to be taxed without their consent.

‘Children, planted by your care’, he ironically asked members of Parliament ‘No your oppressions planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and inhospitable country Nourished by your indulgence? No! They grew by our neglect of them. Protected by your arms?’ They have nobly taken up arms in your defense…they are the sons of Liberty’ …an elder statesmen known for championing causes, particularly the abolition of slavery

William Pitt took up the cry to support that vision ‘they are subjects of this kingdom, equally entitled with yourselves to all the natural rights of mankind, and the peculiar privileges of Englishmen; equally bound by its laws, and equally participating in the constitution of this free country. Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England’.

Click to go to Part 2

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

*Actor Whoopi Goldberg

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