Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Inventing a New Republican Culture for America

A We The People Resource
Created June 17, 2011


The Lesson


Inventing a New Republican Culture

A Display of the United States of America

Credit: Amos Doolittle (1754-1832); Engraving on paper (sixth or seventh state), 1794; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together -- a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.

John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818, from the Constitution Society

After the American Revolution, the new citizens of the United States went about the daunting task of trying to construct a republican government and culture in the 1780s and 1790s. Americans looked to the ideal of republicanism as one of the key sources of their political and cultural institutions. Americans had declared their political independence from Great Britain and Europe. They soon moved on to the equally important task of establishing their common identity as Americans.

Culture was a significant factor in that task. In planning for the new kind of citizen of the young republic, the founders looked to education broadly conceived—especially medicine, arts and culture, and schooling—as the means to shape the new American identity. Men such as Charles Willson Peale and Benjamin Rush were instrumental in creating a new republican culture and a new nation. This lesson focuses on several key individuals and their roles in establishing a new republican culture that paralleled the new structure of government of the new nation.

Guiding Questions

  • What role did a self-consciously republican approach to culture—the arts and education, science and technology—play in the founding of the nation?
  • Who were some of the key authors of that new republican national culture? What elements did they contribute?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to do the following:

  • Explain what is meant by "republican" culture
  • Identify some of the key elements of that new republican national culture
  • Understand the significance of visual representations of George Washington
  • Understand the critical roles of Charles Willson Peale and Benjamin Rush in building a new republican culture for the United States in the 1790s.


While Americans had secured their independence from Great Britain, they still faced the difficult task of finding ways of thinking of themselves as Americans. Some founders believed their new government would bridge the republic’s disparate parts and peoples; others looked to educating the "rising" generation and creating the virtuous citizens needed to secure the young nation’s success. Monarchies have subjects; republics must have citizens. The founders faced the critical question of how subjects would become citizens.

A factor in fostering new citizens was to build a republican culture in the arts and architecture, science and technology. Icons were needed and none stood taller than George Washington for his valor and his stature to all Americans. Many artists produced images of George Washington in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and on into the new century. The image of Washington came to symbolize the new nation, a diverse society without ancient traditions or a state religion and greatly in need of unifying symbols. Washington himself kept careful control of his image, selecting the painters he sat for and cultivating a public persona. Many of the most popular portraits of Washington did not provide an "exact" likeness of him, but rather presented a more stately, more noble vision of the Father of the Country. Even in his lifetime, the near-deification of Washington transformed him from man to mythic being. His image appeared on porcelain table ware, and painted portraits were engraved in numerous editions.  The portraits of Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart that this lesson explores are just two of the most famous painted portraits. After Washington’s death, myth-making authors like Mason Weems quickly wrote short and inexpensive popular biographies such as Weems’ Life of Washington (1800) while his friend the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall wrote an influential five volume life and time.

It should be noted that Washington was not alone in deciding how he wanted to be portrayed. Portraits typically differed from reality because the individual who was being painted could to some extent dictate how he or she wanted to be depicted. This fact, of course, makes using portraits much trickier for the historian and student, but also a good deal more interesting. 

Many artists took up the challenge of founding a republican society. Taking advantage of the fact that political leaders had gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, portrait painters like Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart chose to make Philadelphia their home in order to paint portraits of the nation’s elite. 

Charles Willson Peale (1740–1826), a revolutionary leader in Philadelphia, also founded the new nation’s first museum. His famous self-portrait (1822) shows him inviting us to view his museum, housed at the time (what could be more appropriate!) in Carpenters’ Hall where Congress had drafted the Declaration of Independence. 

Inventors, philosophers, and architects also contributed to the creation of a distinctly American national culture. Benjamin Rush was among them. A physician, teacher, and politician in Philadelphia, Rush served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He became a professor at the new University of the State of Pennsylvania and was an ardent reformer, active in the causes of prison reform, medical research, the abolition of slavery, and universal education for young men and women.

Preparation Instructions

Teachers can review some of the primary and secondary sources below relating to the biographies of Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and Benjamin Rush, as well as the role of art in the early republic, and the notion of a republican itself.

Background Materials: Biographies

Background Materials: Republican National Identity

The EDSITEment-reviewed National Humanities Center's Living the Revolution Toolbox has an excellent selection of documents and topic-framing questions. There is a good discussion on this site entitled Forging a National Identity: Six Patriotic Pieces.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. "The Faces of George Washington"

Step One: The teacher should model to the class how to interpret Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of 1796 by using this interactive portrait at the EDSITEment-reviewed National Portrait Gallery site.

Questions to explore include: What sorts of information are available on a portrait? You could point out the various perspectives a viewer can take such as the Symbolic, Biographic, or Artistic – the three filters of the Interactive Portrait.

Step Two:  Ask the students to work with a partner and review the portrait of Washington produced by Charles Willson Peale two decades before the Lansdowne Portrait, as well as one by John James Barralet made after Washington’s death in 1800.  

To guide the students’ exploration, ask them to do the following:

1. Make a list with their partners of all the objects that they see in the painting.

2. Explain how those objectsare used by the painter. Take one of those objects and,using the image annotation tool, write a description of its use (practical and symbolic).

3. Then, also in the image annotation tool, ask students to post a general comment on what the painter is saying about George Washington. 

  • Why would such a image of George Washington be important for that era? 
  • What conclusions can students make about George Washington based on the "information" provided by the artist? 
  • What else would they like to know about the painting?

Step Three: In a whole group discussion, using the Peale, Stuart and Barralet portraits, ask students to describe the public images of George Washington. What might have been the political and cultural purposes of these images of Washington? 

Students should compare and contrast the portraits, then discuss the following questions:

  • What are some of the differences among the three portraits? How can you account for the differences?
  • Can you create a title for each portrait based on how it shows a different image of Washington?
  • How might these portraits have helped to provide a symbol of unity for the new citizens of the United States?

This group discussion could also take place online as part of the above posting in the image annotation tool.

Activity 2. Expanding the Ranks of the Founding Founders

Step One:  Ask students to come up with their own definition of republicanism.  They should write down two or three sentences.  Then you can ask them:  What are the differences between monarchical and republican societies?  What does a republican society need to be able to succeed? 

Optional: After the discussion, you could direct students to read a brief essay defining republicanism from the Gilder Lehrman site.

Step Two.  Students should be divided into two groups to study the life and works of two key cultural founders: Charles Wilson Peale and Benjamin Rush.  They will be reading short biographies of each figure, annotating key works, and exploring a website.  One group will study Peale; the other will focus on Rush. 

Group A.  Peale: Politician, Artist, and Museum Keeper

Ask the assigned students to read and look at the following four items on Charles Willson Peale:

1.  A biography of Charles Willson Peale

2. Peale’s ambitious self-portrait, The Artist in His Museum.  To aid their analysis, ask students to do the following:

  • Make a list of all the objects that you see in the painting. 
  • What is the significance of the objects?  Choose one or two to explain.
  • How is the portrait organized? 
  • What is in the foreground and the background?  Left and right? 
  • What might this arrangement mean?

3.  Charles Willson Peale’s Address to the Citizens of the United States of America, 1792. Edited document available as PDF (see separate file).

4.  Website: Peale Museum Interactive, from EDSITEment’s Explore PA History

Ask students to explore different areas of the Museum. They should visit the Collections and Portrait Gallery by clicking on the display cases on the left side, picking out an item from the collection (Vegetable, Animal, or Mineral) as well as a portrait. How do those two items help us to answer the questions raised above about the role of a museum in a republican society?

Then they should compare and contrast the Peale painting and texts, exploring these questions. Their responses should be assembled into bulleted points for use in a later debate:

  • What are Peale’s goals for the new United States? How does he believe a better society will be created? 
  • What will a republican museum do? What sort of things should be in the museum and why? How will it promote an American culture that is distinct from that of Europe? What does Peale’s museum look like? How does it contribute to a republican society?

Group B. Benjamin Rush: Doctor and Educator

  1. Ask students to read this biography of Benjamin Rush from Dickinson College.
  1. Rush was a champion of education; students should read the excerpt  from his essay with some sample annotations, "Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," from A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania, 1786. Edited document with sample annotations is available as PDF (see separate file).
  2. Students should read a section from Rush’s “An Inquiry into the Comparative State of Medicine, in Philadelphia,” in Medical Inquiries and Observations (Philadelphia, 1809), 4: 409-426, in which Rush explains a new atmosphere for medicine in republican America. Edited document available as PDF (see separate file).
  1. Website: Benjamin Rush, M.D. Sections to focus on would be: Building a Practice: Reformer Rush; Medicine of Benjamin Rush; Rush, Jefferson and Medicine; Rush and the Corps.

Then they should compare and contrast the Rush texts, exploring these questions.  Their responses should be assembled into bulleted points for use in a later debate:

  • What are Rush’s goals for the new United States? How does he believe a better society will be created? 
  • According to Rush, what was the role of education in a republic? What were the special roles of women in education? Based on Rush’s essay, what were the goals of an enlightened society? How might liberty be secured and maintained by knowledge? How would the practice and knowledge of medicine be different in a republic?

Step Three: After the two groups have examined their respective figures, students should share information from their notes and annotations.  Students should then use that evidence for a debate on which figure helped more to contribute towards creating a republican culture. In preparing for the debate, they should consider:

  • What is the role of education in making a new society? 
  • What were the contributions of Peale and Rush towards creating a national culture?

Students should organize their ideas into a list or chart. Specific sources should be cited as the evidence in the debate.


Students should use the evidence they have gathered in the two activities to write an essay based on the following topic:

  • Should Benjamin Rush or Charles Willson Peale be considered a "Founding Father"? Why or why not? How do these two figures compare with George Washington? How would you evaluate the importance of their work in the cultural area as contributing towards establishing the new republic?

Extending The Lesson

1. Explore the Peale Family. Why might you consider Charles Willson Peale to be a Founding Father? How and why did the Peales try to create a republican art and culture?

2.  Explore some of the other images of George Washington in the early republic. Students might find the popular biography by Mason Locke Weems to be useful in thinking about how many nineteenth-century Americans learned about Washington. The EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia site has "The Apotheosis of George Washington: Brumidi’s Fresco and Beyond" which includes a link to selected chapters from Weem’s Life of Washington. One question to focus on might be: how and why did the image of Washington change over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

3. Students could look at Samuel Jennings, Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, 1792, on the Teaching the Journal of American History website, linked to the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters website. Samuel Jennings, a Philadelphian living in London, was commissioned by Philadelphia's Library Company to paint one of the first abolitionist paintings. Liberty was depicted as a benevolent white woman with her liberty cap on a pole.  Questions for class discussion might include: 

  • What visual clues does Jennings use to suggest liberty? To suggest learning? 
  • How are African Americans portrayed in relation to the idea of liberty?
  • Are they active or passive figures in the painting?

How does this painting contribute to our understanding of the republican ideal presented in the late eighteenth century?

Selected EDSITEment Websites

American Memory: Library of Congress

American Studies at the University of Virginia

Discovering Lewis & Clark

Explore PA History

Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History

History Matters

Internet Public Library


The Metropolitan Museum of Art

National Gallery of Art

National Park Service: Links to the Past

National Portrait Gallery

TeacherServe from the National Humanities Center

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Cultural analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Report writing
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • David Jaffee, City College of New York, CUNY (New York, NY)
  • Pennee Bender, American Social History Project, CUNY (New York, NY)



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