Inventing a New Republican Culture for America

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.