After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture by Joseph J. Ellis is a book not about the American Revolution itself, but about what effects the Revolution had on American culture and how America developed culturally after the Revolutionary War.
As with Ellis’s other books, such as His Excellency: George Washington and Founding Brothers, After the Revolution is a story of individuals rather than general themes or events. Those have to be mentioned, of course, to give background to the great Americans discussed in the book, but generalities are only background information. The “meat” of the book, so to speak, is about four great men: Charles Wilson Peale, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, William Dunlap, and Noah Webster. Ellis gives a full account of each man and how his actions in his respective field helped further American culture.
While I was not as excited to read After the Revolution as Ellis’s other works because I am more interested in military history than cultural developments, I warmed up to the book after I started it and ended up finding it quite interesting. I think that if you start it and read enough of it to get drawn into the subject matter, then you will have a similar opinion. So, after finishing this review of After the Revolution, order and read a copy for yourself!
Summary of “After the Revolution” by Joseph J. Ellis
First, before diving into the lives of the four great men the book is about- Peale, Brackenridge, Dunlap, and Webster- Ellis discusses how the societal views of early America prevented it from fully embracing cultural development. The early Americans, driven more by the ideas of The Wealth of Nations than the works of Shakespeare, focused more on economic development and capitalism than developing a unique, American culture. While I am all for building more factories than theaters, Ellis contends that that decision hurt America’s national image in the eyes of European countries, especially after the revolution.
After discussing how the American preference for capitalism over culture negatively affected the development of unique American theater, writing, and art, Ellis dives into giving his perspective on the lives of those four aforementioned men.
Charles Wilson Peale
First, Ellis discusses the live of Charles Wilson Peale, one of America’s first and greatest portraitists. Originally trained as a saddle repairman, Peale discovered his love of and incredible ability with painting portraits while a young man in Virginia. He then spent the rest of his life working on painting portraits for wealthy and influential Americans.
At first, he did so because he thought it would be a great moneymaking opportunity. Far from being a stary-eyed artist, Peale was a capitalists that wanted to make money off painting.
But then the American Revolution happened and the world changed for Peale. Although he still needed to make a living and completed portraits for a fee, he spent much of his post-war life completing a gallery of portraits of famous Americans that had been influential during the American Revolution.
While discussing Peale’s life in After the Revolution, Ellis notes how America’s national aversion to art made it hard for Peale to earn a living and how Peale increasingly saw his work not as a mere capitalist endeavor, but also as a patriotic duty to preserve portraits of America’s first leaders.
Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Next in After the Revolution, Ellis discusses America’s first important novelist; Hugh Henry Brackenridge.
According to Ellis, early Americans were not at all fond of novels. Although the average American was literate, he or she preferred reading political works, namely pamphlets and newspapers, to novels, which were regarded as a waste of time.
But Brackenridge started to change that. His famous novel, Modern Chivalry, was quite influential and was the first great American novel.
Like Peale, Brackenridge was also a patriot and involved in American politics. He was an ardent patriot that wrote about political issues from the perspective of a westerner and satirized both the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, but tended to lean more towards the Democratic-Republicans on political issues. That led him to somewhat support the Whiskey Rebellion and act as a mediator between its leaders and the federal government.
That role in the Whiskey Rebellion is what, more than his choice of what to write, condemned Brackenridge to semi-political obscurity. Although today he is remembered as a novelist, he could have also been remembered as an influential political commentator. But because he supported the rebels in that conflict, he was more or less cast out of mainstream politics and was not supported by mainstream Americans; they thought him a rebel and traitor.
The third man to be described by Ellis in After the Revolution is William Dunlap, an early American playwright and director. He was an amiable man that devoted his life to writing plays and directing them in an attempt to bring a love of the theater to America.
Unfortunately for him, early Americans were even more opposed to the theater than they were to novels. So, despite doing his best to create enjoyable and patriotic plays, Dunlap was unable to make much money as a playwright or director and died a pauper. The American audience, which viewed the theater as immoral, was not ready for Dunlap’s work.
Finally in After the Revolution, Ellis gives his account of Noah Webster’s life. Webster was an impoverished youth who was incredibly intelligent and had a love of books. Recognizing Noah Webster’s intelligence, his father took out a loan with the family farm as collateral to send him to Yale, where Webster went to college.
From there, he traveled around the nation as a teacher while working on his textbooks, most of which were about grammar and spelling. His greatest achievement, and the one that made him the most money, was his “blue back speller,” which sold millions of copies and helped bring grammar and spelling into the lives of many Americans.
In addition to his educational pursuits, Webster was an ardent Federalist that, at the behest of Alexander Hamilton, was the editor of New York’s American Minerva newspaper and wrote in support of Federalist policies. But, as he grew older, Webster grew irrelevant, mainly because of his commitment to the truth rather than partisan bickering. So, living off royalties from his books, he retired and spent the rest of his life working on a dictionary, which would eventually be published as the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Of all the men described in After the Revolution, Noah Webster was the most influential and successful. Because his main achievements were more political and educational than cultural, Webster was able to achieve a prominence in society that none of the other men in After the Revolution were able to.
Analysis of After the Revolution
While it was interesting, After the Revolution was not my favorite of Ellis’s works. It is as well-written and researched as the others, but something was lacking from it.
I think that “something” is the patriotic spirit of the others. His Excellency: George Washington and Founding Brothers are both intensely patriotic and tell the tales of great men. After the Revolution, on the other hand, is, with the exception of Noah Webster, mainly a tale of failures. The men in it, while patriots, were relatively unsuccessful and couldn’t find a way to be successful in capitalist America.
Additionally, in After the Revolution, Ellis states multiple times his support for government funding of the arts, mainly because three of the four men in his book were unable to be successful without it. While that is certainly a fair viewpoint to have, it is one that I disagree with.
Later American artists were successful without government funding. Remington’s western paintings, for example, are beautiful and were entirely privately funded. Similarly, we have had a huge number of successful authors that never took a dime from the government and its tax dollars. And, of course, there is Noah Webster. He sensed the sentiment of the times and was able to use his talents in a way that made him successful because he worked within the confines of what Americans wanted. I think that is far more commendable than an artist that lives off the handouts of the government.
However, there is one particular part of After the Revolution that I think makes it worth reading, despite Ellis’s calls for government money. That aspect of it is that all of the men Ellis writes about in After the Revolution were patriots. Unlike the artists of today, who all seem to hate America, Webster, Dunlap, Peale, and Brackenridge were all patriots and tried to utilize their skills for the betterment of the nation. That trait is commendable and is inspiring to read about. If only American cultural icons of the modern day could be like them in that respect!
I can’t throw my unwavering support behind After the Revolution like I can for Ellis’s other works. It certainly has its positive attributes, but I simply did not like it as much as I liked the others.
But, if you are interested in early American culture, then I doubt that there is a better book to read than After the Revolution by Joseph J. Ellis. It is interesting, well-written, and full of detail. Furthermore, the patriotism of the men in it is evident and is certainly worth celebrating.
By: Gen Z Conservative