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9: Post-War Challenges- Reconstruction, the Centennial Years, and Beyond, 1865-1900

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    Figure 9.1: ERASTUS SALISBURY FIELD, The Historical Monument of the American Republic, 1867- 88. Oil on canvas, 9 ft 3 in x 13 ft 1 in (2.81 x 3.98 m). Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts.
    Figure 9.1: ERASTUS SALISBURY FIELD, The Historical Monument of the American Republic, 1867- 88. Oil on canvas, 9 ft 3 in x 13 ft 1 in (2.81 x 3.98 m). Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts.

    THE SELF-TAUGHT New England painter Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900) conceived in his old age a painting that would embody the history of America from the first British settlement in Jamestown in 1607 to the end of the Civil War (fig. 9.1). On a canvas nine feet tall and thirteen feet long, he created a metropolis of ten huge towers joined by a fanciful aerial railway. Scenes from American history drawn from famous American paintings such as Trumbull's The Death of Gtmeral Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (see fig. 5-4) and West's William Penn's Treaty with the Indians in 1683 (see fig. 4.35) appear on these buildings as sculptural bas-reliefs. On the central tower Field depicted Abraham Lincoln's assassination and transport to heaven in a chariot guided by an angel.

    An ardent abolitionist, Field completed the major portion of his The Historical Monument of the American Republic in 1867 to commemorate Lincoln's antislavery efforts and the successful resolution of America's Civil War. He reworked his monumental canvas in 1876, in honor of the centennial celebration of the nation's founding, and added the two last towers in 1888, when he was eighty-three years old.

    In 1876, many believed that the events of American history contained an internal coherence and logic, as a story of struggle against slavery and disunion resolving into unity and progress. The Centennial of the nation's founding celebrated the triumph of national unity and offered symbolic closure to the trauma of the Civil War. However, the triumphal vision of the Centennial Fair was only possible by ignoring the challenges that faced the nation. Unity and closure were to be as fanciful as the towers of Fields's painted monument. Only a few months after the Centennial's grand opening in Philadelphia, Americans were stunned by the news of General George Armstrong Custer's disastrous defeat at Little Big Horn and the loss of all his troops on June 25, 1876.

    The following year brought an end to Reconstruction, a period that commenced in hope but ended in the abandonment of the nation's commitment to racial equality. Born of the desire to reconcile a nation sundered by war, the objective of Reconstruction was the political, economic, and social reform of the South in order to institute equal access to the voting booth and to educational and social opportunities for all male citizens. Yet these reforms required the presence of armed federal troops when southerners resisted the enfranchisement of blacks, and eventually northern congressmen voted to discontinue Reconstruction policies in order to appease the South. The collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 resulted in the resegregation of the South and the denial of full citizenship to blacks, upheld in the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which affirmed the constitutionality of the doctrine of "separate but equal" and the legality of "Jim Crow" laws that perpetuated a system of racial apartheid. After momentarily tasting the fruits of emancipation, black Americans were forced back to the margins; northerners and southerners were one nation once again, bound together by whiteness.

    The range of American arts around the Centennial years reveals the opposing pulls of mutually defining forces: between racial stereotype and new ways of seeing freed black Americans; between past and present, country and city; between different versions of the West; and between local identities and nationalizing forces.

    Thumbnail: JOHN QUINCY ADAMS WARD, The Freedman, modeled in plaster, 1863. Bronze, 19⅜ in (49.9 cm). Art Institute of Chicago.