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Whither The Course Of Empire?
In five dramatic allegorical paintings, Thomas Cole echoed the fear of Americans, over a century ago, that all civilizations, our own included, must someday perish.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
Whatever the age of the rest of the world, America was in its glorious youth in the 1830s. After two generations of successful self-government and rising prosperity, it was prepared to tell the world that it held the key to the future. “We are pioneers of the world,” Herman Melville declared in a moment of unrestrained optimism. “God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The most of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are … the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a path in the New World that is ours.” And to Melville, as to a multitude of others—Europeans as well as Americans—the national virtue which would make all things possible was a lavish gift of Nature. In the works of the landscape painters, the poems of Bryant, the novels of Cooper, and the exhortations of politicians, the very spirit of America was identified with its majestic wilderness preserves; at least with its diminishing remains where, as Hawthorne wrote, “the damned shadow of Europe” had not yet settled.
Emerson was the prophet of this romantic generation. His essay spoke quietly and wisely of those truths that seemed fundamental to the time. He opened a perspective wider and deeper than was visible to the chauvinists of the day; he was concerned with the large problems of human nature and of human destiny in general. And in Nature, he reminded the world, man finds all he knows and all he needs to know, a pronouncement with which Wordsworth, Goethe, and leading romanticists were in sympathy.
But in America Nature was not only a picturesque retreat for the romantic imagination, as we might say it was for Goethe and Wordsworth; it was also a stubborn, wild fact that had to be contended with on a continental scale. It was something that had to be reconciled, not with the hoary past of man, but with his illimitable future. By the eighteenth century, according to one foreign visitor, the American had developed an “unconquerable aversion” to the trees of the unending dark forest that hemmed him in at every turn; he cut all away before him without mercy—with positive delight, in fact. It was a practice that continued to horrify English visitors, particularly, until well into the nineteenth century. But Europe had not known forests on such a scale for countless centuries. To travel for days on end through a thick gloom among trees a hundred feet high was oppressing beyond the imagination of people who had not experienced it. To let in the sun was the necessary beginning of the pioneer’s corn patch. And the course of empire was westward, in spite of the trees.
So, while Cole, Bryant, and Cooper courted the Muse of Nature their industrious countrymen persisted in raping the wilderness with lusty abandon. “They are cutting down all the trees in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye,” Cole wrote his patron; "… maledictions on all our dollar-goaded utilitarians.” The woods along the Hudson were beginning to seem just as perishable as the cliffs and walls at Volterra. And far beyond the reach of his eye—all the way now to Oregon and California—the empire builders were rearing an unsightly superstructure on the face of the virgin earth. Never before in history was the nature of such a large part of the world so radically and rapidly transformed by human industry as it was to be in America. The proud boasts of the continent’s conquerors were issued in the same breath with the hymns to Nature; sometimes, with touching irony, out of the same mouth.
“Yankee enterprise has little sympathy with the picturesque,” warned one reviewer in 1847, “and it behooves our artists to rescue from its grasp the little that is left, before it is forever too late.” Years earlier Audubon had felt that bitter urgency as he noted the inexorable thrust of civilization into the forested homes of his beloved birds. No one, he realized, would ever again be able to see the birds of America as he had seen them and drawn them—and, more than once, slaughtered them beyond all need.
In all this there was a conflict of principle that tore at the conscience of Cole’s and Emerson’s generation. America’s Manifest Destiny was, as the Democratic Review defined it in coining the phrase, “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” This was part of our national mission, acclaimed by patriotic fervor and supported by scriptural authority. One could invoke the ancient distinctions between nature and grace avowed in the Calvinist theology of the Yankee Puritans. To equate the mastery of Nature with the mastery of destiny was a simple operation for the vaunters of progressive democracy.
But the older orthodoxies of religion and the newer orthodoxies of democracy were alike confounded by the romantic veneration of Nature. One could, after all, learn more of mortal evil and of good in one impulse from a vernal wood than from the prescribed authorities, as Wordsworth so sweetly argued; the world of man is too much with us for the good of our immortal souls. It is in Nature, as Emerson reflected, that our spirits will find their true emancipation.