chapter  2
12 Pages

Education and the Iconography of the Republic: Patriotic Symbolism in the Frontispieces of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- Century American Textbooks

ByEUGENE F . PROVENZO , J R .

In his work The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that “in our thought, the essential feature is fitting new material into old schemas, . . . making equal what is new.”1 According to C. A. Bowers, what Nietzsche is describing is a fundamental impulse of man toward the formation of meta­ phors. Identified with the “will to power,” this drive to name, to give meaning, and to categorize is dependent on the use of metaphor, “that is, the establish­ ment of an identity between dissimilar things.”2 It is the purpose of this essay to examine the use of visual metaphor in the frontispieces of reading and spelling books published in the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.3 It is argued that through the combination of traditional visual metaphors and symbols, together with the ideals of the new revolutionary American government, there evolved a distinctive patriotic iconography. While by no means limited to the frontispieces of textbooks, the development and evolution of these metaphors and symbols can be clearly traced in them. Such an activity enables us to better understand how children were introduced to the new nation’s patriotic symbols and something of the means by which those symbols were defined. In order to understand the emergence of an American patriotic iconogra­ phy, it is necessary to begin at the time of the American Revolution. The success of the Revolution posed a serious problem for the American people. In declaring their political independence from England, the Americans had also largely rejected England’s political and social traditions. If the Revolution were to be successful and the Republic to flourish, there would have to develop a new communal or “national” consciousness-one that reflected the ideals of the Revolution and the new nation. Fundamental to the development of this new national consciousness was the creation of an iconographic system that either incorporated symbols from the Old World-providing them with new meaning-or created new symbols consistent with the ideals of the Republic. Such symbols, by definition, would be collective in nature.4 Ultimately, they would reflect the memories, beliefs, and hopes of the new nation, providing a means by which to transmit com­ munal emotions, as well as continuity and the opportunity for interaction between generations.5 During the early years of the Republic, many Americans saw the need to consciously develop a unique American identity that in time would erase the memory of British domination and colonial subservience.6 The time was ideal to establish this new identity. As Benjamin Rush wrote in 1786:

The minds of our people have not as yet lost the yielding texture they acquired by the heat of the late Revolution. They will now receive more readily than five or even three years hence new impressions and habits of all kinds. The spirit of liberty now pervades every part of the state. The influence of error and deception are now of short duration.7