The Seeing America Project
1800-1900: learning resources
Face to face with the voters, Bingham's Country Politician
George Caleb Bingham, Country Politician, 1849, oil on canvas, 51.8 x 61cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Speakers: Emily Jennings, Director of School and Family Programs, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Steven Zucker.
- In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the legality of slavery in new territories was a contentious matter, foreshadowing the American Civil War. The Wilmot Proviso, which would have prevented slavery in these new territories, was passed twice by the House of Representatives, but was never approved by the Senate. In its place, the Compromise of 1850 attempted to defuse these tensions by allowing states to vote on slavery while strengthening the Fugitive Slave Act.
- Politics in the nineteenth century was conducted on a more personal level, as politicians had to travel to meet voters and speak with them directly about their stance on issues. As a politician himself, the artist would have been familiar with this process, particularly in frontier areas like the one depicted in this painting.
- George Caleb Bingham was a representative in the Missouri House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party and an advocate for returning to the ideals of the American Revolution. He believed that the people should be given the power to make decisions. When the Missouri legislation passed the “Jackson Resolutions” of 1849, which claimed it was unconstitutional for Congress to bar slavery in newly acquired territories, Bingham countered with the “Bingham Resolutions,” recommending that states be allowed to vote on the matter.
- This painting was purchased by the American Art Union, where it was reproduced widely as an affordable print. As a print, it contributed to the national conversation on states’ rights and contemporary politics, but it also created an entertaining depiction of politics in the western U.S.
More to think about
How do you think Bingham’s depiction of politics in the 19th century compares to contemporary images about politicians, political debate, and civic engagement of the public? If you were going to create a genre scene about politicians talking to their constituents today, how might you alter Bingham’s original image to reflect your own ideas and experience?
The Little Round House at the University of Alabama
- The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa was converted into a Confederate military school at the start of the U.S. Civil War. The Little Round House was essential to the alert system for the campus in the case of an attack. It also housed munitions.
- This and many other universities and institutions throughout the U.S. were built and sustained by the labor of enslaved people, yet their names and efforts are often left out of dominant narratives or public commemoration. Historians today are consciously looking to redress this balance of who is identified and celebrated in our understanding of the nation’s past.
The Hallowed Grounds Project: Race, Slavery and Memory at the University of Alabama (Dr. Hilary N. Green)
More to Think About
Look around your daily environment and ask yourself, “What am I not seeing?” What stories about the history of your university or community privilege the efforts of white leaders and overgeneralize or even omit the essential contributions of enslaved people or other undervalued laborers? What stories would you like to see have greater prominence and recognition? How can you contribute to making these stories more visible?
Thomas Crawford, George Washington Equestrian Monument
Thomas Crawford, George Washington Equestrian Monument, cast 1857 in Munich, partly erected 1858 (Washington, Henry, Jefferson, and Mason), remaining figures completed by Randolph Rogers in 1869, bronze, granite, the equestrian bronze element is 21 feet high (State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
- This sculptural monument on the grounds of the state capitol building in Richmond, Virginia took almost twenty years to complete. The prolonged period of creation was in part due to the 1857 death of Thomas Crawford, the original artist assigned to the commission. The United States Civil War (1861–65) also intervened, and the monument was finally completed by artist Randolph Rodgers in 1869.
- The monument is principally dedicated to George Washington (1732–99), positioned at the top in his military uniform and astride his horse. Below Washington are representations of six other Virginians, each a significant figure in the time of the American Revolution (1775–83). The sculpture of each man is attended by an allegorical figure representing their contributions to the founding period of the United States.
- The design and layered symbolism of the monument reflects the evolving and differing perspectives on American over the period of 1850 to 1869. During this time, tensions between the northern and southern United States ran high over questions of liberty, expansion, and governance and finally erupted in the U.S. Civil War in 1861. The figure of George Washington, honored here for his military genius and role in founding the nation, was at first understood as the great unifier of the nation and then came to be embraced in the south as the Virginia-born embodiment of the rebellious values of the Confederate States of America.
Compare Crawford’s sculpture with works by other artists, such as Frederick Edwin Church and Jasper Francis Cropsey, that reflect the debates and perspectives on American republicanism in the 1850s.
Explore the layout of the Virginia State Capitol and Capitol Square, where the George Washington Equestrian Monument is located.
More to think about
This equestrian monument reminds us that meaning is not fixed but can change over time, and that different people can find vastly different meanings in the same artwork. Think about the reception of this monument today. What does American republicanism mean to you and does this monument reflect that understanding? If not, how would you design a monument to American republicanism?
Photographing the Battle of Gettysburg: Timothy O’Sullivan’s A Harvest of Death
Timothy O’Sullivan, A Harvest of Death, 1863, albumen print, 17.2 × 22.5 cm, illustration in Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War, 1866 (Library of Congress)
- war photography
- collodion process
- The Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg
- The Union Army’s victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in early July 1863 was a turning point in the Civil War, although it brought the highest death toll of any battle in the 4-year conflict. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in November of that year reinforced the incredible sacrifice of those who gave their lives to the cause of national unity.
- War photography was a relatively new endeavor at the time of the U.S. Civil War. Photographers required heavy equipment and time-intensive processes like the wet collodion method to capture images, making it difficult to take action shots during battles. Instead, they staged scenes, at times moving people, equipment or other items and crafting a composition much like a planned painting or drawing in order to tell a compelling narrative.
- In comparison to precedents of military victory scenes, A Harvest of Death is unusual. It focuses on the horrors of death on the battlefield rather than a decisive moment of heroism or victory during battle. Nonetheless, the photographer relies on conventions of landscape painting such as one point and atmospheric perspective, along with a dramatic, layered composition leading the eye from foreground to background, to draw in the viewer and convey a powerful, unforgettable message about this historic event.
- This photograph was included in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1866). Each photograph had a lengthy caption that explained what was captured in each scene.
Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, 1866 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
For the "Harvest of Death" photo the caption read: "It was, indeed, a ‘harvest of death.’ . . . Such a picture conveys a useful moral: It shows the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition to its pageantry. Here are the dreadful details! Let them aid in preventing such another calamity falling upon the nation."
William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (Scribner, 1975), and Early Photography at Gettysburg (Thomas, 1996).
D. Mark Katz, Witness to an Era: The Life and Photographs of Alexander Gardner (Rutledge Hill Press, 1999).
Richard S. Lowry, The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner, and the Images that Made a Presidency (Rizzoli, 2015).
More to think about
Which is more powerful for you, images of heroism or death in battle? Why?
Research project ideas
- Explore the photographic processes of the mid-19th century, especially war photography. Why was the advent of battlefield photography so revolutionary in communicating and understanding the realities of war? Was there anything unexpected to you about how this photograph was made? What felt familiar to you, if anything? Use your responses to reflect on the differences between the production and reception of war images in the 1860s and today.
- Considering change over time, explore a broader array of images that address the experience of wartime in the U.S. Compare Harvest of Death with Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) and James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964). Note that Nighthawks was completed just after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the implementation of periodic blackout drills in New York City as the U.S. entered World War II. F-111 was painted during the Vietnam War.
Snakes and petticoats? Making sense of politics at the end of the Civil War
Anna Pottery, Snake Jug, c. 1865, stoneware with painted decoration, 31.75 x 21.11 x 22.07 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art)
- When the Republican party was founded in 1854, it was founded on a progressive platform that supported the emancipation of the slaves as well as industry. In contrast, mid-19th-century Democrats were interested in states’ rights, and many Democrats in the North supported the South during the Civil War.
- Cultural and economic ties between communities complicated the Civil War’s geographic division between Northern and Southern states. Northern Democrats and groups like the Copperheads (also known as Peace Democrats) shared sympathies with the South in support of states’ rights and often perpetuated racial inequality and discriminatory practices.
- The Civil War ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Jefferson Davis, who had served as President of the Confederate States, was arrested four weeks later when his unit was surrounded in Georgia. His escape was popularized by the media, which suggested that he had attempted to conceal himself by dressing as a woman.
- The use of writhing snakes to decorate whiskey jugs has traditionally been linked to the temperance movement. However, scholars now believe that that the snakes refer instead to the political party known as the Copperheads. The makers of this whiskey jug, the Kirkpatrick brothers, promoted their business through popular entertainment and spectacle. This was the age of P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain, who used humor to amuse while also satirizing the sanctimonious ideals of Victorian America.
See lyrics and listen to a recording of Henry Tucker’s Jeff in Petticoats (1865)
More to think about
The decoration of this whiskey jug demonstrates the use of satire and humor to reflect on political events and social conventions. What would be some modern versions of this type of social and political critique? Why do you think satire and humor are often used to make political statements?
Nast and Reconstruction: understanding a political cartoon
Thomas Nast, “The Union As It Was—Worse Than Slavery,” 1874, wood engraving, illustration in Harper’s Weekly (October 24, 1874, Library of Congress)
- Political cartoons are an essential source for the visual language of a particular historical moment. Because of their contextual specificity, they can be difficult to understand by viewers who didn’t live during that time or in that cultural context, but through comparison with other sources, political cartoons can yield rich understanding of beliefs, perspectives, and issues of the day.
- Thomas Nast’s 1874 cartoon was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine, a northern publication that was politically aligned with Abraham Lincoln and the northern Republican party during the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction. The image promotes support for the Republican party by condemning Democrats. Details in the cartoon link Democrats with the conspiracies among white-led organizations to use violence and intimidation to disenfranchise and suppress formerly enslaved African Americans during Reconstruction.
- Visual precedents for this image reinforced the power of its symbolism; notably, the motif of figures shaking hands above a shield was widely understood at the time to reflect national unity.
Why Reconstruction Matters by Eric Foner, The New York Times, March 28, 2015
Life After Slavery for African Americans (Khan Academy)
Black Officeholders in the South (specifically during Reconstruction), Facing History and Ourselves
Presidents, Politics, and the Pen: The Influential Art of Thomas Nast (Virtual Exhibition created by the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2016, hosted by Google Arts and Culture)
Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies, edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo, 2021 (exhibition catalog from Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture)
150 Years and Counting: The Struggle to Secure the Promise of the 15th Amendment (Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture)
Capitan Hannibal C. Carter: Businessman, Civil War Officer, Reconstruction Politician, Freedom Fighter (blog post by Museum Specialist of Oral History, Kelly P Navies, at Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
More to think about
Why do you think political cartoons like Nast’s are effective? What images do you see today that critique politics most effectively and why?
Research project ideas
- Explore a selection of political cartoons from the period of Reconstruction or from a range of time periods you have studied (be sure you feel comfortable with the historical context so you understand the issues being addressed in each cartoon). Focus your exploration on defining the way political cartoons serve as a particular kind of visual source. The following prompts may help shape your research.
- Consider how political cartoonists use particular visual strategies to offer pointed opinions on specific topics and for specific audiences.
- Try to answer the question, “What can political cartoons tell us about the time they were created that we cannot learn from other types of sources?”
- Consider how viewers judge or identify the bias of a political cartoon, by answering the question “what makes a cartoon successful?” Note: there is research that suggests that satire can sometimes backfire, being read as positive by the very people it strives to critique. For this line of inquiry, see if you can find any present examples of such unintended consequences in political cartoons—and consider what lessons they might provide for political cartoonists today.
- In light of more recent events (e.g. Charlie Hebdo cartoons), we are familiar with debates about the line between satire and slander. How have political cartoonists navigated this line?
Robert Mills and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, Washington Monument
Robert Mills and Lietenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, Washington Monument, completed 1884, granite and marble, Washington, D. C
(Thanks to New York Libraries for making these images available online!)
Martyr or murderer? Hovenden's The Last Moments of John Brown
Thomas Hovenden, The Last Moments of John Brown, c. 1884, oil on canvas, 117.2 x 96.8 cm (de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
- The abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry (in what is now West Virginia) in 1859. He intended to redistribute the weapons to slaves and incite a rebellion that would lead to the end of slavery. Within two months of the raid and his arrest, Brown was tried, sentenced, and executed.
- The violent actions of John Brown to end slavery were controversial at the time. The debate surrounding the morality of the raid polarized American politics. It is believed to have contributed directly to the secession of southern states in 1860-61, but even some abolitionists were concerned by Brown’s violent methods.
- During the Civil War, John Brown became a hero to Union soldiers and the subject of a popular marching song. By World War I, this had changed, and today his place in history is controversial and complex.
- Painted 25 years after the raid at Harpers Ferry, Thomas Hovenden’s image is clearly sympathetic with John Brown. He depicts Brown on his way to his execution: his arms are bound, a noose is visible around his neck, and he is heavily guarded by armed men, yet he pauses to tenderly kiss a young child (a story that circulated in the press but was never confirmed). Hovenden also used religious references to elevate John Brown to the status of a martyr, depicting him with a long white beard like Moses and creating a subtle crucifix behind him.
Read the lyrics and listen to the song “John Brown’s Body”
More to think about
How do you respond to the speakers’ question about whether John Brown should be seen as a martyr or a terrorist? What reasons or historical examples inform your answer?
Custer's Last Stand — from the Lakota perspective
Henry Oscar One Bull/Tȟatȟáŋka Waŋžíla (Hunkpapa Lakota), Custer's War, c. 1900, 39 x 69 inches (irregular), pigments, ink on muslin (Minneapolis Institute of Art)
- This ledger-style artwork documents the defeat of the American army by Lakota and Cheyenne forces at Little Bighorn (known as the Battle of Greasy Grass among the Plains Indians). This land had been granted to the Lakota in the Sioux Treaty of 1868, however when gold was discovered, General Custer’s expedition broke the treaty to reclaim the area for the United States.
- The artist, One Bull (nephew of Sitting Bull), depicts the Lakota narrative of the battle and captures history from a perspective traditionally omitted in history books. The Plains Indians are carefully rendered and identifiable. It shows a series of episodes from the battle, including the initial killing of an Indian boy named Deeds, the encampment of women, children, and the elderly, the soldiers’ initial attack on the village, their retreat, and additional engagements.
- The battle happened during the 1876 Centennial celebrations of American independence. The American media heroicized Custer, a Civil War hero, despite the fact that he had broken a treaty and was the aggressor against the Lakota and Cheyenne. Following this battle and bolstered by the notion of Manifest Destiny, the United States redoubled its efforts to eradicate Native Americans from this land (those not already living on a reservation).
More to think about
Compare One Bull’s drawing of The Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) to Edgar Samuel Paxson’s 1899 painting Custer’s Last Stand. How does Paxson’s painting reflect the prevailing point of view of the battle in the United States at the time? How does One Bull’s contrasting representation make you question what you know about this battle, and other conflicts you may have learned about?
The U.S. Civil War, sharpshooters and Winslow Homer
- Winslow Homer was one of a number of artist reporters who worked for Harper’s Weekly Illustrated Magazine during the U.S. Civil War. These artists produced images that helped convey news of the war to mostly Northern readers on the homefront. At times, the artists worked from sketches they made while traveling with the U.S. (Union) Army. The sketches were then sent back to New York to be engraved for printing.
- Harper’s was the most popular illustrated magazine during the years of the Civil War. The magazine was headquartered in New York City, the center of print technology and readership at the time, The print industry in the South was much more limited in scale and reach.
- Sharpshooters were a new, elite rank of soldier during the Civil War. Under the leadership of Hiram Berdan, these skilled marksmen utilized recently developed telescopic sights to increase the range and accuracy of their rifle shots. Sharpshooters were both feared and admired, as the images and characterizations of them published in the popular press of the time reveal.
More to think about
The role of sharpshooters during the U.S. Civil War introduced an offensive, tactical role that some (including Winslow Homer) saw as tantamount to murder. From this perspective, sharpshooting was a troubling facet of a war with an incredibly high death toll. Images like Homer’s print (and related painting) reflected Americans’ fascination with and fear of the evolving technology of war. Consider more recent conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved. Discuss how the news media conveys or contributes to the moral anxiety of the time about the tactics and technology of war through visual imagery.