Powell's De Soto and United States History

Legitimating: Richard Caton Woodville's Old '76 and Young '48

Original Conception: John Dyer
First Extension: Eric J. Gislason

The conflict between republican virtues and imperialist aggression discussed in the previous essays is succintly dramatized in Richard Caton Woodville's Old '76 and Young '48. The title informs us there is a discourse between the two veterans pictured: the grandfather, the old guard of the Revolutionary era, and the young veteran of the Mexican-American war, the voice of expansion.

The youthful, wounded soldier tells his family, including his wizened grandfather, about his tour of duty. Critic Patricia Hill describes the picture's drama: "'Young '48,' like many poets and politicians throughout the [Mexican] war, was not just relating his own experiences, he was justifying them in terms of Revolutionary goals."14

Although the rest of the family (including the dog at his feet) looks on the young man with interest, the old man in the Queen Anne chair does not look at his grandson. The family members stand behind their elder, but they are transfixed by the youth bending slightly towards the old man, who diverts his gaze, looking down in bewilderment. The grandson gestures, appealing to the portrait of the grandfather in his Continental regalia on the far wall in order to place his current military service in the line of the family tradition--but judging from the grandfather's reaction, national expansion is not easily justified through the invocation of past revolutionary aspirations.

Painted in Duesseldorf, Germany, Old '76 and Young '48 relates to European as well as American political and social events. It was completed one year after the European revolutions of 1848, in which liberal partisans from all over Europe, supported by a new working-class created by the industrial revolution, revolted against monarchical governments. American painters of the "Duesseldorf School" like Emanuel Leutze saw their hopes for a Prussian constitutional monarchy dashed when the liberal-democratic reformers were defeated by the Prussian king, Frederick William IV. Frederick dissolved his country's constituent assembly and imposed his own constitution.13 Not long after, Napoleon III ascended to autocratic power in France and Russian troops were called in to put down nationalist rebellions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Such was the European political context of Woodville's painting.

The American experience crafted by Woodville parallels what happened across the Atlantic. At the same time republicanism was thwarted in Europe, chivalrous rhetoric--such as Powell's fascination with DeSoto as knight-errant--apologized for the Mexican War in the U. S. Imperialism and monarchies were resurgent all around the globe, and a kind of counter-revolution occured against democratic progressives. Although the U. S. had no kingly past to restore, the American-Mexican War nonetheless affirmed the imperialistic and monarchical ideals of the era, to the detriment of the original motivations of the Revolution (as idealized in Trumbull's paintings, for example).

The attitude of Woodville's young veteran is not an isolated one; a similar voice finds expression in works of mid-century popular history such as Southern poet William Gilmore Simms's Lays of the Palmetto: A Tribute to the South Carolina Regiment, in the War with Mexico (1848). Historian Robert Johannsen argues that Simms participates in the manipulation of nostalgia found in Woodville and Powell's paintings:

"The poems carry the regiment from the initial call to arms through the battles of Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, where the soldiers fought with distinction. The analogy with the Revolutionary War was drawn throughout; the volunteers carry forward the legacy by such heroes as Moultrie, Marion and Sumter...The poems were laced with the chivalric ideal and the valor of knights, and full play was given to Simm's convictions of racial superiority over the 'mongrel Mexicans.'" 15

Chivalry and its martial manifestations were important to Woodville, as they had been to William Powell.. In 1847 Woodville had painted "The Cavalier's Return," a glorification of knight-errantry and the cavalier tradition which Powell later celebrated in Discovery of the Mississippi by Hernando De Soto, 1541 A. D. 16

Mid-19th-century America was indeed torn by the tensions depicted in Woodville's painting, as national attitudes were forged in the fire of the debate between the young veteran and the old grandfather. A growing nation was making efforts to legitimate its own imperialist behavior, the kind of behavior against which it had rebelled in the Revolutionary War. The Rotunda murals represent a public justification of national purpose and intent during the mid-century period: the eight paintings cumulatively constitute a re-vision of American history which enabled the nation to live with itself during the agony and violence of westward expansion