The Historical Monument of the American Republic:
Cotton Mather Meets the Millenium

Erastus Salisbury Field's The Historical Monument of the American Republic has been called everything from "allegory of the Civil War" and "celebration of the American centennial" to "architectural fantasy" and "patriotic wedding cake." While each of these interpretations have some validity, none of them quite describe Field's singular painting. It is certainly the most grandiose vision of American history ever painted. On a canvas of over 150 square feet, on over 130 relief plates set into ten magnificent towers, Field charts events from the first settlement at Jamestown to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Structurally, the monument is astonishing. It rises some 500 feet into the sky, antedates the first actual skyscraper of Louis Sullivan and appeared 20 years ahead of the Eiffel Tower. Had it been built, it would have made the Washington Monument look like a whitewashed needle. And nothing like Field's aerial railway would be seen again until Norman Bel Geddes' "Futurama" General Motors Exhibit at the 1940 New York World's Fair. Thematically, the Monument merges the Puritan typological history of Cotton Mather with the fervent abolitionism and millenial rhetoric of the mid-century Northern Congregationalists. Dissenting from contemporary trends, Field's version of American history was not the providential march of Empire but rather a disjunctive, and circular narrative which emphasized the recurring need for divine redemption.

The sources of Field's inspiration are legion, though his vision manages to transcend its antecedents and defy categorization. He absorbed the allegorical themes of Thomas Cole and John Martin and admired the grand historical canvases of painters like John Trumbull and Jon Vanderlyn. In the Monument, Field renders grisaille versions of three Capitol Rotunda murals: Trumbull's Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown and Signing of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Vanderlyn's Columbus' Discovery of America. Field also wished to succeed where his instructor Samuel Morse had failed. Morse's repeatedly frustrated efforts to establish in the Capitol a history painting, The Germ of the Republic, likely motivated Field to paint a significantly national and public picture. He may have wished to fulfill the untransacted desire of his former teacher.

Undoubtedly the most important influence on Field's Monument is the Bible. The towers in the Monument resemble the Tower of Babel that appeared in an illustrated New Hampshire Bible which must certainly have been known to Field. Those aspects of the Bible's importance which he could not paint he writes out explicitly: witness the eloquent exposition of the Bible's importance which accompanies the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth on the base of the monument, and the "T. T. B." inscription--"The True Base"--which forms the foundation of the Centennial display at the zenith of the painting. Biblical allusions are part of the monument's thematic impact, as in the depiction of the three eagles presiding over the Plymouth landing scene. In Revelations 12: 13-14 there is mention made of three eagles which will lead the way to a place of safety and nourishment. The Pilgrim's divinely ordained "errand into the wilderness" provides a crucial foundation for the Monument's narrative of America's origins. Field felt that Biblical history was a direct foundation and foreshadowing of American history: the two founding narratives of the Republic, Jamestown (2nd tower) and Plymouth (3rd tower), are told in sequential fashion. All other events are depicted in disparate, even chaotic fashion.

Abraham Lincoln is the dominant figure in the Monument. The eighth tower of Field's painting, dedicated to Lincoln's efforts toward abolishing slavery and preserving the Union, forms the visual and thematic axis of the Monument. Lincoln exists at the beginning and at the end of historical time. The depiction, at the tower's base, of Lincoln spinning the wheels of state during the dreadful conflict conjures the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who was summoned by God with four spoked wheels. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, described unsparingly the wickedness of Israel, and Field uses Lincoln to convey a similar indictment (Staiti, p. 36). Ezekiel saw that God would ultimately remove the objects of the Israelites' idolatry by replacing their tables of stone with a heart of flesh; in this way, Ezekiel prefigures Lincoln's vision of the destruction of slavery and subsequent "new birth of freedom."

At the peak of the tower, Lincoln sits in a fiery chariot and is crowned by an angel before his ascent into heaven and immortality. Between these chronological extremes and depicted in the middle of the tower, Lincoln's assassination is the central visual event of the painting. There is much of interest here. As John Wilkes Booth raises his gun to shoot Lincoln, George Washington, physically present in the box next to President Lincoln, raises his hand in horrified protest. This juxtaposition of persons across time exemplifies what Erich Auerbach has termed figura, a theological trope in which the present is indivisible from past and future. Field offers Washington as an American prefigurement of Lincoln, completely involved with the latter's efforts to save the crucial achievements of the Union--the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, among others--also commemorated in the Monument. Correspondingly, Lincoln's ascension grants him a place with Washington in an anachronic (trans-historical) realm of existence (p. 36-67). This pair of "American divinities" exists bodily and metaphorically in all time.

Almost two hundred years earlier, Cotton Mather's typological history of the Puritans, Magnalia Christi Americana, discusses the anachronic existence of various historical figures and analyzes their significance completely removed from historical context: "Lives of Sixty Famous Divines" and "History of the Manifold Affliction and Disturbances of the Church in New England." Whereas Mather's "American Nehemias"--prophet, saint, martyr--is John Winthrop, Field casts Lincoln in the role. Both the Revolution and the Civil War were fought to end oppression and preserve union; further evidence of Field's belief in the necessary bond between Washington and Lincoln can be found in another of his paintings, Lincoln with Washington and His Generals. Here, a palpable Washington congratulates Lincoln on his efforts to preserve the Union which the Revolution had established. Considered in the light of Field's typological history, the painting's title can be taken to mean that Burnside and Grant fought as much for Washington as did for Lincoln. (The question as to what Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur are doing in the picture seems answerable by Field's figurative logic: the more recent Presidents solemnly observe the original types of which they are merely more recent manifestations.)

Washington and Lincoln represent reconciliation and reunion, forever united against the despicable force of disunion that is so present in the Monument: slavery. For Northern Protestants like Field, the Civil War was of universal significance--Americans were fighting to determine whether democracy could long remain a system of government for the people not just of America, but of all other places as well. (Moorhead, p. 40). What Lincoln referred to as the "peculiar institution" must be removed from the land; America must be cleansed of slavery's corrupting evil. The dark figures in Field's bas-reliefs represent African-Americans, who are without exception being lynched, beaten, chained, or shot. Field's depiction of their plight makes clear his animus toward the slave states. A statue of Satan presides over the South from the top of the tenth tower, the monument to slavery. Field's intricate symbolism represents the economic and social tensions between North and South: surrounding a Civil War battle scene, the chains of the Union that used to hold the South are broken, and the slave states remain bound to the Union only by cotton ropes; above, fugitive slaves are returned to their masters and a statue of Liberty is toppled.

Northern churches preached that God demanded payment for the sin of slavery, a bill which would be collected in "rivers of blood and oceans of treasure" (p. 48). This was the price of the "Armageddon of the Republic" which would ensure the future happiness--the freedom--of the nation and the world. The Monument narrates a history in which sin recurs and must be repeatedly redeemed; pervasive postbellum suffering and guilt make their way into Field's painting in the accummulated evidence of a nation at war against itself. His tragic and chaotic history refuses the self-congratulatory rhetoric of providential progress exuded by George Bancroft's influential History of the United States, the ninth volume of which was published in 1866 as Field was beginning the Monument. Two other popular works of the period, Thomas Crawford's sculpture The Progress of Civilization and Emmanuel Leutze's ode to Manifest Destiny, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, share Bancroft's optimism and stand in direct contrast to Field's more chastening story.

Along with many others in the Second "Great Awakening" of the 1850s, Field joined the Congregationalists--the spiritual heirs to Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening of the previous century. As a spatial expression of mid-century Northern Congregationalist theology--in which the Civil War is seen as an American Apocalypse signaling the coming millenium--the Monument most obviously borrows its rhetoric from the traditional Puritan jeremiad, the "catalogue of inquities." In the conclusion to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) Harriet Beecher Stowe warned that the wrath of God was nigh and that the Church must repent; her prophecy was borne out in the escalating crises of the Kansas-Nebraska question, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Given his feelings toward the South and the crisis of slavery, it is not surprising to find that for Field the American West is important only insofar as it is a possible outlet for the extension of slavery. Despite the Monument's encyclopedic range of historical scenes, the only representation of events west of the Mississippi is a bas-relief depicting some "pro-slavery ruffians" shooting cannonballs at the Freesoil Hotel in Kansas. Westward expansion offers no "safety-valve" for disenchanted or downtrodden peoples; the West is surely not a "garden of the world" whose virgin land is capable of rejuvenating democratic institutions. Field's American Republic can be saved only through the abolition of slavery. (That Field ultimately longed for peace with the South is evidenced in a later picture entitled An Egyptian Scene. This painting suggests a reconciliation between the houses of the North and South after the war, as well as a new harmony between former slaves and former masters.)

Yet despite its emphasis on sin and death, Field's jeremiad, like its verbal counterparts heard in Northern churches throughout the 1860s, holds out the possibility that weeping can give way to rejoicing, suffering to redemption. Rhetorically, as Sacvan Bercovitch has pointed out, the primary importance of the American jeremiad was its power to transform suffering into a reassertion of communal myth or belief (Bercovitch, 1978, pp. 6-10). Field's painting is an apocalyptic summons to social reform, but it is also a reassurance that the punishments of a people were to be interpreted as a measure of their promise. After the apocalypse would come the millenium, the advent of God's Kingdom on Earth, a development linked to the survival and growth of republican democracy (Moorhead, 19). In recompense for the agonies of abolition and and war, Field's Monument offers the glorious redemptive vision of a millenial zion--the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Crowds fill the fountain-dotted park far below, observing the monuments towers and proudly surveying the marching columns of the Grand Army of the Republic. "The True Base" separates the maelstrom of American history from the haven of millenial republicanism above.

Showcased in the exhibit-rooms of the tops of the towers are America's accumulated moral and mechanical triumphs, both of which, in Puritan theology, are evidence of divine sanction of human affairs. Morse's telegraph, for example, was heralded by Northern Protestants as a likely method for spreading the gospel around the world. Field devotes bas-reliefs to the telegraph , Robert Fulton's steamboat--though these are difficult to see in the painting--as well as, more prominently, the steam train. At the Monument's zenith, balloon-stack locomotives carry passengers across suspended bridges between the various towers of the Exhibition, which centers around a version of Philadelphia's Memorial Hall. Field paints the Centennial Exhibition as a version of John Winthrop's "City on a Hill," complete with a "hanging garden" aerial railway and plenty of flags and angels on its beaux-arts bulwarks.

Field, especially given his rural isolation and conservative beliefs, seems very much ahead of his time, a "Yankee Seer." Writing of Field's total oeuvre, John Updike suggests that it gives us,

serially, the outside and inside of nineteenth-century America: the stiff-garbed, frilled, and ringleted gentlemen and gentlewomen who eye us with unflinching, just barely smiling rectitude; and the lush patriotic and religious visions that uplifted and guided them through their workdays and Sundays.(Updike, 76)

Despite the general implausibility of Field's structure, the Monument--basically a sermon in paint--narrates a fascinating story about the relevance of Puritan theology and rhetoric to late 19th-century ideas about the American Republic. In The Historical Monument of the American Republic, Field offers a myth of national origin and a sanctioned space in which his rural Yankee neighbors could revitalize the virtue and piety of their Puritan ancestors.

Back to Home Page