"It is about themselves that they are truly excited"

After touring America in 1831 and 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville came to the conclusion that the natural landscape did not have and would not develop an important place in the American cultural consciousness. Tocqueville believed that other forces were at work that would exert a stronger influence over the developing American self conception such as religion and the American legal system. But in disputing the place of the natural landscape in American culture Tocqueville took on what was even then a long-standing myth of American nationhood, that of of America as the Garden of the World. Before he had even stepped on American soil in 1630, John Winthrop in his Modell of Christian Charityhad claimed for the continent a Provincial destiny, a destiny he said that had focused the eyes of all other people upon the American experiment. It was an idea of surpassing attractiveness, and the proof of it seemed to Americans to lie in those things that set America apart from the rest of the world. One of those was the natural landscape.

But Tocqueville did not find this argument compeling for three reasons. First, Tocqueville believed that the state of nature in which America existed, as he called it America's "physical circumstances" was far less important in the maintainence of a stable democracy than the laws which the Americans had created. Tocqueville disputed the fact that a closer relationship with nature and the natural landscape had any effect on the type of government under which one lived. According to Tocqueville, European governments were not more despotic because of the European nations had long passed through the pastoral phase in which America existed. As proof, he pointed to the governments of the South American nations.

These nations, of which he said there were "no nations more miserable" possessed the same grandious natural landscapes as the United States, and yet they did not enjoy democratic government. Unlike the United States which saw the open continent before them as a sign of their Manifest Destiny to spread across it and possess it, the South American nations have developed great armies and fought wars amongst themselves. Their standard of living was so far below that of Europeans that the natural state could not be relied upon to create in its inhabitants a desire for a society of a superior nature.

Frederic Edwin Church Cotopaxi, Ecuador 1862

"But where in the world can one find more fertile wildernesses, greater rivers,
and more untouched and inexhaustible riches than in South America? If it
were enough for the happiness of nations to be placed in a corner of the world
where they can spread at will over uninhabited lands, the Spaniards of
Central America would have no reason to complain of their lot." (Tocqueville, 484)

Thomas Cole, in his Essay on American Scenery belived just the opposite. "There is in the human mind" he wrote, "an almost inseparable connexion between the beautiful and the good...He who looks on nature with a 'loving eye'...in gazing on the pure creations of the Almighty...feels a colm religious tone steal through hismind, and when he has turned to mingle with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate."

Second, Tocqueville was of the opinion that Americans were much more interested in the future than in the past. To Tocqueville, the landscape represented a part a past from which America was emerging. To the later Hudson River School artists, this was true. To those artists working during and following the Civil War, the landscape represented a yearning for the early days of American history and a more pure moral state to which American should aspire to return. But to the earlier artists, the landscape represented not the past, but the promise of the future. "American associations are not so much of the past" wrote Thomas Cole, "but of the present and the future...in looking over the yet uncultivated scene, the mind's eye may see far into futurity. Where the wolf roams, the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower - mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; the poet yet unborn shall sactify the soil." To the Hudson River School artists, the landscape represented the promise of America's future.

Finally, Tocqueville was convinced that Americans were much more concerned with subduing nature than with perserving it. Their focus, he believed was on technology and expansion, not in protecting the natural spaces around them. The wild nature of America was something that fascinated the Europeans, but not the Americans themselves.

George Inness Lackawanna Valley c.1856

"The American people see themselves marching
through wildernesses, drying up marshes, peopling the
wilds, and subduing nature." (Tocqueville, 485)

But the artists themselves were very aware of the destruction that threatened the natural landscape and the work of many of the later artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran can be seen as attempts to recapture some of what had been lost to expansion and technology. Cole himself wrote "I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes is passing away - the ravages of the axe are daily increasing - ".

Tocqueville uncaanily correct in many of the observations that he made about the American character. he rightly observed the American obsession with moving qucikly across the continent and with making nature responsive to their will. But he was incorrect in suggesting that the natural landscape was not important ot the Americans. It has always played an enormous role in the American cultural consciousness that continues to this day.


Introduction | The Hudson River School | Iconography of the Hudson River School | Gallery of Paintings | The Persistence of Memory