Friday, April 20, 2012
War, Welfare & Democracy
The fears of our forefathers are creeping towards reality. These fears, which our Founding Fathers had in mind when they placed their limitations on our government, also produced one of the most beautifully haunting series of paintings in American art. Thomas Cole, a famed painter and founder of the “Hudson River School” of artists, created a cycle of paintings labeled The Course of Empire in the 1830s. His work was inspired in part by a verse of Lord Byron’s nearly contemporaneous poetry.
There is the moral of all human tales;
Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page...
The cycle of five paintings depicted a landscape’s transition from the state of nature, through a pastoral era, to the Consummation of Empire. In this grandiose scene, the emperor and his retinue stand in their pomp on a bridge. In the background, we see the ships of commerce and the decadent temples and buildings they paid for. The next scene is entitled Destruction, as armies battle over the same bridge, which has begun to give way under their weight. Only warships ply the waters now. Finally, Desolation prevails as nature begins to reclaim the abandoned ruins.
Cole was painting with American hubris in mind. His notes lay plain his fears of the coming tragedy of the Civil War. “Americans are too fond of attributing the great prosperity of the country to their own good government instead of seeing the source of it in the unbounded resources & favorable political opportunities of the nation. It is with sorrow that I anticipate the downfall of this republican government; its destruction will be a death blow to Freedom, for if the Free government of the U[nited] States cannot exist a century where shall we turn?” The United States did survive, but only after a titanic clash that left scars to this day. It should give us pause to hear the growing stridence of voices calling for radical solutions to the problems facing America and other established democracies. Furthermore, our discord undermines the power of example as we hope to lead others away from illiberal politics and state capitalism toward our more liberal model.