Blessings sometime come unexpectedly from defeat. When President John Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, he scarcely suspected that his Federalist party had begun the longest losing streak in Oval Office history. In hindsight, New England’s quarter-century-long political banishment transformed Boston from a dilapidated and declining shipping port into the genteel birthplace of two great cultural movements, Transcendentalism and Spiritualism.
These high-minded movements weren’t plucked from thin air. Instead, much of what scholars call the American Renaissance originated from Boston’s streets: a crooked, cramped, vice-ridden urban labyrinth, piled high with “night soil,” and riven by the same inequality that haunts us today.
Boston’s elites placed an outsize blame for their political woes on the urban landscape. In sermons and pamphlets, reformers argued that a claustrophobic and unsanitary urban environment corroded popular judgment. According many ministers, visual exposure to “innumerable indulgencies and gratifications,” from luxurious carpet shops to seedy oyster bars, deprived urban spectators of their capacity to think and behave properly, making good New Englanders into drunkards, sensualists, adherents of feverish religious revivals, and even Jeffersonian Republicans.
The local ruling class settled on a cure we today would call visual literacy. Enrich the electorate’s vision with bright, orderly avenues, patriotic landmarks, uplifting vistas, and inspiring places of leisure, and — voila — ordinary Bostonians would again recognize proper social and political order.
Now, amid widespread doubts about the sanity of the American voter and ongoing calls to improve another form of literacy — media literacy, this time — antebellum Boston offers a possible lesson in where such educational reforms can lead.
Boston’s didacts — politicians, ministers, teachers, and curators — understood they would never be able to completely gentrify the city’s landscape, censor the vulgar cartoons produced by its new lithography studios, or lock up every prostitute. But “if in great cities the existence of vice is inevitable,” Federalist Josiah Quincy argued, “its course should be in secret, like other filth, in drains and in darkness.”
As Quincy and his fellow reformers declared war on brothels, graffiti, and outdoor charity, they redirected their neighbors’ gaze toward more uplifting sights. Local reformers opened the Athenaeum art gallery to non-subscribers, promoted drawing instruction in the public schools, and encouraged attendance at natural history exhibitions as a path to “that spiritual light which shines within.” By the end of the 1820s, Boston’s leaders had commissioned the nation’s tallest monument (on Bunker Hill), first municipal park (the Common), and the city’s first public art space (the Boston Athenaeum).
Banks were built in the form of Greek temples to promote honest commerce; public charity events were held in gothic-themed surroundings to inspire saintly generosity. As the designer of Horticultural Hall argued, the new architecture would exert “a prominent influence over the moral and intellectual habits of a people.”
Boston’s third mayor, Harrison Gray Otis, designated the Old State House as civically sacred, a place to feel the “awe and contrition which solemnize and melt the heart of the Christian who looks into the Holy Sepulchre.” In 1847, the Brahmin critic William Ellery Channing hoped “in the place of prisons, laws, and preaching, to substitute the statue, the picture, and the song.”
But the ambitions behind these measures frequently exceeded reality. As boatloads of destitute European immigrants disembarked at Constitution Wharf, much to the displeasure of nativists, authors such as R.L. Midgley led their readers viewers up the steps of the State House Cupola, to admire how “the rich and poor meet together” on the Common. To achieve such a vision, painters such as George Harvey had to subtract the gambling sailors and destitute beggars from city’s leading outdoor space.
In the 1830s and 1840s, Boston found itself so divided by ethnicity, class, and politics that riots frequently erupted. Some residents questioned whether looking at pretty pictures and monuments amid such ugliness improved or coarsened the soul. In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson asked whether the Athenaeum’s “umpires of taste” knew more about art than basic Christian charity. Around that time, he and other Transcendentalists abandoned the posh rooms of the gallery for the Concord suburbs, hoping that nature could provide an aesthetic and social connection the city had failed to deliver.
Amateur artists like Thomas T. Spear did not leave Boston, but simply subverted the gatekeepers of visual culture, indirectly encouraging a new religious movement, Spiritualism. In 1844, Spear secretly attended an exhibition of paintings by the city’s recently deceased painter laureate Washington Allston, covertly copying Allston’s masterpiece on another campus and completing it with what he implied was supernatural assistance. Other untrained outsider artists produced supernaturally-inspired drawings of the spirit world: flowers, fruit, and ghosts that more respected artist could not perceive. Completed during séances, often in pitch darkness, these outsider artworks demonstrated that one did not need a fancy education in art to see and represent heaven.
The most unlikely challenge to Boston’s visual didacts came from those who couldn’t see at all. Perkins School for the Blind student Benjamin Bowen one-upped the aesthetes by proclaiming that everything a blind individual “touches, all that he hears, becomes, as it were, to him spiritual verities.” As proof, Bowen’s fellow blind read the contents of sealed envelopes, escorted Davy Crockett around Boston unaided, and wrote moving autobiographies full of sublime imagery. Such feats helped lay the foundation for both hypnotherapy and the work of later famous disabled Americans such as Helen Keller.
Together, the Transcendentalists, Spiritualists, and the blind turned on its head the upper-class dogma that we are what we see. After the Civil War, Boston’s cultural elite abandoned most of their visual education campaign. Instead of constructing another model patriotic sight like Bunker Hill’s obelisk, post-war elites built the Arlington Street Armory as a warning for poor, potentially rebellious South Enders.
As for the new middle class majority, it segregated itself in its Roxbury and Dorchester suburbs, patronizing its own illustrated press, theaters, and art galleries. When the infamous Watch and Ward Society established itself at the end of the century, it tried to censor what people could see, rather than teach them how to see. Despite the efforts of Quincy’s generation, Boston’s social groups neither looked nor saw alike.
As Americans, we often think that individualism is somehow woven into our cultural DNA. We frequently point to our prophet of self-reliance, Emerson. We forget that when Emerson wandered out into the wilderness, he believed that he saw and felt what anyone would under similar circumstances. In the woods, he explained, the names of individuals and social roles like “master or servant” become meaningless. “All mean egotism vanishes” and “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me,” he proclaimed.
But by the end of the 1850s, that sense of potential connection through our shared visual world had begun to fracture. “The same object, presented to several men who had different predominant feelings or interests, will suggest as many and as various images,” wrote the Boston physician Edward Jarvis in 1858. This was not because some viewers had less taste than others, Jarvis noted, but because they represented different professions and different classes. It was folly to try to get everyone to see the same away.
At the present moment, many Americans feel as Boston’s didacts once did: desperate to see their country regain a sense of common perspective and fellow feeling that once existed, if only in myth. But the case of antebellum Boston suggests that teaching people how to look at a picture or read a newspaper alike won’t necessarily restore social bonds strained by class, geography, and partisanship. Divided perceptions are often the effect, not the cause, of how very far apart we have drifted.