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Liberté / Libertés

Sylvia Ullmo

II. Représentations et territoires de la liberté

Portraits of Liberty, Pictures of Freedom: Two Readings of Governance in the American Republic

Loretta Valtz Mannucci

Texte intégral

1Portraits have played an important role in governance since the rise of the nation state and the absolute monarch. Earlier, the Catholic Church had employed “portraits” of saints and, more importantly, of Jesus, but they were imaginary and intended to fix awe and devotion. Along with the portraits of kings “taken from life”, the portraits of God the father and ruler with individualized features appeared, and the two reinforced each other; alongside portraits of the nobility appeared those of prelates.

  • 1 Simon Schama, 1988. The Embarrassment of Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden A (...)

2The sense of such portraits, which displayed the individual and, at the same time, transfigured him or her into category, seemed obvious to those commissioning them. Not only did they affirm in their dynastic succession the right of kingship and dominion and show forth aristocratic superiority and continuity of caste, but they made evident the vast distance between the figure portrayed and the observer. Even when a burgeoning middle class turned to portraiture in the 17th century,1 it held itself more cautiously, offering its authority in domestic or professional guise.

  • 2 Julie Plax, “Battling for Representation: Ideology and Military Images” in L. Valtz Mannucci and A. (...)
  • 3 John Keegan, 1999. The Mask of Command. A Study of Generalship. London: Pimlico.

3Examination of a few royal portraits can give us a number of important intuitions as to the nature of governance in an absolute monarchy, just as the presentation of scenes of battle, codified, yet varying with time and circumstances, tell us important things about the relations between power and the waging of war2 in the long period between the early 1500s and the late 1700s.3

4The world of the Enlightenment made some of the conventions less rigid. Gestures were scaled down to a more informal, inward-looking, mode, yet only children and young women were exempt from directly expressing a certain majestas, from dominating the space they occupied and distancing the viewer into inferiority and deference.

  • 4 Often during the discussions it was observed that the common people would not accept exclusion and (...)

5The American Revolution made such conventions inappropriate. The governing attitude of a Republic with representative institutions, defended by a citizen army, could not be that of an established monarchy, however much some of its leaders might have felt that to be unfortunate4. But what could, and also what should, be its tone of governance? Beyond the setting up of institutions – which theory and history might aid – the need to choose consonant procedure – a republican mien – was essential and urgent

  • 5 The Second Continental Congress only decided in June to adopt the siege of Boston and to thus natio (...)
  • 6 See Jack Greene’s classic study on the pre-revolutionary governance of the colonies and on politica (...)
  • 7 This was John Adams’ position, expressed in the mid-sixties, in “Dissertation on Canon and Feudal L (...)
  • 8 Jefferson’s version of natural rights informs the Declaration of Independence; its appeal was broad (...)

6This was so not only for “aesthetic” reasons or for reasons of theory. It was true because the steps which initiated the war had been taken by ordinary men even before the New England militia spontaneously assembled, and, having skirmished with British regular troops at Concord, harassed their return march to Boston and laid siege to the city itself, cutting off the isthmus which was its only land route into the surrounding countryside5. It was true because the majority of householders in all colonies had the vote and were used to electing colonial assemblies and considering them as legitimate government.6 It was true because the war was a civil war, both in the sense that it opposed English colonies to an English government and in that it opposed Loyalists, who supported the Parliament and the king as legitimate authority, and Patriots, who declared that the colonies had only been associated with Britain because they so chose7 or because Britain had guaranteed their natural rights.8

7From the moment the concept of popular sovereignty was advanced as the basis of government and the scope of government was said to be the defence of liberty – which was then seen as guaranteeing the exercise of rights through appropriate institutions – the vast and grave problem of the face of proper republican authority was a central one. Portraits of leaders were now not only necessary for national decorum, they were necessary as pledges of what the national seal would proclaim “a new order of the centuries.” There was no appropriate guide for republican portraiture in the tradition of public representation of leadership (as there was none for republican scenes of battle). A republican leader must be the embodiment of Liberty as a defining fact of daily life. Whether soldier or law-maker or governor, he must be recognizable and worthy, no less worthy than what he replaced, but he must also be visibly other than they: together with authority, he must suggest natural equality; chosen by ordinary folk, he must at once show himself to be one with them and to be more able than they at managing public concerns. It was not an easy balance to achieve. The solution offered by revolutionary and early Federal portraiture, particulary, in the presentation of Washington, general in chief of the revolutionary forces and first president of the new republic, is interesting and important.

  • 9 The Washington Monument, begun in the 1840s, was completed in the 1880s. By then the mythic aura ha (...)

8This solution was also to become an initial formulation destined to evolve over time and become monument (the Lincoln memorial, Mount Rushmore, the statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in bronze)9, or slip into dutiful and conventional exercise to hang temporarily on official office walls and later be archived in some commemorative gallery. The portrait of the republican leader as representation of embodied liberty would be replaced a little at a time by the picture of freedom, as the representative republic took on democratic rhetoric as the core of political discourse linking leaders to citizens.

  • 10 The closest is “at liberty,” given under “free” (“to free: set at liberty”), but it also implies au (...)

9At this point it seems worthwhile to look briefly at the concept of liberty, which contains an internal tension. The English language makes this tension easy to discern because it has two words and they have taken on significantly different connotations over time, especially in the United States. These words are “liberty” and “freedom.” The first is a “high” word, the second a more homely, “no nonsense” word, enjoying that aura of fundamentality that all words whose root is not Latinate have in English. The concise Oxford dictionary makes clear the passive or prescriptive and institutional aura surrounding liberty, much as the leaders of the revolutionary, constitutional, and early Federal periods would have understood it. The first meaning given for liberty is: “being free from captivity, imprisonment, slavery or despotic control.” The definition given of “freedom”, however is private and active: “personal liberty, non-slavery” and the Oxford adds: “civil liberty, independence; liberty of action, right to do; power of self-determination; independence of fate or necessity.” If we now pursue our inquiry further, we find the Oxford defining “civil liberty” as: “natural liberty limited only by laws established on behalf of the community”. So the concept of liberty is set in a semantic field that has at its core restraint, boundaries marking out the space in which it is operative as freedom – “liberty of action, right to do.” In fact, we find “liberty of conscience” is: “a system allowing all members of [a] State to follow what form of religion seems good to them,” and “liberty of the press” to be: “a system by which anyone may print & publish what he pleases without previous permission, but not without liability to penalties for publishing libellous or criminal matter.” In all of this, power is implied in the defining of what is libellous or criminal, in the allowing of more than one religion, in the defining of the interests of the community while making the laws to defend it. Natural liberty, acknowledged, remains pretty much within the thoughts and private environs of the individual.10

10The Merriam-Webster, the most traditional of American dictionaries, is simpler than the Oxford. It numbers the meanings assigned and so defines “liberty”: “1) freedom; 2) An action going beyond normal limits.” For the word “freedom” it gives: “1) The quality or state of being free; independence.” The second, capitalized, meaning resonates with public, national meanings for an American, who naturally equates it with the Declaration, the War and, of course, liberty/freedom. If we turn to “free” we find: “1) Having liberty; 2) Not controlled by others.” There is no suggestion anywhere of the “normal limits” which gave the second meaning of “liberty” a slightly negative cast. There is no hint of “system,” no mention from some authority allowing. In the place of “fate” or “necessity”, we find vague “others” of whom we are not independent but rather “not controlled by.” There seems to be no difference between the two terms, but rather a neat circularity and the only hint that they might comport an element of institutionality, the only flickering, nearly subliminal, presence of the Oxford “system” or the “rule of law” is in the use and capitalization of the word “independence.” The Merriam-Webster displays the final product of a process central to making the United States polity what it is today: that is the elision and blurring of the internal tensions of the concept of liberty.

11This brief paper makes a first attempt at examining two important moments of that long process, as they are present in the representations of visual art of widespread popular diffusion. The first moment I wish to consider is that of the founding period, from the revolutionary war to about the war of 1812 and its aftermath. The second moment is that of the Second World War.

12I shall introduce the entire discussion by relating the experience which first brought home to me the interest of the theme. William & Mary College is situated in Williamsburg, across the road from the town which was the capital of colonial Virginia and is now constituted as a living museum where the trading and discussions of revolutionary Virginia are enacted daily for visitors eager to experience “the past”. In a leafy spot within the large park of glades and low hillocks that form its extensive campus, stands a life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson, who attended the college. A recent, post-war work, the statue exudes youthful energy. It is a young man who strides towards us, his body still slightly adolescent and not wholly under the control of his mind, still moved by curiosity, still experimental, in the making. There is no doubt Jefferson is free and vital, the ideal expression of a view of republican America whose message is pragmatic, active and optimistic: not “giants in the land,” but “ordinary folk” keyed up to the point of momentary transcendence and large deeds. A statement on freedom as a decidedly physical, individualistic and profoundly private state: liberty communicated as freedom of movement and bodily competence. Jefferson is clothed, but the clothing does not impose itself on your attention: you cannot tell whether he is poor or well-to-do; an artisan, a farmer, a lawyer, a teacher. So we have a sort of symbolic community in the extreme individualism of the lone figure stepping forward, towards you, toward “the world” epitomized by a sylvan (timeless) context and, in the back of the observer’s mind, a college with buildings dating from the 17th to the 20th century.

13The 17th century building is the College’s official symbol, a graceful but severe red brick edifice housing a well-lighted portrait gallery on its first floor. The space is oblong and formal, cadenced as such spaces traditionally are, by windows. Among the portraits on view are those of many founders of the national republic. The impact of these individual portraits is strong – but it is strong chiefly because it is collective. The beholder looks at individual faces, most of them very well known – some clearly the work of more than competent artists – and each is a definite “person”. But, as one turns towards the subsequent, varied, portraits of famous alumni and college presidents, one realizes that it is virtually impossible to recall the single figures of the early group. It is the whole, the assemblage of founding leaders which remains in the eye and mind: though portrayed separately, though characterized and varied in age, what we have here is not a random group of individuals, but a “body.” Members of the “body-politic” which declared independence and participated in the Constitutional Convention and went on to be senators, or presidents. Each man is more – and less – than “himself.”

  • 11 Velvet and brass buttons are shown in present day texts used for tourists to historic sites (We, th (...)
  • 12 See the conference paper (2000, 10th Milan Group Symposium) L. Valtz Mannucci, “All-American Rocks: (...)

14The individuals in the portraits have no real physicality, even though they are realistically portrayed. They are still with a stillness that is neither transition nor repose between movements; they do not even strike rhetoric poses. Usually, their lower bodies are not on view, so that even the suggestion of legs and feet is absent; often, we glimpse only part of a hand, and it is motionless. Dressed in dark and simple, but formal, clothing, with only a touch of starched white, lace, ruffle, cravat – at throat or cuff,11 they are more like rocks (or monuments)12 than men and in recollection, there seems to be no background and no context at all. Their entire communication is intellectual and collective. Unlike the Jefferson “out in the open” in a murmured invitation to think about the West and the wilderness, they are not a vision of freedom: they are and are meant to be – for, unlike Jefferson in the woods, they chose their representation – an austere and even admonitory vision of Liberty.

  • 13 See the various contributions of George Mason and others during the Constitutional Convention, as r (...)
  • 14 Indeed, John Adams expressed his surprise to his wife, Abigail, in 1765 when he attended the Stamp (...)

15Liberty, for the revolutionary and constitutional leadership, was only partially personal and private; more importantly, it was civic and legal and closely bound to duty.13 It had to do with rights, primarily those described and sanctioned by English Common Law and by legislation and within which the individual was “free” (legitimated) to act and to choose. And it had to do, in a less clear, more intuitive, and for most leaders more troubling way, with rights that were “natural” yet, withal, not without limits, not inviolable with “due process of law.” All of the chief documents of the period indicate that, among the very different elites of the colonies - formed by origins and histories that were perhaps similar but, importantly, not “the same”14 - from 1775 a common experience not only made liberty equal to independence from Great Britain, but identified the institutional form as republican. This institutional form interpreted liberty as orderly execution of recognized rights, administered, interpreted and guaranteed by public spirited elites. Legitimate freedom was in the realm of family life and personal taste, the possibility of choosing and carrying into effect modes of behavior within such an institutional framework. Yet, in a country where there were no professional corporations, where there was abundant land whose property was often unclear, and undefended, where there was no legal aristocracy with special rights, freedom, defined as it was as operative only in private spheres, pressed upon liberty. The heart-felt efforts of elite leaders during the entire period went into building and making persuasive the concept that the revolution was a war for independence in the limited sense of the removal of despotic rule, a response to the violation of institutional obligations and nothing more.

  • 15 See, Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Jonathan Edwards, editor, Washington, 183 (...)
  • 16 The Federalist Papers, meant to persuade the ratification convention in the state of New York, alre (...)

16The preoccupation for the inevitable democratic repercussions of a “people’s war” – the active fear of some leaders that the “lower sort” (farmers, artisans) might, through ignorance and sanguine temperament, destroy all orderly government and plunge the weak new nation into chaos or deliver it again into British hands – is recurrent in the constitutional convention debates and hangs about the state debates on ratification.15 The “people,” absent in Philadelphia, where debate is behind closed doors – are, none the less, omnipresent; for example, in the complex and repeated revisions of the model of representation, where members clearly state that such and such a solution, however appealing, could lead to armed revolt. The ratification debates in the single states did nothing to assuage these fears: indeed, the new national state was only “sure” after the Bill of Rights was approved in 1791, two years into Washington’s first presidency and in the troubling wave of news from France.16

  • 17 Most did not make much, if any, money, though several tried to speculate on Western lands. Certainl (...)

17So here are the republican leaders presenting, in tacit accord, the face of liberty as they conceive it, some in Massachusetts, some in Virginia, some in Charleston or Philadelphia. At William & Mary we can see them assembled now, but then, when it counted, their assembly was an ideal one, the general perception of what common men and republican theory would expect the governors of a republican state to be. And, quite often, what they honestly attempted to be.17 Republican liberty was an intellectual engagement whose central core was stability and the rule of law – which they mean to show is not personal, not private: their portraits show the beholder that their individuality and their personal interests are curbed and enclosed in the vestments of republican authority. They have no hands out to snatch, nor feet to flee. They proclaim with their pose and aspect that they are to be trusted with the organization and administration of the context of freedom: with defining that context. They do not intend to “go” anywhere, “discover” or “innovate” anything. At least not on the public level, whatever speculation some of them may engage in with Western lands.

  • 18 See Marco Sioli, Contro i padri fondatori. Petizioni e insurrezioni nell’America post-rivoluzionari (...)

18We look in vain here for Democratic Republicans, frontiersmen, petitioning and self-organizing citizens. Though fear of the Shaysites had been very present at the Convention, the refusal, during the’90s, to accept taxes on home made whiskey (used in lieu of money in commercial transactions in the Virginia and Pennsylvania backcountry) would go unanswered until it became armed rebellion regarding the rights of “free citizens” to require government to respond when called upon. It then obtained the response of an army led by president Washington himself.18

19At this point, I should like to examine the portraiture regarding Washington, because it brings the trend I have just considered to its acme and then passes beyond it to constitute a sort of myth of the origins. This vast corpus was reproduced extensively at the time and remained present in homes throughout the nineteenth century; it adorned schoolrooms across the country at least until after World War II.

Figure I: John Trumbull, 1790

20In the first, painted by John Trumbull, who knew Washington well and who would paint the series for the Capitol showing the signing of the Declaration of Independence and other political scenes (in a number of which the leaders are shown in contemporary dress, wearing colors and garments of elegant cut and embellishment), we see Washington in a rumpled uniform, leaning negligendy on his horse’s neck with his sword at his side and his hat under his arm. He stands on a hill, looking to his left at something in – or perhaps beyond-the painting, since the light is coming from that direction and, in the background, on the field below, we can glimpse between the horse’s front legs, a disconsolate line of British soldiers abandoning New York and an empty pedestal, where once stood the statue of king George III. The year is 1790, and Washington is now the first president of the new republic, but his stance and expression are still those of a soldier, though one whose task is completed.

Figure 2: Adolph Westmuller, [c. 1794])

21The second, by Westmuller, dated 1794, shows head and shoulders. Washington looks directly at us and seems to have no other purpose than communicate elegant and sober resolve. His lace jabot signals the dignity of his person. Perhaps the best-known portrait, however, is Gilbert Stuart’s. It dates from 1796 and is called the “Atheneum portrait”; it is the one preferred for schoolrooms. The face looking out at us, a bit side-long, is older than Westmuller’s; it is a kinder face, perhaps because it does not face us challengingly and perhaps because the eyes are darker, softer, paternal. The role of “father of his country” would be assigned by future writers as part of the transfiguration into myth of Washington and Stuart may be said to have made the first important representation following this trend: the face of liberty as paternal care and feeling; the lace at Washington’s neck is suggested but not, as in the case of Westmuller, put forward with painterly bravura.

Figure 3: Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

  • 19 United States Chronicle, May 21, 1789. The article observed that Washington had “appeared dressed i (...)
  • 20 By the same token, Washington also named Gen. Lincoln, a shopkeeper in peacetime, to accept Lord Co (...)

22How much of such a representation is choice on the part of the leader portrayed? In the case of Washington, we may be rather sure that the choice was his own. Although Washington owned brocaded waistcoats made of material imported from Europe and silk stockings as well as other elegant garments, he chose to take the first oath of office as president of the new republic wearing a plain dark suit made of wool spun and woven in the United States, as the New York Gazette duly reported by its readers and for other journals across the country.19 He was, as well, scrupulous in setting up not only procedures which established a respectful and even subordinate position towards Congress, but careful to hold, with his wife presiding, very sober and parsimonious weekly teas for a changing selection of its members, just as he had been careful to bring his wife to share the rigours of camp life during the hard and hungry winters of the campaigns of ‘77 and ‘78.20

23The full length state portrait of Washington as president also dates 1796 and is also the work of Gilbert Stuart. (Figure 4)

  • 21 Not to belabor, but arm, body and table form a triangle: hand to work and to window on sky/world. T (...)

24Here we can observe a further ideological suggestion, not available to us in previous portraits. Washington in a simple dark suit, with no metal buttons and no decorations, sashes or medals, stands frontally, fully exposed to us. His arms do not protect or conceal his body nor does he hold something to himself. He is wholly here: the message is that the private man has been absorbed into the public figure and, at the same time that the body given over to public concerns has become a mere vestment of the personality which moves it. What you see that is what you get, might be a modern and simple formulation. And what we see, as the common people of the time saw, is sober, austere, yet virile: he does not fear to show he is male; at once tranquil, though no longer young, a soldier still in posture and self assured. He does not imagine anyone might attack him; though his left hand rests lightly and competently on a sword (and although is not a dress sword), the arm which would have to draw it, is thrown wide in a gesture that is unusual in official portraiture. It is essentially static, open-palmed; it indicates but does not point out. What it indicates is not given – the pen remains in its inkwell. We see only confused, folded papers. Perhaps he indicates the future or the continent or national destiny (if we wish to elaborate on the table leg which however may be simply a table leg in the fashion of the time). The immobility of the face has sometimes been ascribed to false teeth, but is typical of official portraiture which does not aim at catching the moment or showing very personal, private, expressions. The eyes only are allowed expression, mirroring, some might feel, the soul or mind or spirit. They are somewhat melancholy as they are in the Atheneum portrait of the same year, and they look “beyond” neither at us nor into the room where he stands. Washington is, in a deep sense, extraneous to the scene. The sky we see behind his outstretched arm does not provide the light falling upon face and hands which taken together fix the points of a triangle.21

  • 22 They are still visible today at Mount Vernon in the front entry and in a service room on the ground (...)

25Washington is becoming the icon of a specific vision of the republic which Stuart epitomises. The extraneous gaze becomes just about universal in portraits of Washington in the’90s and may be said to be contemporaneous with the development of the whiskey rebellion on the Western frontiers and the deepening of the French republican venture. During the Jacobin years, Washington kept an ambassador in Paris, a form, certainly, of republican solidarity, but the domestic repercussions in terms of the strengthening of democratic republicanism among the populace did not seem to him to be of good auspice. Though he acted quickly when the whiskey rebellion became open revolt, he kept a quite moderate line afterwards and refrained from acting publicly against the Democratic Republican clubs and committee encouraged by Genet. And, of course, Lafayette had been a member of his immediate entourage during the war and had sent him a model of the Bastille, an etching of its fall and a key which purported to be its key all on display at Mount Vernon.22

26The trend will find its climax after Washington’s death in allegoric portraiture, of which Barralet’s “Apotheosis” of 1800 is probably the most striking.

Figure 5: Apotheosis, John Barralet, 1800

27It is worthwhile to compare a contemporary French portrait of Napoleon with the full length Stuart portrait, since this provides interesting insights into the nature of both processes of representation of liberty embodied. The portrait which seems most appropriate is by Jacques-Louis David dated 1812. Both are state portraits, both full figure, both standing, both in their studies, both at the culminating moment of their lives, both in the process of being made into icons by painters of some power who admired them.

Figure 6: Napoleon in his study, Jacques-Louis David, 1812

28Napoleon, portrayed in 1812, at the height of power and prestige, stands easily, with left knee slightly bent in a style much favored by 18th century English portraiture of the nobility. He is composed but not stiff; wearing a uniform and decorations, but no sword, though his left hand is by his side as though he felt the lack and he unconsciously reminds the viewer that it remains ideally present, if momentarily set aside. Many elements of the interior in which the figure stands make of this a nearly domestic portrait. Yet the body and the face belie this normalization of the emperor and general. The face is still and intent Napoleon, looking directly at us with a sober, measuring glance. It is the glance of authority and concedes nothing to the viewer.

29A pragmatic man of power, secure in that power, holding it to him (and keeping his own counsel) direct, but not trusting. In fact, the figure is protected at back and flanks by walls and furniture and a slightly bent knee, just as the right hand partly protecting his body. He does not “give” himself, nor does he indicate any direction, hemmed in by the accoutrements of rank and position, made visible as clothing, and “closed” to movement by the position of his feet and legs and arms, he is an icon of a very different type than Washington.

30The specialization and interaction of the terms “liberty” and “freedom,” born with the revolution and the republic, proceeded apace down the XIXth century as uncontainable and largely anarchic expansion westward grew and, finally, terminated on the shores of the Pacific. As it had taken on the sense of a convenient national identity combining bodily movement through space and the individual qualities underpinning self-esteem, while confirming the over-all institutional framework – freedom in liberty – the representation of the latter had also increasingly taken on the features of the former.

  • 23 Apropos of the early period, see the presentation of this theme in my paper to the 9th Symposium of (...)

31For example, the figure of Uncle Sam as emblem of the free republic was also an image of the republic as liberty. More or less a contemporary of the Civil War, Uncle Sam is the republic as a Yankee, direct descendant of the yankee farmer character which had appeared as an often dumb (but dyed-in-the-wool patriot) countryman in comedies from The Contrast in the 1790s on through the Jacksonian and post-Jacksonian period. Cantankerous, bossy, stingy and elderly, he championed folk wisdom and independence: at once imperious, superannuated, but the irrepressible voice of the working world which meant to make itself heard as its sovereign right, deferent to no man whatever his position, he was an object of affection and identification for important areas of the governed.23

Figure 7: Uncle Sam War poster

  • 24 See Morton Blum, V Was for Victory. Politics and Culture during World War II, New York: Harcourt Br (...)

32After the Civil War, the re-writing of national origins to make of New England alone the original nucleus of the revolution and the republic gave Uncle Sam a new lease on life and made of him an icon combining the concepts of liberty and freedom in such a way as to complete the privatization of the latter and make civic activity merge with consensus for government policy. Uncle Sam, redesigned as a more pleasing character, though still imperious, became the means of making the imposition of draft and civilian controls in both World Wars link back to the origins of the republic and into the people’s everyday world. He made of all the groups within the population, whatever their background, not only complementary Yankees and thus all-American, however anomalous their ethnic or religious past or their color. With World War II it seemed such a “baptism of desire” had indeed been effected.24

  • 25 cited from “Time” magazine in Foner, op.cit.

33This cultural climate makes Norman Rockwell’s illustrations/posters The Four Freedoms a pivotal summing up of the history of the concept and terms “liberty” and “freedom” and a breaking point in that history. Roosevelt first formulated the four freedoms as the reason for opposing Nazi Germany in his State of the Union address of January, 1941. A just world order, he declared, must be founded upon “four essential freedoms.... The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear – anywhere in the world.” During the ensuing war years, Roosevelt returned systematically to the Four Freedoms, comparing them to the Ten Commandments, the Magna Charta and the Emancipation Proclamation; in a radio broadcast in 1942, he said they expressed the rights of men of all religions and races, wherever they may be”, forming “the crucial difference between us and the enemy we fight.”25

34Roosevelt, ever sensitive to the nature of words – as a glance at the handwritten revisions in the typescript of the Fireside Chats which survive in the library at Hyde Park clearly reveals – did not speak of “liberties” and, in fact, two of the four could not really have been so expressed: “liberty from want” or “liberty from fear” ring wrong, distant and abstract. Rockwell’s four pictures made the homely summation visible. Appearing in a family magazine of mass circulation – The Saturday Evening Post – in late February and early March 1943, they were immediately “recognized” as iconic reproductions sold in millions of copies.

  • 26 Rockwell never denied his America was the small town indeed, as Scaperrotta points out, he moved to (...)

35The pictures are straightforward. They fill all the space and, except for one, have little background. The first two freedoms regard traditional “liberties”, presented as existential rather than institutional moments, thus bringing the second two freedoms tacitly under the wing of the familiar (and, in a sense, of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights). The worldwide scope of the message has been abandoned for a representation which aims at showing an ideal America, viewed as one and the same, as a quite specific and local segment of the population.26 Let us now examine the four posters.

Figure 8: Freedom of Speech (Norman Rockwell, 1943

36The figure standing – about to speak? Having just spoken? Having perhaps pledged himself as a citizen to.... what? – is not a boy, but still a young man. He is dressed like a working man of the time or, perhaps, a farmer, in a checked flannel shirt and the sort of short leather jacket American battle uniforms had adopted in cloth for the infantry and leather for flyers. He grasps a rolled sheet in his hands and has what might be a leaflet (or a ballot) in his pocket. He looks to be competent, at ease, sure of his place in his world. A free man, his freedom is civic and his individuality is lodged in a community; on either side of him are seated males, wearing shirts, ties and suits. They look up at him and have obviously been listening with due respect: businessmen, or at any rate “white collars,” one about his own age and one old enough to be his father. Other people surround him and at his back is what appears to be a blackboard: a civic meeting at a school then, perhaps even a town meeting. A lesson in democracy institutionalised and solemnified. One anomalous figure peeps out from behind the shoulder of the elderly man, also clutching a rolled paper (a map or plan?): perhaps a youth or perhaps a young woman, since it appears to wear a hat or cap, looking a bit diffident and slightly droll. Even in the exercise of rights and freedom, let’s not take ourselves too seriously, Rockwell seems to hint, though the expression on the standing figure’s face is a portrait of the ordinary man as emblem of liberty/freedom.

  • 27 A concept FDR had already used in his first month in office on the occasion of the “bank holiday” a (...)

37The poster legend is simple and four-square: “Save Freedom of Speech” is the banner on top; the standing figure with upturned, outward, gaze lighted from above and from outside the frame (not so very differently from Washington) draws our eye and centers the picture. The base on which the scene rests is another phrase which reads “Buy War Bonds”: the means to save freedom of speech, which is already institutionally “ours” is not only to speak out, but it is money to wage the war. Buying bonds, the individual will have spoken, even if he or she – man, woman or child, black, Catholic or Jew-just goes about his private concerns or sits at home.27 Not only is government to be trusted to guarantee “us,” but by trusting government and responding to its requests, “we” enable it to do so.

Figure 9: Freedom of Worship

38This poster has the same banner heading as the fist: “Save Freedom of Worship” and the same base line legend: “Buy War Bonds.” But a further phrase, almost cut into stone, white on black, Roman lettering reads: “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Strongly lighted from medium high on the left and from a source outside the frame, the group in prayer has two women: one elderly, one perhaps in her thirties, both severely coiffed (the younger has an almost Renaissance profile; she holds a rosary). There is a man in shadow in the lower right-hand corner holding a prayer book. An elderly man stands in profile behind the elderly lady, a young man next to the younger woman. The scene is filled compactly: a close community which invites us to admire with respect but, perhaps, not to enter in. There are no children, past and present are one and look to the light as future. Though the evangelical protestants are present and the catholics, it is uncertain whether the bible is meant to indicate the jews. The overall tone is respectful, familiar and submissive: they are waiting for the Word or the assurance. We do not see an altar or a clergyman.

39A threshold is now crossed. The banner heading reads, somewhat ambiguously, “ours” in capital letters, followed by three suspensive dots, “to fight for” in lower case type. It does not fill the line confirming that it is not a “liberty” – that is given and protected, filling up all the space present. The bottom line is “Freedom from Want” in the same capitals as “Ours” and as the “Buy War Bonds” of the previous two posters ‘Ours, freedom from want,’ at this moment in history, with the Great Depression close at our backs; ours, the viewer knows, thanks to the full employment of the war effort. The undercurrent of uncertainty which might arise is blocked by the subject and its tacit appeal to national origins and the newly official Thanksgiving day whose date had been fixed nationally by the president only a few years earlier.

40The scene that we view is again collective. The chief source of light, visible this time and very much of this world, is a central window, through which we glimpse the sky. The window is framed in clean white curtains that proclaim the people gathered are neither poor nor rich (and, indeed, the mat of a picture to the window’s right initiates a diagonal across the elderly lady, the turkey, the white dishes and cloth to the happy younger couple in the lower left corner). The window casts the couple providing the turkey into a slight shade, mitigated by the reflection of the cloth, dishes and glasses that under-light the happy faces whose circle we ideally complete. The benevolent, still vigorous, past has its completion in this present moment of agape and its future in the young couple, but we may share. This time we are in the picture – as “ours” has implied – in a sort of communion of the national family. Where before people looked towards a chairman or God or a clergyman, outside the picture, the people at the table look at each other, rather than at the turkey: only the elderly couple standing look at that – and at us: we look at the abundance of a specifically American bird (Franklin wanted it on the national seal) and at the physical testimony of the established American past (our ancestors) and, finally, at the white, absolute, light of a clean earthly future. There are even two children who laugh at us and with us as they anticipate the feast.

Figure 10: Freedom from Want

Figure 11: Freedom from Fear (Norman Rockwell, 1943

41Again the heading is “ours,” dot, dot, dot “to fight for.” The base line is “Freedom from fear.” And this time the circle before us is tighter: a nuclear family, well off enough to have a bedroom for its two children, with white sheets and a coverlet; toys lie on the floor and there is a picture on the wall. The light is diffused and its origin within the picture, but we glimpse stairs as well, outside the room and they are well-lighted: a cottage, then, and no need to stint in fundamentals like electricity. The parents are not very young – the Depression had pushed the age of marriage on – so much so that the father is a civilian and his wife and children need not fear for him. If for America freedom from want is an intergenerational holiday meal, freedom from fear is a more private thing, celebrated in the inner-most heart of a house, walled round. “Safe in bed” is a cliché, but a precarious one. Mother is a housewife, still wearing her apron, though it is evening; father, a rather weary office worker or salesman, is in shirtsleeves and suspenders, gingerly carrying his daily paper by one corner. The newspaper forms an “unwanted,” distracting, center, drawing the eye downwards. The important, clear, word of the headline we see is “Bombings.” And this word makes us change perspective sharply: after all, the paper is the center of the picture, it has prompted the parents to go and see their children safe and, probably, mutely give thanks. Fear is in abeyance, but not absent. Not here, the newspaper reminds them and us – wherever in the world, thank God and our strength, not here.

  • 28 See L. Valtz Mannucci, “Bringing It All Home. Producing the Family in the Fifties,” in Flavia Brizi (...)

42This is a New England America; a small town America; an America that is prevalently middle-aged or elderly; an America where children sleep tucked into bed or sit at the end of the table, “seen but not heard” – and teen-agers are still as obedient as the Andy Hardy film series show (or they are in the army or the defence plant). The country had been prevalently urban since the 1920s, but that was not its image of itself either at the decision-making level nor at the popular level (nor would it be even after the war when the rush to the new-made suburbs made of the desire of middle and modest urban America to be “small town” a sort of hysteria.28

  • 29 See Francis Hopkinson’s Account of the Grand Federal Procession, Philadelphia, 1788.

43There are no Asians, Hispanos, or Afros in this America (though there may be assimilated Indians, by now in New England “absorbed” and often unaware themselves). There seems to be catholics (see the rosary), there are jews or other non-christian groups only by implication in the graven phrase (yet, in 1788, a rabbi marched with the 4th of July parade celebrating ratification of the Constitution in Philadelphia, linking arms with a priest and a preacher).29 There are no poor – and there are no rich. The faces of freedom we are offered here are those of decent people, who trust themselves and their government; they are what the faces of liberty would have hoped to make of the population of the new republic, though perhaps rather too lacking in critical capacities.

44Not only were they not the whole of the population of that republic (and, in the measure in which the excluded shared, however, the self-vision of national identity of these middle class whites despite the paradox and alienation such perception imposed on them – we need only think of the loyalty of black troops, segregated and undervalued throughout the war – they may be assimilated to this) they were also ill-equipped to deal with – or evaluate or call to account – a universe of governors who, as often as not, had precious little of the convictions or capacities of those early leaders to put some curb on their personal interests and their taste for power.


Works cited

Hopkinson, Francis, 1788. Account of the Grand Federal Procession. Philadelphia.

Keegan John, 1999. The Mask of Command. A study of Generalship. London: Pimlico.

Schama, Simon, 1988. The Embarrassment of Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. U. Berkeley: University of California.


1 Simon Schama, 1988. The Embarrassment of Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. U. Berkeley: University of California.

2 Julie Plax, “Battling for Representation: Ideology and Military Images” in L. Valtz Mannucci and A. Scaperrotta. Historiography: Practitioners and Public. Quaderno 6. Milan Group, published on line at: www.library.vanderbilt/quaderno.

3 John Keegan, 1999. The Mask of Command. A Study of Generalship. London: Pimlico.

4 Often during the discussions it was observed that the common people would not accept exclusion and would rise in arms. The question of suffrage which would meet this pressure without “surrendering” governance to the middling sort, was a central one and the dispositions were changed and rediscussed several times, as Madison’s Notes amply show. James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, University of Ohio, 1969, introduction Adrienne Rich. New York: Norton, 1969.

5 The Second Continental Congress only decided in June to adopt the siege of Boston and to thus nationalize the military efforts which had been producing effects since April. Washington was appointed commander of the forces besieging Boston at John Adams’ request and did not arrive in Cambridge to take over until early July, after the battle of Bunker Hill.

6 See Jack Greene’s classic study on the pre-revolutionary governance of the colonies and on political participation (The American Colonies in the Eighteenth Century, New York: Appleton-Century Croft. 1969) Applying the British property qualifications, about 10% of adult males had the vote; in the colonies virtually every householder was enabled by the British property criteria.

7 This was John Adams’ position, expressed in the mid-sixties, in “Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law” which appeared without title in the Boston Gazette in the spring of 1765 and, with the title indicated in the London Chronicle at the end of the year. It made of New England the “ideal” nation. Efficacious in the Massachusetts press, it was less convincing in the central and southern colonies whose origins – except for Pennsylvania – were much less clearly autonomous or unassisted. Adams was convinced by the opinions of Gov. Hopkins of Rhode Island who, in The Rights of the Colonies Examined had maintained that the first American colonies had been driven from Britain by oppression and, as Adams put it, “were so separate (...) until they offered to make a compact with the nation, or the crown and become subjects (...) on certain conditions”. After the Ipswich instructions, he wrote in his diary that “the first colonization (...) was [undertaken] not by an act of the English people nor of Parliament [which] had contributed nothing.” As Novanglus, in 1774, Adams expressed these views publicly in print.

8 Jefferson’s version of natural rights informs the Declaration of Independence; its appeal was broader and more easily accepted by those who were not New Englanders and by intellectuals abroad, as part of the cultural climate of the Enlightenment.

9 The Washington Monument, begun in the 1840s, was completed in the 1880s. By then the mythic aura had far outstripped the historic reality; though the original intention of the builders of the Capitol had been to place his tomb at the base of the building and center the fall of light from an opening in the cupola on it, by the time the obelisk was completed, most observers would have echoed the opinion of Daniel Webster regarding the obelisk at Bunker Hill and its lack of decoration or script. Webster in fact declared that when people, lifting their eyes to the monument as they entered Boston Harbor or walked through the city, no longer would remember what it represented, there would no longer be a Republic to celebrate. As we shall see, from the 1930s new elements enter into the construction of monuments and on, into the choice of what and how is to be remembered. The Vietnam “wall” (1980s) and the Roosevelt “walk” (1990s) illustrate the change; the discussion and dissent on the September 11 monument shows that the fractures between viewpoints have increased with the new century.

10 The closest is “at liberty,” given under “free” (“to free: set at liberty”), but it also implies authority: a prisoner is set at liberty.

11 Velvet and brass buttons are shown in present day texts used for tourists to historic sites (We, the People.., published by the Congressional Historic Society, for example)and Washington, as well as Jefferson, Madison and many other “founders” also had silver buttons: today no one is surprised or disapproves of a little elegance. But the portraits showing Jefferson in satin and lace are French and not the ones Americans were used to see; early Republic portraits – and colonial portraits – of gentlemen did show them so dressed, when they were meant as family or “private.” Only Hamilton presented himself as a “gentleman”, scorning the “common sort”. Thus the public portraiture is clearly a choice of republican decorum.

12 See the conference paper (2000, 10th Milan Group Symposium) L. Valtz Mannucci, “All-American Rocks: a ‘Capriccio’ for Richard Lyman Bushman”, in L. Valtz Mannucci, edited by, On the Frontiers, Quaderno 8, Milan Group, in preparation. The paper examines Mt. Rushmore as well as Plymouth Rock. See also, for a more specific study, John Seelye, Memory’s Nation, The Place of Plymouth Rock, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998.

13 See the various contributions of George Mason and others during the Constitutional Convention, as registered by Madison and others. The position of Washington is clearly of this nature as his correspondence and papers show not less than his public speeches.

14 Indeed, John Adams expressed his surprise to his wife, Abigail, in 1765 when he attended the Stamp Act Congress and met Southerners for the first time. He had expected to find it nearly impossible to communicate with them and, instead, was pleasantly surprised to discover that their views were much like his own, not withstanding their style and attitudes. As I have already observed, it was Adams who insisted ten years later upon Washington’s nomination to the command of American forces besieging Boston.

15 See, Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Jonathan Edwards, editor, Washington, 1836, 4 vols. (Ayer reprint, 1987); Merill Jensen, John Kaminski and Gaspare Saladino, editors, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1976; Jack Rakove, Original Meanings. Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, New York: Random, 1997. See also the state constitutions of Pennsylvania, Vermont and Massachusetts.

16 The Federalist Papers, meant to persuade the ratification convention in the state of New York, already show a certain tension in dealing with the question of rights, sustaining that whatever is not specifically ceded to the Federal government being instituted, remains with the states, all of which have declarations of rights. Already Mason had objected to this view and refused to sign the Constitutional proposal; as author of Virginia’s Bill of Rights, which had served as model for most other state declarations, his opinion carried weight. The material from the states regarding both ratification and the first Federal elections, show that the question was important. States as different as New Hampshire, Georgia, Massachsetts and Pennsylvania would make continued presence in the union conditional to the addition of such provisions to the new constitution. North Carolina and Rhode Island would join only after the Amendments were added in 1791. The Federalist processions of 1787 and 1788 also mirrored this. (In an inedited paper, delivered in Haifa in 1990 and privately circulated in the United States by Alan Trachtenburg, I examined the formal and the spontaneous processions in some detail, noting an appropriation and “normalizing” of the latter by the former during the long period of state ratification). Madison pressed for the Amendments (12, of which 10 were ratified) in the First Congress, though, at the time of the Convention he had supported the view that they were not necessary, because he came to see their political necessity. See, Gaspare Saladino, The Bill of Rights and the States: The Colonial and Revolutionary Origins of American Liberty, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1999 and Akhil Reed Amar, The Bill of Rights. Creation and Reconstruction, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

17 Most did not make much, if any, money, though several tried to speculate on Western lands. Certainly, compared to European nobility, they were sober indeed. A young Milanese count, travelling as a botanist in the 1780s, remarked in his travel journal that Mount Vernon was a pleasant if modest country house; those he was used to were built in stone and, like the mansions American tycoons would build or import stone by stone at the end of the 19th century, contained dozens of rooms and works of art. He found this modesty – like Lafayette and other French nobles – affectingly Republican.

18 See Marco Sioli, Contro i padri fondatori. Petizioni e insurrezioni nell’America post-rivoluzionaria, Milan: Unicopli, 1994 and Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion; an Epilogue to the American Revolution, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

19 United States Chronicle, May 21, 1789. The article observed that Washington had “appeared dressed in a complete suit of Homespun Coats; the cloth was of a fine fabric, and as handsomely finished, as any European superfine cloth. A circumstance which must be considered as not only highly flattering to our manufacturers in particular, but interesting to our countrymen in general”. At his second inaugural, Washington wore black velvet; he also added a wing with a larger salon to his home at Mount Vernon so as to be able to receive foreign dignitaries in proper style (Theodore Roosevelt would do something similar at his weathered country cottage on Long Island but his motives were also to show a more simple style as compared to the Rockefellers and Morgans whose “summer cottages” on Long Island were palatial).

20 By the same token, Washington also named Gen. Lincoln, a shopkeeper in peacetime, to accept Lord Cornwallis ‘surrender at Yorktown, since he had had to surrender Charleston. Cornwallis sent his second in command to consign his sword. The continental troops were arrayed in their battle uniforms – in some cases, the militia in civilian clothing; several observers, like the Boston physician, Thatcher, commented that their limbs were visible through the rents. The French forces, like the British, were in clean uniforms. Though not at all “democratic”, Washington clearly knew what was owed to a people’s army and on what republican order might be based. It is interesting to note that the most well known etching of the ceremony (which appears on the end papers of the 2 volume Library of Congress bibliography on the war) shows all soldiers in clean uniform, as the Portraits of republican battles and of republican generals will tend to do already in the 1790s.

21 Not to belabor, but arm, body and table form a triangle: hand to work and to window on sky/world. The symbology is masonic and, at the same time, significant to uninitiated. Further thoughts on Washington as an icon may be found in Barry Schwartz, George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol, New York: Free Press, 1987.

22 They are still visible today at Mount Vernon in the front entry and in a service room on the ground floor, though the Bastille model is not labelled but stands among extra ewers and moulds.

23 Apropos of the early period, see the presentation of this theme in my paper to the 9th Symposium of the Milan Group, 1998 (“The Bumpkin Patriot and the Early Republican Theater, or, Who Stood at ‘The Rude Bridge that Spanned the Flood?,” in L.ValtzMannucci, ed., History and Media, Quaderno 7, Milan Group, in course of publication at the Vanderbilt library web-site indicated elsewhere in these notes). The political cartoons appearing in daily newspapers in the post-civil war years show us a scrawny and aggressive elderly farmer who already sports a goatee.

24 See Morton Blum, V Was for Victory. Politics and Culture during World War II, New York: Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, 1976, particularly chapter one, “The Selling of the War”; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, New York: Norton, 1998. See also the paper of Astrid Scaperrotta, 1st Symposium, Second Series, Milan Group, Jan., 2003, “Work-a-Day Leadership: Rockwell’s Willie Gillis and the Home Front,” and A. Scaperrotta, L’evoluzione del Average American di Norman Rockwell. Storia culturale dell’interazione tra il Saturday Evening Post. Norman Rockwell e la realtà americana dal 1920 al 1950, Thesis, Italian Research Doctorate, 2004.

25 cited from “Time” magazine in Foner, op.cit.

26 Rockwell never denied his America was the small town indeed, as Scaperrotta points out, he moved to a small New England town in the late’30s and used its population as models for his magazine covers. It is interesting to note that a majority of white middle class Americans of whatever national origin agreed with his choice of the “typical” American.

27 A concept FDR had already used in his first month in office on the occasion of the “bank holiday” and the Fireside Chat which regards it.

28 See L. Valtz Mannucci, “Bringing It All Home. Producing the Family in the Fifties,” in Flavia Brizio, ed., Reconstructing Societies in the Aftermath of War: Memory, Identity and Reconciliation, West Lafayette: Bordighera Press, 2004. This upsurge of “feeling” was encouraged by government as a stabilizing element consolidating governabilily in the cold war context and as a precaution in case of nuclear attack on cities.

29 See Francis Hopkinson’s Account of the Grand Federal Procession, Philadelphia, 1788.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure I: John Trumbull, 1790
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Légende Figure 2: Adolph Westmuller, [c. 1794])
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Légende Figure 3: Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1796
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Légende Figure 5: Apotheosis, John Barralet, 1800
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Légende Figure 6: Napoleon in his study, Jacques-Louis David, 1812
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Légende Figure 7: Uncle Sam War poster
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Légende Figure 8: Freedom of Speech (Norman Rockwell, 1943
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Légende Figure 9: Freedom of Worship
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Légende Figure 10: Freedom from Want
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Légende Figure 11: Freedom from Fear (Norman Rockwell, 1943
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University of Milan.
Loretta VALTZ-MANNUCI is Professor of United States History at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Milan. Director since 1980 of the international study group in comparative history called « The Milan Group » and organiser of its first series of biennal symposia (1982-2000). Editor of the « Quaderno Series », volumes derived from the symposia of the Milan Group (5 vols, one in preparation) published by the Dipartimento di Storia della Società e delle Istituzioni, Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Milan.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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