Faculty Publications


A picture is worth a thousand words: Building american national identity through art

Document Type



art, portraiture, sculpture, social contexts, visual rhetoric

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Perspectives on Political Science





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With the adoption of the Constitution, the government of the United States took on a new role. Unlike other governments of the time, the United States was primarily founded on ideas, and, as a result, there were many challenges at the beginning of the newly-created republic. One of the biggest challenges was establishing credibility and legitimacy. In addition, republics require the support of the people; thus, to support the new political system, people needed to believe in the principles and ideals of the nascent government. As one form of communication, art has the capacity to reflect social contexts, depict specific events, and provide a visual link that makes words memorable, lasting, and compelling. Following this idea, we seek to examine the role the visual arts played in the early decades of the newly formed republic. What were the artists who worked during these years seeking to convey to their audiences? We argue that through art, a foundation for a national identity and a secular American civil religion was laid. We find that the art of the early republic with its clear symbolic meanings provided the necessary visual images to help turn abstract political concepts into something more concrete. We examine selected pieces of art from the early republic, including depictions of the Founders in portraiture and sculpture, with a particular emphasis on George Washington, as well as historical paintings available to the public. These works reveal how "visual rhetoric" helped to illustrate the republican ideals and values the Founders articulated for the new government. Art contributed to creating the necessary shared identity, civil religion, and national narrative that allowed the United States to keep its republic in its formative years. © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.


Department of Political Science

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