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2009-10: "Dare to Know!"

The late Eighteenth Century (1776-1801)

09-10 Moments of Change Calendar of Events

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician and a signer of the Declaration, wrote:

There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.

--Address to the People of the United States (1786)

When Rush wrote these words in 1786, the American war was still fresh in the minds of the citizens of the world, but the idea of an American culture, or even American influence in the Atlantic world seemed like a dream. Although the Congress of the Confederation ratified the Treaty of Paris in January 1784, formally ending the war with Great Britain, the young nation remained a loose collection of independent states and fiercely independent attitudes. What passed for an American culture at the time was both shaped and overshadowed by the global influence of the superpowers of the day: Austria, England, France, the Netherlands, and Spain.

Perhaps no nation had a greater influence on the continuing development of American culture than France. From 1776 until 1789, the post of American minister to France was occupied by two great Francophiles, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Through their interactions with the French, their letters home, and sensibilities they acquired in Paris, Franklin and Jefferson introduced Americans to European attitudes and tastes. As the United States shook off its colonial trappings and stepped, gingerly, onto the world stage, the French influence was everywhere.

But the exchange of ideas and cultures was not unidirectional. The last decades of the eighteenth century were marked by cultural, political, and scientific revolutions around the globe. When Captain James Cook set out on his third Pacific expedition in 1776, the age of maritime exploration was at full bore, and the thirst to acquire knowledge that characterized the Enlightenment was at a fever pitch. The quest for knowledge revealed an unchecked spirit of acquisition that tested the boundaries of the great European empires. By the last decade of the eighteenth century, however, revolutions in Haiti and France, building on the continuing revolutions in America, permanently altered the geopolitical landscape, sparked the rise of the world citizen, and gave birth to the Asian and African periods of colonialism. Notions of citizenship and humanity would never be the same.

Franklin and Jefferson were both citizens of the world and luminaries, but the superstars of the day were musicians. From Haydn—the father of the symphony and of the string quartet—to Mozart—the child prodigy—and Beethoven—the ferocious personality—the late eighteenth century was also a moment of thunderous crescendos and lilting melodies that shaped not only how we feel about ourselves, but how we hear the world.

As we begin the third annual program in the Moments of Change initiative, we celebrate the exchange of ideas, the influence of cultures, and the individuals that shaped the world at the end of the eighteenth century.

Robert R. Bleil, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Institute for the Arts and Humanities