The Age of the Common Man

Daniel La Motte, 1812-13, Thomas Sully

Download a High-Resolution Image

Independence (Squire Jack Porter), 1858, Frank Blackwell Meyer

Download a High-Resolution Image

The end of the Revolution and the dawn of the nineteenth century brought much societal change in America. Out was the time of the aristocratic gentleman and in was the self-made man; one who did not inherit his fortune, but toiled the earth and reaped the benefits of independence fought for in the previous decades. Americans of this era were beginning to create their own identity, leaving the trappings and traditions of Europe behind. Daniel La Motte echoes these old world trappings in the formality of his portrait and formal dress, whereas Squire Jack embodies the Jacksonian-era “common man,” casually posing on his front porch surveying his land, corn-cob pipe in hand.

Having re-asserted the new nation’s sense of independence after battling the British a second time in the War of 1812, the election in 1828 of Andrew Jackson indicated a shift towards more democratic ideals.  While previous presidents rose to political prominence through family background, landed wealth in the original thirteen colonies, and education, Jackson’s humble background and Tennessee roots made his rise to the presidency a powerful metaphor for the self-reliance of the “common man.”  During the Jacksonian Era, white men who did not own land gained the right to vote, and therefore more political power.  Economically, American reliance on international trade with Europe began wane, in favor of the growth of industry and agriculture at home.

Activity: Observe and Interpret

Artists make choices in communicating ideas. Both Thomas Sully’s portrait, Daniel La Motte, and Frank Blackwell Mayer’s Independence, Squire Jack Porter illustrate the sitter’s relationship to the land. How do the artists convey this connection? The portraits recall a time in United States history when the idea of democracy was shifting. Growth, expansion, and social change pushed the American population westward, and a greater level of equality arose in the western states than there had been in the eastern colonies. The definition of democracy began to change, as western states led the way by not having property requirements for voting.  Think about how the definition of democracy has changed over time. How do these paintings illustrate that? In the context of the era of the “Common Man” that the election of President Andrew Jackson represented – how might comparing and contrasting these two portraits illustrate this change?

Observation: What do you see?

Daniel La Motte_window cropWhat does the landscape behind Daniel La Motte suggest about the man in the portrait?

The casual elegance of the sitter reflects Sully’s close study of eighteenth-century British portrait traditions in which aristocratic men and women were posed before landscape vistas, suggestive of their vast estates. The man in the portrait, Daniel La Motte, was a Baltimore merchant whose land holdings were extensive. Seen through the open window is his extensive property. A river is seen stretching far into the deeply shaded horizon.

What does his attire tell us about his social class and economic status?

Seated in a chair, Daniel La Motte is dressed in a fashionable sage green coat, white waistcoat, and ruffled shirt tied with an elaborate neckcloth. A rose-colored curtain flutters behind him. Portrayed as a gentleman, he benefits from land ownership but appears far removed from its day-to-day maintenance. LaMotte’s introspective gaze and posture indicate a superior social position as well as education. Sully’s careful choice of pose, backdrop, and costume create the impression of aristocratic wealth and birth.

How does the portrayal of Squire Jack Porter differ from that of Daniel La Motte?

Squire Jack_cropWhereas Daniel LaMotte is portrayed as a gentleman in the European manner and as lord of his estates, Squire Jack Porter in his very informal pose, is shown as a man integrally united with his land. Smoking a corncob pipe, he gazes intently into the distance, his feet propped up on a rough-hewn wooden railing. His broad-brimmed straw hat, worn to shield him from the sun, lies beneath the bench. Hi rugged features and casual pose share an affinity with the mountain range seen through the railing. He wears the breeches of a working man, a farmer’s tunic, and vest. A ball of yarn and knitting needles on the window sill suggest the presence of a woman—perhaps Squire Jack Porter’s wife or daughter—who share his life on the estate.

Squire Jack_hat cropMayer’s painting shows a self-made man. Porter relaxes while gazing out over the land that he has turned into a profitable farm. His tanned face and gnarled hands demonstrate hard labor in a way that La Motte’s delicate complexion and calculated pose do not. Everything in the painting—house, bench, clothes, and pipe—has a quality that speaks of the squire’s self-sufficient approach to life and the land. Independence is an affirmation both of Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian democracy and Jackson’s policies that made it easier for the lower and middle classes to obtain land.

Interpretation: What does it mean?

Having re-asserted the new nation’s sense of independence after battling the British a second time in the War of 1812, the election in 1828 of President Andrew Jackson indicated a shift towards more democratic ideals. While the previous six presidents rose to political prominence through family background, landed wealth in the original thirteen colonies, and education, Jackson’s humble background and Tennessee roots made his rise to the presidency a powerful metaphor for the self-reliance of the “common man,” or self-made man. During the Jacksonian Era, white men who did not own land gained the right to vote, and therefore more political power. Economically, American reliance on international trade with Europe began wane, in favor of the growth of industry and agriculture at home. This duality between the aristocrat and the common man can be seen through the carefully composed portraits of Daniel La Motte and Squire Jack Porter.

Download (PDF)

Historical Background

Federalism to Jacksonian Democracy

Daniel La MotteIndependence from Britain caused leaders of the American Revolution to face the problem of establishing a national government while at the same time maintaining the rights of the states. A national government based on a loose union of states was formed under the Articles of Confederation, but debt and regional factionalism threatened to dissolve it. The Great Compromise of 1787 balanced the interests of the states with large populations and those with small ones by dividing a new national legislature into two bodies or houses. In this arrangement, the lower house was to represent the states according to population; in the upper house, the senate, all the states were represented equally, though senators were not to be directly elected by the people in the plan. A “federalist party” favored a strong central government drafted in a proposed new “constitution.” The anti-federalists, fearing that a president or chief executive might become an oppressive dictator, or king, opposed the adoption of the constitution without guarantees that personal liberties would be protected. After a convention and careful drafting of the constitution, a questionable political strategy on the part of the Federalists led to the ratification of the document by each of the original thirteen colonies by 1790.

Federalists and non-Federalists, most of whom were among the nation’s economic elite, believed that wealthy, well-educated men should govern. The nation’s first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, supported the ownership of land as a prerequisite to vote, as did Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Land was a major economic resource. It was the determiner of social status and source of political power. It created most American fortunes in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, provided the basis for American economic development, and fueled public and private business transactions. Men like Daniel La Motte (in the portrait Daniel La Motte) would have been an ideal candidate for the role of governing the new nation. As a member of the economic elite, La Motte was a merchant based in Baltimore, and later in Philadelphia. He was related by marriage to the DuPont family, one of the richest families in nineteenth century America and lead manufacturers of gun powder in the country. La Motte’s portrait by famed English portrait painter Thomas Sully is emblematic of this elite economic class. Dressed in gentleman’s attire, he is positioned in front of a window overlooking his vast land holdings – a visible and tangible symbol of his wealth.

With the inauguration of Jefferson in 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party came to power. In his inaugural address, Jefferson vowed to promote the “equal and exact treatment of all men.” Jefferson opposed the proliferation and growth of cities and instead promoted the ideal of a peaceful agrarian nation governed through local assemblies. This view differed from the Federalist Party ideal of a government dominated by a wealthy elite.

Yet, the shift from Federalism to Democratic-Republicanism did not provide as large of a change as some likely hoped. Property owners with formal education and experience in managing estates were still thought to be the best qualified people to govern the new nation during Jefferson’s administration. Women, African Americans, Native Americans, and most tenant farmers were unable to vote or participate in government. By the early 1800s farmland became scarce and expensive, preventing many settlers from acquiring land and the right to vote. The government of the new nation remained in the control of an elite of wealthy and well-educated men through the administration of John Quincy Adams.

Jacksonian Democracy and the Common Man

The 1820s brought with it a radical change in the political atmosphere. The shift to a Jacksonian Democracy began after a long and arduous presidential campaign, when Andrew Jackson defeated the incumbent John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828. Jackson ran as the champion of the common man and as a war hero. He was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans of 1815, which was one of the few land victories of the War of 1812 and was actually fought after the peace treaty was signed. As a native of Kentucky, Jackson was the first president to come from the frontier, outside the traditional centers of political power — Virginia and New England. Although Jackson represented the aspirations of the middle and lower classes, he was able to attract voters from all social sectors. Jackson felt that hardworking, motivated men should be allowed to achieve the same degree of financial and political success as those who inherited wealth. By the late 1820s, almost all states had ended the property requirements for voting for white males. Increased literacy and effective political advertising were also important factors in the election’s outcome. As a result, the number of voters participating in 1828 doubled from the election of 1824.

Squire JackJacksonian Democrats believed that industrialization was essential to the progression of American industry – a far cry from Jeffersonian Democrats like Daniel La Motte who feared the consequences of industrialization and believed that the chosen class was the yeoman farmer, not the planter or common laborer. The portrait of Squire Jack Porter embodies an independent and enduring spirit that, by the 1850s, had become an American ideal: an image emblematic of Jacksonian Democracy’s self-made, “Common Man” which was celebrated by painters and writers alike. Squire Jack Porter was one of the pioneer settlers of Alleghany County, Maryland. Following his service as a captain during the War of 1812, Porter and his family settled on a farm outside of Eckhart, Maryland called “Rose Meadows,” named for its profusion of wild roses. Porter made his living opening up coal mines on his property – the first mines opened for domestic use in Allegany County.

Porter’s home was known for its hospitality, having been known to always “keep a plate for the stranger.” It was at Rose Meadows in the early 1850s that celebrated Baltimore artist Frank Blackwell Mayer painted this portrait of Squire Jack Porter. Mayer aptly evokes Porter’s leisure years, financial well-being, and strength of character. Seventy-five years old at the time, Porter is depicted lounging on the porch of his farmhouse. As described by the artist, the painting shows Porter “on the porch of his stone cottage farm house in his shirt sleeves, smoking a corn-cob pipe, one foot comfortably resting upon the balustrade of the veranda, the other on the floor of the porch. . . looking out over his farm, his countenance depicting satisfaction, comfort and independence.” Everything in the painting—house, bench, clothes, and pipe—has a quality that speaks of the squire’s self-sufficient approach to life and the land. Independence is an affirmation both of Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian nation and Jackson’s policies that made it easier for the lower and middle classes to obtain land.

Download (PDF)

Artwork Connections

Southeast View of “Sedgeley Park,” the Country Seat of James Cowles Fisher, Esq.,  ca. 1819, Thomas Birch

Thomas Birch painted Sedgeley Park for its owner, James Cowles Fisher. Fisher served as acting president of the second Bank of the United States. The painting was executed in 1819, the year of the economic panic. Fisher clearly wanted Birch to represent his family in a dignified natural setting oblivious to the economic distress. The image suggests that Fisher’s genteel existence will survive the panic. In the wake of the panic, however, the general public became less interested in viewing landscape painting that chronicled a luxurious manner of living enjoyed by a privileged few.
Long Island Homestead, Study from Nature, 1859, Andrew W. Warren

Andrew Warren’s small study, executed at the scene, shows this fairly large farm as a self-sufficient, harmonious microcosm; a model of America’s agrarian wealth. The wheat field is not very extensive, suggesting that it is for the family’s own consumption. The homestead’s self-sufficiency directly contrasts with the emerging urban world of specialization and interdependence.

Media

Federalism: Crash Course Government and Politics – PBS

This PBS video teaches you about federalism, or the idea that in the United States, power is divided between the national government and the 50 state governments. You will learn about how federalism has evolved over the history of the US, and what powers are given to the federal government, and what the states control on their own.

Additional Smithsonian Resources

Exploring all 19 Smithsonian museums is a great way to enhance your curriculum, no matter what your discipline may be. In this section, you’ll find resources that we have put together from a variety of Smithsonian museums to enhance your students’ learning experience, broaden their skill set, and not only meet education standards, but exceed them.

Subject: Art

Young America – Smithsonian American Art Museum 
This slide show traces the transformation of the colonies into nationhood from about 1760 to the decade after the Civil War.

Glossary

agrarian democracy: a philosophy advocated by President Thomas Jefferson in which a rural society is seen as superior to an urban society. It values the independent farmer as superior to the paid laborer. The philosophy values farming as a way of life which can shape ideal social values.

Andrew Jackson: (1767-1845) 7th President of the United States, military general, governor, and senator. He is most well-known as the founder of the Democratic Party, and for his controversial passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. He epitomized the “Common Man,” or self-made man, of the nineteenth-century, having been the first U.S. president to not have been born into a wealthy, aristocratic family or to have received a formal education.

Articles of Confederation: (1781) a written agreement by the thirteen original states that provided a legal symbol of their union by giving the central government no coercive power over the states or their citizens.  

Battle of New Orleans: (January 8-15, 1815) the final major battle of the War of 1812. The American forces, commanded by then-General Andrew Jackson, prevented a much larger, combined British-American Indian force from capturing New Orleans.

Common Man: the everyday, working class man – not a wealthy landowner or man of power like a politician. Andrew Jackson, despite his high office, became emblematic of the common man because he came from humble beginnings.

Democratic-Republican Party: an American political party formed by Thomas Jefferson. They supported an agrarian-based, decentralized, democratic government. The party was established to oppose the Federalists who had pushed through the ratification of the US Constitution.

federalist: a member or supporter of the Federalist Party, the first American political party. Federalists supported a strong national government, economic growth, and an alliance with Great Britain. They were politically opposed by the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson.

George Washington: (1732-1799) 1st President of the United States, Founding Father, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Known as the “father of his country” during his lifetime.

Great Compromise of 1787: a measure proposed at the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787 which created a system of proportional representation in the House of Representatives; also known as the Connecticut Compromise.

Jacksonian Democracy: also known as the Jacksonian Era. A movement for more democracy in American government. Led by President Andrew Jackson, the movement championed greater rights for the common man and was opposed to any signs of aristocracy in the nation, Jacksonian democracy was aided by the strong spirit of equality among the people of the newer settlements in the South and the West. It was also aided by the extension of the vote in eastern states to men without property; in the early days of the United States, many places had allowed only white male property owners to vote.

Jacksonian Era: also known as Jacksonian Democracy. A movement for more democracy in American government. Led by President Andrew Jackson, the movement championed greater rights for the common man and was opposed to any signs of aristocracy in the nation, Jacksonian democracy was aided by the strong spirit of equality among the people of the newer settlements in the South and the West. It was also aided by the extension of the vote in eastern states to men without property; in the early days of the United States, many places had allowed only white male property owners to vote.

James Madison: (1751-1836) 4th President of the United States. He played a pivotal role in drafting and promoting the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

John Adams: (1735-1826) 2nd President of the United States, lawyer, diplomat, politician, and Founding Father. As a lawyer before the American Revolution, he defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trials. This event catapulted him to notoriety and led to his political involvement in the American Revolution.

John Quincy Adams: (1767-1848) 6th President of the United States. American statesman, diplomat, Senator, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives; son of the 2nd U.S. president John Adams.

Squire: a man of high social standing who owns and lives on an estate in a rural area, especially the chief landowner in such an area.

Thomas Jefferson: (1743-1826) 3rd President of the United States, Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and American lawyer. Jefferson oversaw the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France and arranged for the exploration of that territory by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

War of 1812: (June 1812-February 1815) a military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. The U.S. declared war for several reasons, chief among them the continued impressment of American sailors by the British navy, trade restriction brought on by Britain’s war with France, and British support of Native American Indian tribes who opposed the American government over land disputes.

Standards

U.S. History Content Standards Era 3 – Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)

    • Standard 2C – The student understands the Revolution’s effects on different social groups.
      • 5-12 – Compare the revolutionary goals of different groups—for example, rural farmers and urban craftsmen, northern merchants and southern planters—and how the Revolution altered social, political, and economic relations among them.

U.S. History Content Standards Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

    • Standard 2A – The student understands how the factory system and the transportation and market revolutions shaped regional patterns of economic development.
      • 7-12 – Evaluate national and state policies regarding a protective tariff, a national bank, and federally funded internal improvements.
      • 9-12 – Explain how economic policies related to expansion, including northern dominance of locomotive transportation, served different regional interests and contributed to growing political and sectional differences.
      • 7-12 – Evaluate the factory system from the perspectives of owners and workers and assess its impact on the rise of the labor movement in the antebellum period.
    • Standard 3A –The student understands the changing character of American political life in “the age of the common man.”
      • 7-12 – Relate the increasing popular participation in state and national politics led to the evolving democratic ideal that adult white males were entitled to political participation.
      • 7-12 – Analyze how Jackson’s veto of the U.S. Bank recharter and his actions in the nullification crisis contributed to the rise of the Whig party.
    • Standard 4C – The student understands changing gender roles and the ideas and activities of women reformers.
      • 9-12 – Compare the North, South, and West in terms of men’s and women’s occupations, legal rights, and social status.

Common Core Standards – English Language Arts

The preceding information supports these Common Core-based concepts:

  • Cite pieces of visual and textual evidence to support analysis and inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine the central ideas of an artwork and how they are conveyed through particular details.
  • Determine the meaning of symbols as they are used in a visual text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings. Analyze the impact.
  • Analyze the structure an artist uses to organize a text, and how it fits into the overall structure and contributes to the development of the ideas.
  • Determine an artist’s point of view and explain how it is conveyed.
  • Compare and contrast a visual text to audio, video, or multimedia sources, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject.
  • Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims presented, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not. Assess whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.
  • Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.

Download a comprehensive look at the specific relevant Common Core Standards (PDF)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *