The drawings, above right, from a Philadelphia monthly of the 1780s, The Columbian Magazine, typify the symbolic representation of United States as a goddess-like "Columbia" (the land of Columbus) heralding a new dawn of human progress and happiness. In both drawings, angel-like figures with outstretched arms appear to offer wisdom and assurance to America.2 Welcome offerings in the anxious 1780s, when the prospects of "happy times" and "glorious days" seemed to fade. In each of the two literary works excerpted here, a reassuring angel transports the protagonist to a mountaintop in North America and reveals the future glories wrought by the United States. These works deliver more optimism than the political commentary in the earlier sections of this Theme—a role of literature in hard times, perhaps. How do they encourage hope and pride while acknowledging the evident perils to the nation? How do they differ in their use of the prophetic angel as an inspirational messenger in anxious times? In each, what is the truth for which America is the earthly manifestation of divine will?
The Golden Age: Or, Future Glory of North America, allegory, 1785, excerpts. A young man falls asleep on the bank of a stream and is awakened by an angel sent "to resolve certain doubts" he has about America's future. Yes, the colonies had "an indispensable duty" to become independent from Britain. Yes, they will resist tyranny and dissolution from within. From a mountaintop in the continent's center, the angel shows him the cities and farms that will spread across the land and assures him that homelands will be created in the west for Indians and "Negroes." He learns that the dispersed Jewish people will come to America and convert to Christianity, fulfilling part of God's plan for the biblical end time. Representative of a prevalent millennial interpretation of American history, and likely written by a southern Protestant clergyman, this allegory champions America's destiny as "the glorious cause of truth"—the truth of Christianity and God's kingdom on earth. It also reflects the insistent hope nurtured by Americans during the precarious decade of the 1780s. (6 pp.)
The Vision of Columbus, allegorical poem by Joel Barlow, 1787, excerpts. Christopher Columbus, despairing in his Spanish prison cell after his third voyage to the West Indies, is transported by an angel to a mountaintop in North America to see the vast achievements that will result from his "discovery." In this epic-length poem, the angel relates the triumphant history of the Americas from 1492 to the 1780s and, in these excerpts, lauds American achievements in learning, science, and the arts since independence. Religion is critical to these achievements, for it is the nation's churches that will proclaim America's task to "lead whole nations in the walks of truth." In this case, the cause of truth is not the end of the world and divine judgment but the earthbound expansion of liberty, natural rights, and "the bright beams of knowledge." With its trust in man's ability to drive progress and enhance virtue—guided by faith if not led directly by God—The Vision of Columbus is very much an Enlightenment poem. Written by the northern poet Joel Barlow, a lawyer, diplomat, Revolutionary War chaplain, and member of the Yale-affiliated "Hartford Wits," it was widely read by the political/literary intelligentsia of the day who felt charged with delivering on America's promise. (5 pp.)