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5. A Golden Age



We are laying the foundation of happiness for countless millions. Generations yet unborn will bless us for the blood-bought inheritance we are about to bequeath to them. Oh happy times! Oh glorious days!

David Ramsay, Oration on the Advantages
of American Independence, 17781

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 PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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.)

    Discussion Questions

    1. How do the literary works envision a future golden age realized through the United States?
    2. How do they differ in their use of the angel as an inspirational messenger in anxious times?
    3. For each writer, what is God's purpose (or will) for the new nation?
    4. For each, what is the truth that America will lead the world to embrace?
    5. How does each encourage hope and pride while acknowledging the evident perils to the nation?
    6. How would each author complete this phrase (from Golden Age): "Nothing can ruin America but the _______?
    7. How would each author define God's "eternal plan" in these lines (from The Vision of Columbus): "Heaven in their view unveils the eternal plan, / And gives new guidance to the paths of man"?
    8. How will American churches promote the future golden age—the "social compact [to] harmonize mankind" (for Barlow), and God's "last and greatest wonders among mankind" (for the Golden Age author)?
    9. Compare the allegories for these factors:
    10. According to the Golden Age author, what advantages for American stability lay in the separateness of the thirteen states? Did he disagree that union was essential?
    11. What concerns did he share with Mercy Otis Warren (Section 2) that would identify him as an anti-Federalist in the debate over the Constitution?
    12. What suggests that he is a clergyman? a southerner?
    13. What indicates that Joel Barlow, author of The Vision of Columbus, is a clergyman? a northerner?
    14. To Barlow, what did the new nation's achievements in science, invention, and the liberal arts portend for its success as an independent nation? Why were they important in addition to religious faith and virtue?
    15. In what ways does each work exhibit Enlightenment ideals? How does each reflect America's evangelical traditions?
    16. How would Barlow and the Golden Age author have responded to each other's works?
    17. How do their works reflect the image of America as "Columbia" in the drawings from The Columbian Magazine? (slideshow, this page; and see Supplemental Sites)
    18. Continue this chart for an overview of the "advantages and disadvantages" of the Revolution as seen by the American and European commentators in this Theme, and to compile their recommendations for the new nation's survival and triumph. What patterns do you find? What issues were stressed as the most urgent?

    Framing Questions

    • How did Americans envision independence and nationhood in the first years after the Revolutionary War?
    • How did they begin to construct a national identity separate from their colonial identity as British subjects?
    • In what ways was the new nation like "a child just learning to walk"? What postwar challenges most reflected this "state of infancy"?


    The Golden Age
    The Vision of Columbus
     6 pp.
     5 pp.
    11 pp.

    Supplemental Sites

    Joel Barlow, overview (Cengage Learning)

    Joel Barlow, overview (Barlow Genealogy)

    The Vision of Columbus, 1787, full text (Google Books)

    The Golden Age, 1785, full text (Oliver Cowdery Memorial Home Page; Dale Broadhurst)

    Engravings for The Columbian Magazine, Philadelphia "Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

    Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

    General Online Resources

    1David Ramsay, An Oration on the Advantages of American Independence, 4 July 1778, Charleston, SC. "When I anticipate in imagination the future glory of my country, and the illustrious figure it will soon make on the theatre of the world, my heart distends with generous pride for being an American. . . . Our sun of political happiness is already risen, and hath lifted his head over the mountains, illuminating our hemisphere with liberty, light, and polished life. Our Independence will redeem one quarter of the globe from tyranny and oppression, and consecrate it the chosen seat of truth, justice, freedom, learning, and religion. We are laying the foundation of happiness for countless millions. Generations yet unborn will bless us for the blood-bought inheritance, we are about to bequeath to them. Oh happy times! Oh glorious days!"
    2In the first drawing that includes the first great seal of the United States, the accompanying lines declare that "Science invites; urg'd by the Voice divine, / exert thyself, 'till every Art be thine." In the second drawing, the new Constitution is depicted as a "sacred temple" with the rising sun aglow in the background that will unify the nation and guard its promise: "Where Justice, too, and Peace, by us ador'd / Shall heal each Wrong, / And keep ensheathed the sword." See Supplemental Sites.

    Images: frontispiece illustrations (details), The Columbian Magazine, or Monthly Miscellany, Philadelphia, 1788-1789. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collection Division, #LC-USZ62-45513, #LC-USZ62-45573.

    Banner image: Final design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782, by Secretary of State Charles Thomson (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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