I appreciate Elyse Graham ’07’s portraits of James Madison 1771’s classmates Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Philip Freneau (Princeton Portrait, October issue).
I’d just like to add that Brackenridge, Freneau, and Madison grew up in a culture of white American Protestantism, which was very much entrenched in colonial Princeton. From this perspective, Brackenridge and Freneau lampooned the Cliosophs by making Bombo a Catholic and his pilgrimage eastward to Mecca of all places. I suspect that Brackenridge and Freneau had a blast mocking the Cliosophs as outside the protestant America mainstream and Bombo as a fool for thinking he could find solace and redemption in the Muslim Middle East. By our standards, this humor is egregious, but Brackenridge and Freneau are not writing for us — they are writing within the accepted standards of protestant colonial America and particularly their small American Whig Society of 1770.
Now let’s consider “The Rising Glory of America.” This was the 1771 student Commencement address read by salutatorian Brackenridge. Unlike Father Bombo, which looks east, “Rising Glory” looks west and is prophetic. It sees a great civilization which will stretch from coast to coast. It sees America preparing for its role as the new thousand-year center of global commerce, culture, literature, and the arts, replacing ancient Greece, Rome, and England, each of which had their day in the sun. As American historian Joseph Ellis points out in After the Revolution, “Rising Glory” fits within the idea of translatio studii or translatio imperii, “that civilization, like the sun, moved from east to west and that the North American continent was therefore destined to become the habitat for the arts and sciences at some unspecified time in the future.” Brackenridge and Freneau even predicted that the New Jerusalem would land in America, notably in New Jersey.
While these ideas may seem naive and outdated to the modern Princeton community, I would suggest that the notion of American cultural supremacy persisted in one way or another for at least our nation’s first 200 years, certainly up until the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. Many would argue that it continues today, particularly in the context of American exceptionalism, our attachment and dependence on the U.S. Constitution for the protection of freedom, and America’s persistent leadership in the sciences and engineering.
Finally, despite its chauvinism, there is a vision and spirit underlying “Rising Glory.” One can hope that Princetonians everywhere will take ownership of that vision and spirit and help make the promise of America available to all Americans and, in the words of our informal motto, all humanity.