A Federal Case for the Arts
“Science and literature are of no party or nation.”—President John Adams
Presidents’ Day just passed and it got me thinking. Is the idea of government support for the arts un-American? On the contrary. It is as American as apple pie. In the early years of the republic, were our political leaders rubes when it came to music and other arts? Look again.
Our iconic founding fathers Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and many of our subsequent presidents had signal public relationships to music and the arts. Francis Hopkinson, one of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, was the first notable American art music composer, even earlier than William Billings. According to American music historian John Tasker Howard, “A study of Hopkinson’s life and writings shows that music was appreciated and enjoyed by the colonies; and that the people of that time had access to the best of contemporary music literature.” Other signers of the Declaration like Elbridge Gerry and George Clymer publicly promoted support for the arts in the newborn nation. Even Christian clergymen of the colonial era took up the arts standard: “Why may not a Republic of Letters be realized in America as well as a Republican Government? Why may there not be a Congress of Philosophers as well as of Statesmen?” asked Jeremy Belknap in 1780, adding that the new country of America ought to “shine as Mistress of the Sciences, as well as the asylum of Liberty.” Belknap (1744-1799) was a Congregationalist minister and Revolutionary War chaplain. And General Washington himself averred the following, in a letter to Lafayette in May 1788:
Men of real talents in Arms have commonly approved themselves patrons of the liberal arts and friends to the poets, of their own as well as former times. In some instances by acting reciprocally, heroes have made poets, and poets heroes.
Composer, organist, and harpsichordist Francis Hopkinson represented New Jersey in the second Continental Congress, and under President Washington he served as judge for the United States District Court in Pennsylvania. On December 11, 1781, Hopkinson’s oratorio The Temple of Minerva was performed in Philadelphia with General Washington in attendance. Hopkinson later dedicated his Seven Songs to “His Excellency George Washington, Esquire.” In return, Washington told Hopkinson that the “honor of my Country” obliged him to believe that Hopkinson’s songs could “melt the Ice of the Delaware and Potomack.”
According to historian Gordon Wood, George Washington loved the theater and thought it the duty of the American president to be supportive of art and music even in cases where he himself didn’t understand it. Washington “was an active patron and friend of music. He loved the fine things of life, and as a gentleman of culture he had the rare gift of knowing how to get the most from his leisure. He was a frequent attendant at concerts, and ….heard the ballad-operas of the day. At Mount Vernon there is still preserved the harpsichord he bought for [his step-granddaughter] Nelly Custis,” wrote John Tasker Howard in Our American Music. In Philadelphia in June 1787, General Washington attended the first known American four-hand piano recital.
In the popular mythology, American presidents tend to be lumped together as tone-deaf, as per U. S. Grant’s apocryphal statement that he knew two tunes, “One is Yankee Doodle, the other isn’t,” and President Eisenhower’s remark to Leonard Bernstein at the White House in 1960: “I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles” (which phrase Bernstein lifted to title one of his last compositions). But the historical truth about our 18th and 19th century leaders is that many of them liked music and art, and political actions toward support for music and the other arts were more common than is imagined. Even Richard Nixon played the piano and wrote music.
Lest we forget: among the enumerated powers given to Congress in Article I, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution is the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Details about the White House occupant’s attendance at the Presidential Box at Washington’s Kennedy Center are not disclosed to the public for security reasons, though the Kennedy Center acknowledges that visiting heads of state and even cabinet members (Condoleezza Rice) have occasionally taken the seats.
“Any critic who says that government support of the arts is un-American and contrary to our national tradition is not aware of the facts,” wrote theatre historian Dorothy Gillam Baker (1916?-1990) in the early 1960s, a few years before President Lyndon Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts. (Prof. Gillam Baker, by the way, served in the military in World War II as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard.) She added, “Government responsibility for the arts was expressed in constitutions and other documents of the Colonies, prior to the Declaration of Independence. Before the close of the 18th century, government leaders of individual states recognized this responsibility and attempted to establish a government theater. It failed to pass only because of other more urgent needs of the youthful country. The movement for government support has been almost continuous since that time, parallel with our awareness of the inadequacy of our commercial theater by comparison with the state-supported artistic activity abroad.”
Even during the height of the Revolutionary War, American painters found themselves in demand, the beneficiaries of “new government commissions for commemorative works,” according to historian Kenneth Silverman. Not long after the War ended, in 1785, the Pennsylvania legislature debated a proposal for a government-supported theater. In the debate, war hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne not only asserted that “a well regulated theater was universally acknowledged to be an efficient engine for the improvement of morals,” but declared that “a theater in the hands of a republican government, regulated and directed as such, would be, instead of a dangerous instrument, a happy and efficient one.” Continental Congress delegate Cadwalader Morris was among those who seconded General Wayne’s view, warning his colleagues that “people will find out amusements for themselves unless government do it.” George Clymer, who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution, sided with Morris and Wayne. They lost the cause when an anti-theatre act was passed, but in February 1789 the act was repealed when William Temple Franklin (1760-1823), grandson of Benjamin Franklin, submitted a brief that argued that “the same authority which proscribes our amusements, may, with equal justice, dictate the shape and texture of our dress or the modes and ceremonies of our worship….[it is] contrary to the principles of a free government to deprive any of its citizens of a rational and innocent entertainment….” Other signers of Franklin’s brief included General Anthony Wayne and Robert Morris, the “financier of the American Revolution” who also signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and later was a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Later that same year, Elbridge Gerry, another Declaration of Independence signatory and later a U.S. vice-president and governor of Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Samuel Adams to persuade him to favor such a bill in Boston. Gerry had lived in New York, liked the theater, and expressed the opinion to Adams that establishing a theater would help in “forming the national character.”
Benjamin Franklin, as the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians notes, played the harp, the guitar, and the glass dulcimer. He wrote a short treatise on musical aesthetics and printed three books of hymn tunes in the 1730s. (A weird open-string string quartet long ascribed to Benjamin Franklin is now judged misattributed by most scholars.) But most famously, Benjamin Franklin invented a musical instrument: the glass armonica. Writes biographer Walter Isaacson,
It was based on the common practice of bored dinner guests, and some musicians, of producing a resonant tone by moving a wet finger around the rim of a glass. Franklin attended a concert in England of music performed on wineglasses, and in 1761 he perfected the idea by taking thirty-seven glass bowls of different sizes and attaching them to a spindle. He rigged up a foot pedal and flywheel to spin the contraption, which allowed him to produce various tones by pressing on the glass pieces with his wet fingers….Marie Antoinette took lessons on it, Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces for it.…
The range was a chromatic three octaves. It was pressure-sensitive, and once tuned never needed retuning. Franklin himself played it. Franklin’s invention, the nested glass harmonica, is still played today and can even be seen and heard on YouTube videos.
Thomas Jefferson “was already a competent fiddler” by the age of fourteen according to biographer Willard Randall. He taught himself to read music and could play both by ear and by sight reading. As a student at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson still found time to play the violin, sometimes with his violin-playing roommate, John Tyler, father of the U.S. president of the same name. While he was still studying law, Jefferson played violin in a consort with cello, flute, and harpsichord at weekly chamber music concerts at the Governor’s Palace of the Virginia Colony. (He was engaged to do this by the Lieutenant Governor of the Virginia Colony, Francis Fauquier, who like Jefferson was an all-around politician-intellectual who dabbled in music.) In his twenties Jefferson frequently attended plays at the playhouse of the Virginia Company of Comedians. On his many visits to the colony’s capital city of Williamsburg, according to Randall, Jefferson
paid to hear music of any kind played by a chamber orchestra or by an organ grinder or on a glass armonica….In the afternoons, in the evenings, he searched out music or played it on his fine fiddle, and according to one of his servants, when he rode or walked, he loved to hum minuets or sing. An overseer recalled, “When he was not talking, he was nearly always humming some tune or singing in a low tone to himself.” Added his manservant, Isaac, “Hardly saw him anywhere but what he was a-singing.”
In 1779 Jefferson welcomed captured Hessian prisoners of war into his Monticello home. One of them later wrote back in Germany, “As all Virginians are fond of music, [Colonel Jefferson] is particularly so. You will find in his house an elegant harpsichord, pianoforte and some violins. The latter he performs well upon himself, the former his lady touches very skillfully….” Jefferson collected a large library of music from which he and others performed. In a 1778 letter to Giovanni Fabbroni, an acquaintance in Paris, Jefferson called music “the favorite passion of my soul” and told of his grand aspiration to build a live-in band at Monticello. Ever the chronic overspender, Jefferson mused aloud to Fabbroni how he might be able to afford his passion for background music. He came up with an 18th century version of the idea of a home audio system: importing a domestic staff from Europe “to gratify his appetite as a listener”:
I retain for instance…a gardener…a weaver…a cabinet maker…and a stonecutter….In a country where like yours music is cultivated and practised by every class of men I suppose there might be found persons of those trades who could perform on the French horn, clarinet or hautboy and bassoon, so that one might have a band of two French horns, two clarinets, & hautboys & a bassoon.
John Quincy Adams, unheraldedly one of our most cultured presidents, kept a daily diary for 69 of his 80 years and was one of only two presidents who could proficiently speak or read five languages other than English (the other was Thomas Jefferson). Quincy Adams was also a devotee of both the theater and the opera. He opposed the banning of theater in Boston in the early 1790s and wrote vigorous defenses of the stage in newspaper articles. While in London in 1816 Adams and his wife attended Don Giovanni, which he thought “delicious to my ear.” On March 23, 1816, he heard a performance in London of Beethoven’s notorious orchestral potboiler Wellington’s Victory, and wrote discerningly, “Bad music, but patriotic.” After serving a single term as president, John Quincy Adams served as a congressman for 17 years. In his 1838 diary he praised a Washington D.C. production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and characterized another of Bellini’s La sonnambula as “delicious.” He also liked Norma and I Puritani (“Momento!” he wrote in his diary) and heard Norwegian violinist Ole Bull on his American tour.
One of the more curious footnotes in Composers-at-the-White-House annals belongs to Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861), an avant-garde (for his era) and overweeningly ambitious composer emigré to the United States. John Hill Hewitt (1801-1890), an American songwriter and journalist, knew both Heinrich and President John Tyler and wangled a White House visit for Heinrich. The composer was a kind of pioneer American Stockhausen. Perhaps seeking White House backing, he proposed to dedicate a large choral/orchestral work to the president entitled Jubilee. Hewitt later wrote of this unique meeting in his 1877 musical memoir Shadows on the Wall.
We visited the president’s Mansion, and were shown in the presence of Mr. Tyler, who received us with his usual urbanity. I introduced Mr. Heinrich as a professor of exalted talent and extraordinary genius. The President…readily consented to the dedication and commended the undertaking. Heinrich was elated to the skies, and immediately proposed to play the grand conception. The composer labored hard to give full effect to his weird production…occasionally explaining some incomprehensible passage, representing, as he said, the breaking up of the frozen river Niagara…the thunder of our naval war-dogs and the rattle of our army musketry. The inspired composer had got about half way through his wonderful production when Mr. Tyler arose from his chair, and, placing his hand gently on Heinrich’s shoulder, said: ‘That may all be very fine, sir, but can’t you play us a good old Virginia reel?’
James Buchanan may be a near-unanimous choice for history’s worst president, though he had the most extensive resume of government service of any candidate ever elected to the job. Still, he in 1859 became the first president ever to appoint an NEA-like organization, the National Commission of Fine Arts, based on a petition signed by 127 American artists. The Commission was abolished a year later because Congress regarded its request for appropriations to carry out its plans exorbitant (and untimely perhaps, given the impending national crisis of the Civil War). The hostess of the unmarried Buchanan’s White House was his niece, Harriet Lane, who was dubbed the “First Lady” (the first time that sobriquet was applied in our history). The young and vivacious Lane was the Jacqueline Kennedy of her time, frequently inviting artists and glitterati to White House events, and she surely must take a share of the credit for her dour uncle’s arts activism.
Yet even with the Civil War raging, Abraham Lincoln went to concerts, theater, and the opera during his White House years. According to biographer David Herbert Donald, “After 1863, when New York opera companies began offering a special Washington season, the Lincolns were regular patrons. They attended performances of Gounod’s Faust, Weber’s Der Freischutz, and Flotow’s Martha, [and The Magic Flute] among others.” Creepy fact: on at least one other occasion before April 14, 1865, Lincoln attended a play featuring John Wilkes Booth in the cast.
Government arts activism only increased during the postbellum Gilded Age, according to Dorothy Gillam Baker: “Mild, perennial agitations in Congress for a National Conservatory of Music, which should make our country musically independent of the rest of the world, began about 1879. In some instances, legislative bills for a National Department of Fine Arts accompanied the Conservatory bills. By 1891 the Conservatory lobbyists succeeded in putting through Congress an act providing for the incorporation (as a National Conservatory) of a music school, founded a few years earlier in N.Y. by Jeannette Thurber. The bill became law with the support of President Benjamin Harrison. In 1897, the Public Art League of the U.S., with some 500 members, was formed for the express purpose of sponsoring a bill for the creation of a national office of the arts. Presented that year, the bill did not come to a vote in Congress; neither did McKinley’s 1896 campaign promise to back the establishment of a national theater.” After endowing what became Carnegie Hall, many Americans expected that Andrew Carnegie would similarly endow a national theater. Carnegie’s reply: “On the continent of Europe many theaters are subsidized by the government….It would be an experiment here, and, if to be made, should be by the government, as in Europe. It does not seem a proper field for a private gift.”
During the 1890s William Howard Taft and his culturally climbing wife Nellie established the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Later Taft, a “severely conservative” Republican president, kept a Victrola in the Blue Room of the White House and frequently played 78 rpm Enrico Caruso records and, according to his son Charles, also enjoyed ragtime. The Pianola Company sent Nellie Taft a piano which she put in the Blue Room. Taft apparently knew Henry Krehbiel, dean of American music critics at the turn of the century. As I wrote in my 1998 book Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America:
In the popular iconography of the day Krehbiel was regarded as a ringer for President William Howard Taft. Both were of immense girth, especially seen in profile. A 1910 article in the New York Telegraph reporting a personal meeting between President Taft and Krehbiel described the pair as the “two Dreadnaughts.” The “separated at birth” connection helped make Krehbiel a national celebrity: both men were natives of Cincinnati and about the same age. When President Taft spoke at the Yale commencement in 1909, where Krehbiel was given an honorary Master of Arts degree, Taft said, “I say, we know music in Cincinnati,” and added that Krehbiel in his career there had “never feared to tell people whether some of their efforts in the musical line were up to the proper standard, even if he had to flee for his life because of it.” According to the New York Telegram of February 17, 1912, the two men were so similar looking that patrons at the Metropolitan Opera frequently tipped their hats upon seeing Krehbiel and greeted him aloud as “The President”; Krehbiel was in the habit of dutifully returning the salutation “with characteristic good nature and a keen sense of humor.”
Although Taft’s predecessor Teddy Roosevelt was less interested in classical music, Roosevelt’s wife Edith brought Casals, Paderewski, and other such musicians to perform at the White House. According to Dorothy Gillam Baker, “in 1901 a new bill was introduced into Congress, again for the creation of a national office of the arts. It did not pass, but the movement helped to lead eventually toward the 1909 establishment of the National Commission of Fine Arts–the first official connection between the government and the arts. The limitation of its functions caused President Theodore Roosevelt to set up (additionally) a Fine Arts Council. President Taft was obliged to abolish the Council shortly after his inauguration because Congress refused to appropriate funds for its maintenance.”
Famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens remarked that Roosevelt was “probably the only president with any knowledge of art and artists.” Roosevelt asked Congress in 1904 to create a National Gallery of Art. In his post-presidential years Roosevelt visited the famously avant-garde 1913 Armory Show in New York City.
[At the 1913 Armory Show, John] Quinn ushered TR around rooms filled with paintings by European modernists including Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin and Americans Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, and John Sloan, and sculpture by Gutzon Borglum. Roosevelt thought much of the show was “Bully!,” especially the American art which depicted scenes of American subjects. He was not yet ready to endorse wholesale a modernist revolt against stilted traditions.
Quinn urged the ex-President to write about the show, which he did “with surprising sympathy,” in a magazine article entitled “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition.”
In Post-World War I days, shortly after the Armistice, the creation of a Fine Arts Department was promoted as a “reconstruction measure” and endorsed by Joseph Pennell, the National Federation of Art, and the College Art Association. In 1925 three Fine Arts bills were introduced into the 68th Congress. Of course, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration saw the creation of the WPA and other government-financed arts agencies, a subject too large to cover here.
While the American public knew that Harry Truman played “The Missouri Waltz” on the piano, the full extent of Truman’s involvement with music was less well known, though during his administration Life magazine did run a feature article showing the president playing classical music records on the family phonograph at the White House. In 1962 Truman told author Merle Miller:
When I was about seven or eight years old, we had a piano in the house, which wasn’t unusual at that time, although my mother played. We had a piano, and I wanted to learn how to play it. So I took a great many lessons on it and finally wound up with one of the great instructors in Kansas City. Her name was Mrs. E.C. White, and I took two lessons a week and got up every morning and practiced for two hours….Mrs. White had studied with a man, one of the great teachers of the world, a man named Leschetizsky, who was in Vienna and who was the teacher [sic] of Josef Lhevinne and Paderewski.
Paderewski was in Kansas City when I was about twelve or thirteen and Mrs. White was giving me lessons on various things, and I was studying the Chopin waltzes. Chopin’s A-Flat Opus 42 Waltz is one of the great pieces of music for the piano, maybe the greatest, and I played that, although never as well as I wished….And I was studying the Minuet by Paderewski. And when he got through with his concert—which was a wonder—he played that Chopin A-Flat Waltz, Opus 42, which has always been a favorite of mine. And he played the waltz rendition of the ‘Blue Danube,’ and so on.
When we went back behind the scenes, Mrs. White took me with her, and it almost scared me to death. She told him I didn’t know how to make ‘the turn’ in his minuet, and he said, ‘Sit down,’ and he showed me how to do it. I played it at Potsdam for old Stalin. I think he was quite impressed.
That same year TV talk show host David Susskind interviewed Truman on his program Open End and said to the ex-president, “‘Missouri Waltz’ isn’t really your favorite song, is it?” Truman replied, “No, no. My favorite number is Chopin’s A-Flat Opus 42 Waltz.”
Like Truman, Jimmy Carter was a knowledgeable classical music fan with a substantial record collection. He often commented that “as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, he had spent whatever extra money he had on recordings of classical music.” When Vladimir Horowitz was invited to play at the White House in 1978, the pianist noted that Carter’s conversation with him convinced him the president hadn’t been simply prompted on what to say. “The President knows his music,” said Horowitz.
Truman did not like abstract modern painting, but he did like the old masters–Frans Hals, Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, and Holbein in particular. While he was Senator from Missouri he often visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. During a trip to Europe in May 1956, Truman and his wife visited the great American expatriate Renaissance art connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) at his villa in Florence, Italy. (Berenson had done more than any other individual to educate the public about the greatness of the Renaissance painters.) “He took us all over the house and explained to us what to look for in a painting. And we got to those museums in Florence and elsewhere, we knew a little about it” commented the ex-President. Give-‘em-hell-Harry later wrote a letter to Berenson, telling him, “I wish the Powers-that-be would listen, think, and mock at things as you have.”
For his part, Berenson wrote in his diary of their meeting:
Harry Truman and his wife lunched yesterday….In my long life I have never met an individual with whom I felt so instantly at home….Ready to touch on any subject, no matter how personal….Now I feel more assured about America than in a long time. If the Truman miracle can still occur, we need not fear even the McCarthys.”
In fact, Harry Truman, exceptional as he was as a leader, was emblematic of many middle Americans at the time for whom a grounding in classical music, painting, and other arts was a staple of primary public school education. That was the all-American default mode until recently. (Biographies record that even the savagely tough baseball player Ty Cobb occasionally visited art museums.) What has happened to our political and social culture since to change this paradigm so greatly that education in the primary schools omits the classical arts entirely?
And the very notion of aid and comfort for the arts is considered vaguely un-American? Tell that to arts-loving and/or arts-supporting George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, the next time you visit Mount Rushmore.
A compact disc of Mark N. Grant’s music will be released this spring on Albany Records and his new opera-in-progress The Human Zoo will be performed by the Center for Contemporary Opera on March 27 in New York City. Several real-life (but non-presidential) American historical figures from the 19th century are featured in the composer’s original libretto for that opera. U.S. presidents have, however, played a role in Grant’s own life story. According to him: “I have shaken hands with three U.S. presidents, all Democrats who had some affinity with music: saxophone-playing Bill Clinton (with whom I briefly discussed crossword puzzles) in 2006; Jimmy Carter, during his campaign for the office in 1976; and, as a little boy, I shook hands with Harry Truman inside New York’s Grand Central Station in 1960. He was walking through the station with his wife Bess, and nobody but my grandmother was bothering him or taking notice of him.”