A Panoramic View of the Early American Republic

Will Mackintosh

Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley – section 04, by John J. Egan. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Late in the fall of 1846, an ambitious young artist named John Banvard arrived in Boston with an enormous piece of canvas.  Although a native of New York City, Banvard had spent his late teens and twenties traversing the great wide rivers of the west, earning a living as a peddler, an itinerant painter, and a sometime showman of fossils, Indian artifacts, and dioramas.  At some point during his travels, he “was actuated by a patriotic and honorable ambition, that America should produce the largest painting in the world.” He subsequently embarked on a journey of four hundred days in a skiff on the Mississippi, making sketches for a massive panoramic painting of the banks of the mighty river from St. Louis to New Orleans to fulfill this ambition.  He then settled in Louisville, taking in artistic odd jobs to support himself while he finished his canvas.  He was penniless by the moment of its unveiling, which went over with a resounding thud in the river city.  And thus he made his way back east, where his brother was a minister, hoping for greater recognition and of course financial success.[1]

American Broadsides & Ephemera, Series 1, with no known author. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Banvard must have been relieved when his panorama of the Mississippi proved to be a hit in Boston, even against competitors like “The Ingenious Mechanical Diorama of the Battle of Bunker Hill”; the “Great Moving Panorama of the Mexican Campaign”; and “the celebrated Ethiopian Minstrels!  The Wonder of the World. Master Juba, the greatest dancer now living. . . .  Together with the amusing Fantoccini, and Mr. Davis, the Comic Conjurer!”  It provoked a range of responses from its New England audience.  The mainstream Boston Journal celebrated its accuracy, rhapsodizing that, “While looking at the picture as it slowly passes before the spectator, one cannot but be delighted with the natural and lifelike appearance which every object presents.”  The abolitionist Boston Liberator struck a more mournful tone, observing that, “As we gazed on these places, we could not help feeling sad to think that they were the headquarters of all that is polluted, oppressive, desperate and murderous.”  Longfellow used the panorama as a backdrop for the trials and tribulations of his wandering Acadians in Evangeline, and a couple of decades later, Thoreau observed with characteristic bombast about this or a similar Mississippi panorama, “I saw that this was a Rhine stream of a different kind; that the foundations of castles were yet to be laid, and the famous bridges were yet to be thrown over the river; and I felt that this was the heroic age itself, though we know it not, for the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men.”[2]

One hundred and seventy years later, Banvard’s Panorama has inspired the name of this new digital extension of The Journal of the Early Republic.  Like its namesake, I hope this online forum will be sweeping in scope and evoke a diverse array of thoughtful and timely responses.  I hope to publish the work of many contributors who grasp both the heroic scale and the intimate details of life in the early American republic.  I hope it claims its share of attention in an already lively world of digital early America.  I hope that it both inspires and entertains, and serves as a common topic of conversation in the social circles of early Americanists.  (Unlike its namesake, I hope it does not promise comically more than it can deliver.)

The Panorama will serve as a venue for early Americanists to hold informal conversations of issues raised by the cutting-edge scholarship published in the JER and elsewhere.  Its mission is to surround the scholarship in the JER with supplementary materials and related discussions, and to immerse readers in the process of researching, writing, and teaching the early American republic.  These conversations will encompass the pedagogical challenges and opportunities of teaching the latest research in the field; the research methodologies and archival techniques behind these new findings; and the moral, political, and philosophical imperatives of being a scholar of early America in the twenty-first century. Think of The Panorama as inhabiting the space between the freewheeling eclecticism of a traditional blog and the stately formalism of a traditional scholarly journal.  Our conversations will be timely but not reactive.  In this quiet corner of the early Americanist internet, I invite the deep intellectual bench of the JER to let its hair down just a bit.

As founding editor of The Panorama, I have an expansive vision of and an “honorable ambition” for what such a venue might look like.  But it is by far more important that The Panorama serve as a meeting place for our entire community, so I welcome your feedback about contributions you’d like to make, conversations you’d like to start, and scholars you’d like to hear more from.  This line of communication is wide open at panorama@shear.org.  I look forward to hearing from all of you.


[1] John Banvard and John Putnam, Description of Banvard’s Panorama of the Mississippi River, Painted on Three Miles of Canvas; Exhibiting a View of Country 1200 Miles in Length, Extending from the Mouth of the Missouri River to the City of New Orleans; Being by Far the Largest Picture Ever Executed by Man (Boston, 1847), 3‒14; quotation on 9.  See also R. Bruce McMillan, “Objects of Curiosity: Albert Koch’s 1840 St. Louis Museum,” The Living Museum 42, nos. 2, 3 (1980), 35‒38; and Dorothy Dondore, “Banvard’s Panorama and the Flowering of New England,” New England Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1938), 817‒26.

[2] Dondore, “Banvard’s Panorama,” 819‒22.

1 February 2017

About the Author

Will Mackintosh is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington and the founding editor of The Panorama.

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