The Most Splendid Carpet
NPS Logo


"Splendor, when applied to government, brought into my mind, instead of the highest perfection, all the faulty finery, brilliant scenes, and expensive trappings of royal government, and impressed my mind with an ideal quite the reverse of republican respectability which I thought consisted in form and prudent councils, frugality, and economy," wrote William Maclay, Senator from Pennsylvania, in his Journal for May 7, 1789. [1]

How, then, when the Senate moved to Philadelphia, could Maclay bring himself to enter a room full of furniture constructed by Philadelphia's most fashionable cabinetmaker, with the sort of carpet heretofore used only by wealthy and highborn English noblemen? How could other Americans, convinced that simplicity best served the people and that luxury led to the downfall of empires, reconcile their elegant chamber hung with aristocratic crimson silk and embellished with court portraits of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, with their frugal republican consciences?

The answer to these questions is complex, and involves American society's attitude towards aristocracy and towards the Senate, and the way the United States approached the questions of art if not luxury in government.

Taking the carpet out of context, one might conclude that the Senate thought of itself as a body of nobles like the House of Lords, which met in a luxuriously furnished chamber in the Palace of Westminster. That this is not altogether true is demonstrated by the caustic comments of William Maclay, and there were others like him. But in many ways, there was an attitude of superiority among the Senators, some of whom, privately at least, thought of themselves as privileged members of an aristocratic class. The seeming contradiction between this attitude and the principles of democracy can be explained by examining what the eighteenth century understood by the word "aristocracy."

In England the "aristocracy" were gentry of noble birth. No one could gain entrance to this feudal hierarchy of nobles except by marrying into it or, rarely, by being knighted. Next to this class was a group composed of lawyers, high civil servants like Prime Minister Robert Walpole, wealthy merchants, and governors of the Bank of England and the great chartered companies. Educated, cultivated, interested in the arts, they did not enjoy the same privileges of name as the aristocracy, but they had the same habits. They lived grandly, their families enjoyed a leisured existence in great mansions, and they spent as much on food and servants as any Peer of the Realm. Below this "beau monde" were tradesmen, country squires, provincial lawyers, and others with less wealth but high social standing. These were the heads of provincial society.

An unquestioned assumption supported this hierarchy: one's position in life was God-given, a mark of one's natural rank, and not to be tampered with. The beau monde was as proud of its position as the nobility; the middle class, while imitating the manners and life style of the gentry, did not aspire to enter the aristocracy in fact.

In America, however, things were quite different; no matter how natural the class system appeared to Americans, no person in America was an "aristocrat" in the English sense. That hierarchy seemed right and that one's position in it seemed God's will was as true in America as in England, but the harsh reality of an America newly won from the forests meant the demise of the feudal nobility as it was known in England. The constant hard work required of every plantation owner and wealthy landowner or merchant meant that there could be no real leisure class devoted to amusement and frivolity, as in England.

Instead, a new aristocracy of landholders and merchants arose, whose members had their beginnings as younger sons or daughters of English gentry or as penniless small farmers who built their lands through shrewd management into large estates. By the late eighteenth century there were a number of wealthy (by American standards; in England their fortunes would have been small indeed) merchants and farmers with large landholdings, numbers of wealthy families from the ranks of the law and the clergy, and officers of the victorious American army, to make the beginnings of an American upper class. In the South there were plantation owners, somewhat analogous to the noble country squires of England, who indeed thought of themselves as aristocrats and adopted what habits of the noble English families their means allowed.

Members of this upper class, however, of necessity devoted long hours to their work and, unlike many of their English counterparts, had been influenced enough by Enlightenment philosophy to devote themselves to the community at large instead of abandoning themselves completely to the extravagancies of easy living. These Americans studied science and literature, participated in local governments, contributed to education and religion, founded benevolent and humanitarian societies, and carried on other charitable works, lending a solid moral tone to their lives.

A new meaning of "aristocracy" emerged, a meaning congruent with the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and other American intellectuals of the Enlightenment. According to Enlightenment theory, when everyone was educated and equal opportunity reigned, talent would rise to the top. Because it would be a natural process, everyone else would respect this morally and intellectually superior "aristocracy" of talent. Society would be well organized; with everyone in his natural place there would be no disorder. Jefferson summarized it this way:

It is generally true that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance. [2]

To the founding fathers, and indeed to most Americans in 1787, when the Senate took final form, the people of "genius and virtue" were the members of this new aristocracy, who had risen to the top of American society through the exercise of their natural ability and shrewdness. In this vein it is not surprising that many Senators believed themselves to be, in Jefferson's words, "the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society." [3]

This idea was reflected in debates during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when the make-up of the Senate was decided upon. From the outset, it was agreed that the Senate should "control the democratic branch," give "stability" to the government, and in James Madison's words, "protect the people against the transient impressions in which they themselves might be led." [4] Others felt that rule solely by a popularly elected House of Representatives might be dangerously close to the tyranny of the mob. The Senate should be designed as a check against this dire possibility. Few disagreed with this position with its implicit understanding that it was possible to find persons of sufficient wisdom and authority to carry the day against popular but perhaps unwise expediencies.

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut proposed that "wisdom" be one of the characteristics of the Senate, and Charles Pinckney added that, "the Senate might be supposed to contain the fittest men." Pinckney even hoped it would become a "school of Public Ministers, a nursery of statesmen." [5] Never far from their minds was classical precedent: the Roman Senate, without which, they believed, Rome would never have flourished, was a patrician body composed of men who had in some way made a great contribution to the state.

After wrangling over the question of proportional representation in the Legislature, the Convention decided in "the Great Compromise" of July 16, 1787, that the states would have equal representation in the Senate, and proportional representation in the House. This alone gave the Senate a certain distinction by defining it as a smaller, more manageable body, less subject to diversions and more able to deliberate slowly, independently and in a dignified manner. To ensure that the "fittest" and "wisest" men would enter the Senate, the Convention voted to adopt Madison's proposals to "refine the appointment [of Senators] by successive filtrations." [6] They decided to elevate the Senators above the people by requiring them to be chosen by the state legislatures, removing them from what they regarded as the whim of direct election, a procedure which was not abandoned until 1913. In addition, the Convention prescribed a minimum age for Senators of thirty years, five more than for members of the House of Representatives, and a six year term, thus encouraging the wisdom of age, and the freedom to deliberate occasioned by lack of pressure for re-election.

In this way the form of the Senate emerged, carefully designed as a group not of propertied men, but of men of proven virtue and talent, recognizable to all people because they were chosen by state legislators, who were themselves men of distinction. Again and again the idea that the Senate would be an "aristocracy" crept in on both sides of each question debated in the Convention, but the sting of the word was largely removed by its special American connotation of moral strength, wisdom, and experience.

It is interesting to note that the members of the Constitutional Convention were themselves idolized as a kind of Senate of talent and wisdom. On July 4, 1787, James Campbell gave an oration in the German Lutheran Church on Race Street in which he addressed the members of the Convention as "Illustrious Senate!" [7] From France Thomas Jefferson looked upon its members as "an assembly of demigods." [8] The Pennsylvania Gazette of August 22, 1787 praised it: "Such a body of enlightened and honest men perhaps never before met for political purposes, in any country upon the face of the earth." Some of this feeling was bound to carry over to the Senate of the First Congress, in which one third of the Senators had been members of the Convention.

There was, however, another current at work in American thinking which kept the Senate from bedecking its chamber with tapestries and gilt as in the House of Lords. This was an almost pathological fear of luxury in government, and it is this which, above all, William Maclay expressed in the statement which opened this discussion. More than anything else, profligate luxury stood in American minds for all the failings of monarchy. Do away with the court and the nobility, the two groups most guilty of misusing luxury in England, and society would be the better in all respects. In America, consciously patterning itself on the best examples of history, luxury could be clearly identified as a major cause of the destruction of Troy and Ninevah, the downfall of the Roman Empire, the excesses of Renaissance Popes, the oppressive actions of George III, and now in 1789 the tottering of the monarchy in France. In view of this, Thomas Jefferson insisted, "I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple." [9] Agreed John Adams, praising the American Constitution, "luxury is less dangerous in a mixed government than any other, has less tendency to prevail; and is much more easily restrained to such persons and objects as will be least detrimental to the public good." [10]

If luxury in government was to be feared and expunged, this did not mean that there could be no decoration, no ornament, no ceremony in its conduct. Indeed, there was a reason why "restrained" luxury could be permitted, even encouraged, in the chambers devoted to the business of State. Although never could a republican government allow extravagance and frivolity, the United States needed to set an example of "good taste" before the world. Suddenly, as Jefferson noted in his inaugural speech of 1801, America freed from European domination had become, "A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of her industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eyes." [11]

When, as they always did while evaluating their situation, Americans looked back to classical times, they saw evolutionary cycles of development for each nation and empire of the past, first an optimistic rise to a period of glory, then, slowly, decline and fall. In comparison with these ancient empires America was on the rise, at the beginning of a cycle, a truly young nation. Moreover, because the founding fathers had consciously attempted to choose the best from history on which to model their new American society, changing and adapting to fit the American condition, this Republic would be the finest the world had ever seen, "advancing to destinies beyond mortal eyes."

In all things the United States would set an example for the rest of the world. The carefully selected "mixed" form of government would produce the happiest citizenry, which would produce the most plentiful crops in its fields and most useful inventions for its manufactories. The enterprise of its merchants would spread American commerce around the world.

Neither would the United States take second place in the fine arts. Joseph Hopkinson summed up in 1810 an attitude which had prevailed ever since the country had recovered from the devastation of the Revolutionary War: "The sagacity, ardour, and inventive ingenuity of the American character are all calculated to carry us to a high state of perfection in the arts," he said at the inauguration of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Here again, America could take the best of what Europe had to offer, "the honest industry, the cultivated intellect, the refined taste and improved genius which comes to enrich;" and transplant it to American soil to be expanded and improved by American resourcefulness. [12]

Rumors were rife in Europe that the American climate was unsuitable for the development of the fine arts, and that already Americans were barbarians when it came to culture and good taste. To counteract these suspicions, every element in American official conduct needed to show off American good taste and prove that Americans were as capable as anyone else of appreciating the finer points of life.

This is what Jefferson meant when in mid-construction he urged the redesigning of the State Capitol in Virginia, "weighing the loss of what had already been begun" to another design against "the comfort of laying out the public money for something honorable, the satisfaction of seeing an object and proof of national good taste, and the regret and mortification of erecting a monument of our barbarism, which shall be loaded with execrations as long as it shall endure." [13] Jefferson considered himself a man of great good taste in an age when "good taste," like "knowledge," was a universal and eternal truth, a mark of the classical hero which could be approached and grasped by the truly enlightened and cultivated mind. He did not apologize for his enthusiasm for the fine arts, since "its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and procure them its praise." [14]

To procure the praise of the world, then, as well as to please the aristocratic tastes of the Senators, the chamber on the second floor of Congress Hall acquired simple but elegant chairs and desks of the finest construction and design then available, silk damask curtains; and accepted for its walls the gift of portraits of the King and Queen of France who had come so unhesitatingly to the aid of the country during the Revolution. An elegant green and red silk canopy true to parliamentary tradition was designed to hang over and around the Vice-President's chair, to demonstrate to the world the importance and dignity of his position as second officer of this new and soon-to-be glorious nation. A luxurious neoclassical carpet was designed in America to provide yet another demonstration of good taste and right thinking. That the carpet should be neoclassical in design was almost a foregone conclusion, because Americans of the late eighteenth century looked at the world through eyes dazzled by the glory of the ancients.

They identified themselves with classical heroes, had busts of themselves sculptured wearing classical garb, and even referred to each other as "new Romans." The education of a man of taste, wisdom, and virtue began with the study of the classics. Young men learned to score points at debate by quoting classical precedent. Later, they discovered what they hoped would be the road to the perfect republic in the study of the rise and fall of classical empires. From these studies emerged the American hero: working unselfishly for the public good, the best American possessed the Roman virtues of gravity, integrity, courage, simplicity, and a firm respect for law. [15] Patrick Henry spoke like a classical orator; he reminded Thomas Jefferson of Homer. George Washington's chiseled face, dignified bearing, and direct, cool gaze even gave him the look of a Roman hero. Washington was such a perfect embodiment of the virtues of the classical hero he was sometimes referred to as "the new Cincinnatus."

In every debate throughout the Revolutionary period, the classics were called to witness. John Adams, writing a Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America in 1787, spent a whole volume discussing classical forms of government. The debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 referred constantly to ancient precedent. The Federalist Papers, written over the pen name "Publius," argued for the adoption of the Constitution by citing examples from Greek and Roman history. Letters opposing The Federalist appeared in contemporary newspapers; their authors signed themselves Cato and Caesar.

Every important controversy called forth appeals to the classical past. In the debates on the formation of the Senate, members of the Convention of 1787 looked to the Senates of Rome, Carthage, Athens, and Sparta. James Wilson argued that liberty had been lost in Carthage and Rome when the mob encroached on the authority of the Senate. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers: "There was no long-lived republic that did not have a Senate," and described how the Senates of Sparta, Rome, and Carthage served as "an anchor against popular fluctuations." [16] He proposed that the Senate be small, like the Areopagus of Athens. The word "Senate" itself was a classical allusion.

In the end, the Senate was not patterned directly after the Senates of ancient times. Partly this was because members of the Convention never intended to borrow directly from Rome. Instead, as everyone did in the eighteenth century, they read and quoted classical texts for effect, selecting the ideas that suited them. As Richard M. Gummere observed in The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition, frequently the same classical passage was used as an illustration for both sides of an argument. "Instead of theorizing, they took from the past whatever was relevant to their own concerns and transmitted the material into their own language. ... They were 'amateurs' rather than 'professionals,' and their leaders ... were interested in the spirit rather than the techniques of Greece and Rome." [17]

So it was with art. The neoclassical style suited these men with its clean simplicity and rational proportions. Here again, however, the forms of the past were not copied directly but adapted to fit particular situations. Jefferson based his designs for Monticello not on one specific classical example, but on many, taking versions of the architectural orders from Palladio, James Gibbs, and Robert Morris, books by all of whom he owned. In the interior, he combined various Roman elements taken from Desgodetz Edifices Antiques de Rome.

The neoclassic also appealed to American leaders, because, in the words of Neil Harris, "it made up the stylistic negation of luxury. To build in the classic, to stress the simple, to emphasize realism in portraiture and geometry in architecture meant an eschewal of elaborate ornament and an avoidance of the visual richness which, to Americans like Jefferson, hung over the decayed Continent like an evil breath of tyranny." [18] In 1793 the Commissioners of the City of Washington wrote of their building plans for the Federal City, "We wish to exhibit a grandeur of conception, a Republican simplicity, and that true elegance of proportion which correspond to a tempered freedom excluding Frivolity." [19] In search of workers trained in the neoclassical style, the Commissioners went to France. It is clear that the neoclassic represented "Republican simplicity" to them; their words are an echo of William Maclay, in his search for "republican respectability, frugality, and economy."

With this classical background in mind, and with an understanding of the cultural milieu which produced it, the twentieth century observer can find in the Senate carpet a door to the past, to the mind and feelings of the men who gave this country its first impetus toward confidence and stability. As an object, its neoclassical symbols and luxurious modernity (for its day), were revelatory of men whose world view encompassed both respect for the past and optimism for a future where classical ideas of moderation and self control would produce a serene and just republic. It is not too much to take quite seriously the remark, meant humorously, of the anonymous newspaper writer of 1791, who called it "the most splendid carpet that ever was made."

PLATE VI: Restored Senate Chamber in congress Hall, Philadelphia. Photograph Bernie Cleff. (click on image for a PDF version)

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007