Skip to main content
No. 445:
An American Revolution

Today, the day after the American Revolution. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The American Revolution ended in 1783. Then a different revolution followed right on its heels. Our belief in detached rationalism gave way to a new vision of the power of the mind.

We'd modeled our Revolution on the Roman Republic. We were firm, rational men in a rational world. Our art showed Roman soldiers with uplifted swords. We carved busts of our leaders in classic Roman form. That mood still hung over in the early 1800s when we went about saying things like "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." We needed that sort of assertion to sustain the Revolution once it was won. But that was a rhetoric that'd been honed in the late Colonial period.

Beneath the Revolution had bubbled a peculiar English-American network. People like Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, Ben Franklin, the English anarchist William Godwin, and the atheistic American poet Joel Barlow all knew each other. Those were fiercely rational men, cast in the mold of the Roman Republic.

But another thread was rising in the fabric. Godwin's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a devout Christian and the author of modern feminism. She didn't fit the detached masculine mindset around her at all. She signaled the change, and her writings were very popular in our new country.

Young William Blake was also in the network, and he was also changing the revolution. Blake was the first great Romantic poet. He knew his rationalist friends had run their course. He wrote, "I will not reason and compare. My business is to create." For him, revolution was the creative act as it begins in each of us.

The English Romantics had precursors here. Our young writers shaped an American school of sensibility in the 1780s. 24-year-old William Brown wrote the first American novel in 1789. It's title, The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Power of Nature Founded in Truth, saw Romantic thinking coming. And he wasn't alone.

The Romantics weren't going to seek truth by measuring nature. They meant to create it from within. When Blake said "All Deities reside within the human breast," he celebrated just that creative power of the human mind.

We built our new Republic on our new creative power. The first important American inventions appeared right after the War. Our industrial power rode in on the new steamboats, high-pressure steam engines, and water-power systems. They were all the creative fruit of the new revolution -- of the Romantic vision.

The first Revolution had set us free. Now we could leave the set jaw and the uplifted fist. Now we turned straight to the power of the mind -- to the power to create ourselves. And that's what made our new nation great.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Silverman, K., A Cultural History of the American Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

May, H.F., The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.