Up Close: Three-Way Collaboration in Spencer’s History

What was the effect of these collaborations among Johnson, Spencer, and Chappel for the History of the United States? As the images below suggest, Spencer’s History of the United States was a much more elaborate and seamless production than Frost’s Pictorial History of the United States. There were fewer word/image disjunctures throughout and a more noticeable synergy between authorial intentions and the visual embellishments that accompanied the text. Publisher, historian, and artist also found ways to reconcile their competing interests and consolidated as many features of their operations as possible into a centralized managerial intelligence characterized by a precise moral program.

Image 45

The History of the United States enjoyed wide success in the two or three years surrounding its publication, because the moralizing tone of its illustrations and text seemed to hold out idealized solutions to some very real problems evident at the time of its publication. Yet the patriotic optimism of Spencer’s pictorial history occasionally gave way to darker visions of the potentially cataclysmic consequences of the political failures of the decade [Image 45]. Spencer likened the 1850s to some vast scene of destruction suggested by Thomas Cole’s epic “Course of Empire” series, and painted his own word paintings to amplify its apocalyptic suggestions. Like the politically divided nation of in the 1780s, Spencer noted, America was “fast expiring of its own debility,” a country that was losing “not only its vigor, but the respect which it once claimed.” In the “last stages of its decline,” the American nation faced the same question confronted by citizens just after the Revolution: “whether it should dissolve, and even the semblance of a government be lost, or whether there should be a brave effort made by the patriots and statesmen of the day, to form a more efficient government, before the great interests of the United States were buried beneath its ruins.” Spencer urged his contemporaries to seek solutions to this question in the “convictions of truth, and right, and duty” central to the sound moral principles of a Christian faith. The alternative, he noted, was submission to the harsh realities of a godless world in which grand, ethical ideas were forced to give way to petty, self-destructive impulses. [68]

Instilling fear of just such a “sentence of condemnation” was what Henry Johnson had hoped for when he approached Spencer on the subject of producing a pictorial history in the climate of moral crisis of the mid-1850s. The ex-minister’s response was to write a history that was highly sentimentalized and allegorized, with its visual and verbal lessons enlarged and unmistakable. Alonzo Chappel aided the effort by reducing Spencer’s themes to a kind of pictorial shorthand—a symbolic language in which desired behaviors and intended outcomes were advanced forthrightly and without apology. If Spencer’s morality tale and Chappel’s illustrations were sometimes too heavy-handed in their approach, they were nonetheless well-suited to an age in which the threat of Civil War seemed to demand dramatic and monumental strategies for historical reflection.

Visit the following pages to highlight these collaborative relationships and examine the results up close.

[68] Spencer, History of the United States, II:187.