Paint Me Like One of Your Generals

REVIEW: 'Glorious Lessons: John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution' by Richard Brookhiser

John Trumbull self-portrait, other paintings (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
July 7, 2024

Tench Coxe was the Forrest Gump of Revolutionary America.

Born in Philadelphia in 1755, he fled the city when it fell to the Patriots, a move that led many to brand him a Loyalist. By 1788, Coxe was a delegate to the Continental Congress and writing pseudonymous pamphlets in support of the Constitution. An ardent Federalist, he became Alexander Hamilton's deputy at the Treasury Department and helped ghostwrite his boss's famous Report on Manufactures.

For good measure, Coxe swung Republican during the Adams administration and became an ardent Jeffersonian before leaving government, earning generational wealth from his investments in coal and timber, and dying in 1824 at the age of 69. Nice.

Despite his colorful and storied career, Coxe is largely forgotten today. There's at least one book about him, but good luck finding a copy: If you search his name on Amazon, it autocorrects to "trench coat" and brings you to the clothing section.

I dwell on Coxe's overwhelming obscurity because there's a good chance he'll be the subject of Richard Brookhiser's next book. Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review and accomplished historian, has written 10 books on the Founding Fathers, covering everyone from George Washington to Gouverneur Morris. His latest offering, Glorious Lessons: John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution, is as engaging and informative as the rest.

But Brookhiser's choice of subject is curious. Why write about the man who painted George Washington and the Battle of Saratoga? Brookhiser has written about the Founding more than most, but he hasn't completely exhausted the Revolutionary Rolodex—he could still toss off a book about, say, James Wilson. Nor is he loath to dedicate multiple books to the same subject, having thus far written three volumes on George Washington.

So, why write about the man whose murals adorn the U.S. Capitol rotunda? Perhaps it's because Richard Brookhiser is ahead of the curve.

He usually is. Brookhiser's first foray into Revolutionary history, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, hit shelves in 1996, the same year Joseph J. Ellis published one of the first popular biographies of a Founding Father, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Brookhiser called for a reappraisal of Alexander Hamilton five years before Ron Chernow (and 16 years before Hamilton) and followed David McCullough's John Adams just nine months later with America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918.

By 2003, Brookhiser's writing on the Founding was so well known that H.W. Brands named him alongside Ellis and McCullough as one of the leading progenitors of what Brands called "Founders Chic," a genre of popular 18th century history based, in Brands's words, on a "misplaced reverence for [the Founders'] handiwork."

Brands's attempt to burst the Founders Chic bubble was clearly premature. His essay predated countless entries into the genre, not just the aforementioned Chernow biography and the Hamilton phenomenon, but also McCullough's 2005 book 1776 and HBO's 2008 John Adams miniseries.

But two decades later, Founders Chic may finally be running out of steam. McCullough died in August 2022, and Ellis, like fellow Jefferson biographer Jon Meacham, has shifted his focus from chronicling American history to bolstering Democratic politicians. No one likes the new Ben Franklin miniseries on Apple TV+, and Hamilton has been deemed cringe by progressive tastemakers and—even worse—Gen Z.

Perhaps American interest in the Founding will wax as we approach the Semiquincentennial in 2026, but it's doubtful. Even in Washington, Republicans seem to have grown tired of invoking the Founders in floor speeches. Without that prompting, Democrats don't spend much time calling them racist.

Going forward, scholars who want to chronicle the American Founding will have to get specific, jettisoning hagiographies of Washington and Hamilton in favor of writing subtle cultural and political histories built around more obscure figures.

Which is why Richard Brookhiser wrote about John Trumbull.

Glorious Lessons is part biography, part study of Trumbull's work. Brookhiser astutely saves his most detailed descriptions of Trumbull's paintings for later chapters, which allows him both to stretch his aesthetic muscles and give full freight to the earlier chapters in Trumbull's life—which, though light on famous paintings, are heavy on fascinating anecdotes.

Born to an esteemed family in Lebanon, Connecticut, where his father and brother both served as governor, Trumbull fought briefly in the Continental Army before sailing to London in May 1780 to apprentice with the accomplished American expatriate painter Benjamin West. But the Revolution caught up to him in November 1780, when Trumbull was arrested on suspicions of espionage. He was freed, six months later, thanks in part to the efforts of one Edmund Burke.

Burke is hardly the only famous figure with whom Trumbull would come in contact. Even before he became the young republic's favorite painter, Trumbull's high-born station and military service led him to rub shoulders with such luminaries as "Thomas Jefferson, a young Virginia politician," and "Abigail Adams, the wife of one of Massachusetts's delegates to Congress."

As those descriptions indicate, Brookhiser commits to telling the Revolutionary tale from Trumbull's perspective, refreshing the well-trod story of the War of Independence. Washington's career is told through descriptions of Trumbull's paintings. The rise of political factions unfolds as a story of the artist struggling to find patronage. Even the Hamilton-Burr duel gets a new spin, as Trumbull was the last person to record an interaction between the two combatants before that fateful dawn in Weehawken.

Contemporary chroniclers of the Revolution have an obvious advantage over future historians: They were there. And many, like Trumbull, fought in the war and knew some of the leading figures. But unlike Trumbull, most of these chroniclers were writers, and their accounts are shot through with the author's politics.

Trumbull was hardly apolitical, and his disdain for all things Jeffersonian is clear throughout Glorious Lessons. But it is nevertheless much harder to make partisan political points on canvas. So, rather than use his firsthand experience to claim the legacy of the Revolution for a certain faction, Trumbull set about making a more ecumenical point.

"The greatest motive I had … has been my wish of commemorating the great events of our country's revolution," Trumbull wrote Jefferson in 1789, "to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in the history of man."

Trumbull echoed that sentiment a year later, in an advertisement for engravings of his Revolutionary portraits.

"No period of history of man is more interesting than that in which we have lived," Trumbull wrote. "Americans have a right to glory in giving to the world an example whose influence is rapidly spreading."

Trumbull may be known as the "painter of the Revolution." But it's clear from his words that he understood himself to be its historian, one tasked with transmitting America's cultural inheritance to its "present and future sons."

More than two centuries later, Richard Brookhiser has picked up Trumbull's mantle. The "glorious lessons" that fill his books are the same that dot Trumbull's canvases. It's no wonder, then, that Glorious Lessons feels like something coming full circle. Trumbull honored the Revolution by preserving its memory for posterity. Now, Brookhiser has honored Trumbull's memory by doing the same for him.

Tench Coxe can't be far behind.

Glorious Lessons: John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution
by Richard Brookhiser
Yale University Press, 276 pp., $30

Tim Rice is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.