Amdist all the talk of anti-slavery and pro-slavery thought in Lexington before the Civil War, it's been a while since I wrote about some of the other ideas of utility, morality, and progress. Henry Ruffner spoke in his inaugural address at Washington College in 1838 about the cycles of societies -- of how he thought societies grew but how they could also go backwards. This was a common theme in Whig thought in the 1830s; heck, Thomas Cole's series of five landscapes, The Course of Empire, is built around this theme.
By the 1840s and certainly early 1850s the idea of progress had shifted, though. The focus was on upward progress, not cycles of progress and decline. The emphasis was more on how society -- especially law -- facilitated progress. Recall, for instance, Asher Durand's 1853 canvass Progress. (I'm still not sure where it is -- but I'm wagering that it'll make an appearance at Crystal Bridges when that musuem opens on November 11.) In Progress we see -- moving left to right -- the rude and chaotic state of nature, where the Native Americans looked on in wonderment at the increasing progress -- that included peddlers, agriculture, telegraph wires, steam boats, railroads, bridges ... civilization.
We see in the landscape art of the era the political theory of the era: states of nature were not states of freedom but of chaos. And when there is order and law, then there is progress and instead of celebrating equality and nature, we should focus on how people are put into a heirarchy that is appropriate to their talents. It was a world of order, of heirarchy, and of law. (I've got some more thoughts about this in Property and Progress.)
We hear about this from George Junkin, Junior, the son of Washington College's president George Junkin, in his 1851 graduation address, "The Progress of the Age." What particularly interests me about this is that it was an attempt to celebrate the economic progress of the age and also to try to guard against too much reform, like those abolitionist fanatics who seemed to be taking the reform spirit a little too far. This was, in fact, a common theme among college orators at the time -- celebrate the changes that had been made, but guard against those who thought everything could and should be overturned. Timothy Walker tried this theme in his Harvard phi beta kappa address in 1850, as had William Kent at Union College in 1841. And William Greene did some of this with his address at Brown as well in 1851.