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The Higher Law

David Gilmour Blythe (American, 1815–1865)


Medium oil on canvas Measurements H: 20 1/4 x W: 24 1/2 in. (51.44 x 62.23 cm) Credit Patrons Art Fund: gift of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Walton, Jr Accession Number 58.56.3 Location Not on View


This painting presents David Gilmour Blythe's view of the causes of the Civil War. At the center of the composition, American Liberty lies mortally wounded on her shield. Behind her is the grave of Common Sense, bearing the date 1861. Liberty's attackers—a Northern abolitionist and a Southern slaveholder—stand on either side of her. On the left, the abolitionist holds aloft a volume labeled "Higher Law." It reflects the radical abolitionist belief that the moral imperative of eliminating slavery overrode the law of the land. The Southerner clings to a paper inscribed "Our Rights" and a slave's shackles. In the background, a flaming dragon's cave identifies "The Final Location of the Southern Capitol" as hell.

Artist Bio

Essentially unknown outside the Pittsburgh area, during his lifetime and for decades after, David Gilmour Blythe is now recognized as the principal satiric genre painter of nineteenth-century America. Born in East Liverpool, Ohio, into the family of an immigrant Scottish Presbyterian, Blythe grew up with a rigid sense of morality that consistently informed his brutal, grotesque caricatures of contemporary life, in which he used the grimy industrial city of Pittsburgh as a showcase for urban horrors. His personality was contradictory. A staunch Protestant, he married a Catholic. Vociferously Republican, he nevertheless counted prominent Democrats among his close friends. And although a number of his pictures graphically depict the evils of alcohol, Blythe himself finally succumbed to "mania potu," or delirium from drink.