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Summary Article: DUNLAP, WILLIAM (1766-1839)
From The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment

William Dunlap owes his place in the history of the American Enlightenment to his participation in post-Revolutionary intellectual circles in New York City, to his contributions to that city's print culture, and to his position as both participant and chronicler of the theatrical and artistic worlds of the Early Republic. Dunlap struggled with his role as an “entrepreneur of culture,” as Jean V. Matthews has shown, finding his fervor for the diffusion of knowledge tempered by growing misgivings about popular taste and morality.

Dunlap was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. His father, a Loyalist merchant, moved his family to New York City during the Revolution. Dunlap had little formal schooling because of the disruptions of the war and a childhood accident that left him partially blind. In 1774 he traveled to London to study painting with the American-born artist Benjamin West. After a brief stint painting portraits upon his return to America, he began writing for the New York stage. His first produced play, a comedy entitled The Father; or American Shandyism, debuted at the John Street Theatre in 1787. Although his marriage to Elizabeth Woolsey further cemented his ties to New York's mercantile community, Dunlap abandoned any work in his father's business and deepened his involvement with the John Street (later Park) Theatre and its resident Old American Company. He became the theater's sole proprietor and manager in 1798, producing his own plays as well as translations of contemporary French and German drama. The theater's finances faltered and Dunlap declared bankruptcy in 1805. He returned to painting, traveling the eastern seaboard for nearly two decades executing portraits and exhibiting several large-scale paintings on biblical themes. Dunlap held leadership roles in the fractious New York art world, both at the American Academy of the Fine Arts and its rival, the National Academy of Design. During this period he also published biographies of the actor George F. Cooke (1813) and his friend, the writer Charles Brockden Brown (1815). Poor health curtailed Dunlap's travels during the 1830s, when he published actively in New York magazines and newspapers, wrote his histories of the American theater (1832) and American art (1834), and completed a temperance novel (1836). He was working on the second volume of a history of New York state when he died in New York at the age of seventy-three.

Membership in several literary clubs, including New York's Friendly Club, introduced Dunlap to several strains of Enlightenment thought. The club provided Dunlap with the broad education that he had missed, a testing ground for his dramatic efforts, and close friendships with rising figures including Elihu Hubbard Smith and Charles Brockden Brown. Under the auspices of the club, Dunlap also gained access to a learned transatlantic culture, as his surviving correspondence with Thomas Holcroft and William Godwin testify, and to publishing venues, including the New-York Magazine. The philosophical and political debates that preoccupied the club influenced Dunlap's writing for the stage.

It is Dunlap's histories of theater and art that most clearly demonstrate his adaptation of Enlightenment theories of progress to the nascent US cultural arena. These accounts express Dunlap's confidence that the theater and visual arts could provide public models of virtue. In both books, however, he acknowledged a sizable gap between high-minded cultural fare and popular taste. Based on his own experiences, he advocated for the guiding hand of the educated (although not well-born), recommending the cultivation of professional organizations and a national theater.


  • A History of the American Theatre from Its Origins to 1832 (New York, 1832; repr. edn, Urbana IL, 2005).
  • A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (New York, 1834; repr. edn, New York, 1969).
  • Diary of William Dunlap, 1766-1839 (New York, 1930; repr. edn, New York, 1969).
  • Five Plays of William Dunlap and More Plays of William Dunlap (Delmar NY, 1991, 1995).
  • Further Reading
  • Bender, Thomas. New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (Baltimore, 1987).
  • Canary, Robert H. William Dunlap (New York, 1970).
  • Ellis, Joseph J. After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (New York, 1979).
  • Green, David Bonnell.Letters of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft to William Dunlap,” Notes and Queries 3 (October 1956): 441-3.
  • Lyons, Maura. William Dunlap and the Construction of an American Art History (Amherst MA, 2005).
  • Matthews, Jean V. Toward a New Society: American Thought and Culture, 1800-1830 (Boston, 1991).
  • Waterman, Bryan. Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature (Baltimore, 2007).
  • Maura Lyons
    Drake University
    © Mark G. Spencer and Contributors 2015

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