The American Spirit in Literature, by Bliss PerryA Chronicle of Great Interpreters

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The American Spirit in Literature,
A Chronicle of Great Interpreters
















The United States of America has been from the beginning in a perpetual change. The physical and mental restlessness of the American and the temporary nature of many of his arrangements are largely due to the experimental character of the exploration and development of this continent. The new energies released by the settlement of the colonies were indeed guided by stern determination, wise forethought, and inventive skill; but no one has ever really known the outcome of the experiment. It is a story of faith, of

Effort, and expectation, and desire, And something evermore about to be.

An Alexander Hamilton may urge with passionate force the adoption of the Constitution, without any firm conviction as to its permanence. The most clear-sighted American of the Civil War period recognized this element of uncertainty in our American adventure when he declared: “We are now testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” More than fifty years have passed since that war rearmed the binding force of the Constitution and apparently sealed the perpetuity of the Union. Yet the gigantic economic and social changes now in progress are serving to show that the United States has its full share of the anxieties which beset all human institutions in this daily altering world.

“We are but strangers in an inn, but passengers in a ship,” said Roger Williams. This sense of the transiency of human effort, the perishable nature of human institutions, was quick in the consciousness of the gentleman adventurers and sober Puritan citizens who emigrated from England to the New World. It had been a familiar note in the poetry of that Elizabethan period which had followed with such breathless interest the exploration of America. It was a conception which could be shared alike by a saint like John Cotton or a soldier of fortune like John Smith. Men are tent-dwellers. Today they settle here, and tomorrow they have struck camp and are gone. We are strangers and sojourners, as all our fathers were.

This instinct of the camper has stamped itself upon American life and thought. Venturesomeness, physical and moral daring, resourcefulness in emergencies, indifference to negligible details, wastefulness of materials, boundless hope and confidence in the morrow, are characteristics of the American. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the “good American” has been he who has most resembled a good camper. He has had robust health–unless or until he has abused it,–a tolerant disposition, and an ability to apply his fingers or his brain to many unrelated and unexpected tasks. He is disposed to blaze his own trail. He has a touch of prodigality, and, withal, a knack of keeping his tent or his affairs in better order than they seem. Above all, he has been ever ready to break camp when he feels the impulse to wander. He likes to be “foot-loose.” If he does not build his roads as solidly as the Roman roads were built, nor his houses like the English houses, it is because he feels that he is here today and gone tomorrow. If he has squandered the physical resources of his neighborhood, cutting the forests recklessly, exhausting the soil, surrendering water power and minerals into a few far-clutching fingers, he has done it because he expects, like Voltaire’s Signor Pococurante, “to have a new garden tomorrow, built on a nobler plan.” When New York State grew too crowded for Cooper’s Leather-Stocking, he shouldered his pack, whistled to his dog, glanced at the sun, and struck a bee-line for the Mississippi. Nothing could be more typical of the first three hundred years of American history.

The traits of the pioneer have thus been the characteristic traits of the American in action. The memories of successive generations have tended to stress these qualities to the neglect of others. Everyone who has enjoyed the free life of the woods will confess that his own judgment upon his casual summer associates turns, quite naturally and almost exclusively, upon their characteristics as woodsmen. Out of the woods, these gentlemen may be more or less admirable divines, pedants, men of affairs; but the verdict of their companions in the forest is based chiefly upon the single question of their adaptability to the environment of the camp. Are they quick of eye and foot, skillful with rod and gun, cheerful on rainy days, ready to do a little more than their share of drudgery? If so, memory holds them.

Some such unconscious selection as this has been at work in the classification of our representative men. The building of the nation and the literary expression of its purpose and ideals are tasks which have called forth the strength of a great variety of individuals. Some of these men have proved to be peculiarly fitted for a specific service, irrespective of the question of their general intellectual powers, or their rank as judged by the standard of European performance in the same field. Thus the battle of New Orleans, in European eyes a mere bit of frontier fighting, made Andrew Jackson a “hero” as indubitably as if he had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. It gave him the Presidency.

The analogy holds in literature. Certain expressions of American sentiment or conviction have served to summarize or to clarify the spirit of the nation. The authors of these productions have frequently won the recognition and affection of their contemporaries by means of prose and verse quite unsuited to sustain the test of severe critical standards. Neither Longfellow’s “Excelsior” nor Poe’s “Bells” nor Whittier’s “Maud Muller” is among the best poems of the three writers in question, yet there was something in each of these productions which caught the fancy of a whole American generation. It expressed one phase of the national mind in a given historical period.

The historian of literature is bound to take account of this question of literary vogue, as it is highly significant of the temper of successive generations in any country. But it is of peculiar interest to the student of the literature produced in the United States. Is this literature “American,” or is it “English literature in America,” as Professor Wendell and other scholars have preferred to call it? I should be one of the last to minimize the enormous influence of England upon the mind and the writing of all the English-speaking countries of the globe. Yet it will be one of the purposes of the present book to indicate the existence here, even in colonial times, of a point of view differing from that of the mother country, and destined to differ increasingly with the lapse of time. Since the formation of our Federal Union, in particular, the books produced in the United States have tended to exhibit certain characteristics which differentiate them from the books produced in other English speaking countries. We must beware, of course, of what the late Charles Francis Adams once called the “filiopietistic” fallacy. The “American” qualities of our literature must be judged in connection with its conformity to universal standards of excellence. Tested by any universal standard, “The Scarlet Letter” is a notable romance. It has won a secure place among the literature written by men of English blood and speech. Yet to overlook the peculiarly local or provincial characteristics of this remarkable story is to miss the secret of its inspiration. It could have been written only by a New Englander, in the atmosphere of a certain epoch.

Our task, then, in this rapid review of the chief interpreters of the American spirit in literature, is a twofold one. We are primarily concerned with a procession of men, each of whom is interesting as an individual and as a writer. But we cannot watch the individuals long without perceiving the general direction of their march, the ideas that animate them, the common hopes and loyalties that make up the life of their spirit. To become aware of these general tendencies is to understand the “American” note in our national writing.

Our historians have taught us that the history of the United States is an evolution towards political unity. The separatist, particularist movements are gradually thrust to one side. In literary history, likewise, we best remember those authors who fall into line with what we now perceive to have been the course of our literary development. The erratic men and women, the “sports” of the great experiment, are ultimately neglected by the critics, unless, like the leaders of political insurrections, those writing men and women have raised a notable standard of revolt. No doubt the apparently unique literary specimens, if clearly understood in their origins and surroundings, would be found rooted in the general laws of literary evolution. But these laws are not easy to codify and we must avoid the temptation to discover, in any particular period, more of unity than there actually was. And we must always remember that there will be beautiful prose and verse unrelated to the main national tendencies save as “the literature of escape.” We owe this lesson to the genius of Edgar Allan Poe.

Let us test these principles by applying them to the earliest colonists. The first book written on the soil of what is now the United States was Captain John Smith’s “True Relation” of the planting of the Virginia colony in 1607. It was published in London in 1608. The Captain was a typical Elizabethan adventurer, with a gift, like so many of his class, for picturesque narrative. In what sense, if at all, may his writings on American topics be classified as “American” literary productions? It is clear that his experiences in the New World were only one phase of the variegated life of this English soldier of fortune. But the American imagination has persistently claimed him as representing something peculiarly ours, namely, a kind of pioneer hardihood, resourcefulness, leadership, which was essential to the exploration and conquest of the wilderness. Most of Smith’s companions were unfitted for the ordeal which he survived. They perished miserably in the “starving time.” But he was of the stuff from which triumphant immigrants have ever been made, and it is our recognition of the presence of these qualities in the Captain which makes us think of his books dealing with America as if they were “American books.” There are other narratives by colonists temporarily residing in the Virginia plantations which gratify our historical curiosity, but which we no more consider a part of American literature than the books written by Stevenson, Kipling, and Wells during their casual visits to this country. But Captain Smith’s “True Relation” impresses us, like Mark Twain’s “Roughing It,” with being somehow true to type. In each of these books the possible unveracities in detail are a confirmation of their representative American character.

In other words, we have unconsciously formulated, in the course of centuries, a general concept of “the pioneer.” Novelists, poets, and historians have elaborated this conception. Nothing is more inevitable than our reaching back to the beginning of the seventeenth century and endeavoring to select, among the thousands of Englishmen who emigrated or even thought of emigrating to this country, those who possessed the genuine heart and sinew of the permanent settler.

Oliver Cromwell, for instance, is said to have thought of emigrating hither in 1637. If he had joined his friends John Cotton and Roger Williams in New England, who can doubt that the personal characteristics of “my brave Oliver” would today be identified with the “American” qualities which we discover in 1637 on the shores of Massachusetts Bay? And what an American settler Cromwell would have made!

If we turn from physical and moral daring to the field of theological and political speculation, it is easy today to select, among the writings of the earliest colonists, certain radical utterances which seem to presage the very temper of the late eighteenth century. Pastor John Robinson’s farewell address to the Pilgrims at Leyden in 1620 contained the famous words: “The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of His holy Word. I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion. . . . Luther and Calvin were great and shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God.” Now John Robinson, like Oliver Cromwell, never set foot on American soil, but he is identified, none the less, with the spirit of American liberalism in religion.

In political discussion, the early emergence of that type of independence familiar to the decade 1765-75 is equally striking. In a letter written in 1818, John Adams insisted that “the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution ought to be traced back for two hundred years, and sought in the history of the country from the first plantations in America.” “I have always laughed,” he declared in an earlier letter, “at the affectation of representing American independence as a novel idea, as a modern discovery, as a late invention. The idea of it as a possible thing, as a probable event, nay as a necessary and unavoidable measure, in case Great Britain should assume an unconstitutional authority over us, has been familiar to Americans from the first settlement of the country.”

There is, then, a predisposition, a latent or potential Americanism which existed long before the United States came into being. Now that our political unity has become a fact, the predisposition is certain to be regarded by our own and by future generations as evidence of a state of mind which made our separate national life inevitable. Yet to Thomas Hutchinson, a sound historian and honest man, the last Royal Governor of Massachusetts, a separate national life seemed in 1770 an unspeakable error and calamity.

The seventeenth-century colonists were predominantly English, in blood, in traditions, and in impulses. Whether we look at Virginia or Plymouth or at the other colonies that were planted in swift succession along the seaboard, it is clear that we are dealing primarily with men of the English race. Most of them would have declared, with as much emphasis as Francis Hopkinson a century later, “We of America are in all respects Englishmen.” Professor Edward Channing thinks that it took a century of exposure to colonial conditions to force the English in America away from the traditions and ideals of those who continued to live in the old land. But the student of literature must keep constantly in mind that these English colonizers represented no single type of the national character. There were many men of many minds even within the contracted cabin of the Mayflower. The “sifted wheat” was by no means all of the same variety.

For Old England was never more torn by divergent thought and subversive act than in the period between the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the Revolution of 1688. In this distracted time who could say what was really “English”? Was it James the First or Raleigh? Archbishop Laud or John Cotton? Charles the First or Cromwell? Charles the Second or William Penn? Was it Churchman, Presbyterian, Independent, Separatist, Quaker? One is tempted to say that the title of Ben Jonson’s comedy “Every Man in his Humour” became the standard of action for two whole generations of Englishmen, and that there is no common denominator for emigrants of such varied pattern as Smith and Sandys of Virginia, Morton of Merrymount, John Winthrop, “Sir” Christopher Gardiner and Anne Hutchinson of Boston, and Roger Williams of Providence. They seem as miscellaneous as “Kitchener’s Army.”

It is true that we can make certain distinctions. Virginia, as has often been said, was more like a continuation of English society, while New England represented a digression from English society. There were then, as now, “stand-patters” and “progressives.” It was the second class who, while retaining very conservative notions about property, developed a fearless intellectual radicalism which has written itself into the history of the United States. But to the student of early American literature all such generalizations are of limited value. He is dealing with individual men, not with “Cavalier” or “Roundhead” as such. He has learned from recent historians to distrust any such facile classification of the first colonists. He knows by this time that there were aristocrats in Massachusetts and commoners in Virginia; that the Pilgrims of Plymouth were more tolerant than the Puritans of Boston, and that Rhode Island was more tolerant than either. Yet useful as these general statements may be, the interpreter of men of letters must always go back of the racial type or the social system to the individual person. He recognizes, as a truth for him, that theory of creative evolution which holds that in the ascending progress of the race each thinking person becomes a species by himself.

While something is gained, then, by remembering that the racial instincts and traditions of the first colonists were overwhelmingly English, and that their political and ethical views were the product of a turbulent and distraught time, it is even more important to note how the physical situation of the colonists affected their intellectual and moral, as well as their political problems. Among the emigrants from England, as we have seen, there were great varieties of social status, religious opinion, individual motive. But at least they all possessed the physical courage and moral hardihood to risk the dangerous voyage, the fearful hardships, and the vast uncertainties of the new life. To go out at all, under the pressure of any motive, was to meet triumphantly a searching test. It was in truth a “sifting,” and though a few picturesque rascals had the courage to go into exile while a few saints may have been deterred, it is a truism to say that the pioneers were made up of brave men and braver women.

It cannot be asserted that their courage was the result of any single, dominating motive, equally operative in all of the colonies. Mrs. Hemans’s familiar line about seeking “freedom to worship God” was measurably true of the Pilgrims of Plymouth, about whom she was writing. But the far more important Puritan emigration to Massachusetts under Winthrop aimed not so much at “freedom” as at the establishment of a theocracy according to the Scriptures. These men straightway denied freedom of worship, not only to newcomers who sought to join them, but to those members of their own company who developed independent ways of thinking. The list of motives for emigration ran the whole gamut, from missionary fervor for converting the savages, down through a commendable desire for gain, to the perhaps no less praiseworthy wish to escape a debtor’s prison or the pillory. A few of the colonists were rich. Some were beggars or indentured servants. Most of them belonged to the middle class. John Harvard was the son of a butcher; Thomas Shepard, the son of a grocer; Roger Williams, the son of a tailor. But all three were university bred and were natural leaders of men.

Once arrived in the wilderness, the pioneer life common to all of the colonists began instantly to exert its slow, irresistible pressure upon their minds and to mould them into certain ways of thinking and feeling. Without some perception of these modes of thought and emotion a knowledge of the spirit of our literature is impossible. Take, for instance, the mere physical situation of the first colonists, encamped on the very beach of the wide ocean with an illimitable forest in their rear. Their provisions were scanty. They grew watchful of the strange soil, of the new skies, of the unknown climate. Even upon the voyage over, John Winthrop thought that “the declination of the pole star was much, even to the view, beneath that it is in England,” and that “the new moon, when it first appeared, was much smaller than at any time he had seen it in England.” Here was a man evidently using his eyes with a new interest in natural phenomena. Under these changed skies the mind began gradually to change also.

At first the colonists felt themselves an outpost of Europe, a forlorn hope of the Protestant Reformation. “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” said Winthrop. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” Their creed was Calvinism, then in its third generation of dominion and a European doctrine which was not merely theological but social and political. The emigrant Englishmen were soon to discover that it contained a doctrine of human rights based upon human needs. At the beginning of their novel experience they were doubtless unaware of any alteration in their theories. But they were facing a new situation, and that new situation became an immense factor in their unconscious growth. Their intellectual and moral problems shifted, as a boat shifts her ballast when the wind blows from a new quarter. The John Cotton preaching in a shed in the new Boston had come to “suffer a sea-change” from the John Cotton who had been rector of St. Botolph’s splendid church in Lincolnshire. The “church without a bishop” and the “state without a king” became a different church and state from the old, however loyally the ancient forms and phrases were retained.

If the political problems of equality which were latent in Calvinism now began to take on a different meaning under the democratic conditions of pioneer life, the inner, spiritual problems of that amazing creed were intensified. “Fallen” human nature remained the same, whether in the crowded cosmopolitan streets of Holland and London, or upon the desolate shores of Cape Cod. But the moral strain of the old insoluble conflict between “fixed fate” and “free will” was heightened by the physical loneliness of the colonists. Each soul must fight its own unaided, unending battle. In that moral solitude, as in the physical solitude of the settlers upon the far northwestern prairies of a later epoch, many a mind snapped. Unnatural tension was succeeded by unnatural crimes. But for the stronger intellects New England Calvinism became a potent spiritual gymnastic, where, as in the Swedish system of bodily training, one lifts imaginary and ever-increasing weights with imaginary and ever-increasing effort, flexor and extensor muscles pulling against one another, driven by the will. Calvinism bred athletes as well as maniacs.

The new situation, again, turned many of the theoretical speculations of the colonists into practical issues. Here, for example, was the Indian. Was he truly a child of God, possessing a soul, and, if so, had he partaken of the sin of Adam? These questions perplexed the saintly Eliot and the generous Roger Williams. But before many years the query as to whether a Pequot warrior had a soul became suddenly less important than the practical question as to whether the Pequot should be allowed any further chances of taking the white man’s scalp. On this last issue the colonists were unanimous in the negative.

It would be easy to multiply such instances of a gradual change of view. But beneath all the changes and all the varieties of individual behavior in the various colonies that began to dot the seaboard, certain qualities demanded by the new surroundings are felt in colonial life and in colonial writings. One of these is the instinct for order, or at least that degree of order essential to the existence of a camp. It was not in vain that John Smith sought to correct the early laxness at Jamestown by the stern edict: “He that will not work, neither shall he eat.” Dutch and Quaker colonies taught the same inexorable maxim of thrift. Soon there was work enough for all, at good wages, but the lesson had been taught. It gave Franklin’s “Poor Richard” mottoes their flavor of homely, experienced truth.

Order in daily life led straight to political order, just as the equality and resourcefulness of the frontier, stimulated by isolation from Europe, led to political independence. The pioneer learned to make things for himself instead of sending to London for them, and by and by he grew as impatient of waiting for a political edict from London as he would become in waiting for a London plough. “This year,” wrote one colonist, “ye will go to complain to the Parliament, and the next year they will send to see how it is, and the third year the government is changed.” The time was coming when no more complaints would be sent.

One of the most startling instances of this colonial instinct for self-government is the case of Thomas Hooker. Trained in Emmanuel College of the old Cambridge, he arrived in the new Cambridge in 1633. He grew restless under its theocratic government, being, it was said, “a person who when he was doing his Master’s work, would put a king into his pocket.” So he led the famous migration of 1636 from Massachusetts to Hartford, and there helped to create a federation of independent towns which made their own constitution without mentioning any king, and became one of the corner-stones of American democracy. In May, 1638, Hooker declared in a sermon before the General Court “that the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance,” and “that they who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power, also, to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place into which they call them.” The reason of this is: “Because the foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people.” This high discourse antedates the famous pamphlets on liberty by Milton. It is a half-century earlier than Locke’s “Treatise on Government,” a century and a quarter earlier than Rousseau’s “Contrat Social,” and it precedes by one hundred and thirty-eight years the American Declaration of Independence.

But the slightest acquaintance with colonial writings will reveal the fact that such political radicalism as Thomas Hooker’s was accompanied by an equally striking conservatism in other directions. One of these conservative traits was the pioneer’s respect for property, and particularly for the land cleared by his own toil. Gladstone once spoke of possession of the soil as the most important and most operative of all social facts. Free-footed as the pioneer colonist was, he was disinclined to part with his land without a substantial price for it. The land at his disposal was practically illimitable, but he showed a very English tenacity in safeguarding his hold upon his own portion.

Very English, likewise, was his attachment to the old country as “home.” The lighter and the more serious writings of the colonists are alike in their respect for the past. In the New England settlements, although not at first in Virginia, there was respect for learning and for an educated clergy. The colonists revered the Bible. They maintained a stubborn regard for the Common Law of England. Even amid all the excitement of a successful rebellion from the mother country, this Common Law still held the Americans to the experience of the inescapable past.

Indeed, as the reader of today lifts his eyes from the pages of the books written in America during the seventeenth century, and tries to meditate upon the general difference between them and the English books written during the same period, he will be aware of the firmness with which the conservative forces held on this side of the Atlantic. It was only one hundred years from the Great Armada of 1588 to the flight of James Second, the last of the Stuart Kings. With that Revolution of 1688 the struggles characteristic of the seventeenth century in England came to an end. A new working basis is found for thought, politics, society, literature. But while those vast changes had been shaking England, two generations of American colonists had cleared their forests, fought the savages, organized their townships and their trade, put money in their purses, and lived, though as yet hardly suspecting it, a life that was beginning to differentiate them from the men of the Old World. We must now glance at the various aspects of this isolated life of theirs, as it is revealed in their books.


The simplest and oldest group of colonial writings is made up of records of exploration and adventure. They are like the letters written from California in 1849 to the “folks back East.” Addressed to home-keeping Englishmen across the sea, they describe the new world, explain the present situation of the colonists, and express their hopes for the future. Captain John Smith’s “True Relation,” already alluded to, is the typical production of this class: a swift marching book, full of eager energy, of bluff and breezy picturesqueness, and of triumphant instinct for the main chance. Like most of the Elizabethans, he cannot help poetizing in his prose. Codfishing is to him a “sport”; “and what sport doth yeald a more pleasing content, and lesse hurt or charge then angling with a hooke, and crossing the sweete ayre from Isle to Isle, over the silent streams of a calme Sea?” But the gallant Captain is also capable of very plain speech, Cromwellian in its simplicity, as when he writes back to the London stockholders of the Virginia Company: “When you send again, I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees’ roots, well provided, than a thousand of such as we have.”

America was but an episode in the wide wanderings of Captain Smith, but he owes his place in human memory today to the physical and mental energy with which he met the demands of a new situation, and to the vividness with which he dashed down in words whatever his eyes had seen. Whether, in that agreeable passage about Pocahontas, he was guilty of romancing a little, no one really knows, but the Captain, as the first teller of this peculiarly American type of story, will continue to have an indulgent audience.

But other exiles in Virginia were skillful with the pen. William Strachey’s “True Reportory of the Wrack of Sir Thomas Gates, Kt., vpon and from the islands of the Bermudas” may or may not have given a hint to Shakespeare for the storm-scene in “The Tempest.” In either case it is admirable writing, flexible, sensitive, shrewdly observant. Whitaker, the apostle of Virginia, mingles, like many a missionary of the present day, the style of an exhorter with a keen discernment of the traits of the savage mind. George Percy, fresh from Northumberland, tells in a language as simple as Defoe’s the piteous tale of five months of illness and starvation, watched by “those wild and cruel Pagans.” John Pory, of “the strong potations,” who thinks that “good company is the soul of this life,” nevertheless comforts himself in his solitude among the “crystal rivers and odoriferous woods” by reflecting that he is escaping envy and expense. George Sandys, scholar and poet, finds his solace during a Virginia exile in continuing his translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Colonel Norwood, an adventurer who belongs to a somewhat later day, since he speaks of having “read Mr. Smith’s travels,” draws the long bow of narrative quite as powerfully as the redoubtable Smith, and far more smoothly, as witness his accounts of starvation on shipboard and cannibalism on shore. This Colonel is an artist who would have delighted Stevenson.

All of these early tellers of Virginia tales were Englishmen, and most of them returned to England, where their books were printed and their remaining lives were passed. But far to the north east of Virginia there were two colonies of men who earned the right to say, in William Bradford’s quiet words, “It is not with us as with other men, whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again.” One was the colony of Pilgrims at Plymouth, headed by Bradford himself. The other was the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, with John Winthrop as governor.

Bradford and Winthrop have left journals which are more than chronicles of adventure. They record the growth and government of a commonwealth. Both Bradford and Winthrop were natural leaders of men, grave, dignified, solid, endowed with a spirit that bred confidence. Each was learned. Winthrop, a lawyer and man of property, had a higher social standing than Bradford, who was one of the Separatists of Robinson’s flock at Leyden. But the Pilgrim of the Mayflower and the well-to-do Puritan of the Bay Colony both wrote their annals like gentlemen and scholars. Bradford’s “History of Plymouth Plantation” runs from 1620 to 1647. Winthrop’s diary, now printed as the “History of New England,” begins with his voyage in 1630 and closes in the year of his death, 1649. As records of an Anglo-Saxon experiment in self-government under pioneer conditions these books are priceless; as human documents, they illuminate the Puritan character; as for “literary” value in the narrow sense of that word, neither Bradford nor Winthrop seems to have thought of literary effect. Yet the leader of the Pilgrims has passages of grave sweetness and charm, and his sketch of his associate, Elder Brewster, will bear comparison with the best English biographical writing of that century. Winthrop is perhaps more varied in tone, as he is in matter, but he writes throughout as a ruler of men should write, with “decent plainness and manly freedom.” His best known pages, justly praised by Tyler and other historians of American thought, contain his speech before the General Court in 1645 on the nature of true liberty. No paragraphs written in America previous to the Revolution would have given more pleasure to Abraham Lincoln, but it is to be feared that Lincoln never saw Governor Winthrop’s book, though his own ancestor, Samuel Lincoln of Hingham, lived under Winthrop’s jurisdiction.

The theory of government held by the dominant party of the first two generations of New England pioneers has often been called a “theocracy,” that is to say, a government according to the Word of God as expounded and enforced by the clergy. The experiment was
doomed to ultimate failure, for it ran counter to some of the noblest instincts of human nature. But its administration was in the hands of able men. The power of the clergy was well-nigh absolute. The political organization of the township depended upon the ecclesiastical organization as long as the right to vote was confined to church members. How sacrosanct and awful was the position of the clergyman may be perceived from Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “The Scarlet Letter.”

Yet it must be said that men like Hooker and Cotton, Shepard and Norton, had every instinct and capacity for leadership. With the notable exception of Hooker, such men were aristocrats, holding John Winthrop’s opinion that “Democracy is, among most civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst form of government.” They were fiercely intolerant. The precise reason for the Hooker migration from Cambridge to Hartford in 1636–the very year of the founding of Harvard–was prudently withheld, but it is now thought to be the instinct of escape from the clerical architects of the Cambridge Platform. Yet no one would today call Thomas Hooker a liberal in religion, pioneer in political liberty though he proved to be. His extant sermons have the steady stroke of a great hammer; smiting at the mind and heart. “Others because they have felt the heavy hand of God . . . upon these grounds they build their hopes: ‘I have had my hell in this life, and I hope to have heaven in the world to come; I hope the worst is over.'” Not so, thunders the preacher in reply: “Sodom and Gomorrah they burnt in brimstone and they shall burn in hell.” One of Hooker’s successors has called him “a son of thunder and a son of consolation by turns.” The same may be said of Thomas Shepard, another graduate of Emmanuel College in the old Cambridge, who became the “soul-melting preacher” of the newer Cambridge by the Charles. Pure, ravishing notes of spiritual devotion still sing themselves in his pages. He is wholly Calvinist. He thinks “the truth is a poor mean thing in itself” and that the human reason cannot be “the last resolution of all doubts,” which must be sought only in the written Word of God. He holds it “a tough work, a wonderful hard matter to be saved.” “Jesus Christ is not got with a wet finger.” Yet, like so many mystics, he yearns to be “covered with God, as with a cloud,” to be “drowned, plunged, and swallowed up with God.” One hundred years later we shall find this same rhapsodic ecstasy in the meditations of Jonathan Edwards.

John Cotton, the third of the mighty men in the early Colonial pulpit, owes his fame more to his social and political influence than to his literary power. Yet even that was thought commanding. Trained, like Hooker and Shepard, at Emmanuel College, and fresh from the rectorship of St. Botolph’s in the Lincolnshire Boston, John Cotton dominated that new Boston which was named in his honor. He became the Pope of the theocracy; a clever Pope and not an unkindly one. He seems to have shared some of the opinions of Anne Hutchinson, though he “pronounced the sentence of admonition” against her, says Winthrop, with much zeal and detestation of her errors. Hawthorne, in one of his ironic moods, might have done justice to this scene. Cotton was at heart too liberal for his role of Primate, and fate led him to persecute a man whose very name has become a symbol of victorious tolerance, Roger Williams.

Williams, known today as a friend of Cromwell, Milton, and Sir Harry Vane, had been exiled from Massachusetts for maintaining that the civil power had no jurisdiction over conscience. This doctrine was fatal to the existence of a theocratic state dominated by the church. John Cotton was perfectly logical in “enlarging” Roger Williams into the wilderness, but he showed less than his usual discretion in attacking the quick-tempered Welshman in pamphlets. It was like asking Hotspur if he would kindly consent to fight. Back and forth the books fly, for Williams loves this game. His “Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience” calls forth Mr. Cotton’s “Bloody Tenet washed and made white in the Blood of the Lamb;” and this in turn provokes the torrential flood of Williams’s masterpiece, “The Bloody Tenet yet more Bloody, by Mr. Cotton’s endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb.” There is glorious writing here, and its effect cannot be suggested by quoting sentences. But there is one sentence in a letter written by Williams in his old age to his fellow-townsmen of Providence which points the whole moral of the terrible mistake made by the men who sought spiritual liberty in America for themselves, only to deny that same liberty to others. “I have only one motion and petition,” begs this veteran pioneer who had forded many a swollen stream and built many a rude bridge in the Plantations: “it is this, that after you have got over the black brook of some soul bondage yourselves, you tear not down the bridge after you.”

It is for such wise and humane counsels as this that Roger Williams is remembered. His opponents had mightier intellects than his, but the world has long since decided against them. Colonial sermon literature is read today chiefly by antiquarians who have no sympathy for the creed which once gave it vitality. Its theology, like the theology of “Paradise Lost or the Divine Comedy,” has sunk to the bottom of the black brook. But we cannot judge fairly the contemporary effect of this pulpit literature without remembering the passionate faith that made pulpit and pews copartners in a supreme spiritual struggle. Historians properly insist upon the aesthetic poverty of the New England Puritans; that their rule of life cut them off from an enjoyment of the dramatic literature of their race, then just closing its most splendid epoch; that they had little poetry or music and no architecture and plastic art. But we must never forget that to men of their creed the Sunday sermons and the week-day “lectures” served as oratory, poetry, and drama. These outpourings of the mind and heart of their spiritual leaders were the very stuff of human passion in its intensest forms. Puritan churchgoers, passing hours upon hours every week in rapt absorption with the noblest of all poetry and prose in the pages of their chief book, the Bible, were at least as sensitive to the beauty of words and the sweep of emotions as our contemporaries upon whose book-shelves Spenser and Milton stand unread.

It is only by entering into the psychology of the period that we can estimate its attitude towards the poetry written by the pioneers themselves. The “Bay Psalm Book” (1640), the first book printed in the colonies, is a wretched doggerel arrangement of the magnificent King James Version of the Psalms, designed to be sung in churches. Few of the New England churches could sing more than half-a-dozen tunes, and a pitch-pipe was for a long time the only musical instrument allowed. Judged as hymnology or poetry, the Bay “Psalm Book” provokes a smile. But the men and women who used it as a handbook of devotion sang it with their hearts aflame. In judging such a popular seventeenth-century poem as Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom” one must strip oneself quite free from the twentieth century, and pretend to be sitting in the chimney-corner of a Puritan kitchen, reading aloud by that firelight which, as Lowell once humorously suggested, may have added a “livelier relish” to the poet’s “premonitions of eternal combustion.” Lowell could afford to laugh about it, having crossed that particular black brook. But for several generations the boys and girls of New England had read the “Day of Doom” as if Mr. Wigglesworth, the gentle and somewhat sickly minister of Malden, had veritably peeped into Hell. It is the present fashion to underestimate the power of Wigglesworth’s verse. At its best it has a trampling, clattering shock like a charge of cavalry and a sound like clanging steel. Mr. Kipling and other cunning ballad-makers have imitated the peculiar rhyme structure chosen by the nervous little parson. But no living poet can move his readers to the fascinated horror once felt by the Puritans as they followed Wigglesworth’s relentless gaze into the future of the soul’s destiny.

Historical curiosity may still linger, of course, over other verse-writers of the period. Anne Bradstreet’s poems, for instance, are not without grace and womanly sweetness, in spite of their didactic themes and portentous length. But this lady, born in England, the daughter of Governor Dudley and later the wife of Governor Bradstreet, chose to imitate the more fantastic of the moralizing poets of England and France. There is little in her hundreds of pages which seems today the inevitable outcome of her own experience in the New World. For readers who like roughly mischievous satire, of a type initiated in England by Bishop Hall and Donne, there is “The Simple Cobbler of Agawam” written by the roving clergyman Nathaniel Ward. But he lived only a dozen years in Massachusetts, and his satirical pictures are scarcely more “American” than the satire upon German professors in “Sartor Resartus” is “German.” Like Charles Dickens’s “American Notes,” Ward’s give the reaction of a born Englishman in the presence of the sights and the talk and the personages of the transatlantic world.

Of all the colonial writings of the seventeenth century, those that have lost least of their interest through the lapse of years are narratives of struggles with the Indians. The image of the “bloody savage” has always hovered in the background of the American imagination. Our boys and girls have “played Indian” from the beginning, and the actual Indian is still found, as for three hundred years past, upon the frontier fringe of our civilization. Novelists like Cooper, historians like Parkman, poets like Longfellow, have dealt with the rich material offered by the life of the aborigines, but the long series begins with the scribbled story of colonists. Here are comedy and tragedy, plain narratives of trading and travel, missionary zeal and triumphs; then the inevitable alienation of the two races and the doom of the native.

The “noble savage” note may be found in John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, with whom, poor fellow, his “best thoughts are so intangled and enthralled.” Other Virginians, like Smith, Strachey, and Percy, show close naturalistic observation, touched with the abounding Elizabethan zest for novelties. To Alexander Whitaker, however, these “naked slaves of the devil” were “not so simple as some have supposed.” He yearned and labored over their souls, as did John Eliot and Roger Williams and Daniel Gookin of New England. In the Pequot War of 1637 the grim settlers resolved to be rid of that tribe once for all, and the narratives of Captain Edward Johnson and Captain John Mason, who led in the storming and slaughter at the Indians’ Mystic Fort, are as piously relentless as anything in the Old Testament. Cromwell at Drogheda, not long after, had soldiers no more merciless than these exterminating Puritans, who wished to plough their fields henceforth in peace. A generation later the storm broke again in King Philip’s War. Its tales of massacre, captivity, and single-handed fighting linger in the American imagination still. Typical pamphlets are Mary Rowlandson’s thrilling tale of the Lancaster massacre and her subsequent captivity, and the loud-voiced Captain Church’s unvarnished description of King Philip’s death. The King, shot down like a wearied bull-moose in the deep swamp, “fell upon his face in the mud and water, with his gun under him.” They “drew him through the mud to the upland; and a doleful, great, naked dirty beast he looked like.” The head brought only thirty shillings at Plymouth: “scanty reward and poor encouragement,” thought Captain Church. William Hubbard, the minister of Ipswich, wrote a comprehensive “Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New England,” bringing the history down to 1677. Under the better known title of “Indian Wars,” this fervid and dramatic tale, penned in a quiet parsonage, has stirred the pulses of every succeeding generation. The close of King Philip’s War, 1676, coinciding as it does with Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, marks an era in the development of our independent life. The events of that year, in the words of Professor Tyler, “established two very considerable facts, namely, that English colonists in America could be so provoked as to make physical resistance to the authority of England, and, second, that English colonists in America could, in the last resort, put down any combination of Indians that might be formed against them. In other words, it was then made evident that English colonists would certainly be safe in the new world, and also that they would not always be colonists.”

While the end of an historical or literary era cannot always be thus conveniently indicated by a date, there is no doubt that the final quarter of the seventeenth century witnessed deep changes in the outward life and the inner temper of the colonists. The “first fine careless rapture” was over. Only a few aged men could recall the memory of the first settlements. Between the founding of Jamestown and the rebellion under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon almost seventy years had intervened, an interval corresponding to that which separates us from the Mexican War. Roger Williams ended his much-enduring and beneficent life in the flourishing town of Providence in 1684. He had already outlived Cotton and Hooker, Shepard and Winthrop, by more than thirty years. Inevitably men began, toward the end of the century, to take stock of the great venture of colonization, to scrutinize their own history and present position, to ask searching questions of themselves. “You have better food and raiment than was in former times,” wrote the aged Roger Clark, in 1676; “but have you better hearts than your forefathers had?” Thomas Walley’s “Languishing Commonwealth” maintains that “Faith is dead, and Love is cold, and Zeal is gone.” Urian Oakes’s election sermon of 1670 in Cambridge is a condemnation of the prevalent worldliness and ostentation. This period of critical inquiry and assessment, however, also gives grounds for just pride. History, biography, eulogy, are flourishing. The reader is reminded of that epoch, one hundred and fifty years later, when the deaths of John Adams and of Thomas Jefferson, falling upon the same anniversary day, the Fourth of July, 1826, stirred all Americans to a fresh recognition of the services wrought by the Fathers of the Republic. So it was in the colonies at the close of the seventeenth century. Old England, in one final paroxysm of political disgust, cast out the last Stuart in 1688. That Revolution marks, as we have seen, the close of a long and tragic struggle which began in the autocratic theories of James the First and in the absolutism of Charles. Almost every phase of that momentous conflict had its reverberation across the Atlantic, as the history of the granting and withdrawal of colonial charters witnesses abundantly. The American pioneers were quite aware of what was going on in England, and they praised God or grumbled, thriftily profited by the results or quietly nullified them, as the case might be. But all the time, while England was rocked to its foundations, the colonists struck steadily forward into their own independent life.


When the eighteenth century opened, many signs of change were in the air. The third generation of native-born Americans was becoming secularized. The theocracy of New England had failed. In the height of the tragic folly over the supposed “witchcraft” in Salem, Increase Mather and his son Cotton had held up the hands of the judges in their implacable work. But before five years had passed, Judge Sewall does public penance in church for his share of the awful blunder, desiring “to take the shame and blame of it.” Robert Calef’s cool pamphlet exposing the weakness of the prosecutors’ case is indeed burned by Increase Mather in the Harvard Yard, but the liberal party are soon to force Mather from the Presidency and to refuse that office to his son. In the town of Boston, once hermetically sealed against heresy, there are Baptist and Episcopal churches–and a dancing-master. Young Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706, professes a high respect for the Mathers, but he does not go to church, “Sunday being my studying day,” and neither the clerical nor the secular arm of Boston is long enough and strong enough to compel that industrious apprentice into piety.

If such was the state of New England, the laxity of New York and Virginia needs little evidence. Contemporary travelers found the New Yorkers singularly attached to the things of this present world. Philadelphia was prosperous and therewith content. Virginia was a paradise with no forbidden fruit. Hugh Jones, writing of it in 1724, considers North Carolina “the refuge of runaways,” and South Carolina “the delight of buccaneers and pirates,” but Virginia “the happy retreat of true Britons and true Churchmen.” Unluckily these Virginians, well nourished “by the plenty of the country,” have “contemptible notions of England!” We shall hear from them again. In the meantime the witty William Byrd of Westover describes for us his amusing survey of the Dismal Swamp, and his excursions into North Carolina and to Governor Spotswood’s iron mines, where he reads aloud to the Widow Fleming, on a rainy autumn day, three acts of the “Beggars’ Opera,” just over from London. So runs the world away, south of the Potomac. Thackeray paints it once for all, no doubt, in the opening chapters of “The Virginians.”

To discover any ambitious literary effort in this period, we must turn northward again. In the middle colonies, and especially in Philadelphia, which had now outgrown Boston in population, there was a quickened interest in education and science. But the New Englanders were still the chief makers of books. Three great names will sufficiently represent the age: Cotton Mather, a prodigy of learning whose eyes turn back fondly to the provincial past; Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the most consummate intellect of the eighteenth century; and Benjamin Franklin, certainly the most perfect exponent of its many-sided life.

When Cotton Mather was graduated from Harvard in 1678, in his sixteenth year, he was publicly complimented by President Oakes, in fulsome Latin, as the grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton. This atmosphere of flattery, this consciousness of continuing in his own person the famous local dynasty, surrounded and sustained him to the end. He had a less commanding personality than his father Increase. His nervous sensibility was excessive. His natural vanity was never subdued, though it was often chastened by trial and bitter disappointment. But, like his father, he was an omnivorous reader and a facile producer of books, carrying daily such burdens of mental and spiritual excitement as would have crushed a normal man. Increase Mather published some one hundred and fifty books and pamphlets: Cotton Mather not less than four hundred. The Rev. John Norton, in his sketch of John Cotton, remarks that “the hen, which brings not forth without uncessant sitting night and day, is an apt emblem of students.” Certainly the hen is an apt emblem of the “uncessant” sitter, the credulous scratcher, the fussy cackler who produced the “Magnalia.”

Yet he had certain elements of greatness. His tribal loyalty was perfect. His ascetic devotion to his conception of religious truth was absolute. His Diary, which has recently been published in full, records his concern for the chief political events in Europe in his day, no less than his brooding solicitude for the welfare of his townspeople, and his agony of spirit over the lapses of his wayward eldest son. A “sincere” man, then, as Carlyle would say, at bottom; but overlaid with such “Jewish old clothes,” such professional robings and personal plumage as makes it difficult, save in the revealing “Diary,” to see the man himself.

The “Magnalia Christi Americana,” treating the history of New England from 1620 to 1698, was published in a tall London folio of nearly 800 pages in 1702. It is divided into seven books, and proceeds, by methods entirely unique, to tell of Pilgrim and Puritan divines and governors, of Harvard College, of the churches of New England, of marvelous events, of Indian wars; and in general to justify, as only a member of the Mather dynasty could justify, the ways of God to Boston men. Hawthorne and Whittier, Longfellow and Lowell knew this book well and found much honey in the vast carcass. To have had four such readers and a biographer like Barrett Wendell must be gratifying to Cotton Mather in Paradise.

The “Diary” of Mather’s fellow-townsman Judge Samuel Sewall has been read more generally in recent years than anything written by Mather himself. It was begun in 1673, nine years earlier than the first entry in Mather’s “Diary,” and it ends in 1729, while Mather’s closes in 1724. As a picture of everyday happenings in New England, Sewall’s “Diary” is as far superior to Mather’s as Pepys’s “Diary” is to George Fox’s “Journal” in painting the England of the Restoration. Samuel Sewall was an admirably solid figure, keen, forceful, honest. Most readers of his “Diary” believe that he really was in luck when he was rejected by the Widow Winthrop on that fateful November day when his eye noted–in spite of his infatuation–that “her dress was not so clean as sometime it had been. Jehovah Jireh!”

One pictures Cotton Mather as looking instinctively backward to the Heroic Age of New England with pious nervous exaltation, and Samuel Sewall as doing the day’s work uprightly without taking anxious thought of either past or future. But Jonathan Edwards is set apart from these and other men. He is a lonely seeker after spiritual perfection, in quest of that city “far on the world’s rim,” as Masefield says of it, the city whose builder and maker is God.

The story of Edwards’s career has the simplicity and dignity of tragedy. Born in a parsonage in the quiet Connecticut valley in 1703–the year of John Wesley’s birth–he is writing at the age of ten to disprove the doctrine of the materiality of the soul. At twelve he is studying “the wondrous way of the working of the spider,” with a precision and enthusiasm which would have made him a great naturalist. At fourteen he begins his notes on “The Mind” and on “Natural Science.” He is graduated from Yale in 1720, studies theology, and at twenty-four becomes the colleague of his famous grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the church at Northampton. He marries the beautiful Sarah Pierrepont, whom he describes in his journal in a prose rhapsody which, like his mystical rhapsodies on religion in the same youthful period, glows with a clear unearthly beauty unmatched in any English prose of that century. For twenty-three years he serves the Northampton church, and his sermons win him the rank of the foremost preacher in New England. John Wesley reads at Oxford his account of the great revival of 1735. Whitefield comes to visit him at Northampton. Then, in 1750, the ascetic preacher alienates his church over issues pertaining to discipline and to the administration of the sacrament. He is dismissed. He preaches his “farewell sermon,” like Wesley, like Emerson, like Newman, and many another still unborn. He removes to Stockbridge, then a hamlet in the wilderness, preaches to the Indians, and writes treatises on theology and metaphysics, among them the world famous “Freedom of the Will.” In 1757, upon the death of his son-in-law, President Aaron Burr of Princeton, Edwards is called to the vacant Presidency. He is reluctant to go, for though he is only fifty-four, his health has never been robust, and he has his great book on the “History of Redemption” still to write. But he accepts, finds the smallpox raging in Princeton upon his arrival in January, 1758, is inoculated, and dies of the disease in March–his dreams unfulfilled, his life-work once more thwarted. Close by the tomb of this saint is the tomb of his grandson, Aaron Burr, who killed Hamilton.

The literary reputation of Jonathan Edwards has turned, like the vicissitudes of his life, upon factors that could not be foreseen. His contemporary fame was chiefly as a preacher, and was due to sermons like those upon “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence” and “The Reality of Spiritual Life,” rather than to such discourses as the Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which in our own day is the best known of his deliverances. Legends have grown up around this terrific Enfield sermon. Its fearful power over its immediate hearers cannot be gainsaid, and it will long continue to be quoted as an example of the length to which a Calvinistic logician of genius was compelled by his own scheme to go. We still see the tall, sweet-faced man, worn by his daily twelve hours of intense mental toil, leaning on one elbow in the pulpit and reading from manuscript, without even raising his gentle voice, those words which smote his congregation into spasms of terror and which seem to us sheer blasphemy.

Yet the “Farewell Sermon of 1750” gives a more characteristic view of Edwards’s mind and heart, and conveys an ineffaceable impression of his nobility of soul. His diction, like Wordsworth’s, is usually plain almost to bareness; the formal framework of his discourses is obtruded; and he hunts objections to their last hiding place with wearisome pertinacity. Yet his logic is incandescent. Steel sometimes burns to the touch like this, in the bitter winters of New England, and one wonders whether Edwards’s brain was not of ice, so pitiless does it seem. His treatise denying the freedom of the will has given him a European reputation comparable with that enjoyed by Franklin in science and Jefferson in political propaganda. It was really a polemic demonstrating the sovereignty of God, rather than pure theology or metaphysics. Edwards goes beyond Augustine and Calvin in asserting the arbitrary will of the Most High and in “denying to the human will any self-determining power.” He has been refuted by events and tendencies, such as the growth of historical criticism and the widespread acceptance of the doctrine of evolution, rather than by the might of any single antagonist. So, too, the Dred Scott decision of Chief Justice Taney, holding that the slave was not a citizen, was not so much answered by opponents as it was superseded by the arbitrament of war. But the idealism of this lonely thinker has entered deeply and permanently into the spiritual life of his countrymen, and he will continue to be read by a few of those who still read Plato and Dante.

“My mother grieves,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to his father in 1738, “that one of her sons is an Arian, another an Arminian. What an Arminian or an Arian is, I cannot say that I very well know. The truth is I make such distinctions very little my study.” To understand Franklin’s indifference to such distinctions, we must realize how completely he represents the secularizing tendencies of his age. What a drama of worldly adventure it all was, this roving life of the tallow-chandler’s son, who runs away from home, walks the streets of Philadelphia with the famous loaves of bread under his arm, is diligent in business, slips over to London, where he gives lessons in swimming and in total abstinence, slips back to Philadelphia and becomes its leading citizen, fights the long battle of the American colonies in London, sits in the Continental Congress, sails to Europe to arrange that French Alliance which brought our Revolution to a successful issue, and comes home at last, full of years and honors, to a bland and philosophical exit from the stage!

He broke with every Puritan tradition. The Franklins were relatively late comers to New England. They sprang from a long line of blacksmiths at Ecton in Northamptonshire. The seat of the Washingtons was not far away, and Franklin’s latest biographer points out that the pink-coated huntsmen of the Washington gentry may often have stopped at Ecton to have their horses shod at the Franklin smithy. Benjamin’s father came out in 1685, more than fifty years after the most notable Puritan emigration. Young Benjamin, born in 1706, was as untouched by the ardors of that elder generation as he would have been by the visions of Dante–an author, by the way, whom he never mentions, even as he never mentions Shakespeare. He had no reverence for Puritan New England. To its moral beauty, its fine severity, he was wholly blind. As a boy he thriftily sold his Pilgrim’s “Progress.” He became, in the new fashion of that day, a Deist. Like a true child of the eighteenth century, his attitude toward the seventeenth was that of amused or contemptuous superiority. Thackeray has somewhere a charming phrase about his own love for the back seat of the stage-coach, the seat which, in the old coaching days, gave one a view of the receding landscape. Thackeray, like Burke before him, loved historical associations, historical sentiment, the backward look over the long road which humanity has traveled. But Franklin faced the other way. He would have endorsed his friend Jefferson’s scornful sentence, “The dead have no rights.” He joined himself wholly to that eighteenth century in which his own lot was cast, and, alike in his qualities and in his defects, he became one of its most perfect representatives.

To catch the full spirit of that age, turn for an instant to the London of 1724–the year of Franklin’s arrival. Thirty-six years have elapsed since the glorious Revolution of 1688; the Whig principles, then triumphant, have been tacitly accepted by both political parties; the Jacobite revolt of 1715 has proved a fiasco; the country has accepted the House of Hanover and a government by party leadership of the House of Commons, and it does not care whether Sir Robert Walpole buys a few rotten boroughs, so long as he maintains peace with Europe and prosperity at home. England is weary of seventeenth century “enthusiasm,” weary of conflict, sick of idealism. She has found in the accepted Whig principles a satisfactory compromise, a working theory of society, a modus vivendi which nobody supposes is perfect but which will answer the prayer appointed to be read in all the churches, “Grant us peace in our time, O Lord.” The theories to which men gave their lives in the seventeenth century seem ghostly in their unreality; but the prize turnips on Sir Robert’s Norfolk farm, and the wines in his cellar, and the offices at his disposal–these are very real indeed. London merchants are making money; the squire and the parson are tranquilly ruling the country parishes; the philosophy of John Locke is everywhere triumphant. Mr. Pope is the poet of the hour, and his “Essay on Man,” counseling acceptance of our mortal situation, is considered to be the last word of human wisdom and of poetical elegance. In prose, the style of the “Spectator” rules–an admirable style, Franklin thought, and he imitated it patiently until its ease and urbanity had become his own. And indeed, how much of that London of the third decade of the century passed into the mind of the inquisitive, roving, loose-living printer’s apprentice from Philadelphia! It taught him that the tangible world is the real world, and that nothing succeeds like success; but it never even whispered to him that sometimes nothing damns like success.

In his limitations, no less than in his power of assimilation, Franklin was the representative man of his era. He had no artistic interests, no liking for metaphysics after his brief devotion, in early manhood, to the dialogues of Plato. He taught himself some Latin, but he came to believe that the classics had little significance and that they should be superseded by the modern languages. For the mediaeval world he had no patience or understanding. To these defects of his century we must add some failings of his own. He was not always truthful. He had an indelible streak of coarseness. His conception of the “art of virtue” was mechanical. When Carlyle called Franklin the “father of all the Yankees,” we must remember that the Scotch prophet hated Yankees and believed that Franklin’s smooth, plausible, trader type of morality was only a broad way to the everlasting bonfire.

But it is folly to linger over the limitations of the tallow- chandler’s son. The catalogue of his beneficent activity is a vast one. Balzac once characterized him as the man who invented the lightning-rod, the hoax, and the republic. His contributions to science have to do with electricity, earthquakes, geology, meteorology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, navigation of air and water, agriculture, medicine, and hygiene. In some of these fields he did pioneer work of lasting significance. His teachings of thrift and prudence, as formulated in the maxims of Poor Richard, gave him a world-wide reputation. He attacked war, like Voltaire, not so much for its wickedness as for its folly, and cheerfully gave up many years of a long life to the effort to promote a better understanding among the nations of the world.

It is perhaps needless to add what all persons who love good writing know, that Benjamin Franklin was a most delightful writer. His letters cover an amusing and extraordinary variety of topics. He ranges from balloons to summer hats, and from the advantages of deep ploughing to bifocal glasses, which, by the way, he invented. He argues for sharp razors and cold baths, and for fresh air in the sleeping-room. He discusses the morals of the game of chess, the art of swimming, the evils of smoky chimneys, the need of reformed spelling. Indeed, his passion for improvement led him not only to try his hand upon an abridgment of the Book of Common Prayer, but to go even so far as to propose seriously a new rendering of the Lord’s Prayer. His famous proposal for a new version of the Bible, however, which Matthew Arnold solemnly held up to reprobation, was only a joke which Matthew Arnold did not see-the new version of Job being, in fact, a clever bit of political satire against party leadership in England. Even more brilliant examples of his skill in political satire are his imaginary “Edict of the King of Prussia against England,” and his famous “Rules for Reducing a Great Empire to a Small One.”But I must not try to call the roll of all the good things in Franklin’s ten volumes. I will simply say that those who know Franklin only in his “Autobiography,” charming as that classic production is, have made but an imperfect acquaintance with the range, the vitality, the vigor of this admirable craftsman who chose a style “smooth, clear, and short,” and made it serve every purpose of his versatile and beneficent mind.

When the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 startled the American colonies out of their provincial sense of security and made them aware of their real attitude toward the mother country, Franklin was in London. Eleven years earlier, in 1754, he had offered a plan for the “Union of the Colonies,” but this had not contemplated separation from England. It was rather what we should call a scheme for imperial federation under the British Crown. We may use his word union, however, in a different field from that of politics. How much union of sentiment, of mental and moral life, of literary, educational, and scientific endeavor, was there in the colonies when the hour of self-examination came? Only the briefest summary may be attempted here. As to race, these men of the third and fourth generation since the planting of the colonies were by no means so purely English as the first settlers. The 1,600,000 colonists in 1760 were mingled of many stocks, the largest non-English elements being German and Scotch-Irish–that is, Scotch who had settled for a while in Ulster before emigrating to America. “About one-third of the colonists in 1760,” says Professor Channing, “were born outside of America.” Crevecoeur’s “Letters from an American Farmer” thus defined the Americans: “They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed that race now called Americans has arisen.” The Atlantic seaboard, with a narrow strip inland, was fairly well covered by local communities, differing in blood, in religion, in political organization–a congeries of separate experiments or young utopias, waiting for that most utopian experiment of all, a federal union. But the dominant language of the “promiscuous breed” was English, and in the few real centers of intellectual life the English tradition was almost absolute.

The merest glance at colonial journalism will confirm this estimate. The “Boston News-Letter,” begun in 1704, was the first of the journals, if we omit the single issue of “Publick Occurrences” in the same town in 1690. By 1765 there were nearly fifty colonial newspapers and several magazines. Their influence made for union, in Franklin’s sense of that word, and their literary models, like their paper, type, and even ink, were found in London. The “New England Courant,” established in Boston in 1721 by James Franklin, is full of imitations of the “Tatler,” “Spectator,” and “Guardian.” What is more, the “Courant” boasted of its office collection of books, including Shakespeare, Milton, the “Spectator,” and Swift’s “Tale of a Tub.”* This was in 1722. If we remember that no allusion to Shakespeare has been discovered in the colonial literature of the seventeenth century, and scarcely an allusion to the Puritan poet Milton, and that the Harvard College Library in 1723 had nothing of Addison, Steele, Bolingbroke, Dryden, Pope, and Swift, and had only recently obtained copies of Milton and Shakespeare, we can appreciate the value of James Franklin’s apprenticeship in London. Perhaps we can even forgive him for that attack upon the Mathers which threw the conduct of the “Courant,” for a brief period, into the hands of his brother Benjamin, whose turn at a London apprenticeship was soon to come.

* Cook, E. C. “Literary Influences in Colonial Newspapers, 1704-1750.” N. Y., 1912.

If we follow this younger brother to Philadelphia and to Bradford’s “American Mercury” or to Franklin’s own “Pennsylvania Gazette,” or if we study the “Gazettes” of Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, the impression is still the same. The literary news is still chiefly from London, from two months to a year late. London books are imported and reprinted. Franklin reprints Pamela, and his Library Company of Philadelphia has two copies of “Paradise Lost “for circulation in 1741, whereas there had been no copy of that work in the great library of Cotton Mather. American journalism then, as now, owed its vitality to a secular spirit of curiosity about the actual world. It followed England as its model, but it was beginning to develop a temper of its own.

Colonial education and colonial science were likewise chiefly indebted to London, but by 1751 Franklin’s papers on electricity began to repay the loan. A university club in New York in 1745 could have had but fifteen members at most, for these were all the “academics” in town. Yet Harvard had then been sending forth her graduates for more than a century. William and Mary was founded in 1693, Yale in 1701, Princeton in 1746, King’s (now Columbia) in 1754, the University of Pennsylvania in 1755, and Brown in 1764. These colonial colleges were mainly in the hands of clergymen. They tended to reproduce a type of scholarship based upon the ancient languages. The curriculum varied but little in the different colonies, and this fact helped to produce a feeling of fellowship among all members of the republic of letters. The men who debated the Stamp Act were, with a few striking exceptions, men trained in Latin and Greek, familiar with the great outlines of human history, accustomed to the discipline of academic disputation. They knew the ideas and the vocabulary of cultivated Europe and were conscious of no provincial inferiority. In the study of the physical sciences, likewise, the colonials were but little behind the mother country. The Royal Society had its distinguished members here. The Mathers, the Dudleys, John Winthrop of Connecticut, John Bartram, James Logan, James Godfrey, Cadwallader Colden, and above all, Franklin himself, were winning the respect of European students, and were teaching Americans to use their eyes and their minds not merely upon the records of the past but in searching out the inexhaustible meanings of the present. There is no more fascinating story than that of the beginnings of American science in and outside of the colleges, and this movement, like the influence of journalism and of the higher education, counted for colonial union.

Professor Tyler, our foremost literary student of the period, summarizes the characteristics of colonial literature in these words: “Before the year 1765, we find in this country, not one American people, but many American peoples . . . . No cohesive principle prevailed, no centralizing life; each little nation was working out its own destiny in its own fashion.” But he adds that with that year the colonial isolation came to an end, and that the student must thereafter “deal with the literature of one multitudinous people, variegated, indeed, in personal traits, but single in its commanding ideas and in its national destinies.” It is easy to be wise after the event. Yet there was living in London in 1765, as the agent for Pennsylvania, a shrewd and bland Colonial–an honorary M. A. from both Harvard and Yale, a D.C.L. of Oxford and an LL.D. of St. Andrews who was by no means sure that the Stamp Act meant the end of Colonialism. And Franklin’s uncertainty was shared by Washington. When the tall Virginian took command of the Continental Army as late as 1775, he “abhorred the idea of independence.” Nevertheless John Jay, writing the second number of the “Federalist” in 1787, only twelve years later, could say: “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government.”


If we turn, however, to the literature produced in America between the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, we perceive that it is a literature of discord and passion. Its spirit is not that of “one united people.” Washington could indeed declare in his “Farewell Address” of 1796, “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles”; yet no one knew better than Washington upon what a slender thread this political unity had often hung, and how impossible it had been to foresee the end from the beginning.

It is idle to look in the writings of the Revolutionary period for the literature of beauty, for a quiet harmonious unfolding of the deeper secrets of life. It was a time of swift and pitiless change, of action rather than reflection, of the turning of many separate currents into one headlong stream. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” runs Franklin’s well-known witticism in Independence Hall, “or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Excellently spoken, Doctor! And that homely, cheery, daring sentence gives the keynote of much of the Revolutionary writing that has survived. It may be heard in the state papers of Samuel Adams, the oratory of Patrick Henry, the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, the satires of Freneau and Trumbull, and in the subtle, insinuating, thrilling paragraphs of Thomas Jefferson.

We can only glance in passing at the literature of the Lost Cause, the Loyalist or “Tory” pleadings for allegiance to Britain. It was written by able and honest men, like Boucher and Odell, Seabury, Leonard and Galloway. They distrusted what Seabury called “our sovereign Lord the Mob.” They represented, in John Adams’s opinion, nearly one-third of the people of the colonies, and recent students believe that this estimate was too low. In some colonies the Loyalists were clearly in the majority. In all they were a menacing element, made up of the conservative, the prosperous, the well-educated, with a mixture, of course, of mere placemen and tuft-hunters. They composed weighty pamphlets, eloquent sermons, and sparkling satire in praise of the old order of things. When their cause was lost forever, they wrote gossipy letters from their exile in London or pathetic verses in their new home in Nova Scotia and Ontario. Their place in our national life and literature has never been filled, and their talents and virtues are never likely to receive adequate recognition. They took the wrong fork of the road.

There were gentle spirits, too, in this period, endowed with delicate literary gifts, but quite unsuited for the clash of controversy–members, in Crevecoeur’s touching words, of the “secret communion among good men throughout the world.” “I am a lover of peace, what must I do?” asks Crevecoeur in his “Letters from an American Farmer.” “I was happy before this unfortunate Revolution. I feel that I am no longer so, therefore I regret the change. My heart sometimes seems tired with beating, it wants rest like my eyelids, which feel oppressed with so many watchings.” Crevecoeur, an immigrant from Normandy, was certainly no weakling, but he felt that the great idyllic American adventure which he described so captivatingly in his chapter entitled “What is an American”–was ending tragically in civil war. Another whitesouled itinerant of that day was John Woolman of New Jersey, whose “Journal,” praised by Charles Lamb and Channing and edited by Whittier, is finding more readers in the twentieth century than it won in the nineteenth. “A man unlettered,” said Whittier, “but with natural refinement and delicate sense of fitness, the purity of whose heart enters into his language.” Woolman died at fifty-two in far-away York, England, whither he had gone to attend a meeting of the Society of Friends.

The three tall volumes of the Princeton edition of the poems of Philip Freneau bear the sub-title, “Poet of the American Revolution.” But our Revolution, in truth, never had an adequate poet. The prose-men, such as Jefferson, rose nearer the height of the great argument than did the men of rhyme. Here and there the struggle inspired a brisk ballad like Francis Hopkinson’s “Battle of the Kegs,” a Hudibrastic satire like Trumbull’s “McFingal,” or a patriotic song like Timothy Dwight’s “Columbia.” Freneau painted from his own experience the horrors of the British prison-ship, and celebrated, in cadences learned from Gray and Collins, the valor of the men who fell at Eutaw Springs. There was patriotic verse in extraordinary profusion, but its literary value is slight, and it reveals few moods of the American mind that are not more perfectly conveyed through oratory, the pamphlet, and the political essay. The immediate models of this Revolutionary verse were the minor British bards of the eighteenth century, a century greatly given to verse-writing, but endowed by Heaven with the “prose-reason” mainly. The reader of Burton E. Stevenson’s collection of “Poems of American History” can easily compare the contemporary verse inspired by the events of the Revolution with the modern verse upon the same historic themes. He will see how slenderly equipped for song were most of the later eighteenth-century Americans and how unfavorable to poetry was the tone of that hour.

Freneau himself suffered, throughout his long career, from the depressing indifference of his public to the true spirit of poetry. “An old college mate of mine,” said James Madison–who was by tradition Freneau’s roommate at Princeton in the class of 1771–“a poet and man of literary and refined tastes, knowing nothing of the world.” When but three years out of college, the cautious Madison wrote to another friend: “Poetry wit and Criticism Romances Plays &c captivated me much: but I begin to discover that they deserve but a moderate portion of a mortal’s Time and that something more substantial more durable more profitable befits our riper age.” Madison was then at the ripe age of twenty-three! Professor Pattee, Freneau’s editor, quotes these words to illustrate the “common sense” atmosphere of the age which proved fatal to Freneau’s development. Yet the sturdy young New Yorker, of Huguenot descent, is a charming figure, and his later malevolence was shown only to his political foes. After leaving Princeton he tries teaching, the law, the newspaper, the sea; he is aflame with patriotic zeal; he writes, like most American poets, far too much for his own reputation. As the editor of the “National Gazette” in Philadelphia, he becomes involved in the bitter quarrel between his chief, Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. His attachment to the cause of the French Revolution makes him publish baseless attacks upon Washington. By and by he retires to a New Jersey farm, still toying with journalism, still composing verses. He turns patriotic poet once more in the War of 1812; but the public has now forgotten him. He lives on in poverty and seclusion, and in his eightieth year loses his way in a snowstorm and perishes miserably–this in 1832, the year of the death of the great Sir Walter Scott, who once had complimented Freneau by borrowing one of his best lines of poetry.

It is in the orations and pamphlets and state papers inspired by the Revolutionary agitation that we find the most satisfactory expression of the thought and feeling of that generation. Its typical literature is civic rather than aesthetic, a sort of writing which has been incidental to the accomplishing of some political, social, or moral purpose, and which scarcely regards itself as literature at all. James Otis’s argument against the Writs of Assistance in Massachusetts in 1761, and Patrick Henry’s speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765, mark epochs in the emotional life of these communities. They were reported imperfectly or not at all, but they can no more be ignored in an assessment of our national experience than editorials, sermons, or conversations which have expressed the deepest feelings of a day and then have perished beyond resurrection.

Yet if natural orators like Otis and Henry be denied a strictly “literary” rating because their surviving words are obviously inadequate to account for the popular effect of their speeches, it is still possible to measure the efficiency of the pamphleteer. When John Adams tells us that “James Otis was Isaiah and Ezekiel united,” we must take his word for the impression which Otis’s oratory left upon his mind. But John Adams’s own writings fill ten stout volumes which invite our judgment. The “truculent and sarcastic splendor” of his hyperboles need not blind us to his real literary excellencies, such as clearness, candor, vigor of phrase, freshness of idea. A testy, rugged, “difficult” person was John Adams, but he grew mellower with age, and his latest letters and journals are full of whimsical charm.

John Adams’s cousin Samuel was not precisely a charming person. Bigoted, tireless, secretive, this cunning manipulator of political passions followed many tortuous paths. His ability for adroit misstatement of an adversary’s position has been equaled but once in our history. But to the casual reader of his four volumes, Samuel Adams seems ever to be breathing the liberal air of the town-meeting: everything is as plainly obvious as a good citizen can make it. He has, too, the large utterance of the European liberalism of his day. “Resolved,” read his Resolutions of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts in 1765, “that there are certain essential rights of the British constitution of government which are founded in the law of God and nature and are the common rights of mankind.” In his statement of the Rights of the Colonists (1772) we are assured that “among the natural rights of the colonists are these, First, a right to Life; secondly to Liberty; thirdly to Property …. All men have a Right to remain in a State of Nature as long as they please . . . . When Men enter into Society, it is by voluntary consent.” Jean-Jacques himself could not be more bland, nor at heart more fiercely demagogic.

“Tom” Paine would have been no match for “Sam” Adams in a town-meeting, but he was an even greater pamphleteer. He had arrived from England in 1774, at the age of thirty-eight, having hitherto failed in most of his endeavors for a livelihood. “Rebellious Staymaker; unkempt,” says Carlyle; but General Charles Lee noted that there was “genius in his eyes,” and he bore a letter of introduction from Franklin commending him as an “ingenious, worthy young man,” which obtained for him a position on the “Pennsylvania Magazine.” Before he had been a year on American soil, Paine was writing the most famous pamphlet of our political literature, “Common Sense,” which appeared in January, 1776. “A style hitherto unknown on this side of the Atlantic,” wrote Edmund Randolph. Yet this style of familiar talk to the crowd had been used seventy years earlier by Defoe and Swift, and it was to be employed again by a gaunt American frontiersman who was born in 1809, the year of Thomas Paine’s death. “The Crisis,” a series of thirteen pamphlets, of which the first was issued in December, 1776, seemed to justify the contemporary opinion that the “American cause owed as much to the pen of Paine as to the sword of Washington. “Paine, who was now serving in the army, might have heard his own words, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” read aloud, by Washington’s orders, to the ragged troops just before they crossed the Delaware to win the victory of Trenton. The best known productions of Paine’s subsequent career, “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason,” were written in Europe, but they were read throughout America. The reputation of the “rebellious Staymaker” has suffered from certain grimy habits and from the ridiculous charge of atheism. He was no more an atheist than Franklin or Jefferson. In no sense an original thinker, he could impart to outworn shreds of deistic controversy and to shallow generalizations about democracy a personal fervor which transformed them and made his pages gay and bold and clear as a trumpet.

Clear and bold and gay was Alexander Hamilton likewise; and his literary services to the Revolution are less likely to be underestimated than Thomas Paine’s. They began with that boyish speech in “the Fields” of New York City in 1774 and with “The Farmer Refuted,” a reply to Samuel Seabury’s “Westchester Farmer.” They were continued in extraordinary letters, written during Hamilton’s military career, upon the defects of the Articles of Confederation and of the finances of the Confederation. Hamilton contributed but little to the actual structure of the new Constitution, but as a debater he fought magnificently and triumphantly for its adoption by the Convention of the State of New York in 1788. Together with Jay and Madison he defended the fundamental principles of the Federal Union in the remarkable series of papers known as the “Federalist.” These eighty-five papers, appearing over the signature “Publius” in two New York newspapers between October, 1787, and April, 1788, owed their conception largely to Hamilton, who wrote more than half of them himself. In manner they are not unlike the substantial Whig literature of England, and in political theory they have little in common with the Revolutionary literature which we have been considering. The reasoning is close, the style vigorous but neither warmed by passion nor colored by the individual emotions of the author. The “Federalist” remains a classic example of the civic quality of our post-Revolutionary American political writing, broadly social in its outlook, well informed as to the past, confident–but not reckless–of the future. Many Americans still read it who would be shocked by Tom Paine and bored with Edmund Burke. It has none of the literary genius of either of those writers, but its formative influence upon successive generations of political thinking has been steadying and sound.

In fact, our citizen literature cannot be understood aright if one fails to observe that its effect has often turned, not upon mere verbal skill, but upon the weight of character behind the words. Thus the grave and reserved George Washington says of the Constitution of 1787: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.” The whole personality of the great Virginian is back of that simple, perfect sentence. It brings us to our feet, like a national anthem.

One American, no doubt our most gifted man of letters of that century, passed most of the Revolutionary period abroad, in the service of his country. Benjamin Franklin was fifty-nine in the year of the Stamp Act. When he returned from France in 1785 he was seventy-nine, but he was still writing as admirably as ever when he died at eighty-four. We cannot dismiss this singular, varied, and fascinating American better than by quoting the letter which George Washington wrote to him in September, 1789. It has the dignity and formality of the eighteenth century, but it is warm with tested friendship and it glows with deep human feeling: “If to be venerated for benevolence, if to be admired for talents, if to be esteemed for patriotism, if to be beloved for philanthropy, can gratify the human mind, you must have the pleasing consolation to know that you have not lived in vain. And I flatter myself that it will not be ranked among the least grateful occurrences of your life to be assured, that, so long as I retain my memory, you will be recollected with respect, veneration, and affection by your sincere friend, George Washington.”

There remains another Virginian, the symbol of the Revolutionary age, the author of words more widely known around the globe than any other words penned by an American. “Thomas Jefferson,” writes the latest of his successors in the Presidency, “was not a man of the people, but he was a man of such singular insight that he saw that all the roots of generous power come from the people.” On his father’s side Jefferson came from sound yeoman stock, in which Welsh blood ran. His mother was a Virginia Randolph. Born in Albemarle County, near the “little
mountain”–Monticello–where he built a mansion for his bride and where he lies buried, the tall, strong, red-haired, gray-eyed, gifted boy was reputed the best shot, the best rider, the best fiddle-player in the county. He studied hard at William and Mary over his Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, but he also frequented the best society of the little capital. He learned to call himself a Deist and to theorize about ideal commonwealths. There was already in him that latent radicalism which made him strike down, as soon as he had the power, two of the fundamental principles of the society into which he was born, the principle of entailed property and that of church establishment.

Such was the youth of twenty-two who was thrilled in 1765 by the Stamp Act. In the ten years of passionate discussion which followed, two things became clear: first, that there had long existed among the colonists very radical theoretical notions of political freedom; and second, that there was everywhere a spirit of practical conservatism. Jefferson illustrates the union of these two tendencies.

He took his seat in the Continental Congress in June, 1775. He was only thirty-two, but he had already written, in the summer of 1774, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” which had been published in England by Burke, himself a judge of good writing and sound politics. Jefferson had also prepared in 1775 the “Address of the Virginia House of Burgesses.” For these reasons he was placed at the head of the Committee for drafting the Declaration of Independence. We need not linger over the familiar circumstances of its composition. Everybody knows how Franklin and Adams made a few verbal alterations in the first draft, how the committee of five then reported it to the Congress, which proceeded to cut out about one-fourth of the matter, while Franklin tried to comfort the writhing author with his cheerful story about the sign of John Thompson the hatter. Forty-seven years afterwards, in reply to the charge of lack of originality brought against the Declaration by Timothy Pickering and John Adams–charges which have been repeated at intervals ever since–Jefferson replied philosophically: “Whether I gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned neither to book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.” O wise young man, and fundamentally Anglo-Saxon young man, to turn his back, in that crisis, to the devil of mere cleverness, and stick to recognized facts and accepted sentiments! But his pen retains its cunning in spite of him; and the drop of hot Welsh blood tells; and the cosmopolitan reading and thinking tell; and they transform what Pickering called a “commonplace compilation, its sentiments hackneyed in Congress for two years before,” into an immortal manifesto to mankind.

Its method is the simplest. The preamble is philosophical, dealing with “self-evident” truths. Today the men who dislike or doubt these truths dismiss the preamble as “theoretical,” or, to use another term of derogation favored by reactionaries, “French.” But if the preamble be French and philosophical, the specific charges against the King are very English and practical. Here are certain facts, presented no doubt with consummate rhetorical skill, but facts, undeniably. The Anglo-Saxon in Jefferson is basal, racial; the turn for academic philosophizing after the French fashion is personal, acquired; but the range and sweep and enduring vitality of this matchless state paper lie in its illumination of stubborn facts by general principles, its decent respect to the opinions of mankind, its stately and noble utterance of national sentiments and national reasons to a “candid world.”

It has long been the fashion, among a certain school of half-hearted Americans–and unless I am mistaken, the teaching has increased during the last decades–to minimize the value of Jefferson’s “self-evident truths.” Rufus Choate, himself a consummate rhetorician, sneered at those “glittering generalities,” and countless college-bred men, some of them occupying the highest positions, have echoed the sneer. The essence of the objection to Jefferson’s platform lies of course in his phrase, “all men are created equal,” with the subsidiary phrase about governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Editors and congressmen and even college professors have proclaimed themselves unable to assent to these phrases of the Declaration, and unable even to understand them. These objectors belong partly, I think, in Jefferson’s category of “nervous persons”–“anti-republicans,” as he goes on to define them–“whose languid fibres have more analogy with a passive than an active state of things.” Other objectors to the phrase “all men are created equal” have had an obvious personal or political motive for refusing assent to the proposition. But “no intelligent man,” says one of Jefferson’s biographers, “has ever misconstrued it [the Declaration] except intentionally.”

Nobody would claim today that Thomas Jefferson’s statement of the sentiments and reasons for the independence of the thirteen British colonies in 1776 was an adequate handbook of political wisdom, fit for all the exigencies of contemporary American democracy. It is not that. It is simply, in Lincoln’s phrase, one of “the standard maxims of free society” which no democracy can safely disregard.

Jefferson’s long life, so varied, so flexible, so responsive to the touch of popular forces, illustrates the process by which the Virginia mind of 1743 became the nationalized, unionized mind of 1826. It is needless here to dwell upon the traits of his personal character: his sweetness of spirit, his stout-heartedness in disaster, his scorn of money, his love for the intellectual life. “I have no ambition to govern men,” he wrote to Edward Rutledge. He was far happier talking about Greek and Anglo-Saxon with Daniel Webster before the fire-place of Monticello than he ever was in the presidential chair. His correspondence was enormous. His writings fill twenty volumes. In his theories of education he was fifty years ahead of his time; in his absolute trust in humanity he was generations ahead of it. “I am not one of those who fear the people,” he declared proudly. It is because of this touching faith, this invincible and matchless ardor, that Jefferson is today remembered. He foreshadowed Lincoln. His belief in the inarticulate common people is rewarded by their obstinate fidelity to his name as a type and symbol. “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves,” wrote Jefferson, and with the people themselves is the depository of his fame.


The Fourth of July orator for 1826 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was Edward Everett. Although only thirty-two he was already a distinguished speaker. In the course of his oration he apostrophized John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as venerable survivors of that momentous day, fifty years earlier, which had witnessed our Declaration of Independence. But even as Everett was speaking, the aged author of the Declaration breathed his last at Monticello, and in the afternoon of that same day Adams died also, murmuring, it is said, with his latest breath, and as if with the whimsical obstinacy of an old man who hated to be beaten by his ancient rival, “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” But Jefferson was already gone.

On the first of August, Everett commemorated the career of the two Revolutionary leaders, and on the following day a greater than Everett, Daniel Webster, pronounced the famous eulogy in Faneuil Hall. Never were the thoughts and emotions of a whole country more adequately voiced than in this commemorative oratory. Its pulse was high with national pride over the accomplishments of half a century. “I ask,” Everett declared, “whether more has not been done to extend the domain of civilization, in fifty years, since the Declaration of Independence, than would have been done in five centuries of continued colonial subjection?” Webster asserted in his peroration: “It cannot be denied, but by those who would dispute against the sun, that with America, and in America, a new era commences in human affairs. This era is distinguished by free representative governments, by entire religious liberty, by improved systems of national intercourse, by a newly awakened and an unconquerable spirit of free enquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge through the community such as has been before altogether unknown and unheard of.”

Was this merely the “tall talk” then so characteristic of American oratory and soon to be satirized in “Martin Chuzzlewit”? Or was it prompted by a deep and true instinct for the significance of the vast changes that had come over American life since 1776? The external changes were familiar enough to Webster’s auditors: the opening of seemingly illimitable territory through the Louisiana Purchase, the development of roads, canals, and manufactures; a rapid increase in wealth and population; a shifting of political power due to the rise of the new West–in a word, the evidences of irrepressible national energy. But this energy was inadequately expressed by the national literature. The more cultivated Americans were quite aware of this deficiency. It was confessed by the pessimistic Fisher Ames and by the ardent young men who in 1815 founded “The North American Review.” British critics in “The Edinburgh” and “The Quarterly,” commenting upon recent works of travel in America, pointed out the literary poverty of the American soil. Sydney Smith, by no means the most offensive of these critics, declared in 1820: “During the thirty or forty years of their independence they have done absolutely nothing for the sciences, for the arts, for literature . . . . In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?”

Sydney Smith’s question “Who reads an American book?” has outlived all of his own clever volumes. Even while he was asking it, London was eagerly reading Irving’s “Sketch Book.” In 1821 came Fenimore Cooper’s Spy and Bryant’s “Poems,” and by 1826, when Webster was announcing in his rolling orotund that Adams and Jefferson were no more, the London and Paris booksellers were covering their stalls with Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.” Irving, Cooper, and Bryant are thus the pioneers in a new phase of American literary activity, often called, for convenience in labeling, the Knickerbocker Group because of the identification of these men with New York. And close behind these leaders come a younger company, destined likewise, in the shy boyish words of Hawthorne, one of the number, “to write books that would be read in England.” For by 1826 Hawthorne and Longfellow were out of college and were trying to learn to write. Ticknor, Prescott, and Bancroft, somewhat older men, were settling to their great tasks. Emerson was entering upon his duties as a minister. Edgar Allan Poe, at that University of Virginia which Jefferson had just founded, was doubtless revising “Tamerlane and Other Poems” which he was to publish in Boston in the following year. Holmes was a Harvard undergraduate. Garrison had just printed Whittier’s first published poem in the Newburyport “Free Press.” Walt Whitman was a barefooted boy on Long Island, and Lowell, likewise seven years of age, was watching the birds in the treetops of Elmwood. But it was Washington Irving who showed all of these men that nineteenth century England would be interested in American books.

The very word Knickerbocker is one evidence of the vitality of Irving’s happy imaginings. In 1809 he had invented a mythical Dutch historian of New York named Diedrich Knickerbocker and fathered upon him a witty parody of Dr. Mitchill’s grave “Picture of New York.” To read Irving’s chapters today is to witness one of the rarest and most agreeable of phenomena, namely, the actual beginning of a legend which the world is unwilling to let die. The book made Sir Walter Scott’s sides ache with laughter, and reminded him of the humor of Swift and Sterne. But certain New Yorkers were slow to see the joke.

Irving was himself a New Yorker, born just at the close of the Revolution, of a Scotch father and English mother. His youth was pleasantly idle, with a little random education, much theater-going, and plentiful rambles with a gun along the Hudson River. In 1804 he went abroad for his health, returned and helped to write the light social satire of the “Salmagundi Papers,” and became, after the publication of the “Knickerbocker History,” a local celebrity. Sailing for England in 1815 on business, he stayed until 1832 as a roving man of letters in England and Spain and then as Secretary of the American Legation in London. “The Sketch Book,” “Bracebridge Hall,” and “Tales of a Traveler” are the best known productions of Irving’s fruitful residence in England. The “Life of Columbus,” the “Conquest of Granada,” and “The Alhambra” represent his first sojourn in Spain. After his return to America he became fascinated with the Great West, made the travels described in his “Tour of the Prairies,” and told the story of roving trappers and the fur trade in “Captain Bonneville” and “Astoria.” For four years he returned to Spain as American Minister. In his last tranquil years at Sunnyside on the Hudson, where he died in 1859, he wrote graceful lives of Goldsmith and of Washington.

Such a glance at the shelf containing Irving’s books suggests but little of that personal quality to which he owes his significance as an interpreter of America to the Old World. This son of a narrow, hard, Scotch dealer in cutlery, this drifter about town when New York was only a big slovenly village, this light-hearted scribbler of satire and sentiment, was a gentleman born. His boyhood and youth were passed in that period of Post-Revolutionary reaction which exhibits the United States in some of its most unlovely aspects. Historians like Henry Adams and McMaster have painted in detail the low estate of education, religion, and art as the new century began. The bitter feeling of the nascent nation toward Great Britain was intensified by the War of 1812. The Napoleonic Wars had threatened to break the last threads of our friendship for France, and suspicion of the Holy Alliance led to an era of national self-assertion of which the Monroe Doctrine was only one expression. The raw Jacksonism of the West seemed to be gaining upon the older civilizations represented by Virginia and Massachusetts. The self-made type of man began to pose as the genuine American. And at this moment came forward a man of natural lucidity and serenity of mind, of perfect poise and good temper, who knew both Europe and America and felt that they ought to know one another better and to like one another more. That was Irving’s service as an international mediator. He diffused sweetness and light in an era marked by bitterness and obscuration. It was a triumph of character as well as of literary skill.

But the skill was very noticeable also. Irving’s prose is not that of the Defoe-Swift-Franklin-Paine type of plain talk to the crowd. It is rather an inheritance from that other eighteenth century tradition, the conversation of the select circle. Its accents were heard in Steele and Addison and were continued in Goldsmith, Sterne, Cowper, and Charles Lamb. Among Irving’s successors, George William Curtis and Charles Dudley Warner and William Dean Howells have been masters of it likewise. It is mellow human talk, delicate, regardful, capable of exquisite modulation. With instinctive artistic taste, Irving used this old and sound style upon fresh American material. In “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” he portrayed his native valley of the Hudson, and for a hundred years connoisseurs of style have perceived the exquisite fitness of the language to the images and ideas which Irving desired to convey. To render the Far West of that epoch this style is perhaps not “big” and broad enough, but when used as Irving uses it in describing Stratford and Westminster Abbey and an Old English Christmas, it becomes again a perfect medium. Hawthorne adopted it for “Our Old Home,” and Englishmen recognized it at once as a part of their own inheritance, enriched, like certain wines, by the voyage across the Atlantic and home again. Irving wrote of England, Mr. Warner once said, as Englishmen would have liked to write about it. When he described the Alhambra and Granada and the Moors, it was the style, rich both in physical sensation and in dreamlike reverie, which revealed to the world the quick American appreciation of foreign scenes and characters. Its key is sympathy.

Irving’s popularity has endured in England. It suffered during the middle of the century in his own country, for the strongest New England authors taught the public to demand more thought and passion than were in Irving’s nature. Possibly the nervous, journalistic style of the twentieth century allows too scanty leisure of mind for the full enjoyment of the Knickerbocker flavor. Yet such changes as these in literary fashion scarcely affect the permanent service of Irving to our literature. He immortalized a local type–the New York Dutchman–and local legends, like that of Rip van Winkle; he used the framework of the narrative essay to create something almost like the perfected short story of Poe and Hawthorne; he wrote prose with unfailing charm in an age when charm was lacking; and, if he had no message, it should be remembered that some of the most useful ambassadors have had none save to reveal, with delicacy and tact and humorous kindness, the truth that foreign persons have feelings precisely like our own.

Readers of Sir Walter Scott’s “Journal” may remember his account of an evening party in Paris in 1826 where he met Fenimore Cooper, then in the height of his European reputation. “So the Scotch and American lions took the field together,” wrote Sir Walter, who loved to be generous. “The Last of the Mohicans,” then just published, threatened to eclipse the fame of “Ivanhoe.” Cooper, born in 1789, was eighteen years younger than the Wizard of the North, and was more deeply indebted to him than he knew. For it was Scott who had created the immense nineteenth century audience for prose fiction, and who had evolved a kind of formula for the novel, ready for Cooper’s use. Both men were natural story-tellers. Scott had the richer mind and the more fully developed historical imagination. Both were out-of-doors men, lovers of manly adventure and of natural beauty. But the American had the good fortune to be able to utilize in his books his personal experiences of forest and sea and to reveal to Europe the real romance of the American wilderness.

That Cooper was the first to perceive the artistic possibilities of this romance, no one would claim. Brockden Brown, a Quaker youth of Philadelphia, a disciple of the English Godwin, had tried his hand at the very end of the eighteenth century upon American variations of the Gothic romance then popular in England. Brown had a keen eye for the values of the American landscape and even of the American Indian. He had a knack for passages of ghastly power, as his descriptions of maniacs, murderers, sleep-walkers, and solitaries abundantly prove. But he had read too much and lived too little to rival the masters of the art of fiction. And there was a traveled Frenchman, Chateaubriand, surely an expert in the art of eloquent prose, who had transferred to the pages of his American Indian stories, “Atala” and “Rene,” the mystery and enchantment of our dark forests
and endless rivers. But Chateaubriand, like Brockden Brown, is