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The American Spirit in Literature, by Bliss Perry

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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

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

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
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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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
and endless rivers. But Chateaubriand, like Brockden Brown, is

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