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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. III. The Growth of the National Spirit: 1710–1775


THE CLOSING period of our colonial literature, leading up, as it does, to the interesting political literature of the Revolution, is characterized in every department by a growing secularization, by an intenser consciousness of the relation of letters to life, by greater freedom of individual expression, and by democratic aspiration. We can trace this change of spirit alike in New England, the Middle, and the Southern Colonies, and in verse as well as in prose.

As we saw in the preceding volume, poetry remained longer out of touch with colonial life than any other form of literature. And still, at the outset of the eighteenth century, its mild, hypothetical successes are those of imitation, but it is the imitation of a secularized England. The sturdy ruggedness of the would-be poets of the earlier period gives place, slowly, to a mechanical melody caught from the school of Pope, smooth, shallow, monotonous in its mimicry of elegance, with little thought and less passion. Such was the poetry of those eloquent preachers, Mather Byles and Benjamin Colman, who were both in intimate relations with British culture, and were too modern in spirit to continue the Fantastic School of Noyes and Cotton Mather. Such, too, was the pathetically poor poetry of Colman’s precocious daughter, Jane Turell, who dutifully learned from her father to regard Dr. Watts as “the laureate of the Church of Christ,” and Sir Richard Blackmore as “far above all her praises.” The “fatal facility” of the “composures” of these new poets, especially of Byles and his admiring disciples, is their most deadly characteristic. They may have been for their authors, as one of them, perhaps the most naïve of all, Roger Wolcott, says, “the improvement of some vacant hours,” but they will hardly prove so for posterity. Yet it must be remembered that, although they wrote execrable poetry, all these poets were exemplary in their domestic and public relations. Colman and Byles were great preachers, even if they did depart far from the traditions of the Brahmins of the preceding century, and Roger Wolcott was almost as sturdy a public servant as Captain Edward Johnson or Daniel Gookin.

This increased secularism of which we have spoken is seen in an extreme form in the doggerel ballads of John Seccomb, which gave him a celebrity intelligible only to those who have made some study of his contemporaries on the New England Parnassus. In somewhat higher humorous vein, very suggestive of the decay of Puritanism in their trivial whimsicality, are the skits of Joseph Green, in which we catch a note of personal satire, characteristic of the formative days of democracy, and destined to find swelling echoes in the succeeding Revolutionary poets, who lie beyond our pale. It is somewhat startling to find the New Englanders of the generation after Cotton Mather prepared to appreciate a parody of one of their own hymns. That they should have appreciated John Osborn’s simple Whaling Song is not surprising; but this hardy product of the soil was exceptional, even in Osborn’s own scanty verse, while the imitative Benjamin Church and other versifiers, are more numerous than the more crude and original writers of doggerel, like John Maylem and George Cockings, who are not represented in these selections.

If we turn southward, we shall find that here also the rare lyric poets are essentially imitators, though with more real appreciation of their models, at least in the case of Evans and Godfrey. There are occasional good lines in the verses of both, and the latter gives evidence of the possession of an imagination that might have made him, not a great poet, but a worthy rival of Freneau. And it must not be forgotten that with Godfrey the poetic drama practically begins in America. An unactable blank verse tragedy, to be sure, The Prince of Parthia, must be pronounced to be thoroughly imitative and scarcely readable, unless one brings to it a considerable amount of patriotic good will and sympathy for youthful talents eclipsed by death. But it was creditable to have made the attempt, and that credit belongs to the Pennsylvanian school, which was more liberal, in its literary ideals, than New England had yet become, and was certainly more in touch with the eighteenth-century philosophic spirit as it was then voicing itself in England and France.

In verse, then, we leave our literature in a state of increasing secularization which in a remote way indicates the presence of that democratic spirit which was slowly transforming the colonial mind. When we turn to the theologians, most of whom in the present volume are New Englanders, we shall find this democratic independence marked at the very outset in Wise, continuing philosophically in Edwards, and over the verge of iconoclasm in the Scotch physician, Douglass, who aired his opinions on many subjects outside his profession. Wise was one of the most brilliant, forcible, and original of our colonial prose writers. The subject on which he wrote was of immediate and intense interest to the colonists, at least of New England, and he voiced more than any other man of his time the creed of a religious democracy, especially its opposition to the scheme of the Mathers to substitute in church affairs the will of the clergy for the will of the people. The meek and innocuous Questions and Proposals of that godly company unmasked themselves but slowly to the popular consciousness. John Wise bided his time, and when everybody was familiar with the question, he gave an answer hardly less remarkable for its learning, its satire, and its invective, than for its tremendous earnestness and its forensic art. The theory of democracy in a Christian church, as it was unfolded here, long remained the palladium of New England’s ecclesiastical liberty, and helped to intensify the dread with which, even after that liberty was assured, the Massachusetts colony shrank from the introduction of episcopacy in any form. Of his Vindication there is more than one plain echo in the Declaration of Independence. It was but natural that when the Revolutionary leaders were preparing themselves and others for that great act, they caused his books to be reprinted, for these proved, as Professor Tyler has well observed, “an armory of burnished weapons in all that stern fight.”

Thus the beginning of the century sends its democratic call to the close; but the independence of colonial theology is no less marked in the realm of philosophy than in that of polity. Jonathan Edwards is not only greater than the earlier theologians, he is something more and other than they; not merely the greatest exponent of New England thought, but the microcosmic expression of its character, in its strength and in its weakness; not alone an inheritor, but a forerunner, bearing indeed the fruit of Cotton Mather and Wigglesworth, but also the seed of Emerson and of Channing. He was the first American to exert a considerable influence on the metaphysical thought of the world. In him Calvinism reached its culmination, and in him the emotional Christianity of New England took a fresh lease of life. He was a poet in embryo, a nature-mystic, a scientist, a logician, a metaphysician, as well as a great preacher and theologian, and to be an enduring classic he lacked only the ripening effects of classical culture. There is a pathos in his inevitable shortcomings; but one recognizes them only with an awestruck admiration of what this provincial accomplished by sheer force of hard thinking.

Independence in still another and distinctly remarkable form is evidenced by William Douglass, who, although he did not come to America from his native Scotland until he was about twenty-five years old, launched himself almost immediately into the “general union of total dissent” that had begun to characterize the Boston even of his period. Controversy seems to have been his native air, whether it were with his professional brethren of the medical art, with the clergy, the magistrates, or the government. No wonder that a man who commanded such a keen, racy style, and had such pitiless shrewdness to point his sarcasm, should have found one of his chief subjects in the crumbling Calvinistic orthodoxy, looming large, though no longer portentous. He was practically the first of our writers who dared to avow himself a rationalist, what the Frenchmen of his day would have called a libertin. When he wrote history it was in a journalistic vein, with a paragraphic pen, wholly unreliable whenever his passions or prejudices were touched, but keeping the mind alert by the very irregularity of his flashing wit. Like Bayle, he is best in his footnotes, and is usually most amusing when he is least instructive. His importance, however, for us lies chiefly in this, that his animosity and unfairness toward the Puritan clergy, though reprobated by many, found favor with some, and that the time had passed for the suppression of such free speech. For this reason we have spoken of him among the theologians, although his heterogeneous activities might as well have entitled him to a place elsewhere, or entirely apart, and although our extracts from him touch only once, and that slightly, upon theological matters.

Douglass serves to carry us over to the historians, the publicists, and the depicters of colonial life and manners. We have given a few extracts from his numerous and needed “animadversions” on the contemporary craze for paper money, and some of our selections from Franklin, that interesting Loyalist, Rev. Jonathan Boucher, and a few other writers, touch upon questions of more or less political import; but following our rule, we have in the main left such matters to one side. Of depicters of life and manners we have chosen several representatives, about the most important of whom, Byrd, Franklin, and Fithian, more shall be said presently. Here we may mention the interesting critical account of Virginia in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, given by the Rev. Hugh Jones. He is especially valuable for the light he throws upon Virginian education. He himself prepared a series of text-books for his rather self-willed pupils, and it is natural to place him in juxtaposition with that unique production known as The New England Primer. This, as well as Jones’s tract, may be cited in proof of the contention that, turn where we will, among the writings of this epoch, we find plain indications of the steady growth of the spirit of independence. The Primer, indeed, as our extracts show, is a veritable barometer of political feeling throughout the entire century.

When we turn to history proper, we note perhaps a more marked change in essential character than we do in any other department of literature. Narratives, such as those of Bradford, and Winthrop, and Johnson, written by men who had been important participators in the great affairs they describe, are practically no longer encountered. Life in the colonies has become more ordered and less picturesque; there is not so much temptation to write the annals of one’s own generation, or to set down one’s own reminiscences, as there is to treat in a critical and philosophical manner the records of the past. Thus, instead of important contemporary historians, we have historical scholars like Thomas Prince, Thomas Hutchinson, and William Stith, all of whom suffered from the embarrassments incident to pioneer work. Prince and Stith, especially, found their contemporaries indifferent to their scholarly zeal for preserving and setting down in enduring form the records of the heroic planters of the English colonies in the New World; but they have their reward in being remembered as in a very real sense the fathers of American history. Extracts from their writings give but a faint idea of their services to scholarship. It would, of course, have been possible to present selections from such interesting contemporary records as the Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War (1716), published by Thomas Church from the minutes of his father, the famous Indian fighter, Colonel Benjamin Church. But we have already dealt sufficiently with the subject of Indian wars in the second volume, and readers will perhaps gain from the additional space we have been enabled to give to such an interesting writer as Colonel Byrd, and to the remarkable True and Historical Narrative written by Patrick Tailfer, and others, which represents the only colony founded during the present period, that of Georgia. We need not vouch for its truth or its justice, but it is certainly one of the most skilful pieces of special pleading, as well as one of the most caustic denunciations of governmental abuse to be found in our early literature. Thus, Georgia from the very first utters the protest of independence, which each of the older colonies was in turn learning to express.

Yielding in interest to none of the other writers represented in this volume are the depicters of manners already mentioned, Byrd and Fithian, who give us intimate pictures of life in Virginia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. It is from the social side, also, that we have approached in our extracts the almost universal genius of Franklin. Byrd was unique among the colonial writers,—a Virginian gentleman of princely fortune and an easy assurance of superiority, whose noblesse oblige condescended to men of low estate. Energetic, resourceful, public spirited, he was the most witty and ironical of all our writers before Franklin, and worthy of the friendship he enjoyed of some of the most brilliant members of the English aristocracy. His writing is marked by a note of distinction. It is not that of a scholar or of a teacher, or of a politician, but preëminently of a gentleman, the natural outpouring of a rarely fertile mind, unstudied, but remarkable for facile, graceful geniality. His attitude toward religion may be contrasted with that of Douglass on the one hand and that of the exquisitely pious John Woolman on the other. He is sceptical, but not militant. He feels himself too much the superior of the parson to enter into any controversy. His attitude is that of his English friends, to whom it would have seemed as unbecoming to urge a protest as to profess a creed. This characteristic position of the “philosophers” of the eighteenth century was as yet uncongenial to New England. Philadelphia learned it before Boston. The Autobiography of Franklin would show us, and to some extent does even in our inadequate extracts, how all-pervading this temper became, and how scarcely any thoughtful man could escape its influence.

Of Franklin’s place in our colonial literature it is superfluous to speak. He was, at the close of the period covered by this volume, not only the most illustrious of Americans, but one of the most illustrious of mankind. It is, as we have said, to the social side of his multiform activities that we have sought to direct the attention of the reader, who might be diverted by Franklin’s political and scientific achievements from his contributions to the amelioration of domestic and civic life, and above all, to the enlarging and deepening of colonial ideals of municipal and public spirit. Franklin is our one colonial scientist of cosmopolitan fame. He is also our greatest master of pithy, racy, and effective prose style. His Autobiography, from which most of our extracts are taken, is said to be one of the half-dozen most widely popular books ever printed. His shrewdness, his public spirit, the universality of his interests, made his the greatest of individual contributions to the building up of American character in the Post-Revolutionary generation. Franklin’s attitude, like that of Byrd, was that of the eighteenth century. The clew to it is to be found in a marginal note to his Autobiography, in which he observes that “Nothing is so likely to make a man’s fortune as virtue.” It is a smug philosophy, and that its influence was felt even where it was most combated would be clear to the reader of Fithian’s Princeton experiences, though in our extracts from this genial diarist that note is less marked. We have chosen from Fithian a passage that shows, as probably no other contemporary writing does so briefly, the social condition of the oldest colony on the eve of its independence, and with this judicially drawn picture our illustrations of Colonial Prose and Poetry, of the beginnings of Americanism, and the growth of the national consciousness find their fit close.