The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVII. Writers on American History, 1783–1850

§ 15. Belknap

Hazard influenced the work of Belknap, who, as a minister in Dover, New Hampshire, from 1767 to 1778, early became interested in the history of the colony and began to collect documents relating to it. In this task he was aided by Governor Benning Wentworth. Though Belknap had doubts about the propriety of a minister’s dabbling in history, the inclination was too strong to be resisted; and receiving encouragement from his friends, he proceeded as he had begun. In 1784 he published the first volume of his History of New Hampshire. Financially it was as great a failure as Hazard’s Collections. It was many years before he sold enough copies to pay the printer, but, unlike Hazard, Belknap was not discouraged. Having resigned his parish at Dover, after a disagreeable wrangle over his salary, in the following year he accepted a call to the church in Federal Street, Boston. From this time history became a chief phase of his activity. He was in the midst of a congenial group of educated men, and one literary demand after another was made on him. The editors of magazines appealed to him for articles; whatever co-operative work of history was projected—and there were several—he was sought for the enterprise. In 1792 he published Volumes II and III of his History of New Hampshire. The sales were large enough to wipe out the debts incurred by the first volume.

To The Columbian Magazine of Philadelphia he contributed from time to time a number of very well prepared biographical sketches of persons associated with the early history of America; and in 1794 they appeared in Volume I of an American Biography. Other sketches came out in a second volume (1798). A third was planned, but the author died before it could be written. These sketches were based on the best sources then available and were written in the author’s best style. For the same magazine Belknap also wrote a series of satirical letters dealing with the early history of New England. They were published in a separate volume called The Foresters (1792), enlarged in an edition of 1796. Belknap died suddenly, in the midst of literary schemes, in 1798. He was the best American historian of his day, and the most zealous in preserving historical memorials.

Probably Belknap’s greatest service was his efforts in founding the Massachusetts Historical Society. While he had valuable aid from other men, he was the force that brought these others together; and until the time of his death he was the leader in the actual work of the society. Belknap himself said that he got the idea from John Pintard of New York. The project was launched in 1791, in accordance with plans prepared by Belknap. The membership was limited to thirty corresponding and thirty resident members, only ten of the latter being elected at first. The object was to collect, preserve, and publish historical materials. As long as he lived Belknap was a most active member, visiting nearby towns for document, supervising the publications, and finally leaving the Society his own manuscripts.