The Colonial Period in American Letters
[This is taken from Henry A. Beers’ Initial Studies in American Letters.]
THE COLONIAL PERIOD.
The writings of our colonial era have a much greater importance as history than as literature. It would be unfair to judge of the intellectual vigor of the English colonists in America by the books that they wrote; those “stern men with empires in their brains” had more pressing work to do than the making of books. The first settlers, indeed, were brought face to face with strange and exciting conditions—the sea, the wilderness, the Indians, the flora and fauna of a new world—things which seem stimulating to the imagination, and incidents and experiences which might have lent themselves easily to poetry or romance. Of all these they wrote back to England reports which were faithful and sometimes vivid, but which, upon the whole, hardly rise into the region of literature. “New England,” said Hawthorne, “was then in a state incomparably more picturesque than at present.” But to a contemporary that old New England of the seventeenth century doubtless seemed any thing but picturesque, filled with grim, hard, work-day realities. The planters both of Virginia and Massachusetts were decimated by sickness and starvation, constantly threatened by Indian Wars, and troubled by quarrels among themselves and fears of disturbance from England. The wrangles between the royal governors and the House of Burgesses in the Old Dominion, and the theological squabbles in New England, which fill our colonial records, are petty and wearisome to read of. At least, they would be so did we not bear in mind to what imperial destinies those conflicts were slowly educating the little communities which had hardly yet secured a foothold on the edge of the raw continent.
Even a century and a half after the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, when the American plantations had grown strong and flourishing, and commerce was building up large towns, and there were wealth and generous living and fine society, the “good old colony days when we lived under the king,” had yielded little in the way of literature that is of any permanent interest. There would seem to be something in the relation of a colony to the mother-country which dooms the thought and art of the former to a helpless provincialism. Canada and Australia are great provinces, wealthier and more populous than the thirteen colonies at the time of their separation from England. They have cities whose inhabitants number hundreds of thousands, well-equipped universities, libraries, cathedrals, costly public buildings, all the outward appliances of an advanced civilization; and yet what have Canada and Australia contributed to British literature?
American literature had no infancy. That engaging naïveté and that heroic rudeness which give a charm to the early popular tales and songs of Europe find, of course, no counterpart on our soil. Instead of emerging from the twilight of the past the first American writings were produced under the garish noon of a modern and learned age. Decrepitude rather than youthfulness is the mark of a colonial literature. The poets, in particular, instead of finding a challenge to their imagination in the new life about them, are apt to go on imitating the cast-off literary fashions of the mother-country. America was settled by Englishmen who were contemporary with the greatest names in English literature. Jamestown was planted in 1607, nine years before Shakespeare’s death, and the hero of that enterprise, Captain John Smith, may not improbably have been a personal acquaintance of the great dramatist. “They have acted my fatal tragedies on the stage,” wrote Smith. Many circumstances in The Tempest were doubtless suggested by the wreck of the Sea Venture on “the still vext Bermoothes,” as described by William Strachey in his True Repertory of the Wrack and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, written at Jamestown, and published at London in 1610. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Michael Drayton, the poet of the Polyolbion, addressed a spirited valedictory ode to the three shiploads of “brave, heroic minds” who sailed from London in 1606 to colonize Virginia, an ode which ended with the prophecy of a future American literature:
“And as there plenty grows
Of laurel every-where—
Apollo’s sacred tree—
You it may see
A poet’s brows
To crown, that may sing there.”
Another English poet, Samuel Daniel, the author of the Civil Wars, had also prophesied in a similar strain:
“And who in time knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores . . .
What worlds in the yet unformed Occident
May come refined with accents that are ours?”
It needed but a slight movement in the balances of fate, and Walter Raleigh might have been reckoned among the poets of America. He was one of the original promoters of the Virginia colony, and he made voyages in person to Newfoundland and Guiana. And more unlikely things have happened than that when John Milton left Cambridge in 1632 he should have been tempted to follow Winthrop and the colonists of Massachusetts Bay, who had sailed two years before. Sir Henry Vane, the younger, who was afterward Milton’s friend—
“Vane, young in years, but in sage counsel old”—
came over in 1635, and was for a short time governor of Massachusetts. These are idle speculations, and yet, when we reflect that Oliver Cromwell was on the point of embarking for America when he was prevented by the king’s officers, we may, for the nonce, “let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise,” and fancy by how narrow a chance Paradise Lost missed being written in Boston. But, as a rule, the members of the literary guild are not quick to emigrate. They like the feeling of an old and rich civilization about them, a state of society which America has only begun to reach during the present century.
Virginia and New England, says Lowell, were the “two great distributing centers of the English race.” The men who colonized the country between the Capes of Virginia were not drawn, to any large extent, from the literary or bookish classes in the old country. Many of the first settlers were gentlemen—too many, Captain Smith thought, for the good of the plantation. Some among these were men of worth and spirit, “of good means and great parentage.” Such was, for example, George Percy, a younger brother of the Earl of Northumberland, who was one of the original adventurers, and the author of A Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony of Virginia, which contains a graphic narrative of the fever and famine summer of 1607 at Jamestown. But many of these gentlemen were idlers, “unruly gallants, packed thither by their friends to escape ill destinies,” dissipated younger sons, soldiers of fortune, who came over after the gold which was supposed to abound in the new country, and who spent their time in playing bowls and drinking at the tavern as soon as there was any tavern. With these was a sprinkling of mechanics and farmers, indented servants, and the on-scourings of the London streets, fruit of press-gangs and jail deliveries, sent over to “work in the plantations.”
Nor were the conditions of life afterward in Virginia very favorable to literary growth. The planters lived isolated on great estates which had water-fronts on the rivers that flow into the Chesapeake. There the tobacco, the chief staple of the country, was loaded directly upon the trading vessels that tied up to the long, narrow wharves of the plantations. Surrounded by his slaves, and visited occasionally by a distant neighbor, the Virginia country gentleman lived a free and careless life. He was fond of fox-hunting, horse-racing, and cock-fighting. There were no large towns, and the planters met each other mainly on occasion of a county court or the assembling of the Burgesses. The court-house was the nucleus of social and political life in Virginia as the town-meeting was in New England. In such a state of society schools were necessarily few, and popular education did not exist. Sir William Berkeley, who was the royal governor of the colony from 1641 to 1677, said, in 1670, “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years.” In the matter of printing this pious wish was well-nigh realized. The first press set up in the colony, about 1681, was soon suppressed, and found no successor until the year 1729. From that date until some ten years before the Revolution one printing-press answered the needs of Virginia, and this was under official control. The earliest newspaper in the colony was the Virginia Gazette, established in 1736.
In the absence of schools the higher education naturally languished. Some of the planters were taught at home by tutors, and others went to England and entered the universities. But these were few in number, and there was no college in the colony until more than half a century after the foundation of Harvard in the younger province of Massachusetts. The college of William and Mary was established at Williamsburg chiefly by the exertions of the Rev. James Blair, a Scotch divine, who was sent by the Bishop of London as “commissary” to the Church in Virginia. The college received its charter in 1693, and held its first commencement in 1700. It is perhaps significant of the difference between the Puritans of New England and the so-called “Cavaliers” of Virginia, that while the former founded and supported Harvard College in 1636, and Yale in 1701, of their own motion and at their own expense, William and Mary received its endowment from the crown, being provided for in part by a deed of lands and in part by a tax of a penny a pound on all tobacco exported from the colony. In return for this royal grant the college was to present yearly to the king two copies of Latin verse. It is reported of the young Virginian gentlemen who resorted to the new college that they brought their plantation manners with them, and were accustomed to “keep race-horses at the college, and bet at the billiard or other gaming-tables.” William and Mary College did a good work for the colony, and educated some of the great Virginians of the Revolutionary era, but it has never been a large or flourishing institution, and has held no such relation to the intellectual development of its section as Harvard and Yale have held in the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Even after the foundation of the University of Virginia, in which Jefferson took a conspicuous part, Southern youths were commonly sent to the North for their education, and at the time of the outbreak of the civil war there was a large contingent of Southern students in several Northern colleges, notably in Princeton and Yale.
Naturally, the first books written in America were descriptions of the country and narratives of the vicissitudes of the infant settlements, which were sent home to be printed for the information of the English public and the encouragement of further immigration. Among books of this kind produced in Virginia the earliest and most noteworthy were the writings of that famous soldier of fortune, Captain John Smith. The first of these was his True Relation, namely, “of such occurrences and accidents of note as hath happened in Virginia since the first planting of that colony,” printed at London in 1608. Among Smith’s other books the most important is perhaps his General History of Virginia (London, 1624), a compilation of various narratives by different hands, but passing under his name. Smith was a man of a restless and daring spirit, full of resource, impatient of contradiction, and of a somewhat vainglorious nature, with an appetite for the marvelous and a disposition to draw the longbow. He had seen service in many parts of the world, and his wonderful adventures lost nothing in the telling. It was alleged against him that the evidence of his prowess rested almost entirely on his own testimony. His truthfulness in essentials has not, perhaps, been successfully impugned, but his narratives have suffered by the embellishments with which he has colored them; and, in particular, the charming story of Pocahontas saving his life at the risk of her own—the one romance of early Virginian history—has passed into the realm of legend.
Captain Smith’s writings have small literary value apart from the interest of the events which they describe and the diverting but forcible personality which they unconsciously display. They are the rough-hewn records of a busy man of action, whose sword was mightier than his pen. As Smith returned to England after two years in Virginia, and did not permanently cast in his lot with the settlement of which he had been for a time the leading spirit, he can hardly be claimed as an American author. No more can Mr. George Sandys, who came to Virginia in the train of Governor Wyat, in 1621, and completed his excellent metrical translation of Ovid on the banks of the James, in the midst of the Indian massacre of 1622, “limned” as he writes “by that imperfect light which was snatched from the hours of night and repose, having wars and tumults to bring it to light instead of the muses.” Sandys went back to England for good probably as early as 1625, and can, therefore, no more be reckoned as the first American poet, on the strength of his paraphrase of the Metamorphoses, than he can be reckoned the earliest Yankee inventor because he “introduced the first water-mill into America.”
The literature of colonial Virginia, and of the southern colonies which took their point of departure from Virginia, is almost wholly of this historical and descriptive kind. A great part of it is concerned with the internal affairs of the province, such as “Bacon’s Rebellion,” in 1676, one of the most striking episodes in our ante-revolutionary annals, and of which there exist a number of narratives, some of them anonymous, and only rescued from a manuscript condition a hundred years after the event. Another part is concerned with the explorations of new territory. Such were the “Westover Manuscripts,” left by Colonel William Byrd, who was appointed in 1729 one of the commissioners to fix the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina, and gave an account of the survey in his History of the Dividing Line, which was printed only in 1841. Colonel Byrd is one of the most brilliant figures of colonial Virginia, and a type of the Old Virginia gentleman. He had been sent to England for his education, where he was admitted to the bar of the Middle Temple, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and formed an intimate friendship with Charles Boyle, the Earl of Orrery. He held many offices in the government of the colony, and founded the cities of Richmond and Petersburg. His estates were large, and at Westover—where he had one of the finest private libraries in America—he exercised a baronial hospitality, blending the usual profusion of plantation life with the elegance of a traveled scholar and “picked man of countries.” Colonel Byrd was rather an amateur in literature. His History of the Dividing Line is written with a jocularity which rises occasionally into real humor, and which gives to the painful journey through the wilderness the air of a holiday expedition. Similar in tone were his diaries of A Progress to the Mines and A Journey to the Land of Eden in North Carolina.
The first formal historian of Virginia was Robert Beverly, “a native and inhabitant of the place,” whose History of Virginia was printed at London in 1705. Beverly was a rich planter and large slave-owner, who, being in London in 1703, was shown by his bookseller the manuscript of a forthcoming work, Oldmixon’s British Empire in America. Beverly was set upon writing his history by the inaccuracies in this, and likewise because the province “has been so misrepresented to the common people of England as to make them believe that the servants in Virginia are made to draw in cart and plow, and that the country turns all people black”—an impression which lingers still in parts of Europe. The most original portions of the book are those in which the author puts down his personal observations of the plants and animals of the New World, and particularly the account of the Indians, to which his third book is devoted, and which is accompanied by valuable plates. Beverly’s knowledge of these matters was evidently at first hand, and his descriptions here are very fresh and interesting. The more strictly historical part of his work is not free from prejudice and inaccuracy. A more critical, detailed, and impartial, but much less readable, work was William Stith’s History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia, 1747, which brought the subject down only to the year 1624. Stith was a clergyman, and at one time a professor in William and Mary College.
The Virginians were stanch royalists and churchmen. The Church of England was established by law, and non-conformity was persecuted in various ways. Three missionaries were sent to the colony in 1642 by the Puritans of New England, two from Braintree, Massachusetts, and one from New Haven. They were not suffered to preach, but many resorted to them in private houses, until, being finally driven out by fines and imprisonments, they took refuge in Catholic Maryland. The Virginia clergy were not, as a body, very much of a force in education or literature. Many of them, by reason of the scattering and dispersed condition of their parishes, lived as domestic chaplains with the wealthier planters, and partook of their illiteracy and their passion for gaming and hunting. Few of them inherited the zeal of Alexander Whitaker, the “Apostle of Virginia,” who came over in 1611 to preach to the colonists and convert the Indians, and who published in furtherance of those ends Good News from Virginia, in 1613, three years before his death by drowning in the James River.
The conditions were much more favorable for the production of a literature in New England than in the southern colonies. The free and genial existence of the “Old Dominion” had no counterpart among the settlers of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, and the Puritans must have been rather unpleasant people to live with for persons of a different way of thinking. But their intensity of character, their respect for learning, and the heroic mood which sustained them through the hardships and dangers of their great enterprise are amply reflected in their own writings. If these are not so much literature as the raw materials of literature, they have at least been fortunate in finding interpreters among their descendants, and no modern Virginian has done for the memory of the Jamestown planters what Hawthorne, Whittier, Longfellow, and others have done in casting the glamour of poetry and romance over the lives of the founders of New England.
Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia, quotes the following passage from one of those election sermons, delivered before the General Court of Massachusetts, which formed for many years the great annual intellectual event of the colony:
“The question was often put unto our predecessors, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? And the answer to it is not only too excellent but too notorious to be dissembled. . . . We came hither because we would have our posterity settled under the pure and full dispensations of the Gospel, defended by rulers that should be of ourselves.” The New England colonies were, in fact, theocracies. Their leaders were clergymen, or laymen whose zeal for the faith was no whit inferior to that of the ministers themselves. Church and State were one. The freeman’s oath was only administered to church members, and there was no place in the social system for unbelievers or dissenters. The pilgrim fathers regarded their transplantation to the New World as an exile, and nothing is more touching in their written records than the repeated expressions of love and longing toward the old home which they had left, and even toward that Church of England from which they had sorrowfully separated themselves. It was not in any light or adventurous spirit that they faced the perils of the sea and the wilderness. “This howling wilderness,” “these ends of the earth,” “these goings down of the sun,” are some of the epithets which they constantly applied to the land of their exile. Nevertheless they had come to stay, and, unlike Smith and Percy and Sandys, the early historians and writers of New England cast in their lots permanently with the new settlements. A few, indeed, went back after 1640–Mather says some ten or twelve of the ministers of the first “classis” or immigration were among them—when the victory of the Puritanic party in Parliament opened a career for them in England, and made their presence there seem in some cases a duty. The celebrated Hugh Peters, for example, who was afterward Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain, and was beheaded after the Restoration, went back in 1641, and in 1647 Nathaniel Ward, the minister of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and author of a quaint book against toleration, entitled The Simple Cobbler of Agawam; written in America and published shortly after its author’s arrival in England. The civil war, too, put a stop to further emigration from England until after the Restoration in 1660.
The mass of the Puritan immigration consisted of men of the middle class, artisans and husbandmen, the most useful members of a new colony. But their leaders were clergymen educated at the universities, and especially at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the great Puritan college; their civil magistrates were also in great part gentlemen of education and substance, like the elder Winthrop, who was learned in law, and Theophilus Eaton, first governor of New Haven, who was a London merchant of good estate. It is computed that there were in New England during the first generation as many university graduates as in any community of equal population in the old country. Almost the first care of the settlers was to establish schools. Every town of fifty families was required by law to maintain a common school, and every town of a hundred families a grammar or Latin school. In 1636, only sixteen years after the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, Harvard College was founded at Newtown, whose name was thereupon changed to Cambridge, the General Court held at Boston on September 8, 1630, having already advanced 400 pounds “by way of essay towards the building of something to begin a college.” “An university,” says Mather, “which hath been to these plantations, for the good literature there cultivated, sal Gentium, . . . and a river without the streams whereof these regions would have been mere unwatered places for the devil.” By 1701 Harvard had put forth a vigorous offshoot, Yale College at New Haven, the settlers of New Haven and Connecticut plantations having increased sufficiently to need a college at their own doors. A printing-press was set up at Cambridge in 1639, which was under the oversight of the university authorities, and afterward of licensers appointed by the civil power. The press was no more free in Massachusetts than in Virginia, and that “liberty of unlicensed printing” for which the Puritan Milton had pleaded in his Areopagitica, in 1644, was unknown in Puritan New England until some twenty years before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. “The Freeman’s Oath” and an almanac were issued from the Cambridge press in 1639, and in 1640 the first English book printed in America, a collection of the psalms in meter, made by various ministers, and known as the Bay Psalm Book. The poetry of this version was worse, if possible, than that of Sternhold and Hopkins’s famous rendering; but it is noteworthy that one of the principal translators was that devoted “Apostle to the Indians,” the Rev. John Eliot, who, in 1661-63, translated the Bible into the Algonquin tongue. Eliot hoped and toiled a life-time for the conversion of those “salvages,” “tawnies,” “devil-worshipers,” for whom our early writers have usually nothing but bad words. They have been destroyed instead of converted; but his (so entitled) Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God naneeswe Nukkone Testament kah wonk Wusku Testament–the first Bible printed in America—remains a monument of missionary zeal and a work of great value to students of the Indian languages.
A modern writer has said that, to one looking back on the history of old New England, it seems as though the sun shone but dimly there, and the landscape was always dark and wintry. Such is the impression which one carries away from the perusal of books like Bradford’s and Winthrop’s Journals, or Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World–an impression of gloom, of flight and cold, of mysterious fears besieging the infant settlements scattered in a narrow fringe “between the groaning forest and the shore.” The Indian terror hung over New England for more than half a century, or until the issue of King Philip’s War, in 1670, relieved the colonists of any danger of a general massacre. Added to this were the perplexities caused by the earnest resolve of the settlers to keep their New-England Eden free from the intrusion of the serpent in the shape of heretical sects in religion. The Puritanism of Massachusetts was an orthodox and conservative Puritanism. The later and more grotesque out-crops of the movement in the old England found no toleration in the new. But these refugees for conscience’ sake were compelled in turn to persecute Antinomians, Separatists, Familists, Libertines, Anti-pedobaptists, and later, Quakers, and still later, Enthusiasts, who swarmed into their precincts and troubled the churches with “prophesyings” and novel opinions. Some of those were banished, others were flogged or imprisoned, and a few were put to death. Of the exiles the most noteworthy was Roger Williams, an impetuous, warm-hearted man, who was so far in advance of his age as to deny the power of the civil magistrate in cases of conscience, or who, in other words, maintained the modern doctrine of the separation of Church and State. Williams was driven away from the Massachusetts colony—where he had been minister of the church at Salem—and with a few followers fled into the southern wilderness and settled at Providence. There, and in the neighboring plantation of Rhode Island, for which he obtained a charter, he established his patriarchal rule and gave freedom of worship to all comers. Williams was a prolific writer on theological subjects, the most important of his writings being, perhaps, his Bloody Tenent of Persecution, 1644, and a supplement to the same called out by a reply to the former work from the pen of Mr. John Cotton, minister of the First Church at Boston, entitled The Bloody Tenent Washed and made White in the Blood of the Lamb. Williams was also a friend to the Indians, whose lands, he thought, should not be taken from them without payment, and he anticipated Eliot by writing, in 1643, a Key into the Language of America. Although at odds with the theology of Massachusetts Bay, Williams remained in correspondence with Winthrop and others in Boston, by whom he was highly esteemed. He visited England in 1643 and 1652, and made the acquaintance of John Milton.
Besides the threat of an Indian war and their anxious concern for the purity of the Gospel in their churches, the colonists were haunted by superstitious forebodings of the darkest kind. It seemed to them that Satan, angered by the setting up of the kingdom of the saints in America, had “come down in great wrath,” and was present among them, sometimes even in visible shape, to terrify and tempt. Special providences and unusual phenomena, like earth quakes, mirages, and the northern lights, are gravely recorded by Winthrop and Mather and others as portents of supernatural persecutions. Thus Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, the celebrated leader of the Familists, having, according to rumor, been delivered of a monstrous birth, the Rev. John Cotton, in open assembly, at Boston, upon a lecture day, “thereupon gathered that it might signify her error in denying inherent righteousness.” “There will be an unusual range of the devil among us,” wrote Mather, “a little before the second coming of our Lord. The evening wolves will be much abroad when we are near the evening of the world.” This belief culminated in the horrible witchcraft delusion at Salem in 1692, that “spectral puppet play,” which, beginning with the malicious pranks of a few children who accused certain uncanny old women and other persons of mean condition and suspected lives of having tormented them with magic, gradually drew into its vortex victims of the highest character, and resulted in the judicial murder of over nineteen people. Many of the possessed pretended to have been visited by the apparition of a little black man, who urged them to inscribe their names in a red book which he carried—a sort of muster-roll of those who had forsworn God’s service for the devil’s. Others testified to having been present at meetings of witches in the forest. It is difficult now to read without contempt the “evidence” which grave justices and learned divines considered sufficient to condemn to death men and women of unblemished lives. It is true that the belief in witchcraft was general at that time all over the civilized world, and that sporadic cases of witch-burnings had occurred in different parts of America and Europe. Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio Medici, 1635, affirmed his belief in witches, and pronounced those who doubted of them “a sort of atheist.” But the superstition came to a head in the Salem trials and executions, and was the more shocking from the general high level of intelligence in the community in which these were held. It would be well if those who lament the decay of “faith” would remember what things were done in New England in the name of faith less than two hundred years ago. It is not wonderful that, to the Massachusetts Puritans of the seventeenth century, the mysterious forest held no beautiful suggestion; to them it was simply a grim and hideous wilderness, whose dark aisles were the ambush of prowling savages and the rendezvous of those other “devil-worshipers” who celebrated there a kind of vulgar Walpurgis night.
The most important of original sources for the history of the settlement of New England are the journals of William Bradford, first governor of Plymouth, and John Winthrop, the second governor of Massachusetts, which hold a place corresponding to the writings of Captain John Smith in the Virginia colony, but are much more sober and trustworthy. Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation covers the period from 1620 to 1646. The manuscript was used by later annalists but remained unpublished, as a whole, until 1855, having been lost during the War of the Revolution and recovered long afterward in England. Winthrop’s Journal, or History of New England, begun on shipboard in 1630, and extending to 1649, was not published entire until 1826. It is of equal authority with Bradford’s, and perhaps, on the whole the more important of the two, as the colony of Massachusetts Bay, whose history it narrates, greatly outwent Plymouth in wealth and population, though not in priority of settlement. The interest of Winthrop’s Journal lies in the events that it records rather than in any charm in the historian’s manner of recording them. His style is pragmatic, and some of the incidents which he gravely notes are trivial to the modern mind, though instructive as to our forefathers’ way of thinking. For instance, of the year 1632: “At Watertown there was (in the view of divers witnesses) a great combat between a mouse and a snake, and after a long fight the mouse prevailed and killed the snake. The pastor of Boston, Mr. Wilson, a very sincere, holy man, hearing of it, gave this interpretation: that the snake was the devil, the mouse was a poor, contemptible people, which God had brought hither, which should overcome Satan here and dispossess him of his kingdom.” The reader of Winthrop’s Journal comes every-where upon hints which the imagination has since shaped into poetry and romance. The germs of many of Longfellow’s New England Tragedies, of Hawthorne’s Maypole of Merrymount, and Endicott’s Red Cross, and of Whittier’s John Underhill and The Familists’ Hymn are all to be found in some dry, brief entry of the old Puritan diarist. “Robert Cole, having been oft punished for drunkenness, was now ordered to wear a red D about his neck for a year,” to wit, the year 1633, and thereby gave occasion to the greatest American romance, The Scarlet Letter. The famous apparition of the phantom ship in New Haven harbor, “upon the top of the poop a man standing with one hand akimbo under his left side, and in his right hand a sword stretched out toward the sea,” was first chronicled by Winthrop under the year 1648. This meteorological phenomenon took on the dimensions of a full-grown myth some forty years later, as related, with many embellishments, by Rev. James Pierpont, of New Haven, in a letter to Cotton Mather. Winthrop put great faith in special providences, and among other instances narrates, not without a certain grim satisfaction, how “the Mary Rose, a ship of Bristol, of about 200 tons,” lying before Charleston, was blown in pieces with her own powder, being twenty-one barrels, wherein the judgment of God appeared, “for the master and company were many of them profane scoffers at us and at the ordinances of religion here.” Without any effort at dramatic portraiture or character-sketching, Winthrop managed in all simplicity, and by the plain relation of facts, to leave a clear impression of many prominent figures in the first Massachusetts immigration. In particular there gradually arises from the entries in his diary a very distinct and diverting outline of Captain John Underhill, celebrated in Whittier’s poem. He was one of the few professional soldiers who came over with the Puritan fathers, such as John Mason, the hero of the Pequot War, and Miles Standish, whose Courtship Longfellow sang. He had seen service in the Low Countries, and in pleading the privilege of his profession “he insisted much upon the liberty which all States do allow to military officers for free speech, etc., and that himself had spoken sometimes as freely to Count Nassau.” Captain Underhill gave the colony no end of trouble, both by his scandalous living and his heresies in religion. Having been seduced into Familistical opinions by Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, who was banished for her beliefs, he was had up before the General Court and questioned, among other points, as to his own report of the manner of his conversion. “He had lain under a spirit of bondage and a legal way for years, and could get no assurance, till, at length, as he was taking a pipe of tobacco, the Spirit set home an absolute promise of free grace with such assurance and joy as he never since doubted of his good estate, neither should he, though he should fall into sin. . . . The Lord’s day following he made a speech in the assembly, showing that as the Lord was pleased to convert Paul as he was in persecuting, etc., so he might manifest himself to him as he was taking the moderate use of the creature called tobacco.” The gallant captain, being banished the colony, betook himself to the falls of the Piscataquack (Exeter, N.H.), where the Rev. John Wheelwright, another adherent of Mrs. Hutchinson, had gathered a congregation. Being made governor of this plantation, Underhill sent letters to the Massachusetts magistrates, breathing reproaches and imprecations of vengeance. But meanwhile it was discovered that he had been living in adultery at Boston with a young woman whom he had seduced, the wife of a cooper, and the captain was forced to make public confession, which he did with great unction and in a manner highly dramatic. “He came in his worst clothes (being accustomed to take great pride in his bravery and neatness), without a band, in a foul linen cap, and pulled close to his eyes, and standing upon a form, he did, with many deep sighs and abundance of tears, lay open his wicked course.” There is a lurking humor in the grave Winthrop’s detailed account of Underhill’s doings. Winthrop’s own personality comes out well in his Journal. He was a born leader of men, a conditor imperii, just, moderate, patient, wise; and his narrative gives, upon the whole, a favorable impression of the general prudence and fair-mindedness of the Massachusetts settlers in their dealings with one another, with the Indians, and with the neighboring plantations.
Considering our forefathers’ errand and calling into this wilderness, it is not strange that their chief literary staples were sermons and tracts in controversial theology. Multitudes of these were written and published by the divines of the first generation, such as John Cotton, Thomas Shepard, John Norton, Peter Bulkley, and Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, of whom it was finely said that “when he was doing his Master’s business he would put a king into his pocket.” Nor were their successors in the second or the third generation any less industrious and prolific. They rest from their labors and their works do follow them. Their sermons and theological treatises are not literature: they are for the most part dry, heavy, and dogmatic, but they exhibit great learning, logical acuteness, and an earnestness which sometimes rises into eloquence. The pulpit ruled New England, and the sermon was the great intellectual engine of the time. The serious thinking of the Puritans was given almost exclusively to religion; the other world was all their art. The daily secular events of life, the aspects of nature, the vicissitude of the seasons, were important enough to find record in print only in so far as they manifested God’s dealings with his people. So much was the sermon depended upon to furnish literary food that it was the general custom of serious-minded laymen to take down the words of the discourse in their note-books. Franklin, in his Autobiography, describes this as the constant habit of his grandfather, Peter Folger; and Mather, in his life of the elder Winthrop, says that “tho’ he wrote not after the preacher, yet such was his attention and such his retention in hearing, that he repeated unto his family the sermons which he had heard in the congregation.” These discourses were commonly of great length; twice, or sometimes thrice, the pulpit hour-glass was silently inverted while the orator pursued his theme even unto “fourteenthly.”
The book which best sums up the life and thought of this old New England of the seventeenth century is Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. Mather was by birth a member of that clerical aristocracy which developed later into Dr. Holmes’s “Brahmin Caste of New England.” His maternal grandfather was John Cotton. His father was Increase Mather, the most learned divine of his generation in New England, minister of the North Church of Boston, President of Harvard College, and author, inter alia, of that characteristically Puritan book, An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. Cotton Mather himself was a monster of erudition and a prodigy of diligence. He was graduated from Harvard at fifteen. He ordered his daily life and conversation by a system of minute observances. He was a book-worm, whose life was spent between his library and his pulpit, and his published works number upward of three hundred and eighty. Of these the most important is the Magnalia, 1702, an ecclesiastical history of New England from 1620 to 1698, divided into seven parts: I. Antiquities; II. Lives of the Governors; III. Lives of Sixty Famous Divines; IV. A History of Harvard College, with biographies of its eminent graduates; V. Acts and Monuments of the Faith; VI. Wonderful Providences; VII. The Wars of the Lord—that is, an account of the Afflictions and Disturbances of the Churches and the Conflicts with the Indians. The plan of the work thus united that of Fuller’s Worthies of England and Church History with that of Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses and Fox’s Book of Martyrs.
Mather’s prose was of the kind which the English Commonwealth writers used. He was younger by a generation than Dryden; but, as literary fashions are slower to change in a colony than in the mother-country, that nimble English which Dryden and the Restoration essayists introduced had not yet displaced in New England the older manner. Mather wrote in the full and pregnant style of Taylor, Milton, Brown, Fuller, and Burton, a style ponderous with learning and stiff with allusions, digressions, conceits, anecdotes, and quotations from the Greek and the Latin. A page of the Magnalia is almost as richly mottled with italics as one from the Anatomy of Melancholy, and the quaintness which Mather caught from his favorite Fuller disports itself in textual pun and marginal anagram and the fantastic sub-titles of his books and chapters. He speaks of Thomas Hooker as having “angled many scores of souls into the kingdom of heaven,” anagrammatizes Mrs. Hutchinson’s surname into “the non-such;” and having occasion to speak of Mr. Urian Oakes’s election to the presidency of Harvard College, enlarges upon the circumstance as follows:
“We all know that Britain knew nothing more famous than their ancient sect of DRUIDS; the philosophers, whose order, they say, was instituted by one Samothes, which is in English as much as to say, an heavenly man. The Celtic name, Deru, for an Oak was that from whence they received their denomination; as at this very day the Welch call this tree Drew, and this order of men Derwyddon. But there are no small antiquaries who derive this oaken religion and philosophy from the Oaks of Mamre, where the Patriarch Abraham had as well a dwelling as an altar. That Oaken- Plain and the eminent OAK under which Abraham lodged was extant in the days of Constantine, as Isidore, Jerom, and Sozomen have assured us. Yea, there are shrewd probabilities that Noah himself had lived in this very Oak-plain before him; for this very place was called Og, which was the name of Noah, so styled from the Oggyan (subcineritiis panibus) sacrifices, which he did use to offer in this renowned Grove. And it was from this example that the ancients, and particularly that the Druids of the nations, chose oaken retirements for their studies. Reader, let us now, upon another account, behold the students of Harvard College, as a rendezvous of happy Druids, under the influences of so rare a president. But, alas! our joy must be short-lived, for on July 25, 1681, the stroke of a sudden death felled the tree,
“Qui tantum inter caput extulit omnes Quantum lenta solent inter viberna cypressi.
“Mr. Oakes thus being transplanted into the better world the presidentship was immediately tendered unto Mr. Increase Mather.”
This will suffice as an example of the bad taste and laborious pedantry which disfigured Mather’s writing. In its substance the book is a perfect thesaurus; and inasmuch as nothing is unimportant in the history of the beginnings of such a nation as this is and is destined to be, the Magnalia will always remain a valuable and interesting work. Cotton Mather, born in 1663, was of the second generation of Americans, his grandfather being of the immigration, but his father a native of Dorchester, Mass. A comparison of his writings and of the writings of his contemporaries with the works of Bradford, Winthrop, Hooker, and others of the original colonists, shows that the simple and heroic faith of the Pilgrims had hardened into formalism and doctrinal rigidity. The leaders of the Puritan exodus, notwithstanding their intolerance of errors in belief, were comparatively broad-minded men. They were sharers in a great national movement, and they came over when their cause was warm with the glow of martyrdom and on the eve of its coming triumph at home. After the Restoration, in 1660, the currents of national feeling no longer circulated so freely through this distant member of the body politic, and thought in America became more provincial. The English dissenters, though socially at a disadvantage as compared with the Church of England, had the great benefit of living at the center of national life, and of feeling about them the pressure of vast bodies of people who did not think as they did. In New England, for many generations, the dominant sect had things all its own way—a condition of things which is not healthy for any sect or party. Hence Mather and the divines of his time appear in their writings very much like so many Puritan bishops, jealous of their prerogatives, magnifying their apostolate, and careful to maintain their authority over the laity. Mather had an appetite for the marvelous, and took a leading part in the witchcraft trials, of which he gave an account in his Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693. To the quaint pages of the Magnalia our modern authors have resorted as to a collection of romances or fairy tales. Whittier, for example, took from thence the subject of his poem The Garrison of Cape Anne; and Hawthorne embodied in Grandfather’s Chair the most elaborate of Mather’s biographies. This was the life of Sir William Phipps, who, from being a poor shepherd boy in his native province of Maine, rose to be the royal governor of Massachusetts, and the story of whose wonderful adventures in raising the freight of a Spanish ship, sunk on a reef near Port de la Plata, reads less like sober fact than like some ancient fable, with talk of the Spanish main, bullion, and plate and jewels and “pieces of eight.”
Of Mather’s generation was Samuel Sewall, Chief-Justice of Massachusetts, a singularly gracious and venerable figure, who is intimately known through his Diary, kept from 1673 to 1729. This has been compared with the more famous diary of Samuel Pepys, which it resembles in its confidential character and the completeness of its self-revelation, but to which it is as much inferior in historic interest as “the petty province here” was inferior in political and social importance to “Britain far away.” For the most part it is a chronicle of small beer, the diarist jotting down the minutiae of his domestic life and private affairs, even to the recording of such haps as this: “March 23, I had my hair cut by G. Barret.” But it also affords instructive glimpses of public events, such as King Philip’s War, the Quaker troubles, the English Revolution of 1688, etc. It bears about the same relation to New England history at the close of the seventeenth century as Bradford’s and Winthrop’s Journals bear to that of the first generation. Sewall was one of the justices who presided at the trial of the Salem witches; but for the part which he took in that wretched affair he made such atonement as was possible, by open confession of his mistake and his remorse in the presence of the Church. Sewall was one of the first writers against African slavery, in his brief tract, The Selling of Joseph, printed at Boston in 1700. His Phenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica, a mystical interpretation of prophecies concerning the New Jerusalem, which he identifies with America, is remembered only because Whittier, in his Prophecy of Samuel Sewall, has paraphrased one poetic passage which shows a loving observation of nature very rare in our colonial writers.
Of poetry, indeed, or, in fact, of pure literature, in the narrower sense—that is, of the imaginative representation of life—there was little or none in the colonial period. There were no novels, no plays, no satires, and—until the example of the Spectator had begun to work on this side the water—no experiments even at the lighter forms of essay-writing, character-sketches, and literary criticism. There was verse of a certain kind, but the most generous stretch of the term would hardly allow it to be called poetry. Many of the early divines of New England relieved their pens, in the intervals of sermon-writing, of epigrams, elegies, eulogistic verses, and similar grave trifles distinguished by the crabbed wit of the so-called “metaphysical poets,” whose manner was in fashion when the Puritans left England; the manner of Donne and Cowley, and those darlings of the New-English muse, the Emblems of Quarles and the Divine Week of Du Bartas, as translated by Sylvester. The Magnalia contains a number of these things in Latin and English, and is itself well bolstered with complimentary introductions in meter by the author’s friends. For example:
Tuos Tecum Ornasti.
“While thus the dead in thy rare pages rise
Thine, with thyself thou dost immortalize.
To view the odds thy learned lives invite
‘Twixt Eleutherian and Edomite.
But all succeeding ages shall despair
A fitting monument for thee to rear.
Thy own rich pen (peace, silly Momus, peace!)
Hath given them a lasting writ of ease.”
The epitaphs and mortuary verses were especially ingenious in the matter of puns, anagrams, and similar conceits. The death of the Rev. Samuel Stone, of Hartford, afforded an opportunity of this sort not to be missed, and his threnodist accordingly celebrated him as a “whetstone,” a “loadstone,” an “Ebenezer”—
“A stone for kingly David’s use so fit
As would not fail Goliath’s front to hit,” etc.
The most characteristic, popular, and widely circulated poem of colonial New England was Michael Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom (1663), a kind of doggerel Inferno, which went through nine editions, and “was the solace,” says Lowell, “of every fireside, the flicker of the pine-knots by which it was conned perhaps adding a livelier relish to its premonitions of eternal combustion.” Wigglesworth had not the technical equipment of a poet. His verse is sing-song, his language rude and monotonous, and the lurid horrors of his material hell are more likely to move mirth than fear in a modern reader. But there are an unmistakable vigor of imagination and a sincerity of belief in his gloomy poem which hold it far above contempt, and easily account for its universal currency among a people like the Puritans. One stanza has been often quoted for its grim concession to unregenerate infants of “the easiest room in hell”—a limbus infantum which even Origen need not have scrupled at.
The most authoritative expounder of New England Calvinism was Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), a native of Connecticut and a graduate of Yale, who was minister for more than twenty years over the church in Northampton, Mass., afterward missionary to the Stockbridge Indians, and at the time of his death had just been inaugurated president of Princeton College. By virtue of his Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will, 1754, Edwards holds rank as the subtlest metaphysician of his age. This treatise was composed to justify, on philosophical grounds, the Calvinistic doctrines of fore-ordination and election by grace, though its arguments are curiously coincident with those of the scientific necessitarians, whose conclusions are as far asunder from Edwards’s “as from the center thrice to the utmost pole.” His writings belong to theology rather than to literature, but there is an intensity and a spiritual elevation about them, apart from the profundity and acuteness of the thought, which lift them here and there into the finer ether of purely emotional or imaginative art. He dwelt rather upon the terrors than the comfort of the word, and his chosen themes were the dogmas of predestination, original sin, total depravity, and eternal punishment. The titles of his sermons are significant: Men Naturally God’s Enemies, Wrath upon the Wicked to the Uttermost, The Final Judgment, etc. “A natural man,” he wrote in the first of these discourses, “has a heart like the heart of a devil. . . . The heart of a natural man is as destitute of love to God as a dead, stiff, cold corpse is of vital heat.” Perhaps the most famous of Edwards’s sermons was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, preached at Enfield, Conn., July 8, 1741, “at a time of great awakenings,” and upon the ominous text, Their foot shall slide in due time. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell,” runs an oft-quoted passage from this powerful denunciation of the wrath to come, “much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. . . . You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. . . . You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it. . . . If you cry to God to pity you he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case that he will only tread you under foot. . . . He will crush out your blood and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments so as to stain all his raiment.” But Edwards was a rapt soul, possessed with the love as well as the fear of the God, and there are passages of sweet and exalted feeling in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 1746. Such is his portrait of Sarah Pierpont, “a young lady in New Haven,” who afterward became his wife and who “will sometimes go about from place to place singing sweetly, and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have some one invisible always conversing with her.” Edwards’s printed works number thirty-six titles. A complete edition of them in ten volumes was published in 1829 by his great grandson, Sereno Dwight. The memoranda from Edwards’s note-books, quoted by his editor and biographer, exhibit a remarkable precocity. Even as a school-boy and a college student he had made deep guesses in physics as well as metaphysics, and, as might have been predicted of a youth of his philosophical insight and ideal cast of mind, he had early anticipated Berkeley in denying the existence of matter. In passing from Mather to Edwards we step from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. There is the same difference between them in style and turn of thought as between Milton and Locke, or between Fuller and Bryden. The learned digressions, the witty conceits, the perpetual interlarding of the text with scraps of Latin, have fallen off, even as the full-bottomed wig and the clerical gown and bands have been laid aside for the undistinguishing dress of the modern minister. In Edwards’s English all is simple, precise, direct, and business-like.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), who was strictly contemporary with Edwards, was a contrast to him in every respect. As Edwards represents the spirituality and other-worldliness of Puritanism, Franklin stands for the worldly and secular side of American character, and he illustrates the development of the New England Englishman into the modern Yankee. Clear rather than subtle, without ideality or romance or fineness of emotion or poetic lift, intensely practical and utilitarian, broad-minded, inventive, shrewd, versatile, Franklin’s sturdy figure became typical of his time and his people. He was the first and the only man of letters in colonial America who acquired a cosmopolitan fame and impressed his characteristic Americanism upon the mind of Europe. He was the embodiment of common sense and of the useful virtues, with the enterprise but without the nervousness of his modern compatriots, uniting the philosopher’s openness of mind to the sagacity and quickness of resource of the self-made business man. He was representative also of his age, an age of aufklärung, eclaircissement, or “clearing up.” By the middle of the eighteenth century a change had taken place in American society. Trade had increased between the different colonies; Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were considerable towns; democratic feeling was spreading; over forty newspapers were published in America at the outbreak of the Revolution; politics claimed more attention than formerly, and theology less. With all this intercourse and mutual reaction of the various colonies upon one another, the isolated theocracy of New England naturally relaxed somewhat of its grip on the minds of the laity. When Franklin was a printer’s apprentice in Boston, setting type on his brother’s New England Courant, the fourth American newspaper, he got hold of an odd volume of the Spectator, and formed his style upon Addison, whose manner he afterward imitated in his Busy-Body papers in the Philadelphia Weekly Mercury. He also read Locke and the English deistical writers, Collins and Shaftesbury, and became himself a deist and free-thinker; and subsequently when practicing his trade in London, in 1724-26, he made the acquaintance of Dr. Mandeville, author of the Fable of the Bees, at a pale-ale house in Cheapside, called “The Horns,” where the famous free-thinker presided over a club of wits and boon companions. Though a native of Boston, Franklin is identified with Philadelphia, whither he arrived in 1723, a runaway ‘prentice boy, “whose stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar and about a shilling in copper.” The description in his Autobiography of his walking up Market Street munching a loaf of bread, and passing his future wife, standing on her father’s doorstep, has become almost as familiar as the anecdote about Whittington and his cat.
It was in the practical sphere that Franklin was greatest, as an originator and executor of projects for the general welfare. The list of his public services is almost endless. He organized the Philadelphia fire department and street-cleaning service, and the colonial postal system which grew into the United States Post Office Department. He started the Philadelphia public library, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, and the first American magazine, The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle; so that he was almost singly the father of whatever intellectual life the Pennsylvania colony could boast. In 1754, when commissioners from the colonies met at Albany, Franklin proposed a plan, which was adopted, for the union of all the colonies under one government. But all these things, as well as his mission to England in 1757, on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly in its dispute with the proprietaries; his share in the Declaration of Independence—of which he was one of the signers—and his residence in France as embassador of the United Colonies, belong to the political history of the country; to the history of American science belong his celebrated experiments in electricity; and his benefits to mankind in both of these departments were aptly summed up in the famous epigram of the French statesman Turgot:
“Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyranniis.”
Franklin’s success in Europe was such as no American had yet achieved, as few Americans since him have achieved. Hume and Voltaire were among his acquaintances and his professed admirers. In France he was fairly idolized, and when he died Mirabeau announced, “The genius which has freed America and poured a flood of light over Europe has returned to the bosom of the Divinity.”
Franklin was a great man, but hardly a great writer, though as a writer, too, he had many admirable and some great qualities. Among these were the crystal clearness and simplicity of his style. His more strictly literary performances, such as his essays after the Spectator, hardly rise above mediocrity, and are neither better nor worse than other imitations of Addison. But in some of his lighter bagatelles there are a homely wisdom and a charming playfulness which have won them enduring favor. Such are his famous story of the Whistle, his Dialogue between Franklin and the Gout, his letters to Madame Helvetius, and his verses entitled Paper. The greater portion of his writings consists of papers on general politics, commerce, and political economy, contributions to the public questions of his day. These are of the nature of journalism rather than of literature, and many of them were published in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, the medium through which for many years he most strongly influenced American opinion. The most popular of his writings were his Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanac. The former of these was begun in 1771, resumed in 1788, but never completed. It has remained the most widely current book in our colonial literature. Poor Richard’s Almanac, begun in 1732 and continued for about twenty-five years, had an annual circulation of ten thousand copies. It was filled with proverbial sayings in prose and verse, inculcating the virtues of industry, honesty, and frugality. Some of these were original with Franklin, others were selected from the proverbial wisdom of the ages, but a new force was given them by pungent turns of expression. Poor Richard’s saws were such as these: “Little strokes fell great oaks;” “Three removes are as bad as a fire;” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise;” “Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day;” “What maintains one vice would bring up two children;” “It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.”
Now and then there are truths of a higher kind than these in Franklin, and Sainte-Beuve, the great French critic, quotes, as an example of his occasional finer moods, the saying, “Truth and sincerity have a certain distinguishing native luster about them which cannot be counterfeited; they are like fire and flame that cannot be painted.” But the sage who invented the Franklin stove had no disdain of small utilities; and in general the last word of his philosophy is well expressed in a passage of his Autobiography: “Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune, that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day; thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of his life than in giving him a thousand guineas.”
1. Captain John Smith. A True Relation of Virginia, Deane’s edition. Boston: 1866.
2. Cotton Mather. Magnalia Christi Americana. Hartford: 1820.
3. Samuel Sewall. Diary. Massachusetts Historical Collections. Fifth Series. Vols. v, vi, and vii. Boston: 1878.
4. Jonathan Edwards. Eight Sermons on Various Occasions. Vol. vii of Edwards’s Works. Edited by Sereno Dwight. New York: 1829.
5. Benjamin Franklin. Autobiography. Edited by John Bigelow. Philadelphia: 1869.
6. Essays and Bagatelles. Vol. ii of Franklin’s Works. Edited by Jared Sparks. Boston: 1836.
7. Moses Coit Tyler. A History of American Literature. 1607-1765. New York: 1878.
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