The Revolutionary Period in American Letters
[This is taken from Henry A. Beers’ Initial Studies in American Letters.]
THE REVOLUTIONARY PERIOD
It will be convenient to treat the fifty years which elapsed between the meeting at New York, in 1765, of a Congress of delegates from nine colonies to protest against the Stamp Act, and the close of the second war with England, in 1815, as, for literary purposes, a single period. This half-century was the formative era of the American nation. Historically, it is divisible into the years of revolution and the years of construction. But the men who led the movement for independence were also, in great part, the same who guided in shaping the Constitution of the new republic, and the intellectual impress of the whole period is one and the same. The character of the age was as distinctly political as that of the colonial era—in New England at least—was theological; and literature must still continue to borrow its interest from history. Pure literature, or what, for want of a better term, we call belles lettres, was not born in America until the nineteenth century was well under way. It is true that the Revolution had its humor, its poetry, and even its fiction; but these were strictly for the home market. They hardly penetrated the consciousness of Europe at all, and are not to be compared with the contemporary work of English authors like Cowper and Sheridan and Burke. Their importance for us to-day is rather antiquarian than literary, though the most noteworthy of them will be mentioned in due course in the present chapter. It is also true that one or two of Irving’s early books fall within the last years of the period now under consideration. But literary epochs overlap one another at the edges, and these writings may best be postponed to a subsequent chapter.
Among the most characteristic products of the intellectual stir that preceded and accompanied the Revolutionary movement were the speeches of political orators like Samuel Adams, James Otis, and Josiah Quincy, in Massachusetts, and Patrick Henry in Virginia. Oratory is the art of a free people, and as in the forensic assemblies of Greece and Rome and in the Parliament of Great Britain, so in the conventions and congresses of Revolutionary America it sprang up and flourished naturally. The age, moreover, was an eloquent, not to say a rhetorical, age; and the influence of Johnson’s orotund prose, of the declamatory Letters of Junius, and of the speeches of Burke, Fox, Sheridan, and the elder Pitt is perceptible in the debates of our early Congresses. The fame of a great orator, like that of a great actor, is largely traditionary. The spoken word transferred to the printed page loses the glow which resided in the man and the moment. A speech is good if it attains its aim, if it moves the hearers to the end which is sought. But the fact that this end is often temporary and occasional, rather than universal and permanent, explains why so few speeches are really literature. If this is true, even where the words of an orator are preserved exactly as they were spoken, it is doubly true when we have only the testimony of contemporaries as to the effect which the oration produced. The fiery utterances of Adams, Otis, and Quincy were either not reported at all or very imperfectly reported, so that posterity can judge of them only at second-hand. Patrick Henry has fared better, many of his orations being preserved in substance, if not in the letter, in Wirt’s biography. Of these the most famous was the defiant speech in the Convention of Delegates, March 28, 1775, throwing down the gauge of battle to the British ministry. The ringing sentences of this challenge are still declaimed by schoolboys, and many of them remain as familiar as household words. “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. . . . Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace. . . . Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” The eloquence of Patrick Henry was fervid rather than weighty or rich. But if such specimens of the oratory of the American patriots as have come down to us fail to account for the wonderful impression that their words are said to have produced upon their fellow-countrymen, we should remember that they are at a disadvantage when read instead of heard. The imagination should supply all those accessories which gave them vitality when first pronounced—the living presence and voice of the speaker; the listening Senate; the grave excitement of the hour and of the impending conflict. The wordiness and exaggeration; the highly Latinized diction; the rhapsodies about freedom which hundreds of Fourth-of-July addresses have since turned into platitudes—all these coming hot from the lips of men whose actions in the field confirmed the earnestness of their speech—were effective in the crisis and for the purpose to which they were addressed.
The press was an agent in the cause of liberty no less potent than the platform, and patriots such as Adams, Otis, Quincy, Warren, and Hancock wrote constantly, for the newspapers, essays and letters on the public questions of the time signed “Vindex,” “Hyperion,” “Independent,” “Brutus,” “Cassius,” and the like, and couched in language which to the taste of to-day seems rather over-rhetorical. Among the most important of these political essays were the Circular Letter to each Colonial Legislature, published by Adams and Otis in 1768; Quincy’s Observations on the Boston Port Bill, 1774, and Otis’s Rights of the British Colonies, a pamphlet of one hundred and twenty pages, printed in 1764. No collection of Otis’s writings has ever been made. The life of Quincy, published by his son, preserves for posterity his journals and correspondence, his newspaper essays, and his speeches at the bar, taken from the Massachusetts law reports.
Among the political literature which is of perennial interest to the American people are such State documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the messages, inaugural addresses, and other writings of our early presidents. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, and the father of the Democratic party, was the author of the Declaration of Independence, whose opening sentences have become commonplaces in the memory of all readers. One sentence in particular has been as a shibboleth, or war-cry, or declaration of faith among Democrats of all shades of opinion: “We hold these truths to be self-evident—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Not so familiar to modern readers is the following, which an English historian of our literature calls “the most eloquent clause of that great document,” and “the most interesting suppressed passage in American literature.” Jefferson was a Southerner, but even at that early day the South had grown sensitive on the subject of slavery, and Jefferson’s arraignment of King George for promoting the “peculiar institution” was left out from the final draft of the Declaration in deference to Southern members.
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty, in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative by suppressing every legislative attempt to restrain this execrable commerce. And, that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms against us and purchase that liberty of which he deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he obtruded them, and thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people by crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
The tone of apology or defense which Calhoun and other Southern statesman afterward adopted on the subject of slavery was not taken by the men of Jefferson’s generation. Another famous Virginian, John Randolph of Roanoke, himself a slave-holder, in his speech on the militia bill in the House of Representatives, December 10, 1811, said:
“I speak from facts when I say that the night-bell never tolls for fire in Richmond that the mother does not hug her infant more closely to her bosom.”
This was said apropos of the danger of a servile insurrection in the event of a war with England—a war which actually broke out in the year following, but was not attended with the slave-rising which Randolph predicted. Randolph was a thorough-going “State rights” man, and, though opposed to slavery on principle, he cried “Hands off!” to any interference by the general government with the domestic institutions of the States. His speeches read better than most of his contemporaries’. They are interesting in their exhibit of a bitter and eccentric individuality, witty, incisive, and expressed in a pungent and familiar style which contrasts refreshingly with the diplomatic language and glittering generalities of most congressional oratory, whose verbiage seems to keep its subject always at arm’s-length.
Another noteworthy writing of Jefferson’s was his Inaugural Address of March 4, 1801, with its programme of “equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights; . . . absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority; . . . the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense; freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.”
During his six years’ residence in France, as American minister, Jefferson had become indoctrinated with the principles of French democracy. His main service and that of his party—the Democratic, or, as it was then called, the Republican party—to the young republic was in its insistence upon toleration of all beliefs and upon the freedom of the individual from all forms of governmental restraint. Jefferson has some claims to rank as an author in general literature. Educated at William and Mary College in the old Virginia capital, Williamsburg, he became the founder of the University of Virginia, in which he made special provision for the study of Anglo-Saxon, and in which the liberal scheme of instruction and discipline was conformed, in theory, at least, to the “university idea.” His Notes on Virginia are not without literary quality, and one description, in particular, has been often quoted—the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge—in which is this poetically imaginative touch: “The mountain being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and ytumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate of the calm below.”
After the conclusion of peace with England, in 1783, political discussion centered about the Constitution, which in 1788 took the place of the looser Articles of Confederation adopted in 1778. The Constitution as finally ratified was a compromise between two parties—the Federalists, who wanted a strong central government, and the Anti-Federals (afterward called Republicans, or Democrats), who wished to preserve State sovereignty. The debates on the adoption of the Constitution, both in the General Convention of the States, which met at Philadelphia in 1787, and in the separate State conventions called to ratify its action, form a valuable body of comment and illustration upon the instrument itself. One of the most notable of the speeches in opposition was Patrick Henry’s address before the Virginia Convention. “That this is a consolidated government,” he said, “is demonstrably clear; and the danger of such a government is, to my mind, very striking.” The leader of the Federal party was Alexander Hamilton, the ablest constructive intellect among the statesmen of our Revolutionary era, of whom Talleyrand said that he “had never known his equal,” whom Guizot classed with “the men who have best known the vital principles and fundamental conditions of a government worthy of its name and mission.” Hamilton’s speech On the Expediency of Adopting the Federal Constitution, delivered in the Convention of New York, June 24, 1788, was a masterly statement of the necessity and advantages of the Union. But the most complete exposition of the constitutional philosophy of the Federal party was the series of eighty-five papers entitled the Federalist, printed during the years 1787-88, and mostly in the Independent Journal of New York, over the signature “Publius.” These were the work of Hamilton, of John Jay, afterward, chief-justice, and of James Madison, afterward president of the United States. The Federalist papers, though written in a somewhat ponderous diction, are among the great landmarks of American history, and were in themselves a political education to the generation that read them. Hamilton was a brilliant and versatile figure, a persuasive orator, a forcible writer, and as secretary of the treasury under Washington the foremost of American financiers. He was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, at Weehawken, in 1804.
The Federalists were victorious, and under the provisions of the new Constitution George Washington was inaugurated first President of the United States, on March 4, 1789. Washington’s writings have been collected by Jared Sparks. They consist of journals, letters, messages, addresses, and public documents, for the most part plain and business-like in manner, and without any literary pretensions. The most elaborate and the best known of them is his Farewell Address, issued on his retirement from the presidency in 1796. In the composition of this he was assisted by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay. It is wise in substance and dignified, though somewhat stilted in expression. The correspondence of John Adams, second President of the United States, and his Diary, kept from 1755-85, should also be mentioned as important sources for a full knowledge of this period.
In the long life-and-death struggle of Great Britain against the French Republic and its successor, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Federalist party in this country naturally sympathized with England, and the Jeffersonian Democracy with France. The Federalists, who distrusted the sweeping abstractions of the French Revolution and clung to the conservative notions of a checked and balanced freedom, inherited from English precedent, were accused of monarchical and aristocratic leanings. On their side they were not slow to accuse their adversaries of French atheism and French Jacobinism. By a singular reversal of the natural order of things, the strength of the Federalist party was in New England, which was socially democratic, while the strength of the Jeffersonians was in the South, whose social structure—owing to the system of slavery—was intensely aristocratic. The War of 1812 with England was so unpopular in New England, by reason of the injury which it threatened to inflict on its commerce, that the Hartford Convention of 1814 was more than suspected of a design to bring about the secession of New England from the Union. A good deal of oratory was called out by the debates on the commercial treaty with Great Britain negotiated by Jay in 1795, by the Alien and Sedition Law of 1798, and by other pieces of Federalist legislation, previous to the downfall of that party and the election of Jefferson to the presidency in 1800. The best of the Federalist orators during those years was Fisher Ames, of Massachusetts, and the best of his orations was, perhaps, his speech on the British treaty in the House of Representatives, April 18, 1796. The speech was, in great measure, a protest against American chauvinism and the violation of international obligations. “It has been said the world ought to rejoice if Britain was sunk in the sea; if where there are now men and wealth and laws and liberty there was no more than a sand-bank for sea-monsters to fatten on; space for the storms of the ocean to mingle in conflict. . . . What is patriotism? Is it a narrow affection for the spot where a man was born? Are the very clods where we tread entitled to this ardent preference because they are greener? . . . I see no exception to the respect that is paid among nations to the law of good faith. . . . It is observed by barbarians—a whiff of tobacco-smoke or a string of beads gives not merely binding force but sanctity to treaties. Even in Algiers a truce may be bought for money, but, when ratified, even Algiers is too wise or too just to disown and annul its obligation.” Ames was a scholar, and his speeches are more finished and thoughtful, more literary, in a way, than those of his contemporaries. His eulogiums on Washington and Hamilton are elaborate tributes, rather excessive, perhaps, in laudation and in classical allusions. In all the oratory of the Revolutionary period there is nothing equal in deep and condensed energy of feeling to the single clause in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
A prominent figure during and after the War of the Revolution was Thomas Paine, or, as he was somewhat disrespectfully called, “Tom Paine.” He was a dissenting minister who, conceiving himself ill-treated by the British government, came to Philadelphia in 1774 and threw himself heart and soul into the colonial cause. His pamphlet, Common Sense, issued in 1776, began with the famous words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” This was followed by the Crisis, a series of political essays advocating independence and the establishment of a republic, published in periodical form, though at irregular intervals. Paine’s rough and vigorous advocacy was of great service to the American patriots. His writings were popular and his arguments were of a kind easily understood by plain people, addressing themselves to the common sense, the prejudices and passions of unlettered readers. He afterward went to France and took an active part in the popular movement there, crossing swords with Burke in his Rights of Man, 1791-92, written in defense of the French Revolution. He was one of the two foreigners who sat in the Convention; but falling under suspicion during the days of the Terror, he was committed to the prison of the Luxembourg and only released upon the fall of Robespierre July 27, 1794. While in prison he wrote a portion of his best-known work, the Age of Reason. This appeared in two parts in 1794 and 1795, the manuscript of the first part having been intrusted to Joel Barlow, the American poet, who happened to be in Paris when Paine was sent to prison.
The Age of Reason damaged Paine’s reputation in America, where the name of “Tom Paine” became a stench in the nostrils of the godly and a synonym for atheism and blasphemy. His book was denounced from a hundred pulpits, and copies of it were carefully locked away from the sight of “the young,” whose religious beliefs it might undermine. It was, in effect, a crude and popular statement of the deistic argument against Christianity. What the cutting logic and persiflage—the sourire hideux–of Voltaire had done in France, Paine, with coarser materials, essayed to do for the English-speaking populations. Deism was in the air of the time; Franklin, Jefferson, Ethan Allen, Joel Barlow, and other prominent Americans were openly or unavowedly deistic. Free thought, somehow, went along with democratic opinions, and was a part of the liberal movement of the age. Paine was a man without reverence, imagination, or religious feeling. He was no scholar, and he was not troubled by any perception of the deeper and subtler aspects of the questions which he touched. In his examination of the Old and New Testaments he insisted that the Bible was an imposition and a forgery, full of lies, absurdities, and obscenities. Supernatural Christianity, with all its mysteries and miracles, was a fraud practiced by priests upon the people, and churches were instruments of oppression in the hands of tyrants. This way of accounting for Christianity would not now be accepted by even the most “advanced” thinkers. The contest between skepticism and revelation has long since shifted to other grounds. Both the philosophy and the temper of the Age of Reason belong to the eighteenth century. But Paine’s downright pugnacious method of attack was effective with shrewd, half-educated doubters; and in America well-thumbed copies of his book passed from hand to hand in many a rural tavern or store, where the village atheist wrestled in debate with the deacon or the schoolmaster. Paine rested his argument against Christianity upon the familiar grounds of the incredibility of miracles, the falsity of prophecy, the cruelty or immorality of Moses and David and other Old Testament worthies, the disagreement of the evangelists in their gospels, etc. The spirit of his book and his competence as a critic are illustrated by his saying of the New Testament: “Any person who could tell a story of an apparition, or of a man’s walking, could have made such books, for the story is most wretchedly told. The sum total of a parson’s learning is a-b, ab, and hic, hoec, hoc, and this is more than sufficient to have enabled them, had they lived at the time, to have written all the books of the New Testament.”
When we turn from the political and controversial writings of the Revolution to such lighter literature as existed, we find little that would deserve mention in a more crowded period. The few things in this kind that have kept afloat on the current of time–rari nantes in gurgite vasto–attract attention rather by reason of their fewness than of any special excellence that they have. During the eighteenth century American literature continued to accommodate itself to changes of taste in the old country. The so-called classical or Augustan writers of the reign of Queen Anne replaced other models of style; the Spectator set the fashion of almost all of our lighter prose, from Franklin’s Busybody down to the time of Irving, who perpetuated the Addisonian tradition later than any English writer. The influence of Locke, of Dr. Johnson, and of the parliamentary orators has already been mentioned. In poetry the example of Pope was dominant, so that we find, for example, William Livingston, who became governor of New Jersey and a member of the Continental Congress, writing in 1747 a poem on Philosophic Solitude which reproduces the tricks of Pope’s antitheses and climaxes with the imagery of the Rape of the Lock, and the didactic morality of the Imitations from Horace and the Moral Essays:
“Let ardent heroes seek renown to arms,
Pant after fame and rush to war’s alarms;
To shining palaces let fools resort,
And dunces cringe to be esteemed at court.
Mine be the pleasure of a rural life,
From noise remote and ignorant of strife,
Far from the painted belle and white-gloved beau,
The lawless masquerade and midnight show;
From ladies, lap-dogs, courtiers, garters, stars,
Fops, fiddlers, tyrants, emperors, and czars.”
The most popular poem of the Revolutionary period was John Trumbull’s McFingal, published in part at Philadelphia in 1775, and incomplete shape at Hartford in 1782. It went through more than thirty editions in America, and was several times reprinted in England. McFingal was a satire in four cantos, directed against the American loyalists, and modeled quite closely upon Butler’s mock heroic poem, Hudibras. As Butler’s hero sallies forth to put down May games and bear-baitings, so the tory McFingal goes out against the liberty-poles and bonfires of the patriots, but is tarred and feathered, and otherwise ill-entreated, and finally takes refuge in the camp of General Gage at Boston. The poem is written with smartness and vivacity, attains often to drollery and sometimes to genuine humor. It remains one of the best of American political satires, and unquestionably the most successful of the many imitations of Hudibras, whose manner it follows so closely that some of its lines, which have passed into currency as proverbs, are generally attributed to Butler. For example:
“No man e’er felt the halter draw
With good opinion of the law.”
“For any man with half an eye
What stands before him may espy;
But optics sharp it needs, I ween,
To see what is not to be seen.”
Trumbull’s wit did not spare the vulnerable points of his own countrymen, as in his sharp skit at slavery in the couplet about the newly adopted flag of the Confederation:
“Inscribed with inconsistent types
Of Liberty and thirteen stripes.”
Trumbull was one of a group of Connecticut literati, who made such noise in their time as the “Hartford Wits.” The other members of the group were Lemuel Hopkins, David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, Elihu Smith, Theodore Dwight, and Richard Alsop. Trumbull, Humphreys, and Barlow had formed a friendship and a kind of literary partnership at Yale, where they were contemporaries of each other and of Timothy Dwight. During the war they served in the army in various capacities, and at its close they found themselves again together for a few years at Hartford, where they formed a club that met weekly for social and literary purposes. Their presence lent a sort of éclat to the little provincial capital, and their writings made it for a time an intellectual center quite as important as Boston or Philadelphia or New York. The Hartford Wits were stanch Federalists, and used their pens freely in support of the administrations of Washington and Adams, and in ridicule of Jefferson and the Democrats. In 1786-87 Trumbull, Hopkins, Barlow, and Humphreys published in the New Haven Gazette a series of satirical papers entitled the Anarchiad, suggested by the English Rolliad, and purporting to be extracts from an ancient epic on “the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night.” The papers were an effort to correct, by ridicule, the anarchic condition of things which preceded the adoption of the Federal Constitution in 1789. It was a time of great confusion and discontent, when, in parts of the country, Democratic mobs were protesting against the vote of five years’ pay by the Continental Congress to the officers of the American army. The Anarchiad was followed by the Echo and the Political Green House, written mostly by Alsop and Theodore Dwight, and similar in character and tendency to the earlier series. Time has greatly blunted the edge of these satires, but they were influential in their day, and are an important part of the literature of the old Federalist party.
Humphreys became afterward distinguished in the diplomatic service, and was, successively, embassador to Portugal and to Spain, whence he introduced into America the breed of merino sheep. He had been on Washington’s staff during the war, and was several times an inmate of his house at Mount Vernon, where he produced, in 1785, the best-known of his writings, Mount Vernon, an ode of a rather mild description, which once had admirers. Joel Barlow cuts a larger figure in contemporary letters. After leaving Hartford, in 1788, he went to France, where he resided for seventeen years, made a fortune in speculations, and became imbued with French principles, writing a song in praise of the guillotine, which gave great scandal to his old friends at home. In 1805 he returned to America and built a fine residence near Washington, which he called Kalorama. Barlow’s literary fame, in his own generation, rested upon his prodigious epic, the Columbiad. The first form of this was the Vision of Columbus, published at Hartford in 1787. This he afterward recast and enlarged into the Columbiad, issued in Philadelphia in 1807, and dedicated to Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steam-boat. This was by far the most sumptuous piece of book-making that had then been published in America, and was embellished with plates executed by the best London engravers.
The Columbiad was a grandiose performance, and has been the theme of much ridicule by later writers. Hawthorne suggested its being dramatized, and put on to the accompaniment of artillery and thunder and lightning; and E. P. Whipple declared that “no critic in the last fifty years had read more than a hundred lines of it.” In its ambitiousness and its length it was symptomatic of the spirit of the age which was patriotically determined to create, by tour de force, a national literature of a size commensurate with the scale of American nature and the destinies of the republic. As America was bigger than Argos and Troy we ought to have a bigger epic than the Iliad. Accordingly, Barlow makes Hesper fetch Columbus from his prison to a “hill of vision,” where he unrolls before his eye a panorama of the history of America, or, as our bards then preferred to call it, Columbia. He shows him the conquest of Mexico by Cortez; the rise and fall of the kingdom of the Incas in Peru; the settlements of the English colonies in North America; the old French and Indian wars; the Revolution, ending with a prophecy of the future greatness of the new-born nation. The machinery of the Vision was borrowed from the 11th and 12th books of Paradise Lost. Barlow’s verse was the ten-syllabled rhyming couplet of Pope, and his poetic style was distinguished by the vague, glittering imagery and the false sublimity which marked the epic attempts of the Queen Anne poets. Though Barlow was but a masquerader in true heroic he showed himself a true poet in mock heroic. His Hasty Pudding, written in Savoy in 1793, and dedicated to Mrs. Washington, was thoroughly American, in subject at least, and its humor, though over-elaborate, is good. One couplet in particular has prevailed against oblivion:
“E’en in thy native regions how I blush
To hear the Pennsylvanians call thee Mush!”
Another Connecticut poet—one of the seven who were fondly named “The Pleiads of Connecticut”—was Timothy Dwight, whose Conquest of Canaan, written shortly after his graduation from college, but not published till 1785, was, like the Columbiad, an experiment toward the domestication of the epic muse in America. It was written like Barlow’s poem, in rhymed couplets, and the patriotic impulse of the time shows oddly in the introduction of our Revolutionary War, by way of episode, among the wars of Israel. Greenfield Hill, 1794, was an idyllic and moralizing poem, descriptive of a rural parish in Connecticut of which the author was for a time the pastor. It is not quite without merit; shows plainly the influence of Goldsmith, Thomson, and Beattie, but as a whole is tedious and tame. Byron was amused that there should have been an American poet christened Timothy, and it is to be feared that amusement would have been the chief emotion kindled in the breast of the wicked Voltaire had he ever chanced to see the stern dedication to himself of the same poet’s Triumph of Infidelity, 1788. Much more important than Dwight’s poetry was his able Theology Explained and Defended, 1794, a restatement, with modifications, of the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, which was accepted by the Congregational churches of New England as an authoritative exponent of the orthodoxy of the time. His Travels in New England and New York, including descriptions of Niagara, the White Mountains, Lake George, the Catskills, and other passages of natural scenery, not so familiar then as now, was published posthumously in 1821, was praised by Southey, and is still readable. As President of Yale College from 1795 to 1817 Dwight, by his learning and ability, his sympathy with young men, and the force and dignity of his character, exerted a great influence in the community.
The strong political bias of the time drew into its vortex most of the miscellaneous literature that was produced. A number of ballads, serious and comic, whig and tory, dealing with the battles and other incidents of the long war, enjoyed a wide circulation in the newspapers or were hawked about in printed broadsides. Most of these have no literary merit, and are now mere antiquarian curiosities. A favorite piece on the tory side was the Cow Chase, a cleverish parody on Chevy Chase, written by the gallant and unfortunate Major Andre, at the expense of “Mad” Anthony Wayne. The national song Yankee Doodle was evolved during the Revolution, and, as is the case with John Brown’s Body and many other popular melodies, some obscurity hangs about its origin. The air was an old one, and the words of the chorus seem to have been adapted or corrupted from a Dutch song, and applied in derision to the provincials by the soldiers of the British army as early as 1755. Like many another nickname, the term Yankee Doodle was taken up by the nicknamed and proudly made their own. The stanza,
“Yankee Doodle came to town,” etc.,
antedates the war; but the first complete set of words to the tune was the Yankee’s Return from Camp, which is apparently of the year 1775. The most popular humorous ballad on the whig side was the Battle of the Kegs, founded on a laughable incident of the campaign at Philadelphia. This was written by Francis Hopkinson, a Philadelphian, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hopkinson has some title to rank as one of the earliest American humorists. Without the keen wit of McFingal, some of his Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings, published in 1792, have more geniality and heartiness than Trumbull’s satire. His Letter on Whitewashing is a bit of domestic humor that foretokens the Danbury News man; and his Modern Learning, 1784, a burlesque on college examinations, in which a salt-box is described from the point of view of metaphysics, logic, natural philosophy, mathematics, anatomy, surgery, and chemistry, long kept its place in school-readers and other collections. His son, Joseph Hopkinson, wrote the song of Hail Columbia, which is saved from insignificance only by the music to which it was married, the then popular air of “The President’s March.” The words were written in 1798, on the eve of a threatened war with France, and at a time when party spirit ran high. It was sung nightly by crowds in the streets, and for a whole season by a favorite singer at the theater; for by this time there were theaters in Philadelphia, in New York, and even in puritanic Boston. Much better than Hail Columbia was the Star-Spangled Banner, the words of which were composed by Francis Scott Key, a Marylander, during the bombardment by the British of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, in 1812. More pretentious than these was the once celebrated ode of Robert Treat Paine, Jr., Adams and Liberty, recited at an anniversary of the Massachusetts Charitable Fire Society.
The sale of this is said to have netted its author over $750, but it is, notwithstanding, a very wooden performance. Paine was a young Harvard graduate, who had married an actress playing at the Old Federal Street Theater, the first play- house opened in Boston, in 1794. His name was originally Thomas, but this was changed for him by the Massachusetts Legislature, because he did not wish to be confounded with the author of the Age of Reason. “Dim are those names erstwhile in battle loud,” and many an old Revolutionary worthy who fought for liberty with sword and pen is now utterly forgotten, or remembered only by some phrase which has become a current quotation. Here and there a line has, by accident, survived to do duty as a motto or inscription, while all its context is buried in oblivion. Few have read any thing more of Jonathan M. Sewall’s, for example, than the couplet,
“No pent-up Utica contracts your powers,
But the whole boundless continent is yours,”
taken from his Epilogue to Cato, written in 1778.
Another Revolutionary poet was Philip Freneau—“that rascal Freneau,” as Washington called him, when annoyed by the attacks upon his administration in Freneau’s National Gazette. He was of Huguenot descent, was a class-mate of Madison at Princeton College, was taken prisoner by the British during the war, and when the war was over engaged in journalism, as an ardent supporter of Jefferson and the Democrats. Freneau’s patriotic verses and political lampoons are now unreadable; but he deserves to rank as the first real American poet, by virtue of his Wild Honeysuckle, Indian Burying Ground, Indian Student, and a few other little pieces, which exhibit a grace and delicacy inherited, perhaps, with his French blood.
Indeed, to speak strictly, all of the “poets” hitherto mentioned were nothing but rhymers; but in Freneau we meet with something of beauty and artistic feeling; something which still keeps his verses fresh. In his treatment of Indian themes, in particular, appear for the first time a sense of the picturesque and poetic elements in the character and wild life of the red man, and that pensive sentiment which the fading away of the tribes toward the sunset has left in the wake of their retreating footsteps. In this Freneau anticipates Cooper and Longfellow, though his work is slight compared with the Leatherstocking Tales or Hiawatha. At the time when the Revolutionary War broke out the population of the colonies was over three millions; Philadelphia had thirty thousand inhabitants, and the frontier had retired to a comfortable distance from the sea-board. The Indian had already grown legendary to town dwellers, and Freneau fetches his Indian Student not from the outskirts of the settlement but from the remote backwoods of the State:
“From Susquehanna’s farthest springs,
Where savage tribes pursue their game
(His blanket tied with yellow strings),
A shepherd of the forest came.”
Campbell “lifted”—in his poem O’Conor’s Child–the last line of the following stanza from Freneau’s Indian Burying Ground:
“By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews,
In vestments for the chase arrayed,
The hunter still the deer pursues—
The hunter and the deer, a shade.”
And Walter Scott did Freneau the honor to borrow, in Marmion, the final line of one of the stanzas of his poem on the battle of Eutaw Springs:
“They saw their injured country’s woe,
The flaming town, the wasted field;
Then rushed to meet the insulting foe,
They took the spear, but left the shield.”
Scott inquired of an American gentleman who visited him the authorship of this poem, which he had by heart, and pronounced it as fine a thing of the kind as there was in the language.
The American drama and American prose fiction had their beginning during the period now under review. A company of English players came to this country in 1762 and made the tour of many of the principal towns. The first play acted here by professionals on a public stage was the Merchant of Venice, which was given by the English company at Williamsburg, Va., in 1752. The first regular theater building was at Annapolis, Md., where in the same year this troupe performed, among other pieces, Farquhar’s Beaux’ Stratagem. In 1753 a theater was built in New York, and one in 1759 in Philadelphia. The Quakers of Philadelphia and the Puritans of Boston were strenuously opposed to the acting of plays, and in the latter city the players were several times arrested during the performances, under a Massachusetts law forbidding dramatic performances. At Newport, R.I., on the other hand, which was a health resort for planters from the Southern States and the West Indies, and the largest slave-market in the North, the actors were hospitably received. The first play known to have been written by an American was the Prince of Parthia, 1765, a closet drama, by Thomas Godfrey, of Philadelphia. The first play by an American writer, acted by professionals in a public theater, was Royall Tyler’s Contrast, performed in New York, in 1786. The former of these was very high tragedy, and the latter very low comedy; and neither of them is otherwise remarkable than as being the first of a long line of indifferent dramas. There is, in fact, no American dramatic literature worth speaking of; not a single American play of even the second rank, unless we except a few graceful parlor comedies, like Mr. Howell’s Elevator and Sleeping-Car. Royall Tyler, the author of The Contrast, cut quite a figure in his day as a wit and journalist, and eventually became chief-justice of Vermont. His comedy, The Georgia Spec, 1797, had a great run in Boston, and his Algerine Captive, published in the same year, was one of the earliest American novels. It was a rambling tale of adventure, constructed somewhat upon the plan of Smollett’s novels and dealing with the piracies which led to the war between the United States and Algiers in 1815.
Charles Brockden Brown, the first American novelist of any note, was also the first professional man of letters in this country who supported himself entirely by his pen. He was born in Philadelphia in 1771, lived a part of his life in New York and part in his native city, where he started, in 1803, the Literary Magazine and American Register. During the years 1798-1801 he published in rapid succession six romances, Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, Edgar Huntley, Clara Howard, and Jane Talbot. Brown was an invalid and something of a recluse, with a relish for the ghastly in incident and the morbid in character. He was in some points a prophecy of Poe and Hawthorne, though his art was greatly inferior to Poe’s, and almost infinitely so to Hawthorne’s. His books belong more properly to the contemporary school of fiction in England which preceded the “Waverley Novels”—to the class that includes Beckford’s Vathek, Godwin’s Caleb Williams and St. Leon, Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein, and such “Gothic” romances as Lewis’s Monk, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, and Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. A distinguishing characteristic of this whole school is what we may call the clumsy-horrible. Brown’s romances are not wanting in inventive power, in occasional situations that are intensely thrilling, and in subtle analysis of character; but they are fatally defective in art. The narrative is by turns abrupt and tiresomely prolix, proceeding not so much by dialogue as by elaborate dissection and discussion of motives and states of mind, interspersed with the author’s reflections. The wild improbabilities of plot and the unnatural and even monstrous developments of character are in startling contrast with the old-fashioned preciseness of the language; the conversations, when there are any, being conducted in that insipid dialect in which a fine woman was called an “elegant female.” The following is a sample description of one of Brown’s heroines, and is taken from his novel of Ormond, the leading character in which—a combination of unearthly intellect with fiendish wickedness—is thought to have been suggested by Aaron Burr: “Helena Cleves was endowed with every feminine and fascinating quality. Her features were modified by the most transient sentiments and were the seat of a softness at all times blushful and bewitching. All those graces of symmetry, smoothness, and luster, which assemble in the imagination of the painter when he calls from the bosom of her natal deep the Paphian divinity, blended their perfections in the shade, complexion, and hair of this lady.” But, alas! “Helena’s intellectual deficiencies could not be concealed. She was proficient in the elements of no science. The doctrine of lines and surfaces was as disproportionate with her intellects as with those of the mock-bird. She had not reasoned on the principles of human action, nor examined the structure of society. . . . She could not commune in their native dialect with the sages of Rome and Athens. . . . The constitution of nature, the attributes of its Author, the arrangement of the parts of the external universe, and the substance, modes of operation, and ultimate destiny of human intelligence were enigmas unsolved and insoluble by her.”
Brown frequently raises a superstructure of mystery on a basis ludicrously weak. Thus the hero of his first novel, Wieland (whose father anticipates “Old Krook,” in Dickens’s Bleak House, by dying of spontaneous combustion), is led on by what he mistakes for spiritual voices to kill his wife and children; and the voices turn out to be produced by the ventriloquism of one Carwin, the villain of the story. Similarly in Edgar Huntley, the plot turns upon the phenomena of sleep-walking. Brown had the good sense to place the scene of his romances in his own country, and the only passages in them which have now a living interest are his descriptions of wilderness scenery in Edgar Huntley, and his graphic account in Arthur Mervyn of the yellow-fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793. Shelley was an admirer of Brown, and his experiments in prose fiction, such as Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne the Rosicrucian, are of the same abnormal and speculative type.
Another book which falls within this period was the Journal, 1774, of John Woolman, a New Jersey Quaker, which has received the highest praise from Channing, Charles Lamb, and many others. “Get the writings of John Woolman by heart,” wrote Lamb, “and love the early Quakers.” The charm of this journal resides in its singular sweetness and innocence of feeling, the “deep inward stillness” peculiar to the people called Quakers. Apart from his constant use of certain phrases peculiar to the Friends Woolman’s English is also remarkably graceful and pure, the transparent medium of a soul absolutely sincere, and tender and humble in its sincerity. When not working at his trade as a tailor Woolman spent his time in visiting and ministering to the monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings of Friends, traveling on horseback to their scattered communities in the backwoods of Virginia and North Carolina, and northward along the coast as far as Boston and Nantucket. He was under a “concern” and a “heavy exercise” touching the keeping of slaves, and by his writing and speaking did much to influence the Quakers against slavery. His love went out, indeed, to all the wretched and oppressed; to sailors, and to the Indians in particular. One of his most perilous journeys was made to the settlements of Moravian Indians in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania, at Bethlehem, and at Wehaloosing, on the Susquehanna. Some of the scruples which Woolman felt, and the quaint naïveté with which he expresses them, may make the modern reader smile, but it is a smile which is very close to a tear. Thus, when in England—where he died in 1772–he would not ride nor send a letter by mail-coach, because the poor post-boys were compelled to ride long stages in winter nights, and were sometimes frozen to death. “So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world that, in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth, the creation at this day doth loudly groan.” Again, having reflected that war was caused by luxury in dress, etc., the use of dyed garments grew uneasy to him, and he got and wore a hat of the natural color of the fur. “In attending meetings this singularity was a trial to me, . . . and some Friends, who knew not from what motives I wore it, grew shy of me. . . . Those who spoke with me I generally informed, in a few words, that I believed my wearing it was not in my own will.”
1. Representative American Orations. Edited by Alexander Johnston. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1884.
2. The Federalist. New York: Charles Scribner. 1863.
3. Notes on Virginia. By Thomas Jefferson. Boston. 1829.
4. Travels in New England and New York. By Timothy Dwight. New Haven. 1821.
5. McFingal: in Trumbull’s Poetical Works. Hartford. 1820.
6. Joel Barlow’s Hasty Pudding. Francis Hopkinson’s Modern Learning. Philip Freneau’s Indian Student, Indian Burying-Ground, and White Honeysuckle: in Vol. I of Duyckinck’s Cyclopedia of American Literature. New York: Charles Scribner. 1866.
7. Arthur Mervyn. By Charles Brockden Brown. Boston: S. G. Goodrich. 1827.
8. The Journal of John Woolman. With an Introduction by John G. Whittier. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1871.
9. American Literature. By Charles F. Richardson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1887.
10. American Literature. By John Nichol. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black. 1882.