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VIII

LITERATURE IN AMERICA FROM 1776 to 1800

The first six chapters of Mr. Henry Adams's “ History of the United States” admirably set forth the stagnation of mental life in America between the close of the Revolution and the beginning of the nineteenth century. For half a generation or more our newly independent country was adrift ; the true course of our national life was slow in declaring itself. Until the very end of the eighteenth century, then, we remained without trace of lasting literature. But just as in earlier periods there had been writing which a study like ours cannot quite neglect, so during the last quarter of this eighteenth century there was a good deal of publication at which we must glance.

One fact is instantly salient. No one who has written of our literary expression during the period in question has made much distinction between public men and those who for courtesy's sake may be styled pure men of letters. It is doubtful whether anything could much more have surprised Washington, or John Adams, or Jefferson, or Madison, or Hamilton, or the rest, than to find themselves discussed in the literary history of their country much as their eminent contemporary Dr. Johnson is discussed in the literary history of England. Without doubt, however, the father of our country, together with that eminent band of political obstetricians who cooperated at its birth, not only displayed practical skill, but also wrote memorably about the matters which engaged their attention. So, for want of any memorable literature during our early years of independence, our literary historians have been glad to treat our eider public men as

men of letters

too.

In this the historians have been right. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century our public men wrote in admirable style. They were earnestly thoughtful; they had strong common sense ; they were far-sighted and temperate; and they expressed themselves with that dignified urbanity which in their time marked the English of educated people. In purely literary history, however, they can hardly be regarded as much more important than Blackstone is in the literary history of England.

This kind of American writing reached its acme in 1787 and 1788, when Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay supported the still unaccepted Constitution of the United States in a remarkable series of political essays, named the “ Federalist." As a series of formal essays, the “ Federalist " groups itself roughly with the “Tatler," the “Spectator,” and those numerous descendants of theirs which fill the literary records of eighteenth-century England. It differs, however, from all these, in both substance and purpose. The “ Tatler,” the

Spectator,” and their successors dealt with superficial matters in a spirit of literary amenity: the “ Federalist " deals, in an argumentative spirit as earnest as that of any Puritan divine, with political principles paramount in our history; and it is so wisely thoughtful that one may almost declare it the permanent basis of sound thinking concerning American constitutional law. Like all the educated writing of the eighteenth century, too, it is phrased with a rhythmical balance and urbane polish which give it claim to literary distinction. After all, however, one can hardly feel it much more significant in a history of pure letters than are the opinions in which a little later Judge Marshall and Judge Story developed and expounded the constitutional law which the “ Federalist” commented on. Its true character appears when we remember the most important thing published in England during the same years, — the poetry of Robert Burns. The contrast between Burns and the “ Federalist " tells the whole literary story. Just as in the seventeenth century the only serious literature of America was a phase of that half-historical, halftheological sort of work which had been a minor part of English literature generations before ; so in the eighteenth century the chief product of American literature was an extremely ripe example of such political pamphleteering as in England had been a minor phase of letters during the period of Queen Anne. Pure letters in America were still to come.

Even during the seventeenth century, however, as we saw in our glance at the “ Tenth Muse,” Mrs. Anne Bradstreet, there had been in America sporadic and consciously imitative efforts to produce something literary. So there were during the eighteenth century. We had sundry writers of aphoristic verse remotely following the tradition of Pope; and we had satire, modelled on that of Charles Churchill, a popular contemporary writer, now remembered mostly because some of our ancestors paid him the compliment of imitation. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, a little group of clever and enthusiastic men made a serious attempt to establish a native literature; and though the results of this effort were neither excellent nor permanent, the effort was earnest and characteristic enough to deserve attention.

To understand its place in our literary records we must recall something of our intellectual history. This may be said to have begun with the foundation of Harvard College as a seminary of scholarly tradition in 1636. Throughout the seventeenth century, Harvard, then the only school of the higher learning in America, remained the only organised centre of American intellectual life. Cotton Mather, we remember, was a Harvard graduate, a member of the Board of Overseers and of the Corporation, and an eager aspirant for the presidency of the college. Long before his busy life was ended, however, the tendency toward liberalism which has remained characteristic of Harvard had swerved it from the old Puritan tradition; and Yale College, the stronghold of New England orthodoxy, had consequently been established in New Haven. It was from Yale that Jonathan Edwards emerged. The fact that the centre of American intellectual life was no longer on the shores of Boston Bay was again attested by the career of Franklin, who, though born in Boston, lived mostly in what during his time was the principal city of America, — Philadelphia. In what we said of the “ Federalist," too, the same trend was implied. Boston bred revolutionary worthies, of course : James Otis was a Massachusetts man, so were John and Samuel Adams, so earlier was Thomas Hutchinson, so later was Fisher Ames. But of the chief writers of the “Federalist,” Hamilton and Jay were from New York; and Madison was one of that great school of Virginia public men which included Patrick Henry and Jefferson and Washington, and Marshall, and many more.

In the American perspective of the eighteenth century, Eastern Massachusetts does not loom so large in the foreground as Massachusetts tradition would have us believe.

It is not surprising, then, that the highest literary activity of the later eighteenth century in America had its origin at Yale College. The most eminent of the men of letters then developed there was Timothy Dwight, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards. He took his degree in 1769, and remained a tutor at Yale until 1777. He then became for a year a chaplain in the Continental Army. While tutor at Yale he co-operated with his colleague, John Trumbull, in the production of some conventional essays modelled on the “Spectator."

While chaplain in the army he wrote a popular song entitled “ Columbia.” Of this the last of its six stanzas is a sufficient example; the last couplet repeats the opening words of the poem :

“ Thus, as down a lone valley, with cedars o'erspread,
From war's dread confusion I pensively strayed —

[graphic]

The gloom from the face of fair heaven retired;
The winds ceased to murmur; the thunders expired;
Perfumes, as of Eden, flowed sweetly along,
And a voice, as of angels, enchantingly sung ;
Columbia, Columbia, to glory arise,

The queen of the world, and the child of the skies.'” In 1783 Dwight became minister of Greenfield, Connecticut. In 1795 he was made President of Yale College, an office which he held to his death in 1817; and certainly until the time of President Woolsey his name was the most distinguished in the academic annals of Yale. As President, he wrote his posthumously published “Travels in New England and New York,” which record experiences during a number of summer journeys and remain an authority on the condition of those regions during his time. He did some sound work in theology too; but by this time Calvinistic theology belongs apart from pure letters even in America. In 1788, however, he expressed some of his ecclesiastical views in a poem entitled “The Triumph of Infidelity,” of which one passage is well worth our notice.

To appreciate what it means we must again glance for a moment at Boston. Here for a century the pulpits had been steadily tending toward liberalism. Among the chief churches of Boston was, and remains, King's Chapel, the official place of worship of the royal governors, who were generally members of the Church of England. At the time of the Revolution the ministers of this communion, whose ordination vows bound them to personal allegiance just as firmly as to the thirty-nine articles, generally emigrated. So in 1785 King's Chapel found itself in charge of an excellent native divine named James Freeman, who was not an ordained clergyman of the English Church. The immemorial religious habit of the congregation made it desirable that the services of King's Chapel should be conducted in accordance with the Anglican liturgy; but in view of the new state of sovereignty in America this liturgy obviously required amendment. Dr. Freeman

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