ePub 版

can surely be asserted is that the highest development of intel- v lectual life in New England coincided with its greatest material prosperity. From the time when Benjamin Franklin left Boston, where Cotton Mather was still preaching, until the days when Unitarianism broke out there, while cotton mills sprung up on the Merrimac, Boston even in America was hardly of the first importance. At this moment it has probably ceased to be so. But during the first three quarters of the nineteenth century its economic importance was pronounced ; and intellectually it was superior to any other city which America has yet known.

What happened there economically and politically, is not our immediate business. What does concern us is the intellectual outburst ; and this, as we shall see, took, on the whole, a form which may best be described as renascent. In all sorts of intellectual life a new spirit declared itself; but this new spirit was more like that which aroused old Italy to a fresh sense of civilised antiquity than like a spontaneous manifestation of native thought or feeling. In a few years New England developed a considerable political literature, of which the height was reached in formal oratory ; it developed a new kind of scholarship, of which the height was reached in admirable works of history ; in religion it developed Unitarianism ; in philosophy, Transcendentalism; in general conduct, a tendency toward reform which deeply affected our national history; and meantime it developed the most mature school of pure letters which has yet appeared in this country. To these various phases of the New England Renaissance we may now devote ourselves in turn.



In the seventeenth century, the literary expression of New England had been chiefly theological. In the eighteenth century this expression, at least in the region of Boston, became chiefly political and was on the whole less important than the political writing produced to the southward. In each case the dominant phase of New England expression had been decidedly serious, and had been concerned with one of the ideals most deeply associated with our ancestral language. These ideals we have broadly called those of the Bible and of the Common Law; the former incessantly reminds us that we must do right, the latter that we must maintain our rights. And they have in common another trait than either their deep association with the temper of English-speaking races or their pervasive seriousness; both are generally and most characteristically set forth by means of public speaking.

From the very beginning, then, the appetite for public discourse in New England had been keen. In the seventeenth century a minister who preached or prayed well was sure of admiration and popularity ; in the eighteenth century a similar popularity was the certain reward of a lawyer, too, who displayed oratorical power. . Some early records of Yankee appetite for oral discourse are surprising : Sewall somewhere records, for example, that having begun to pray at a devotional meeting, where he lost sight of his hour-glass, he continued an unbroken petition to the Lord for something like two hours, nor did he remark on the part of his hearers any distracting manifestation of fatigue. For two hundred years, Sunday services in Boston were crowded; and so until well into the nineteenth century were the regular Thursday lectures, given by various ministers, who often discussed theological subjects, but frequently fell to treating public matters from a more or less theological point of view. Meanwhile, there were few frivolous amusements. Theatres were held in such abhorrence that even so lately as 1850 the Boston Museum, whose stock company at that time admirably preserved the old traditions of the English stage, advertised its auditorium as a lecture-room and its performances of standard comedies and farces as lectures. Although church-going was a duty, then, and even going to the Thursday lectures was represented as something of the kind, there can be little doubt that Boston people felt genuine interest in what their preachers and lecturers said to them; and until long after 1800 native Yankees had a traditional liking, which they honestly believed unaffected, for hearing people talk from platforms or pulpits.

When the Revolution came, accordingly, the surest means of attaining eminence in New England was public speaking. James Otis, always a man rather of speech than of action, began the career which made his name national by his spoken argument against Writs of Assistance. The heroic memory of Joseph Warren is almost as closely associated with his oration at the Old South Church concerning the so-called Boston Massacre as with his death at Bunker Hill. Samuel Adams, too, is remembered as eloquent; and John Adams, the founder of that family line which to this day preserves its distinction, was a skilful public speaker. There is something widely characteristic, indeed, in the speech which Webster's eulogy of 1826 attributed to this first New England President of the United States. The famous “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish,” closely imitates the harangues and speeches of classical historians. In each case the speeches may possibly have been based on some tradition of what was actually said ; in each case, obeying the conventional fashion of his time, the writer Thucydides, Livy, or Webster — puts into the mouth of a hero eloquent words which are really his own.

In each case these words not only characterise the personages who are feigned to have uttered them, but as elaborately artificial pieces of rhetoric they throw light as well both on the men who composed them, and on the public for which they were composed. In more than one way, then, the speech which Webster's superb fiction of 1826 attributed to the John Adams of half a century before illustrates the New England oratory of which Adams was one of the first exponents and Webster himself the greatest.

For between the time of Adams's early maturity and Webster's prime there was a flood of public speaking in New England, more and more punctilious and finished in form. The name of an eminent Federalist, for one thing, who died in 1808 at the age of fifty has been so excellently remembered that a Chief Justice of Massachusetts, in a eulogy on a fellowjudge who died little more than twenty years ago, declared with no intention of anti-climax that “his English was purified by constant reading of the greatest models, — the English Bible, Shakspere, Addison, and Fisher Ames.” And were oratory pure literature, and not rather related to the functions of the pulpit or the bar, one might well give a whole volume to the American oratory of the century which followed the Revolution. In a study like ours, however, we have time only for a glance at it; and this hasty glance shows clearly that its most eminent exponent in New England was Daniel Webster.

Webster's public life is a matter of familiar history. Born in 1782, the son of a New Hampshire farmer, he graduated at the little country college of Dartmouth. He began his legal career in his native State; but Portsmouth, the chief city of New Hampshire, was already declining in importance, and before 1820 Webster removed to Boston. At that time the material prosperity of New England was well under way.

Webster's active life in Massachusetts coincided with the full development of those manufacturing industries on which the older Boston fortunes are still generally based. At the head of these industries and of other similar activities was that class of native Massachusetts gentlemen whom Stuart painted. Before long this developed politically into the old Whig party, in which was long concentrated the political energy of the educated and socially eminent people who for a good while controlled Massachusetts politics. Of this party Webster soon became the recognised leader, acquiring such power as no other political leader of New England has known before or since.

Not the least remarkable phase of this extraordinary dominance lies in the fact that Webster was foreign in temperament to the social class of which he thus became the acknowledged chief. The Massachusetts Whigs were Boston gentlemen who embodied the general traits at which we have glanced. Webster was the son of a New Hampshire country man; and despite the formal dignity of his manners, his character, from their point of view, left something to be desired. Undoubtedly a man of commanding ability, he was with equal certainty a good fellow, robust in personal habits, and not very careful of his minor morals; you could generally trust him to win a case, and not to pay a bill. Yet for half a lifetime he justly maintained personal leadership amid the most severely moral and commercially punctilious aristocracy of America. In view of this fact the means by which he attained eminence becomes significant.

For, in the first place, as an advocate at the bar, in the second place, as a representative of public sentiment on memorable festal occasions, and finally as the most influential of American Senators, Webster's means of asserting himself remained the same. He had an unsurpassed power of getting up before great bodies of his fellow-citizens and talking to them in a way which should hold their attention, influence

« 上一頁繼續 »