HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
LIFE IN 1800
Whether the United States were to succeed or fail in their economical and political undertakings, the people must still develop some intellectual life of their own, and the character of this development was likely to interest mankind. New conditions and hopes could hardly fail to produce a literature and arts more or less original. Of all possible triumphs, none could equal that which might be won in the regions of thought if the intellectual influence of the United States should equal their social and economical importance. Young as the nation was, it had already produced an American literature bulky and varied enough to furnish some idea of its probable qualities in the future, and the intellectual condition of the literary class in the United States at the close of the eighteenth century could scarcely fail to suggest both the successes and the failures of the same class in the nineteenth.
In intellectual tastes, as in all else, the Union showed well-marked divisions between New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Southern States. New England was itself divided between two intellectual centres,--Boston and New Haven. The Massachusetts and Connecticut schools were as old as the colonial existence; and in 1800 both were still alive, if not flourishing.
Society in Massachusetts was sharply divided by politics. In 1800 one half the population, represented under property qualifications by only some twenty thousand voters, was Republican. The other half, which cast about twenty-five thousand votes, included nearly every one in the professional and mercantile classes, and represented the wealth, social position, and education of the Commonwealth; but its strength lay in the Congregational churches and in the cordial union between the clergy, the magistracy, the bench and bar, and respectable society throughout the State. This union created what was unknown beyond New England,--an organized social system, capable of acting at command either for offence or defence, and admirably adapted for the uses of the eighteenth century.
Had the authority of the dominant classes in Massachusetts depended merely on office, the task of overthrowing it would have been as simple as it was elsewhere; but the New England obligarchy struck its roots deep into the soil, and was supported by the convictions of the people. Unfortunately the system was not and could not be quickly adapted to the movement of the age. Its starting-point lay in the educational system, which was in principle excellent; but it was also antiquated. Little change had been made in it since colonial times. The common schools were what they had been from the first; the academies and colleges were no more changed than the schools. On an average of ten years, from 1790 to 1800, thirty-nine young men annually took degrees from Harvard College; while during the ten years, 1766-1776, that preceded the Revolutionary War, forty-three bachelors of arts had been annually sent into the world, and even in 1720-1730 the average number had been thirty-five. The only sign of change was that in 1720-1730 about one hundred and forty graduates had gone into the Church,while in 1790-1800 only about eighty chose this career. At the earlier period the president, a professor of theology, one of mathematics, and four tutors gave instruction to the under-graduates. In 1800 the president, the professor of theology, the professor of mathematics, and a professor of Hebrew, created in 1765, with the four tutors did the same work. The method of instruction had not changed in the interval, being suited to children fourteen years of age; the instruction itself was poor, and the discipline was indifferent. Harvard College had not in eighty years made as much progress as was afterward made in twenty. Life was quickening within it as within all mankind, the spirit and vivacity of the coming age could not be wholly shut out; but none the less the college resembled a priesthood which had lost the secret of its mysteries, and patiently stood holding the flickering torch before cold altars, until God should vouchsafe a new dispensation of sunlight.
Nevertheless, a medical school with three professors had been founded in 1783, and every year gave degrees to an average class of two doctors of medicine. Science had already a firm hold on the college, and a large part of the conservative clergy were distressed by the liberal tendencies which the governing body betrayed. This was no new thing. The college always stood somewhat in advance of society, and never joined heartily in dislike for liberal movements ; but unfortunately it had been made for an instrument, and had never enjoyed the free use of its powers. Clerical control could not be thrown off, for if the college was compelled to support the clergy, on the other hand the clergy did much to support the college; and without the moral and material aid of this clerical body, which contained several hundred of the most respected and respectable citizens, clad in every town with the authority of spiritual magistrates, the college would have found itself bankrupt in means and character. The graduates passed from the college to the pulpit, and from the pulpit attempted to hold the college, as well as their own congregations, facing toward the past. "Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation," they preached,--"that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro through the earth, seeking whom he may destroy." These words were spoken by Jedediah Morse, a graduate of Yale in 1783, pastor of the church at Charlestown, near Boston, and still known in biographical dictionaries as "the father of American geography." They were contained in the Election Sermon of this worthy and useful man, delivered June 6, 1803; but the sentiment was not peculiar to him, or confined to the audience he was then addressing,--it was the burden of a thousand discourses enforced by a formidable authority.
The power of the Congregational clergy, which had lasted unbroken until the Revolution, was originally minute and inquisitory, equivalent to a police authority. During the last quarter of the century the clergy themselves were glad to lay aside the more odious watchfulness over their parishes, and to welcome social freedom within limits conventionally fixed; but their old authority had not wholly disappeared. In country parishes they were still autocratic. Did an individual defy their authority, the minister put his three-cornered hat on his head, took his silvertopped cane in his hand, and walked down the village street, knocking at one door and another of his best parishioners, to warn them that a spirit of license and of French infidelity was abroad, which could be repressed only by a strenuous and combined effort. Any man once placed under this ban fared badly if he afterward came before a bench of magistrates. The temporal arm vigorously supported the ecclesiastical will. Nothing tended so directly to make respectability conservative, and conservatism a fetich of respectability, as this union of bench and pulpit. The democrat had no caste; he was not respectable; he was a Jacobin,--and no such character was admitted into a Federalist house. Every dissolute intriguer, loose-liver, forger, false-coiner, and prisonbird; every hair-brained, loud-talking demagogue; every speculator, scoffer, and atheist,--was a follower of Jefferson; and Jefferson was himself the incarnation of their theories.
A literature belonging to this subject exists,stacks of newspapers and sermons, mostly dull, and wanting literary merit. In a few of them Jefferson figured under the well-remembered disguises of Puritan politics: he was Ephraim, and had mixed himself among the people; had apostatized from his God and religion; gone to Assyria, and mingled himself among the heathen; "gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knoweth not;" or he was Jeroboam, who drove Israel from following the Lord, and made them sin a great sin. He had doubted the authority of revelation, and ventured to suggest that petrified shells found embedded in rocks fifteen thousand feet above sea-level could hardly have been left there by the Deluge, because if the whole atmosphere were condensed as water, its weight showed that the seas would be raised only fifty-two and a half feet. Sceptic as he was, he could not accept the scientific theory that the ocean-bed had been uplifted by natural forces; but although he had thus instantly deserted this battery raised against revelation, he had still expressed the opinion that a universal deluge was equally unsatisfactory as an explanation, and had avowed preference for a profession of ignorance rather than a belief in error. He had said, "It does me no injury for my neighbors to say there are twenty gods, or no god," and that all the many forms of religious faith in the Middle States were "good enough, and sufficient to preserve peace and order." He was notoriously a deist; he probably ridiculed the doctrine of total depravity; and he certainly would never have part or portion in the blessings of the New Covenant, or be saved because of grace.
No abler or more estimable clergyman lived than Joseph Buckminster, the minister of Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, and in his opinion Jefferson was bringing a judgment upon the people.
"I would not be understood to insinuate," said he in his sermon on Washington's death, "that contemners of religious duties, and even men void of religious principle, may not have an attachment to their country and a desire for its civil and political prosperity,--nay, that they may not even expose themselves to great dangers, and make great sacrifices to accomplish this object; but by their impiety . . . they take away the heavenly defence and security of a people, and render it necessary for him who ruleth among the nations in judgment to testify his displeasure against those who despise his laws and contemn his ordinances."
Yet the congregational clergy, though still greatly respected, had ceased to be leaders of thought. Theological literature no longer held the prominence it had enjoyed in the days of Edwards and Hopkins. The popular reaction against Calvinism, felt rather than avowed, stopped the development of doctrinal theology; and the clergy, always poor as a class, with no weapons but their intelligence and purity of character, commonly sought rather to avoid than to challenge hostility. Such literary activity as existed was not clerical but secular. Its field was the Boston press, and its recognized literary champion was Fisher Ames.
The subject of Ames's thought was exclusively political. At that moment every influence combined to maintain a stationary condition in Massachusetts politics. The manners and morals of the people were pure and simple; their society was democratic; in the worst excesses of their own revolution they had never become savage or bloodthirsty; their experience could not explain, nor could their imagination excuse, wild popular excesses; and when in 1793 the French nation seemed mad with the frenzy of its recovered liberties, New England looked upon the bloody and blasphemous work with such horror as religious citizens could not but feel. Thenceforward the mark of a wise and good man was that he abhorred the French Revolution, and believed democracy to be its cause. Like Edmund Burke, they listened to no argument: "It is a vile, illiberal school, this French Academy of the sans-culottes; there is nothing in it that is fit for a gentleman to learn." The answer to every democratic suggestion ran in a set phrase, " Look at France!" This idea became a monomania with the New England leaders, and took exclusive hold of Fisher Ames, their most brilliant writer and talker, until it degenerated into a morbid illusion. During the last few months of his life, even so late as 1808, this dying man could scarcely speak of his children without expressing his fears of their future servitude to the French. He believed his alarms to be shared by his friends. "Our days," he wrote, "are made heavy with the pressure of anxiety, and our nights restless with visions of horror. We listen to the clank of chains, and overhear the whispers of assassins. We mark the barbarous dissonance of mingled rage and triumph in the yell of an infuriated mob; we see the dismal glare of their burnings, and scent the loathsome steam of human victims offered in sacrifice." In theory the French Revolution was not an argument or a proof, but only an illustration, of the workings of divine law; and what had happened in France must sooner or later happen in America if the ignorant and vicious were to govern the wise and good.
The bitterness against democrats became intense after the month of May, 1800, when the approaching victory of Jefferson was seen to be inevitable. Then for the first time the clergy and nearly all the educated and respectable citizens of New England began to extend to the national government the hatred which they bore to democracy. The expressions of this mixed antipathy filled volumes. "Our country," wrote Fisher Ames in 1803, "is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty. What is to become of it, he who made it best knows. Its vice will govern it, by practising upon its folly. This is ordained for democracies." He explained why this inevitable fate awaited it. "A democracy cannot last. Its nature ordains that its next change shall be into a military despotism,--of all known governments perhaps the most prone to shift its head, and the slowest to mend its vices. The reason is that the tyranny of what is called the people, and that by the sword, both operate alike to debase and corrupt, till there are neither men left with the spirit to desire liberty, nor morals with the power to sustain justice. Like the burning pestilence that destroys the human body, nothing can subsist by its dissolution but vermin." George Cabot, whose political opinions were law to the wise and good, held the same convictions. "Even in New England," wrote Cabot in 1840, "where there is among the body of the people more wisdom and virtue than in any other part of the United States, we are full of errors which no reasoning could eradicate, if there were a Lycurgus in every village. We are democratic altogether, and I hold democracy in its natural operation to be the government of the worst."
Had these expressions of opinion been kept to the privacy of correspondence, the public could have ignored them; but so strong were the wise and good in their popular following, that every newspaper seemed to exult in denouncing the people. They urged the use of force as the protection of wisdom and virtue. A paragraph from Dennie's "Portfolio," reprinted by all the Federalist newspapers in 1803, offered one example among a thousand of the infatuation which possessed the Federalist press, neither more extravagant nor more treasonable than the rest:--
"A democracy is scarcely tolerable at any period of national history. Its omens are always sinister, and its powers are unpropitious. It is on its trial here, and the issue will be civil war, desolation, and anarchy. No wise man but discerns its imperfections, no good man but shudders at its miseries, no honest man but proclaims its fraud, and no brave man but draws his sword against its force. The institution of a scheme of policy so radically contemptible and vicious is a memorable example of what the villany of some men can devise, the folly of others receive, and both establish in spite of reason, reflection, and sensation."
The Philadelphia grand jury indicted Dennie for this paragraph as a seditious libel, but it was not more expressive than the single word uttered by Alexander Hamilton, who owed no small part of his supremacy to the faculty of expressing the prejudices of his followers more tersely than they themselves could do. Compressing the idea into one syllable, Hamilton, at a New York dinner, replied to some democratic sentiment by striking his hand sharply on the table and saying, " Your people, sir,--your people is a great beast!"
The political theories of these ultra-conservative New Englanders did not require the entire exclusion of all democratic influence from government. "While I hold," said Cabot, "that a government altogether popular is in effect a government of the populace, I maintain that no government can be relied on that has not a material portion of the democratic mixture in its composition." Cabot explained what should be the true portion of democratic mixture: "If no man in New England could vote for legislators who was not possessed in his own right of two thousand dollars' value in land, we could do something better." The Constitution of Massachusetts already restricted the suffrage to persons "having a freehold estate within the commonwealth of an annual income of three pounds, or any estate of the value of sixty pounds." A further restriction to freeholders whose estate was worth two thousand dollars would hardly have left a material mixture of any influence which democrats would have recognized as theirs.
Meanwhile even Cabot and his friends Ames and Colonel Hamilton recognized that the reform they wished could be effected only with the consent of the people; and firm in the conviction that democracy must soon produce a crisis, as in Greece and Rome, in England and France, when political power must revert to the wise and good, or to the despotism of a military chief, they waited for the catastrophe they foresaw. History and their own experience supported them. They were right, so far as human knowledge could make them so; but the old spirit of Puritan obstinacy was more evident than reason or experience in the simple-minded, overpowering conviction with which the clergy and serious citizens of Massachusetts and Connecticut, assuming that the people of America were in the same social condition as the contemporaries of Catiline and the adherents of Robespierre, sat down to bide their time until the tempest of democracy should drive the frail government so near destruction that all men with one voice should call on God and the Federalist prophets for help. The obstinacy of the race was never better shown than when, with the sunlight of the nineteenth century bursting upon them, these resolute sons of granite and ice turned their faces from the sight, and smiled in their sardonic way at the folly or wickedness of men who could pretend to believe the world improved because henceforth the ignorant and vicious were to rule the United States and govern the churches and schools of New England.
Even Boston, the most cosmopolitan part of New England, showed no tendency in its educated classes to become American in thought or feeling. Many of the ablest Federalists, and among the rest George Cabot, Theophilus Parsons, and Fisher Ames, shared few of the narrower theological prejudices of their time, but were conservatives of the English type, whose alliance with the clergy betrayed as much policy as religion, and whose intellectual life was wholly English. Boston made no strong claim to intellectual prominence. Neither clergy, lawyers, physicians, nor literary men were much known beyond the State. Fisher Ames enjoyed a wider fame; but Ames's best political writing was saturated with the despair of the tomb to which his wasting body was condemned. Five years had passed since he closed his famous speech on the British Treaty with the foreboding that if the treaty were not carried into effect, "even I, slender and almost broken as my hold upon life is, may outlive the government and constitution of my country." Seven years more were to pass in constant dwelling upon the same theme, in accents more and more despondent, before the long-expected grave closed over him, and his warning voice ceased to echo painfully on the air. The number of his thorough-going admirers was small, if his own estimate was correct. "There are," he said, "not many, perhaps not five hundred, even among the Federalists, who yet allow themselves to view the progress of licentiousness as so speedy, so sure, and so fatal as the deplorable experience of our country shows that it is, and the evidence of history and the constitution of human nature demonstrate that it must be." These five hundred, few as they were, comprised most of the clergy and the State officials, and overawed large numbers more.
Ames was the mouthpiece in the press of a remarkable group, of which George Cabot was the recognized chief in wisdom, and Timothy Pickering the most active member in national politics. With Ames, Cabot, and Pickering, joined in confidential relations, was Theophilus Parsons, who in the year 1800 left Newburyport for Boston. Parsons was an abler man than either Cabot, Ames, or Pickering, and his influence was great in holding New England fast to an independent course which could end only in the overthrow of the Federal constitution which these men had first pressed upon an unwilling people; but though gifted with strong natural powers, backed by laborious study and enlivened by the ready and somewhat rough wit native to New England, Parsons was not bold on his own account; he was felt rather than seen, and although ever ready in private to advise strong measures, he commonly let others father them before the world.
These gentlemen formed the Essex Junto, so called from the county of Essex where their activity was first felt. According to Ames, not more than five hundred men fully shared their opinions; but Massachusetts society was so organized as to make their influence great, and experience foretold that as the liberal Federalists should one by one wander to the Democratic camp where they belonged, the conservatism of those who remained would become more bitter and more absolute as the Essex Junto represented a larger and larger proportion of their numbers.
Nevertheless, the reign of old-fashioned conservatism was near its end. The New England Church was apparently sound; even Unitarians and Baptists were recognized as parts of one fraternity. Except a few Roman and Anglican bodies, all joined in the same worship, and said little on points of doctrinal difference. No one had yet dared to throw a firebrand into the temple; but Unitarians were strong among the educated and wealthy class, while the tendencies of a less doctrinal religious feeling were shaping themselves in Harvard College. William Ellery Channing took his degree in 1798, and in 1800 was a private tutor in Virginia. Joseph Stevens Buckminster, thought by his admirers a better leader than Channing, graduated in 1800, and was teaching boys to construe their Latin exercises at Exeter Academy. Only the shell of orthodoxy was left, but respectable society believed this shell to be necessary as an example of Christian unity and a safeguard against more serious innovations. No one could fail to see that the public had lately become restive under its antiquated discipline. The pulpits still fulminated against the fatal tolerance which within a few years had allowed theatres to be opened in Boston, and which scandalized God-fearing men by permitting public advertisements that "Hamlet" and "Othello" were to be performed in the town founded to protest against worldly pageants. Another innovation was more strenuously resisted. Only within the last thirty years had Sunday travel been allowed even in England; in Massachusetts and Connecticut it was still forbidden by law, and the law was enforced. Yet not only travellers, but innkeepers and large numbers of citizens connived at Sunday travel, and it could not long be prevented. The clergy saw their police authority weakening year by year, and understood, without need of many words, the tacit warning of the city congregations that in this world they must be allowed to amuse themselves, even though they were to suffer for it in the next.
The longing for amusement and freedom was a reasonable and a modest want. Even the young theologians, the Buckminsters and Channings, were hungry for new food. Boston was little changed in appearance, habits, and style from what it had been under its old king. When young Dr. J. C. Warren returned from Europe about the year 1800, to begin practice in Boston, he found gentlemen still dressed in colored coats and figured waistcoats, short breeches buttoning at the knee, long boots with white tops, ruffled shirts and wristbands, a white cravat filled with what was called a "pudding," and for the elderly, cocked hats, and wigs which once every week were sent to the barber's to be dressed,--so that every Saturday night the barbers' boys were seen carrying home piles of wig-boxes in readiness for Sunday's church. At evening parties gentlemen appeared in white small-clothes, silk stockings and pumps, with a colored or white waistcoat. There were few hackney-coaches, and ladies walked to evening entertainments. The ancient minuet was danced as late as 1806. The waltz was not yet tolerated.
Fashionable society was not without charm. In summer Southern visitors appeared, and admired the town, with its fashionable houses perched on the hillsides, each in its own garden, and each looking seaward over harbor and islands. Boston was then what Newport afterward became, and its only rival as a summer watering-place in the North was Ballston, whither society was beginning to seek health before finding it a little farther away at Saratoga. Of intellectual amusement there was little more at one place than at the other, except that the Bostonians devoted themselves more seriously to church-going and to literature. The social instinct took shape in varied forms, but was highly educated in none; while the typical entertainment in Boston, as in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, was the state dinner,--not the light, feminine triviality which France introduced into an amusement-loving world, but the serious dinner of Sir Robert Walpole and Lord North, where gout and plethora waited behind the chairs; an effort of animal endurance.
There was the arena of intellectual combat, if that be called combat where disagreement in principle was not tolerated. The talk of Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke was the standard of excellence to all American society that claimed intellectual rank, and each city possessed its own circle of Federalist talkers. Democrats rarely figured in these entertainments, at least in fashionable private houses. "There was no exclusiveness," said a lady who long outlived the time; "but I should as soon have expected to see a cow in a drawing-room as a Jacobin."
In New York, indeed, Colonel Burr and the Livingstons may have held their own, and the active-minded Dr. Mitchill there, like Dr. Eustis in Boston, was an agreeable companion. Philadelphia was comparatively cosmopolitan; in Baltimore the Smiths were a social power; and Charleston, after deserting Federal principles in 1800, could hardly ignore Democrats; but Boston society was still pure. The clergy took a prominent part in conversation, but Fisher Ames was the favorite of every intelligent company; and when Gouverneur Morris, another brilliant talker, visited Boston, Ames was pitted against him.
The intellectual wants of the community grew with the growing prosperity; but the names of half-a-dozen persons could hardly be mentioned whose memories survived by intellectual work made public in Massachusetts between 1783 and 1800. Two or three local historians might be numbered, including Jeremy Belknap, the most justly distinguished. Jedediah Morse the geographer was well known; but not a poet, a novelist, or a scholar could be named. Nathaniel Bowditch did not publish his "Practical Navigator " till 1800, and not till then did Dr. Waterhouse begin his struggle to introduce vaccination. With the exception of a few Revolutionary statesmen and elderly clergymen, a political essayist like Ames, and lawyers like Samuel Dexter and Theophilus Parsons, Massachusetts could show little that warranted a reputation for genius; and, in truth, the intellectual prominence of Boston began as the conservative system died out, starting with the younger Buckminster several years after the century opened.
The city was still poorer in science. Excepting the medical profession, which represented nearly all scientific activity, hardly a man in Boston got his living either by science or art. When in the year 1793 the directors of the new Middlesex Canal Corporation, wishing to bring the Merrimac River to Boston Harbor, required a survey of an easy route not thirty miles long, they could find no competent civil engineer in Boston, and sent to Philadelphia for an Englishman named Weston, engaged on the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal.
Possibly a few Bostonians could read and even speak French; but Germany was nearly as unknown as China, until Madame de Staºl published her famous work in 1814. Even then young George Ticknor, incited by its account of German university education, could find neither a good teacher nor a dictionary, nor a German book in the shops or public libraries of the city or at the college in Cambridge. He had discovered a new world.
Pope, Addison, Akenside, Beattie, and Young were still the reigning poets. Burns was accepted by a few; and copies of a volume were advertised by booksellers, written by a new poet called Wordsworth. America offered a fair demand for new books, and anything of a light nature published in England was sure to cross the ocean. Wordsworth crossed with the rest, and his " Lyrical Ballads " were reprinted in 1802, not in Boston or New York, but in Philadelphia, where they were read and praised. In default of other amusements, men read what no one could have endured had a choice of amusements been open. Neither music, painting, science, the lectureroom, nor even magazines offered resources that could rival what was looked upon as classical literature. Men had not the alternative of listening to political discussions, for stump-speaking was a Southern practice not yet introduced into New England, where such a political canvass would have terrified society with dreams of Jacobin license. The clergy and the bar took charge of politics; the tavern was the club and the forum of political discussion; but for those who sought other haunts, and especially for women, no intellectual amusement other than what was called "belles-lettres" existed to give a sense of occupation to an active mind. This keen and innovating people, hungry for the feast that was almost served, the Walter Scotts and Byrons so near at hand, tried meanwhile to nourish themselves with husks.
Afraid of Shakspeare and the drama, trained to the standards of Queen Anne's age, and ambitious beyond reason to excel, the New Englanders attempted to supply their own wants. Massachusetts took no lead in the struggle to create a light literature, if such poetry and fiction could be called light. In Connecticut the Muses were most obstinately wooed; and there, after the Revolutionary War, a persistent effort was made to give prose the form of poetry. The chief of the movement was Timothy Dwight, a man of extraordinary qualities, but one on whom almost every other mental gift had been conferred in fuller measure than poetical genius. Twenty-five years had passed since young Dwight, fresh from Yale College, began his career by composing an epic poem, in eleven books and near ten thousand lines, called "The Conquest of Canaan." In the fervor of patriotism, before independence was secured or the French Revolution imagined, he pictured the great Hebrew leader Joshua preaching the Rights of Man, and prophesying the spread of his "sons" over America:--
"Then o'er wide lands, as blissful Eden bright,
Type of the skies, and seats of pure delight,
Our sons with prosperous course shall stretch their sway,
And claim an empire spread from sea to sea;
In one great whole th' harmonious tribes combine,
Trace Justice' path, and choose their chiefs divine;
On Freedom's base erect the heavenly plan,
Teach laws to reign, and save the Rights of Man.
Then smiling Art shall wrap the fields in bloom,
Fine the rich ore, and guide the useful loom;
Then lofty towers in golden pomp arise,
Then spiry cities meet auspicious skies;
The soul on Wisdom's wing sublimely soar,
New virtues cherish and new truths explore;
Through Time's long tract our name celestial run,
Climb in the east and circle with the sun;
And smiling Glory stretch triumphant wings
O'er hosts of heroes and o'er tribes of kings."
A world of eighteenth-century thought, peopled with personifications, lay buried in the ten thousand lines of President Dwight's youthful poem. Perhaps in the year 1800, after Jefferson's triumph, Dwight would have been less eager that his hero should save the Rights of Man; by that time the phrase had acquired a flavor of French infidelity which made it unpalatable to good taste. Yet the same Jeffersonian spirit ran through Dwight's famous national song, which was also written in the Revolutionary War:--
"Columbia, Columbia, to glory arise,
The queen of the world and child of the skies!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thy heroes the rights of mankind shall defend,
And triumph pursue them, and glory attend.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
While the ensigns of union in triumph unfurled
Hush the tumult of war and give peace to the world."
"Peace to the world" was the essence of Jeffersonian principles, worth singing in something better than jingling metre and indifferent rhyme; but President Dwight's friends in 1800 no longer sang this song. More and more conservative as he grew older, he published in 1797 an orthodox "Triumph of Infidelity," introduced by a dedication to Voltaire. His rebuke to mild theology was almost as severe as that to French deism:--
"There smiled the smooth divine, unused to wound
The sinner's heart with Hell's alarming sound."
His poetical career reached its climax in 1794 in a clerical Connecticut pastoral in seven books, called "Greenfield Hill." Perhaps his verses were not above the level of the Beatties and Youngs he imitated; but at least they earned for President Dwight no mean reputation in days when poetry was at its lowest ebb, and made him the father of a school.
One quality gave respectability to his writing apart from genius. He loved and believed in his country. Perhaps the uttermost depths of his nature were stirred only by affection for the Connecticut Valley; but after all where was human nature more respectable than in that peaceful region? What had the United States then to show in scenery and landscape more beautiful or more winning than that country of meadow and mountain? Patriotism was no ardent feeling among the literary men of the time, whose general sentiment was rather expressed by Cliffton's lines:--
"In these cold shades, beneath these shifting skies,
Where Fancy sickens, and where Genius dies,
Where few and feeble are the Muse's strains,
And no fine frenzy riots in the veins,
There still are found a few to whom belong
The fire of virtue and the soul of song."
William Cliffton, a Pennsylvania Friend, who died in 1799 of consumption, in his twenty-seventh year, knew nothing of the cold shades and shifting skies which chilled the genius of European poets; he knew only that America cared little for such genius and fancy as he could offer, and he rebelled against the neglect. He was better treated than Wordsworth, Keats, or Shelley; but it was easy to blame the public for dulness and indifference, though readers were kinder than authors had a right to expect. Even Cliffton was less severe than some of his contemporaries. A writer in the "Boston Anthology," for January, 1807, uttered in still stronger words the prevailing feeling of the literary class:--
"We know that in this land, where the spirit of democracy is everywhere diffused, we are exposed as it were to a poisonous atmosphere, which blasts everything beautiful in nature, and corrodes everything elegant in art; we know that with us 'the rose-leaves fall ungathered,' and we believe that there is little to praise and nothing to admire in most of the objects which would first present themselves to the view of a stranger."
Yet the American world was not unsympathetic toward Cliffton and his rivals, though they strained prose through their sieves of versification, and showed open contempt for their audience. Toward President Dwight the public was even generous; and he returned the generosity with parental love and condescension which shone through every line he wrote. For some years his patriotism was almost as enthusiastic as that of Joel Barlow. He was among the numerous rivals of Macaulay and Shelley for the honor of inventing the stranger to sit among the ruins of St. Paul's; and naturally America supplied the explorer who was to penetrate the forest of London and indulge his national self-complacency over ruined temples and towers.
"Some unknown wild, some shore without a name,
In all thy pomp shall then majestic shine
As silver-headed Time's slow years decline.
Not ruins only meet th' inquiring eye;
Where round yon mouldering oak vain brambles twine,
The filial stem, already towering high,
Erelong shall stretch his arms and nod in yonder sky."
From these specimens of President Dwight's poetry any critic, familiar with the time, could infer that his prose was sensible and sound. One of the few books of travel which will always retain value for New Englanders was written by President Dwight to describe his vacation rambles; and although in his own day no one would have ventured to insult him by calling these instructive volumes amusing, the quaintness which here and there gave color to the sober narrative had a charm of its own. How could the contrast be better expressed between volatile Boston and orthodox New Haven than in Dwight's quiet reproof, mixed with paternal tenderness? The Bostonians, he said, were distinguished by a lively imagination, ardor, and sensibility; they were "more like the Greeks than the Romans;" admired where graver people would only approve; applauded or hissed where another audience would be silent; their language was frequently hyperbolical, their pictures highly colored; the tea shipped to Boston was destroyed,--in New York and Philadelphia it was stored; education in Boston was superficial, and Boston women showed the effects of this misfortune, for they practised accomplishments only that they might be admired, and were taught from the beginning to regard their dress as a momentous concern.
Under Dwight's rule the women of the Connecticut Valley were taught better; but its men set to the Bostonians an example of frivolity without a parallel, and they did so with the connivance of President Dwight and under the lead of his brother Theodore. The frivolity of the Hartford wits, as they were called, was not so light as that of Canning and the "Anti-Jacobin," but had it been heavier than the "Conquest of Canaan" itself, it would still have found no literary rivalry in Boston. At about the time when Dwight composed his serious epic, another tutor at Yale, John Trumbull, wrote a burlesque epic in Hudibrastic verse, "McFingal," which his friend Dwight declared to be not inferior to "Hudibras" in wit and humor, and in every other respect superior. When "Hudibras" was published, more than a hundred years before, Mr. Pepys remarked: "It hath not a good liking in me, though I had tried but twice or three times reading to bring myself to think it witty." After the lapse of more than another century, the humor of neither poem may seem worth imitation; but to Trumbull in 1784 Butler was a modern classic, for the standard of taste between 1663 and 1784 changed less than in any twenty years of the following century. "McFingal" was a success, and laid a solid foundation for the coming school of Hartford wits. Posterity ratified the verdict of Trumbull's admirers by preserving for daily use a few of his lines quoted indiscriminately with Butler's best :--
"What has posterity done for us?"
"Optics sharp it needs, I ween,
To see what is not to be seen."
"A thief ne'er felt the halter draw
With good opinion of the law."
Ten years after the appearance of "McFingal," and on the strength of its success, Trumbull, Lemuel Hopkins, Richard Alsop, Theodore Dwight, Joel Barlow, and others began a series of publications, "The Anarchiad," "The Echo," "The Guillotine," and the like, in which they gave tongue to their wit and sarcasm. As Alsop described the scene,--
"Begrimed with blood where erst the savage fell,
Shrieked the wild war-whoop with infernal yell,
The Muses sing; lo, Trumbull wakes the lyre.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Majestic Dwight, sublime in epic strain,
Paints the fierce horrors of the crimson plain;
And in Virgilian Barlow's tuneful lines
With added splendor great Columbus shines."
Perhaps the Muses would have done better by not interrupting the begrimed savage; for Dwight, Trumbull, Alsop, and Hopkins, whatever their faults, were Miltonic by the side of Joel Barlow. Yet Barlow was a figure too important in American history to be passed without respectful attention. He expressed better than any one else that side of Connecticut character which roused at the same instant the laughter and the respect of men. Every human influence twined about his career and lent it interest; every forward movement of his time had his sympathy, and few steps in progress were made which he did not assist. His ambition, above the lofty ambition of Jefferson, made him aspire to be a Connecticut Mücenas and Virgil in one; to patronize Fulton and employ Smirke; counsel Jefferson and contend with Napoleon. In his own mind a figure such as the world rarely saw,--a compound of Milton, Rousseau, and the Duke of Bridgewater,--he had in him so large a share of conceit, that tragedy, which would have thrown a solemn shadow over another man's life, seemed to render his only more entertaining. As a poet, he undertook to do for his native land what Homer had done for Greece and Virgil for Rome, Milton for England and Camoens for Portugal,--to supply America with a great epic, without which no country could be respectable; and his "Vision of Columbus," magnified afterward into the "Columbiad," with a magnificence of typography and illustration new to the United States, remained a monument of his ambition. In this vision Columbus was shown a variety of coming celebrities, including all the heroes of the Revolutionary War:--
"Here stood stern Putnam, scored with ancient scars,
The living records of his country's wars;
Wayne, like a moving tower, assumes his post,
Fires the whole field, and is himself a host;
Undaunted Stirling, prompt to meet his foes,
And Gates and Sullivan for action rose;
Macdougal, Clinton, guardians of the State,
Stretch the nerved arm to pierce the depth of fate;
Moultrie and Sumter lead their banded powers;
Morgan in front of his bold riflers towers,
His host of keen-eyed marksmen, skilled to pour
Their slugs unerring from the twisted bore;
No sword, no bayonet they learn to wield,
They gall the flank, they skirt the battling field,
Cull out the distant foe in full horse speed,
Couch the long tube and eye the silver bead,
Turn as he turns, dismiss the whizzing lead,
And lodge the death-ball in his heedless head."
More than seven thousand lines like these furnished constant pleasure to the reader, the more because the "Columbiad" was accepted by the public in a spirit as serious as that in which it was composed. The Hartford wits, who were bitter Federalists, looked upon Barlow as an outcast from their fold, a Jacobin in politics, and little better than a French atheist in religion; but they could not deny that his poetic garments were of a piece with their own. Neither could they without great ingratitude repudiate his poetry as they did his politics, for they themselves figured with Manco Capac, Montezuma, Raleigh, and Pocahontas before the eyes of Columbus; and the world bore witness that Timothy Dwight, "Heaven in his eye and rapture on his tongue," tuned his "high harp" in Barlow's inspired verses. Europe was as little disposed as America to cavil; and the Abbé Grégoire assured Barlow in a printed letter that this monument of genius and typography would immortalize the author and silence the criticisms of Pauw and other writers on the want of talent in America.
That the "Columbiad" went far to justify those criticisms was true; but on the other hand it proved something almost equivalent to genius. Dwight, Trumbull, and Barlow, whatever might be their differences, united in offering proof of the boundless ambition which marked the American character. Their aspirations were immense, and sooner or later such restless craving was sure to find better expression. Meanwhile Connecticut was a province by itself, a part of New England rather than of the United States. The exuberant patriotism of the Revolution was chilled by the steady progress of democratic principles in the Southern and Middle States, until at the election of Jefferson in 1800 Connecticut stood almost alone with no intellectual companion except Massachusetts, while the breach between them and the Middle States seemed to widen day by day. That the separation was only superficial was true; but the connection itself was not yet deep. An extreme Federalist partisan like Noah Webster did not cease working for his American language and literature because of the triumph of Jeffersonian principles elsewhere; Barlow became more American when his friends gained power; the work of the colleges went unbroken; but prejudices, habits, theories, and laws remained what they had been in the past, and in Connecticut the influence of nationality was less active than ten, twenty, or even thirty years before. Yale College was but a reproduction of Harvard with stricter orthodoxy, turning out every year about thirty graduates, of whom nearly one fourth went into the Church. For the last ten years the number tended rather to diminish than to increase.
Evidently an intellectual condition like that of New England could not long continue. The thoughts and methods of the eighteenth century held possession of men's minds only because the movement of society was delayed by political passions. Massachusetts, and especially Boston, already contained a younger generation eager to strike into new paths, while forcibly held in the old ones. The more decidedly the college graduates of 1800 disliked democracy and its habits of thought, the more certain they were to compensate for political narrowness by freedom in fields not political. The future direction of the New England intellect seemed already suggested by the impossibility of going further in the line of President Dwight and Fisher Ames. Met by a barren negation on that side, thought was driven to some new channel; and the United States were the more concerned in the result because, with the training and literary habits of New Englanders and the new models already established in Europe for their guidance, they were likely again to produce something that would command respect.
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