It is with a certain feeling of temerity that I offer the present study of a field of American letters which has been pretty largely neglected. That feeling springs from no sense of the slightness of the materials treated of, or their remoteness from present-day interests. To one who has dwelt for any length of time amidst the polemics of colonial debate, a conviction of the greatness of the issues and the intellectual honesty and masculine vigor of the disputants, comes home with compelling force. The subjects with which they dealt are old-fashioned only in manner and dress; at heart they were much the same themes with which we are engaged, and with which our children will be engaged after us. The feeling springs rather from a sense of the complexity and many-sidedness of the materials, with their ramifications into theology and politics and economics, and with backgrounds that conduct to remote origins in European systems of thought; and it is quickened by the realization that the interpretation here offered, runs in many points counter to that frequently given. The point of view from which I have endeavored to evaluate the materials, is liberal rather than conservative, Jeffersonian rather than Federalistic; and very likely in my search I have found what I went forth to find, as others have discovered what they were seeking. Unfortunately the mens aequa et clara is the rarest of attributes, and dead partisanships have a disconcerting way of coming to life again in the pages of their historians. That the vigorous passions and prejudices of the times I have dealt with may have found an echo in my judgments is, perhaps, to be expected; whether they have distorted my interpretation and vitiated my analysis is not for me to determine.
Of the present volume portions of Book One have already appeared in a much abbreviated form in the Cambridge History of American Literature, and certain passages of Book Three have appeared in Selections from the Connecticut Wits, of the American Authors Series; and I am indebted to the courtesy of G. P. Putnam's Sons and of Harcourt, Brace and Company for the privilege of reprinting them here. My obligations to many students are too great to be adequately acknowledged in a few words; they appear at large in the footnotes. I find myself especially indebted to the critical historians who for the past score of years have been working with such fruitful results in the Revolutionary and Constitutional periods of our development. Without the assistance of their searching investigations the difficulties in the way of understanding those complex times would have proved insuperable. To the sane and acute scholarship of my friend and colleague, Prof. Edward McMahon, and to the generous counsel and encouragement of the late Prof. J. Allen Smith, I am under particular obligations; but in those instances in which I may unwittingly have gone astray, the fault is mine. In a study dealing with so long a period of time and with such diverse and difficult fields, I can scarcely hope to have escaped the many traps laid for the unwary. Perhaps I should add that the seeming neglect, in the present volume, of southern backgrounds, has resulted from the desire to postpone the detailed consideration of the mind of the South to a later volume.
V. L. P.