The Mind of New England
The New England renaissance was tardy in appearing and of brief duration, yet in the few years of its extraordinary vigor it imparted a stimulus to American life that its historians have not greatly exaggerated. We are now far enough from it to see that it was the last flowering of a tree that was dying at the roots, but in the tumultuous thirties it seemed to be a new birth of the native New England mind, opening on new worlds and great adventures. Though its prophecies might be little heeded at its own fireside, and unheard in the vast stretches of the West where men were clearing and building after quite different plans than the Concord architects were drawing, its significance in the development of American idealism-the ethical imprint it stamped on American culture-endured long after it had spent its force. It was the last and in certain aspects the most brilliant of the several attempts to domesticate in America the romantic thought of revolutionary Europe; and with its passing, civilization in this western world fell into the hands of another breed of men to fashion as they saw fit.
The revolutions in thought that lie between the eighteenth century with its aristocratic rationalism that conceived of human nature as evil, and the nineteenth century with its middle-class economics that conceived of human, nature as acquisitive, are more clearly defined in New England and more sharply differentiated, than elsewhere in America. The flood of romantic speculation with its humanitarian emphasis on the potential excellence of man and the equality of human rights, that in Europe had diffused itself widely, in Massachusetts flowed into narrow channels prepared by Puritan discipline, and swept away habits of thought that had dominated New England for two hundred years. The intensity of the Puritan nature, once it embraced the new conceptions, imparted to them an intellectual and emotional unity that serves to explain the creativeness of the New England renaissance, as it serves to explain its failure to spread widely beyond the confines of Massachusetts. Appearing a generation later than in Virginia, it drew its inspiration more largely from Germany than from France; it was intellectual and ethical rather than political and economic; and in consequence it held little in common with the Physiocratic agrarianism of Jefferson. The latter was sufficiently native to American economics to appeal to the common man from Maine to Georgia; the former was native only to New England Puritanism. Its idealism appealed only to rare souls, disciplined by speculation and trained in ethical values, men of strong character and fine distinction who counted for much more than numbers.
After all it is the ethical note that marks the Puritan. That New England has run so different a course from other parts of America has been due chiefly to its desire to serve God even though it might be serving self. Its material life has always been plentifully seasoned with the salt of religion, It sat under the teachings of an austere ethics, as it lived under the compulsions of a narrow economics; and the result was the development of a middle class distinct from that of the West where the desire to get on was less hampered by the desire to get to heaven. The outstanding social figures in early New England were the minister and the merchant; and these twin authorities-joined after the Revolution by the rising profession of the law-ruled in patriarchal fashion the inarticulate mass of the yeomanry. From these traditional leaders the policy of New England received a twofold bent: a bent to the ethical and a bent to the practical. The two have rarely fused in a harmonious and fruitful life, but for the most part have dwelt side by side under a covenant of noninterference, the character of current social ideals taking its impress from one or the other as it gained a temporary ascendency. In the three hundred years of New England history the minister has enjoyed two periods of intellectual ascendency: the first during the early days of the theocracy, when the commonwealth was ruled by the laws of God and John Calvin; and the second, between the years 1830 and 1850, when John Calvin was finally put aside and New England was in the way of being remodeled in accordance with the plans of God alone. Between these brief periods of ethical enthusiasm pies the main history of New England, a history that counts for little in our intellectual and aesthetic development, but that meant much and ill to the cramped minds of her sons.
This long stretch, and 1830 unlovely, was dominated wholly by the merchant. Its parsimonious thrift, relieved by few generous impulses, was hostile to all change and to the romance that is bred of change. There was no rapid inflow of settlers to bring fresh energy and expansion. The exuberant growth of other parts of America was never shared by rural New England, and in consequence the harvest of unearned increment was rarely reaped from her sterile acres. Except in the shipping towns there was little economic development. On its secluded little farms New England was living a narrow parochial life, cooping up its mind in a rigid theological system and disciplining its character by a self-denying ordinance. Public affairs were managed by the squire, for the minister was too busy defending John Calvin against the Arminians to have a care for much except morality and dogma. The renaissance became of necessity, therefore, a movement of liberalism-a vehement protest against the torpor of the dogmatist whose mind was shut up in a dead system. It was a sudden reawakening of the ethical passion of Puritanism that had slept for two centuries; a vision of a new heaven and a new earth that it proposed to take by storm. It proposed to rid the mind of New England of its decadent loyalties-the nightmare dreams of Calvinism that debased human nature, and the counting-house dreams of Federalism that conceived of man as an exploitative animal. It had discovered anew the beauty of righteousness, and in the name of righteousness it proposed to throw off the old tyrannies and create a society wherein the mind should be free and the soul enjoy its religion. The battle against Calvinism was only preliminary to greater battles which constituted the intellectual revolution that marked the renaissance.
It was the New England minister, and the spiritual heirs of the minister-a group of intellectuals and reformers more notable than New England had before bred-that gave to the movement its pronounced ethical quality. It was freedom for individual righteousness that they sought; not freedom for intellectual epicureanism, for romance, for aesthetic or pagan beauty. The transcendentalists and reformers had little time to amuse themselves with such things. They were too eager for the coming of the kingdom to dawdle over fiction or patronize the playhouse. They had been bred from their youth up on printer's ink; they came of a race that had long respected the printed page. Literary men by inheritance, they esteemed themselves stewards of a great cause. In rejecting their fathers' hell they became the more zealous to make a heaven of this world; and although the more practical Yankee was skeptical of their plans and would not suffer them to turn Boston into a transcendental Utopia, they succeeded in making such a stir as New England had never before known. For a brief time, at least, liberal ideas found a welcome in homes where they had hitherto been strangers; for a brief time the intellectual and not the merchant dominated New England.
PART ONE: THE TWILIGHT OF FEDERALISM
CHAPTER I: The Passing of the Tie-Wig School
I. OLD BOSTON
The year 1815, that brought to a close the unfortunate American venture into the maelstrom of the Napoleonic wars, may be conveniently taken to mark for New England the transition to the nineteenth century. With the rise of Unitarianism and the development of the new industrialism, a ruder and more vigorous age entered Boston. It met with a somewhat chilly reception. The patriarchal eighteenth century still clung to its warm chimney comer, not liking to be dispossessed by heirs of whom it testily disapproved. The old order stood on its dignity, tenacious of its habitual authority. It lived quietly in an aristocratic past, unregardful of the vigorous commonwealths rising beyond the Appalachian mountains, and contemptuous of the new political philosophy that preached the rights of man. A persistent continuity of temper marked the ruling class, a continuity little disturbed by the tumultuous revolutions of the past two generations. Although nearly half the voters of Massachusetts, in the year 1800, were Jeffersonian republicans, the knowledge of that fact only stiffened the backbones of the regnant caste. It colored their minds with a virtuous pessimism, but it edged their temper with the zeal of righteousness. The Boston mobsters, it would appear, were republican, and when the present custodians of the ark of decency were gathered to their fathers, very likely evil days would come upon the land; but while the righteous lived they would be faithful to their stewardship. Their, own households, at least, they would keep clean of all democratic pollution; and so Boston and New Haven and Hartford-the capitals of New England culture-drew about them the garments of Federalist righteousness. Since the Revolution of '76 a new authority had risen on the ruins of the old Tory authority, but in spite of the change of personnel and outward political forms, the spirit of respectable New England remained pretty much what it had always been. John Quincy Adams and Fisher Ames and Josiah Quincy were little different in character and aims from Thomas Hutchinson and Joseph Sewall and Daniel Leonard-they were common chips from the tough old New England oak. High-minded yet narrow; devout yet not emotionally religious; thrifty yet generous in approved causes; engaged in overseas commerce yet oddly parochial --they were men fashioned by a rugged environment into vigorous stock, that would hold tenaciously to what they had got and would tolerate no insubordination on the part of their social inferiors.
With its twenty-five thousand inhabitants Boston ranked fourth in size among American cities. Philadelphia, the social capital of America, was nearly three times as large; New York nearly two and a half times; and even Baltimore had lately come to exceed her in population. The economic forces that make for liberalism had become largely impotent. Free land had long since-been exhausted in Massachusetts and social lines were fixed. The northern frontier of Maine and New Hampshire was rugged and uninviting, and York State lay to the West. Except in the Connecticut valley the soil was thin and farming unproductive, and in consequence the more ambitious turned to commerce and manufacture which the physical conditions of the country invited. The dominant interest of Boston was commercial, and the ruling coterie of merchants and lawyers was narrowly Whiggish. They had modified their pre-Revolutionary political philosophy no further than to substitute the word republican for monarchical. The aristocratic temper dominated the town meetings, and the principle of property rule was commonly accepted as the essence of political wisdom. In substituting Federalism for Toryism there was no easing of the restrictions on rebellious plebeians. Quite repudiated were the rude leveling ways of the great Revolutionary adventure. Boston gentlemen had come to understand too well the danger of encouraging the mob, for as Fisher Ames pointed out in 1787, "The people have turned against their teachers the doctrines, which were inculcated to effect the late revolution" (Works, p. ii). Boston had Se wall enough of revolutions since Daniel Shays had got up one of his own aimed at the Boston purse, and French Jacobins had let loose their devastating ideas upon a gullible world. Revolutions that were not made in Boston, by Boston gentlemen, were quite certain to be wicked and seditious; and Boston had definitely gone out of the revolution business. It wanted above all things to undo the mischief that had already been done, and take back into safe hands the political power which in the days of revolutionary enthusiasm had been seized by the agrarian democracy.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century the intellectual isolation of New England was sharply accentuated and the consequent intellectual stagnation became more disastrous. In other portions of America French revolutionary theories of man and society were spreading widely and shouldering aside the outworn past. A romantic equalitarianism, based on the doctrine of human perfectibility, was displacing the traditional economic realism, established on the dogma of total depravity. The leveling movement, in consequence, was provided with a persuasive idealism that awakened troublesome aspirations in the disfranchised majority and gave a strong impetus to the democratic movement. But New England leaders stood resolutely apart, accounting all equalitarianism sheer romantic folly. The old stubborn realism held its ground, interpreting political principles in terms of economics, and dogmatically maintaining the sacred rights of property. Boston Federalism refused to have anything to do with "atheistic France," the fruitful mother of Jacobin follies. Pollution, it was convinced, must result from any commerce with infidel and innovating ideas. Gunpowder that was played with might explode, and New England wanted no blowing up of her excellent society. Virginia had lent credulous ears to the voice of France, and the result was the atheist Jefferson and the rabble of his licentious followers. Massachusetts was not gullible and it would tolerate no Jeffersonian atheisms. And so instead of adapting French romantic philosophy to new world needs, seizing upon its social idealism to leaven the crude American lump-as Jefferson and Colonel Mason and John Taylor and many another Virginia gentleman had done Boston Federalism rejected French ideas in the mass, dubbed French idealism Jacobinism, and turned back upon a stubborn reaction.
The disastrous consequences of that rejection upon the mind of New England cannot easily be measured. It is clear enough, nevertheless, that the renaissance was delayed a full generation, and when it came it assumed certain provincialisms that greatly lessened its permanent influence upon the rest of America. The impress of its contribution upon our national thought has been far less permanent than that of Virginia, that came a generation earlier and was primarily economic and political. It is a suggestive fact that in the work of adapting the new Federal Constitution to democratic ends, New England contributed no creative leader, none in any way comparable to Jefferson; but on the contrary her most representative leaders-and in particular Webster-followed the eighteenth-century tradition in combating the equalitarian advance in the interest of economic groups. Some explanation of this fact may be found, perhaps, in the selfish isolation of New England Federalism, that closed the door on the liberal thought of France.
In consequence of such isolation Boston became the recognized home of the philosophy of a stake-in-society. If it clung tenaciously to an old-fashioned Federalism after it had been abandoned elsewhere, it was because Boston was more middle-class than Charleston, and had not learned from experience with Jacksonianism how easily the majority will may be shaped and controlled to particular ends. It inherited the old Tory contempt for democracy and relied on the old stock arguments to combat it. Its habitual tone was one of virtuous arrogance. The one great and ever present fear that haunted the pillows of worthy Boston merchants and turned their dreams to nightmares was fear of the mob getting out of hand; and democracy, for them, was only a euphemism for the mob-the ever-present menace to sober and decent government. In the judgment of Theodore Dwight, brother of Timothy, "there could be nothing more dreadful this side of hell." Nowhere else in America did the reaction against the democratic ideal carry so far as in Boston. The church and the merchant associations joined with polite society to cry it down, and upon the head of the democrat fell the most extravagant vituperation. For a generation few respectable New Englanders raised their voices in defense of democracy, but gentlemen of principle and property followed the lead of the little clique that was driving straight towards the Hartford Convention-blind sailors navigating the Dead Sea of Federalist pessimism.
All this was before the reputed time of plain living and high thinking. Intellectual Boston was as parochial as political Boston. The lights whom Bostonians regarded as the torch-bearers of New England culture have long since been extinguished and their names forgotten even in Beacon Street. Amongst the literati of the little Boston of 1800 the historian need concern himself with no more than two or three: Fisher Ames (1758-1808), the Federalist lawyer wit, and Robert Treat Paine (1773-1811), esteemed the ninth wonder of the Boston world. Other figures there were, of course, in addition to the literati: Harrison Gray Otis, the eloquent voice of Faneuil Hall, and Josiah Quincy, whom Lowell likened to an old Roman of the elder virtuous days, and who during a long life of ninety-two years was an example of stalwart and antiquated Federalism. Old Boston bred dignified figures in plenty, men admirably equipped to be college presidents, ambassadors, orators on formal occasions, purveyors of cultivated inutilities and polished commonplace-men like Edward Everett, whom all Boston praised while they lived and forgot when they were dead; but it bred no thinkers or men of letters who count in the larger history of America. Boston was still parochial, content with little things.
II. FISHER AMES: The Oracle of the Tie-Wig School
Of this testy little world that clung to its smallclothes and tie-wig, refusing to adopt the Jacobin innovation in dress and manners and politics, declining to temper its prejudices to the gusty whims of a leveling age, Fisher Ames was the universal counselor and oracle. A vivacious little gentleman to whom politics was the breath of life, he achieved so tremendous a reputation in his short lifetime that all New England looked to him for leadership and Harvard College wanted to make him its president. He came of vigorous stock, prone to consult its own will and speak its opinions with no squeamish concern for a neighbor's views. His brother, Dr. Nathaniel Ames, was as violent a Republican as Fisher was a Federalist, a hater of all lawyers whom he accounted the "pettifogging interest"; and when the two members of the family came together at dinner the talk must have been worth hearing. Diverse worlds and hostile philosophies faced each other over the roast, and the sauce no doubt was well spiced. Dr. Nathaniel had a pretty gift himself in the way of pungent speech, and Fisher's wit was the admiration of all New England. When Gouverneur Morris-reputed the greatest wit in America-visited Massachusetts, Fisher Ames was pitted against him, and Boston believed that the honor of the Bay State was worthily upheld. His pet hobby was the inherent tyranny of all democracies, and when he once got astride his wooden horse and dug in the spurs, the onset was tremendous. The letters that have come down to us are a gold mine of picturesque vituperation, from which one may dig a wallet of choice nuggets. The vivacity of his anathemas is delightful, and one would give much to have heard Dr. Nathaniel's retort militant.
There are the solidest grounds for regarding Fisher Ames as the representative citizen of Boston in the year 1800. He was the cleverest and most intelligent spokesman of a social and political circle quite untouched by the new French liberalisms, content with the habitual and familiar, and mightily concerned that the future should be as like the past as one generation of oysters is like another. A lawyer who shared the strong property consciousness of the Boston merchant, and a churchman who accepted the moral leadership of the Calvinist clergy, he offered stout and uncompromising resistance to innovation. "A change, though for the better, is always to be deplored by the generation in which it is effected," he said. "Much is lost and more is hazarded" (Works, p. 15, edition of 1800). The new gospel of progress that came in with French romanticisms, he would have none of. In the face of a noisy Jacobinism that threatened to carry all before it, he fought a spirited fight, turning pamphleteer when his broken health removed him from Congress, counseling and scolding his fellow Federalists with his last breath. Others might truckle and compromise, but not Fisher Ames. His faith was founded on the solid granite of Yankee prejudice.
The very solidity of that prejudice made him the trenchant spokesman of the older Boston conservatisms-that and the vivacity of his prose style which is approved Augustan, uncorrupted by what he dubbed "pompous Johnsonian affectation." His contemporary reputation was enormous. Accounted a great orator, he was accounted an even greater political philosopher, and his pamphlets were appraised by President Kirkland of Harvard as "the light of genius and wisdom darted athwart the gloom of our political chaos." "In the character of Mr. Aines," said the Harvard president, "the circle of the virtues seemed to be, complete, and each virtue in its proper place" (Works, Introduction, p. xxviii). Yet in spite of so authoritative a pronouncement, Fisher Ames does not seem today so great a man as he seemed to his own generation. From the data collected in a stout volume published soon after his death as "a voice of instruction and warning to his country," and from the letters published by his son in 1854, it is plain enough that this "powerful and original genius" was a retailer of somewhat shopworn goods, a complete Federalist Tory after the current Boston fashion. To Fisher Ames Federalism, as understood in New England, was a religion. He defended it with the ardor of the moralist, convinced that it included all the political virtues, and that whoever rejected it was a child of the devil. Whenever he considered the unpromising state of the country-which luxury he often indulged-whether in the midst of Shays's Rebellion or of the Jeffersonian revolution, he fell into black pessimism. He grew hot from fires of his own kindling, and the gloomier he became the more vigorously he blew the bellows.
To the sinful publican self-conscious virtue is peculiarly irritating, and since Fisher Ames accounted most of his generation political publicans, he was at odds with all but a scant remnant of Federalist saints. From this isolation, from the defeat that overwhelmed his party in the great election of 11800 and from aggravating ill health, which beginning when he was thirty-seven incapacitated him three years later for public life, he fell into a state of chronic political despondency that extracted a grim pleasure from the contemplation of democratic follies and the anarchy towards which the country was hastening. During his last years his wit became acid; his letters are filled with caustic comment to sharpen the temper of those on the fighting line. Of these racy comments, so characteristic of Federalist spleen, a few examples must serve to convey the spirit: "Our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty." "We are in the hands of the philosophers of Lilliput." "I have as loyal and respectful an opinion as possible of the sincerity in folly of our rulers." "As to liberty, we are to have none-democracy will kindle, its own hell, and consume in it." "Democracy is a troubled spirit, fated never to rest, and whose dreams, it i1800sleeps, present only visions of hell." In his last years Fisher Ames had become a shrill Jeremiah crying in the gates of an Israel that mocked the old prophets.
His political philosophy was simple, yet so native to Calvinist-Yankee New England, and historically so characteristic, that it provides a useful candle to throw light into the old New England garrets. In certain aspects it is close kin to the Whiggery of Locke and Pitt, particularly in its concern for the sacred right of property rule -a principle that he casually recognizes in his frequent assertion that "the mass of the federalists are the owners of the commercial and monied wealth of the nation" (Works, p. 426). But in post-Revolutionary Boston, suffering from the acute fright inflicted by Daniel Shays, this English Whiggery had come to assume a particular native form that differentiated it from its original. In the primitive Calvinist-Yankee world political theory had been shaped by the theocratic conception of stewardship, by which was meant an authoritative leadership reposing in the best and wisest, yet subject to the will of God as revealed in the Bible. Minister and magistrate, therefore, professed to justify their acts, not by expediency or interest, but by absolute ethical standards. From this early practice developed the pronounced ethical temper of New England political thought that set it apart from the Virginia school, a temper that persisted after the transfer of authority from Puritan minister and magistrate to Tory merchant and lawyer. With the growth of the aristocratic spirit in the middle eighteenth century, the squirearchy assumed unchallenged political leadership, and it was from the remnant of the old gentry remaining after the expulsion of the Loyalists, strengthened by a new generation of merchants and lawyers, that Boston Federalism drew its personnel. It professed republicanism, but it was instinctively aristocratic. It was true to its Puritan origins in expounding its political philosophy in terms of an absolute morality, and true to its aristocratic origins in assuming to be the special custodians of law and order. It no more questioned its special right to rulership in the state than it questioned its social position; and in both politics and society it professed the ancient doctrine of stewardship.
The kinship between the political philosophy of Fisher Ames and John Adams is quite evident. They are cut out of the same Puritan-Yankee cloth, but the former is a more careless tailor. Founded on less adequate analysis and lacking the wide historical appeal of Adams, assuming rather than proving the fact of a universal property aristocracy, and the economic origins of political power, the philosophy of Ames postulates the same ideal of justice as the end of government, discovers in faction the dragon to be slain, and concludes that only a static division of powers can insure political stability. Nevertheless the difference between the two men is enormous. John Adams was a philosopher, and Fisher Ames was only a lawyer-politician. The ideal of justice which the former postulated was fundamentally noble, whereas the ideal of justice which the latter assumed was narrowly legal. Both accepted the Puritan doctrine of human wickedness-a doctrine derived from medieval Toryism-and from it deduced the necessity of a coercive sovereignty; but Fisher Ames went further and assumed that the Puritan doctrine of the elect and the Yankee doctrine of the successful were one and the same, and that God's remnant in Israel was no other than the prosperous merchants and lawyers of Boston. All the great multitude of the unprosperous, by the same doctrine, were the mass of the unregenerate, condemned for the good of society to be ruled by a rod of iron.
The noble doctrine of justice, therefore, became for Fisher Ames little more than the divine right of the minority to coerce the majority, in the name and through the agency of laws and statutes. In his view justice was little more than a drab realist in a lawyer's wig, adjudicating title deeds, and delivering its findings out of law books. Its one concern was to safeguard what had been got, rather than to secure just and equal rights. It dreaded all rude and tumultuary innovation, and would tolerate no change that was not implicit in legal principles. Its golden rule was due process of law. Love of one's neighbors was, no doubt, an excellent private virtue, but it was impractical, if not immoral, in the state. Concern for the improvident sinners must not influence government to impair the rights of the thrifty saints; for government was instituted and exists to safeguard established things. "The chief duty and care of all governments," he argued, "is to protect the rights of property and the tranquillity of society" (Works, p. 125). Hence to Fisher Ames government was the common policeman and judge, whose function was to arrest the turbulent and bring them to the bar of the Common Law. Its beginning and end was the Tory principle of coercion. Its sovereignty was arrogant and domineering, taking no account of the democratic principle of good will. "The motives to refuse obedience to government are many and strong," he explained; "impunity will multiply and enforce them. Many men would rebel, rather than be ruined; but they would rather not rebel, than be hanged" (Works, "Lucius Junius Brutus"). With government thus conceived of, naturally he desired that it should be strong; that it should impose its will ruthlessly upon the rebellious. Naturally also he regarded every idealist, the Rousseaus and Paines and Jeffersons-all the mischievous hosts of "democratick babblers"-as a dangerous enemy of law and order, desperately bent on overturning the rights of vested interests and the tranquillity of society. This is sufficient to explain the vindictiveness of his assault upon Shays and his followers, as "bankrupts and sots, who have gambled or slept away their estates"-while in the Revolutionary army -and were now engaged in the business of treason against the commonwealth, and the characteristic conclusion that he draws-"the certainty of punishment is the truest security against crimes" (Works, "Lucius Junius Brutus," p. 3). To Fisher Ames and Daniel Shays, justice seems to have had very different aspects.
To the uncritical there is a certain persuasive dignity in the philosophy of Boston Federalism. Gentlemen like Fisher Ames were careful to appear well in public; they liked to be regarded as faithful stewards of the common weal. Concern for the res publica they professed so heartily that it seems ungracious to question their motives. How excellently they could make out a case for themselves will appear from the following exposition of Fisher Ames's philosophy, as it was understood by a Harvard president:
Mr. Ames was emphatically a republican. He saw that many persons confounded a republick with a democracy. He considered them as essentially distinct and really opposite. According to his creed, a republick is that structure of an elective government, in which the administration necessarily prescribe to themselves the general good as the object of all their measures; a democracy is that, in which the present popular passions, independent of the publick good, become a guide to the rulers. In the first, the reason and interests of the society govern; in the second, their prejudices and passions. The frame of the American constitution supposes the dangers of democracy. . . . [The constitutional checks] are contrivances and devices voluntarily adopted by the people to restrain themselves from obstructing, by their own mistakes or perversity, the attainment of the publick welfare. They are professed means of insuring to the nation rulers, who will prefer the durable good of the whole to the transient advantage of the whole or a part. When these provisions become ineffectual, and the legislator, the executive magistrate, and the judge become the instruments of the passions of a people, or of the governing majority, the government, whatever may be its form, is a democracy, and the public liberty is no longer safe. True republican rulers are bound to act, not simply as those who appoint them would, but, as they ought; democratick leaders will act in subordination to those very passions which it is the object of government to control. . . . Then it is, that men, not laws, govern. (Works, Introduction, pp. xxiv-xxv. )
"The durable good of the whole" is an excellent phrase; but when the skeptical critic asks for more exact plans and specifications, the only answer is a request for a vote of confidence. The representative is presumed to be wiser and more patriotic than his constituents-quite above passion or interest-and may safely be intrusted with "the publick good." "The love of country," Fisher Ames was fond of insisting, "is the morality of politics," and the Federal Constitution he believed to be so happily balanced that partisan selfishness must transmute itself into patriotism. But when we dismiss these amiable generalities which reveal to what straits gentlemen were reduced in their contest with democracy-and examine the political principles that lie behind them, they do not appear so amiable. They imply as necessary corollaries a continuous aggrandizement of the political state, the principle of coercion, and the psychology of fear. It is no other than the old Tory arrogance, new-modeled to suit republican taste. Fisher Ames seems to have had no faith in the principle of good will or the expediency of compromise; his contempt for the opposition was as frank as Hamilton's.
Government does not subsist by making proselytes to sound reasons or by compromise and arbitration with its members; but by the power of the community compelling the obedience of individuals. If that is not done, who will seek its protection, or fear its vengeance. (Works, "Lucius Junius Brutus," p. 5.)
For let it be remarked, that a feeble government produces more factions than an oppressive one; the want of power first makes individuals legislators, and then rebels. Where parents want authority, children are wanting in duty. It is not possible to advance further in the same path; the one will conduct us first to anarchy, and next to foreign or domestick tyranny; the other, by the wise and vigorous exertion of lawful authority, will lead to permanent power, and general prosperity. I am no advocate for despotism; but I believe the probability to be much less of its being introduced by the corruption of our rulers, than by the delusion of the people. (Works, "Camillus," p. 17.)
A weak government, Ames argues insistently, is no other than a hotbed of faction, and faction is the fruitful mother of democratic anarchy. Again and again he returns to an exposition of the familiar eighteenth-century dogma that found its classic exposition in the tenth number of The Federalist; and his argument takes on darker colors from the Calvinist background of his mind. To those who have been reared on the sour doctrines of reprobation and election, the children of Adam become a major political concern. If God has cast off and denied the mass of the unregenerate, how shall the political philosopher hope to redeem them? If divine wisdom has granted them no part in the congregation of the righteous, what rights have they in the republic of the patriotic? To Fisher Ames town and village and farm showed plentiful examples of those whom the devil had marked for his own, and if they were gathered into a numerical democracy with the saints, how should the minority of the latter safeguard the Ark of the Sanctuary? How should the durable good of the whole be provided for? Thrift and godliness were not exactly synonymous terms to the Calvinist-Yankee, but it was clear that the godly will practice thrift, and those who have thriven, have ipso facto made out a case for their godliness. In this uncertain world two things seemed reasonably clear: that the poor are in a more doubtful state than the rich; and that in a moral world only the elect may be expected to serve the cause of morality. The wicked incline to democratic faction, but the prosperous serve the durable good of the whole.
To one cradled in such prejudices, the current phrase, "gentlemen of principle and property"-a phrase that provides the chorus to his thought-lacked the savor of cynicism that it suggests to modern ears. It was compounded of the ideals of Puritan and Yankee, and Fisher Ames seems never to have questioned its adequacy, or doubted its finality. To gentlemen of principle and property he looked to provide a bulwark against the immoral multitude; they were the stewards of society, on whom devolved the duty of protecting the whole from democratic faction. They had erected the Federal Constitution, which Jacobins were seeking to destroy; and in defense of that Constitution he brought forth his heaviest artillery. He contributed nothing new to the discussion; but he repeated the familiar arguments with the gusto of a dogmatist. "Simple governments," he asserted, "are despotisms; and of all despotisms, a democracy, though the least durable, is the most violent" (Works, "American Liberty," p. 382). The mortal weakness of all democracies he discovered in their immorality. A democracy will make every people "thoroughly licentious and corrupt." "The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness, which the ambitious call, and the ignorant believe to be liberty."
The great object, then, of political wisdom in framing our constitution, was to guard against licentiousness, that inbred malady of democracies, that deforms their infancy with grey hairs and decrepitude. (Ibid., p. 384-)
There is universally a presumption in democracy that promises everything; and at the same time an imbecility that can accomplish nothing, not even preserve itself. (Works, "Falkland," p. 151.)
"Politics should have no passions," this caustic old Federalist professed to believe, yet his bitterness against the Jeffersonians who threatened to overturn the funding law, the national bank, the midnight judicial appointments, and other measures of the best Federalist minds, was almost unseemly. It would appear that "the durable good of the whole" flew out at the window, when danger to commercial interests came in at the door. To erect a strong government and then lose control of it was a disaster indeed. With the political state in the hands of atheistic democrats, Fisher Ames was prepared to welcome the coming of anarchy, and his pessimism throve on the prospect. But that no warning might be lacking he laid down the whole theory of government in plain terms, that even Jefferson might understand:
But the essence, and almost the quintessence, of good government is, to protect property and its rights. When these are protected, there is scarcely any booty left for oppression to seize; the objects and the motives to usurpation and tyranny are removed. By securing property, life and liberty can scarcely fail of being secured: where property is safe by rules and principles, there is liberty. (Works, "Phocion," p. 181.)
This is pure Federalism, stripped of all cant, speaking out frankly. It is the philosophy of John Locke brought in to serve the rising capitalism of New England, threatened by a Physioeratic agrarianism. The dogma of political morality has yielded to economic realism. The stake-in-society principle is the reply of the Puritan-Yankee to the democratic romanticism of Jefferson and Madison-a principle which, fortunately, 'these apostles from the race-ground and the cock-pit" paid little heed to.
To a sophisticated generation, long familiar with the political ways of gentlemen of principle and property, Fisher Ames appears as a caustic little gentleman, vivacious and intolerant, who nodded his tie-wig dogmatically, and spoke his opinions oracularly. He quite evidently relished his ample store of old-fashioned prejudices, cherished them carefully, and prided himself on the wit with which he set them forth. If he was not the repository of all political wisdom that he believed himself to be, he was at least no demagogue, and in honoring him the Boston of the year 1800 was but painting its own portrait. It would be ungracious, perhaps, to add that Fisher Ames and Boston Federalism, defeated in their cherished projects, were both suffering from an extraordinarily aggravated case of the political spleen.
III. ROBERT TREAT PAINS, JR.: Wit
Young Tom Paine, who took his brother's and his father's name partly because a certain other Tom Paine had achieved a fame that Boston did not regard as enviable shared with Fisher Ames the literary renown of the New England capital, a renown so great that Boston paid him quite astonishing sums for such couplets as his indolence suffered him to turn off. The popularity of his wares was a notable instance of the working of the law of supply and demand. The patriotism of Boston preferred domestic to imported goods, and he offered his verses to a public not very critical of quality. Boston had never had a poet of her own, while Connecticut with her Hartford Wits was the envy of all New England. Certain poetesses to be sure; had tried with "hallowed hands" to "attune Columbia's lyre"-to quote Paine's eulogy of Mrs. Sarah Wentworth Morton, "blest Philenia, noblest of the choir" (Works, "Menander to Philenia," p. 129)-but their sentimentality was a bit cloying, and when genius appeared in the person of a Harvard graduate, graced with wit and adorned with all the learning of the schools, Boston was quick to acclaim him as her own.
The young man thus seized upon, and as it were raped by fame, was the last of the eighteenth-century wits, the most dashing product of a generation that patched its verse with tags of the classics and called it lisping in numbers. In temper and manners he belonged wholly to the tie-wig school that swaggered till the War of 1812 and then became obsolete overnight. As a young man about town he displayed the latest London clothes and set himself up as the very glass of fashion. Although he wore his own hair, he clung to smallclothes and like an honest Federalist refused to adopt Jacobin trousers. He was indisputably clever and he cultivated a pretty wit as assiduously as any Augustan. He talked in epigrams, and a convivial evening of which he was quite too fond for his own good-was a failure that did not produce a bon mot to run through the town. His biographer has preserved a number of such for the amusement of posterity, and one at least deserves to be remembered by our younger critics. When the prohibition against the theater was repealed in 1793, he remarked, "The Vandal spirit of puritanism is prostrate in New-England." In cleaving to wit and abandoning Puritanism, Paine broke with sober Boston convention, and soon all respectable folk began to shake their heads. A thriftless fellow, he played with the devil openly in the eyes of all Boston. He drank too much, he gambled, he haunted the theater and was a favorite of the greenroom, he became the first dramatic critic born and bred in New England, and when he married the daughter of an English actor, his father disowned him. Quite naturally he came to poverty, dissipated his strength, suffered many a humiliation, and died at the age of thirty-seven, leaving his widow and young children to be provided for by a public benefit at his beloved Federal Street theater.
Little of his wit, unfortunately, found its way into his verse, which, modeled ostensibly on Dryden and Pope, lacks their vigorous common sense, and laboring to be sublime succeeds in being heavy. His couplets swell sonorously, but his thought does not keep pace with his rhetoric. He follows his recipe carefully; adjectives duly support the nouns; the caesuras are justly spaced and the balance of the parts is as nice as if weighed in an apothecary's scales. He seasons the whole with the staples of personification and poetic diction; everything has been provided for, and yet the cake is fallen that he takes from the oven. Some thing is lacking to lighten the sodden mass. A contemporary critic, viewing the finished product, expressed his judgment thus:
Of Mr. Paine, as an author, we cannot speak in terms of unmingled praise. His verse, indeed, seldom loiters into prose; but it must be confessed, that his prose is here and there "tricked and Trounced, till it out-mantles all the pride of verse." His numbers are, perhaps, never feeble or faultering, but a wild and frolic imagination, occasionally, wantons through his periods, and sometimes displays itself in contemning the chaster elegancies, and sometimes in neglecting the severer decencies of thought and diction. (Works, Introduction, p. lxxviii. )
It is certainly a partial eye that discovers a wild and frolic imagination in these lumbering imitations of Pope, or in the occasional excursions into the languorous fields of Della Cruscan sentiment. When Paine ceases to be a wit he becomes an offense. To his admiring contemporaries his poetry seemed to be pure metal, but to later generations it is only plate, with the brass showing through the worn spots. The Ruling Passion, delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1797, is perhaps the first poem of Paine's that is much more than vacuous and turgid rhetoric; and this is redeemed, in spite of liberal helpings from Pope, by a certain vivacity of satire, phrased with Augustan smartness. Such couplets as these still preserve a jaunty literary swagger for later ears; how they tickled the more susceptible ears of our grandfathers must be imagined:
Where you send genius, send a fortune too; Dunces by instinct thrive, as oysters wool For ne'er were veins of ore by chymist found, Except, like Hebrew roots, in barren ground Paine early grew old, and before he had reached his thirties his mind had taken a rigid conservative bent. His affections were fixed upon a past that was visibly falling into decay, and its ways were endeared to him in the measure that they decayed. It was a matter of personal pride with him to embody in his own manners the aristocratic bearing of pre-Revolutionary times.
Mr. Paine [says his biographer] attached great consequence to manners. . . He was modelled upon the old school. Without being familiar, he was easy among friends, and courtly to strangers. In colloquial discussions, he rigidly adhered to the law of politeness; and in mixed society, he neither courted the high, nor avoided the low. . . . He frequently deplored a supposed decay of manners. With concern, he used to inquire "In manners, where is the successor of Gen. Knox to be found?" It was with him a constant topick of complaint, that "The old, genteel, town families, had been elbowed out of house and home, by newcomers:" that "instead of the polished manners of a city, we should soon exhibit that growth of gentility, which is produced by ingrafting dollars upon village habits and low employments." (Works, Introduction, p. lxix. )
Affecting an aristocratic bearing, Paine was as complete a Tory as the republican environment permitted. If he despised the new, pushing middle class that had risen since the Revolution, he held in contempt the numerous company of those he dubbed the yokel, the peasant, the hind, or the plow-tail. Under the circumstances the best that he could do politically was to turn Federalist, and he embraced the principles of Fisher Ames with genteel conviction. "In politics," says his biographer, "Mr. Paine was a disciple of the old federal school. He understood the constitution, as Washington administered, and as Hamilton had expounded it" (ibid., p. lxxvii). During his undergraduate days he had dabbled in French revolutionary philosophy, and "the fanatic Atheism of France, decorated in all the meretricious charms of eloquence and philosophy, took a transient possession of his mind" (ibid., p. lxxviii). At graduation in 1792, he read a poem entitled The Nature and Progress of Liberty, in which he eulogized "liberal thought," proposed to follow "Reason," declared that "the rights of man" are a gift from heaven, proffered the hand of fellowship to France-
May struggling France her ancient freedom gain, May Europe's sword oppose her rights in vain-
and launched a devastating couplet at the great English opponent of the Revolution
The fame of Burke, in dark oblivion rust, His pen a meteor-and his page the dust.
Three years later, on proceeding Master of Arts, he presented a poem in very different vein. Three years were a generation in those stirring times, and by 1795 the penetrating vision of this genius of twenty-two had discovered the atheist poison in the cup of French democracy. The Invention of Letters rises to a climax in a satirical elaboration of a line from the poem of 1792-"Licentious morals breed disease of state." Having learned his lesson from Fisher Ames, the sapient young Federalist announces that democracy is the mother of faction, and faction leads on to anarchy. In this poem for the first time Paine's wit runs freely, and certain lines are as jaunty as he ever penned.
For place or power, while demagogues contend, Whirled in their vortex, sinks each humbler friend. See Crispin quit his stall, in Factions cause, To cobble government, and soal the laws! See Frisseur scent his dust, his razor set, To shave the treaty, or to puff Genet! In doubtful mood, see Mulciber debate, To mend a horse-shoe, or to weld the state! The whip's bold knight, in barn, his truck is laid, To spout in favour of the carrying trade l While Staytape runs, from hissing goose, too hot, To measure Congress for another coat; And still, by rule of shop, intent on pelf, Eyes the spare cloth, to cabbage for himself!
Envy, that fiend, who haunts the great and good, Not Cato shunned, nor Hercules subdued. On Fame's wide field, where'er a covert lies, The rustling serpent to the thicket flies; The foe of Glory, Merit is her prey;The dunce she leaves, to plod his drowsy way. Of birth amphibious, and of Protean skill,This green-eyed monster changes shape at will; Like snakes of smaller breed, she sheds her skin; Strips off the serpent, and turns-Jacobin.
In view of the fact that Governor Samuel Adams, chief of the New England Jacobins, was to occupy the stage, President Willard had diplomatically struck from the manuscript the ten lines last quoted; but Paine had the audacity to reinsert them in speaking, and the tumultuous applause was sufficient proof that it was not from a Harvard audience that Sam Adams got the votes that annually returned him governor.
Verse imposed some slight restraint on Paine's rhetoric, but in prose when he was in full career-as in the grotesque eulogy of Washington which stirred the patriotism of Boston Federalists-the reins are on the neck of his eloquence, and he takes all barriers with fiery abandon. Fact troubles his wild and frolic imagination not at all, but like any plebeian demagogue-whose factional appeals he so furiously condemned-he blew the bellows of Federalist partisanship with extraordinary vigor, stoking his fire with rumor and misrepresentation and party spleen. No slander was too gross, no lie too palpable to serve his end. He baited the democrats quite shamelessly, and aroused the mob of Boston gentlemen like a true Tory. One of his political orations has been preserved by his editor in the collected edition of his works, for the enlightenment of posterity-an oration delivered in 1799, "at the request of the young men of Boston," on the theme of France and democracy. In this extraordinary composition Paine seems to have been quite ravished by his own rhetoric, that flashes in many a feint and parry before it impales its victim. It is a Federalist philippic, designed to destroy the good name of all who have quitted the sacred Federalist tribe. Words could hardly go further; disregard for truth could scarcely be more brazen. Paine's delight in clever antitheses overweighs any scruples in regard to just statement. "The French Republick," he asserted, "has exhibited all the vices of civilization, without one of the virtues of barbarism." One or two bits from this tremendous oration, that in "the glow of feeling, the swell of language, and the brilliancy of sentiments" has "very seldom been surpassed," and that was "received with rapturous and enthusiastic applause," must suffice to illustrate the justice of the Federalist claim to the custodianship of political good manners. "Politics should have no passions," Fisher Ames asserted-which excellent principle young Robert Treat Paine exemplified thus:
Political Empiricism has never attained, in any age or nation, so universal an ascendency, as at the present day in the "Illuminated Republick." Unfettered by the fear of innovation, and unshackled by the prejudice of ages, the modern Frenchman is educated in a system of moral and religious chimeras, which dazzle by their novelty those volatile intellects, which prescriptive wisdom could never impress with veneration. Every Frenchman, who has read a little is a pedant; and the whole race of these hornbook Philosophers is content with the atheism of Mirabeau . . the absurd philanthropy of Condorcet, and the visionary politics of Rousseau. These are the boundaries of their literary ambition, of their political science. Hence it is, that they pretend to be too enlightened for belief, too virtuous for government.
The feculence of party is not yet drained of its rankest sediment. The worshippers of democracy, though their altars are thrown down, are not yet converted from their devotions. The frozen snake has still some sparks of animation; and, if placed by compassion near your hospitable fires, he will revive with exasperated venom, and sting the hardy fool that fostered him. Deal therefore with these ferocious demoralizers, as our crafty mariners trade with the savages of the Indian ocean-with your men at their posts, your guns loaded, and your slow matches burning. (Works, p. 319.)
For all democrats Paine had the hearty contempt of an honest man for a rogue, but for the intellectuals who expounded the new romantic philosophy his indignation was measureless. "The legitimate plebeian democrat," he asserted, is "an enemy to all government, under which he holds no office"; but fling him a bone from the public table and "he becomes the very scavenger of administration." The "Illuminated Jacobin," on the other hand, "never changes his principles."
His whole science is directed to unhinge society, his whole ambition to plunder it. He is too ravenous to be content with a system of order himself; and too selfish to permit its enjoyment by others. Like a hog in a flower-garden, he sets no value on the variegated foliage he destroys, and seems only desirous to root out every twig of vegetation, that can satiate his voracity. (Ibid., p. 321.)
To such fustian was he reduced when his wit left him. That a gentleman could talk like that, and other gentlemen applaud, is a sad commentary on the intellectual honesty of partisanship, even amongst decent Federalists. Fustian was the order of the day, and Paine was merely baying with his pack. If only he had not professed such virtues his extravagance might be forgiven; but extravagance ill becomes a distinguished repository of political wisdom. Once, indeed, his vivacity got him into a nasty mess. While editor of The Federal Orrery, he accepted in 1795 a political poem entitled The Jacobiniad, the satire of which Paine "new-pointed and new-edged" before printing. The democrats, at whom it was directed, were vastly incensed, and a mob gathered before his lodging but was dispersed. Later the son of one of the victims challenged him to a duel. Paine declined but armed himself with an unloaded pistol. Accidentally meeting his challenger in the street, he drew his weapon, but the young fellow, standing in no awe of a favorite of the muses, struck the pistol down and proceeded to give Paine a sound drubbing. To such base treatment may genius come, when wit forgets that a sally of the tongue may invite a counter sally of the fists. And so we leave him in the dust of the street, ignobly laid low by the strength of that vulgar democracy which was to bring down so many things held dear by Boston Tories. His was, very largely, a wasted life-wasted by sheer indolence and feeble will. He was a fellow of some parts, and a sentence from one of his dramatic criticisms may not inaptly apply to him: "The character is not a sot, but his humor has a mellower tilth for having been husbanded and manured by `the excellent endeavor of drinking.