To turn from the field of political theory to the realm of polite literature is not to quit the partisan battle-ground. The long struggle between Federalist and Democrat was too bitter and absorbing, too sharp in its alignment, not to conscript gentlemen of culture equally with politicians. Every available quill was called to the colors, and a civil war of belles lettres broke out, that exceeded in animosity any other known to our literary history. Attack and counter-attack were slashing and acrimonious. Gentlemen forgot their manners and indulged fiercely in tall language. Satire ran about the streets seeking new victims to impale; slander lay in wait for every passer-by. The crudest lies found willing listeners and sober ministers turned from writing sermons to enshrine pothouse tales in heroic couplets. In this virulent battle the Federalists, on the whole, had the better of it, for they were greater masters of invective and flayed their victims less clumsily; but the Democrats made up in ardor what they lacked in skill, and the blows that fell on carefully tied wigs must have hurt cruelly. As poetry those old satires may seem to us feeble enough, but as historical documents they are eloquent. The passion of a world in revolution, the hopes and fears of our forefathers as they watched the great fires consuming the world in which they had grown up, still survive in those stinging lines, as a reminder to later generations of the rough and inhospitable way that democratic America has traveled in its onward course.



What Federalism was capable of in the way of polite letters is sufficiently revealed in the work of a coterie of poetasters who are known in our literary histories as the Hartford Wits. The title of the group suggests their literary antecedents. They were the representatives of a literary mode that had slowly percolated through the crust of Puritan provincialism and imparted a certain sprightliness to a dour temper. They were the literary old-guard of the expiring eighteenth century, suspicious of all innovation, contemptuous of every idealistic program. They stood stoutly by the customary and familiar. The nineteenth century was knocking at their door, but they would not open to it. And as they saw that new century coming in the guise of revolution, exciting to unheard-of innovations in the fields of politics and economics and , religion and letters, giving rise to Jacobin Clubs and Jeffersonian democracy, they set themselves seriously to the work of barring its progress through their own little world. They conveniently associated the economic unrest of post-war days, that gave birth to a strange progeny in Rhode Island and New Hampshire and Massachusetts, with the contamination of French atheism, charged all unrest to the account of democracy, and hastened to put it down in the name of law and righteousness. They hated new ways with the virtuous hatred of the well-to-do, and dreamed of a future America as like the past as one generation of oysters is like another.

There is a certain historical fitness in the fact that the Wits should have arisen in Connecticut and been the intellectual children of Yale. For generations the snug little commonwealth had been the home of a tenacious conservatism, that clung to old ways and guarded the institutions of the fathers with pious zeal. Nowhere else in New England did the ruling hierarchy maintain so glacial a grip on society. The Revolution Of '76 had only ruffled the surface on Connecticut life; it left the social structure quite unchanged. The church retained its unquestioned control of the machinery of the commonwealth; and the church was dominated by a clerical aristocracy, hand in glove with a mercantile aristocracy. Fresh currents of thought that were stirring the pulpits of eastern Massachusetts-suggestions of an Arianism that was to lead to the Unitarian schism-did not reach so far as New Haven, and Yale was content to remain the bulwark of an obsolete Calvinism. In such a soil Federalism would flourish like Jonah's gourd; and it exuded a special odor of sanctity from the Calvinism in which it was rooted. To stout Federalists like Timothy Dwight, the current dogma of total depravity sufficed to disprove the validity of all democratic aspiration. It was a presumption little short of blasphemous to assert that sinners are competent to manage the temporal affairs of society. The doctrine of equalitarianism was a particular stench in the nostrils of the aristocratic clergy, who disliked all leveling. The Irish immigrants seem to have been the most offensive equalitarians. A New England gentleman, traveling in Pennsylvania in the nineties, wrote home: "I have seen many, very many Irishmen, and with a few exceptions, they are . . . the most God-provoking Democrats on this side of Hell." And in 1'798 Harrison Gray Otis wrote: "If some means are not adopted to prevent the indiscriminate admission of wild Irishmen and others to the right of suffrage, there will soon be an end to liberty & property."1 To prevent, if possible, such an unhappy outcome, the upper classes of New England fell to organizing and drilling all the elements of conservatism for a vigorous defense. They wrote and spoke and preached, till the mind of respectable New England was saturated with prejudice. The democratic principle was converted into a bogey to frighten the simple. Such a hideous misshapen imp of darkness, such a vile hag of anarchy had never before been painted for the imagination of honest Yankees to shudder at; and if democracy seemed to them a wild and fearsome thing making ready to destroy their venerated social order, they only believed what the minister preached on the Sabbath and the squire asserted on week days. The plebeian democrat, very likely in debt, was quite overwhelmed by the organized forces of village respectability.

In this great work of saving the commonwealth of Connecticut from the pollutions of democracy the Hartford Wits were competent laborers. The more important members of the group were John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, Lemuel Hopkins, David Humphreys, Richard Alsop, and Theodore Dwight. To these may be added the names of Dr. Elihu Hubbard Smith and Dr. Mason F. Cogswell, who were friends and occasional collaborators. Nearly all were Yale men with a pronounced Yale predilection for Calvinism and Federalism, admirable representatives of the oligarchical upper class of the provincial Connecticut society. Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, was a minister and president of Yale; Hopkins, Smith and Cogswell were physicians of high professional standing; Trumbull and Theodore Dwight were lawyers; Barlow and Humphreys found their way into the diplomatic field, and Alsop was a merchant. They were all comfortably well off and several were wealthy. Alsop was one of the few millionaires of the time; Barlow acquired a fortune in France; and Humphreys late in life established a textile industry incorporated for half a million. Hot Federalists, they found in Washington, Governor Trumbull, and Fisher Ames, their political mentors and guides. The most active of the group politically, was Theodore Dwight, who with his cousin Timothy was a director of the Eagle Bank, a Federalist institution, and bitterly opposed to the chartering of Republican banks. When one of the latter applied to the legislature for a charter he denounced it as a " child of intrigue and the mother of Discord." He was deep in the Hartford Convention, serving as its secretary and later as its historian. He denounced jeffersonian republicanism as seeking to "discredit the ministry, decry religion, and destroy public worship," and as he saw it spreading through New England he attributed to it the certain decay of morality and the impending break-up of family ties, exclaiming with somewhat extreme vivacity: "The outlaws of Europe, the fugitives from the pillory and the gallows, have undertaken to assist our own abandoned citizens, in the pleasing work of destroying Connecticut . . . . Can imagination paint anything more dreadful on this side of hell!"

Later generations remember best the massive character of Timothy Dwight, a man endowed with all the Connecticut virtues and walking amongst his fellows with magnificent confidence in his powers. A great preacher, an authoritative theologian, a distinguished administrator"every inch a college president"a ready counselor on any knotty point be it in law or politics or finance or agriculture or belles lettres, a born leader of men, and by way of recreation an inditer of Hebraic epics and huge didactic poems and ample Connecticut pastorals, a confirmed traveler observing the manner of life in many commonwealths and preserving his observations in solid volumes-he was a man to compel the admiration of his fellows and put his stamp upon his age. So vast was the contemporary reputation of Timothy Dwight, and so many-sided, it may seem ironical that time should have shrunk him to the narrow compass of a paragraph in our literary history. And yet the more curiously one considers the work of the great president of Yale, the more insistent become one's doubts concerning the fineness of this nugget of Connecticut gold. It shows very suspicious signs of tarnish. His commanding presence and authoritative manner, his sonorous eloquence, his forwardness in defense of what few doubted, his vehement threshing of straw long since reduced to chaff, his prodigious labors, his abundant printing, no longer seem so authentic a seal of greatness as they seemed to his open-mouthed contemporaries; and one suspects that he impressed his fellow citizens by the completeness with which he measured up to every Connecticut ideal, rather than by the creative vigor of his mind. The great Timothy, in short, seems to a later generation to have been little snore than a walking repository of the venerable Connecticut status quo.

The intellectual inquisitiveness that gave birth to disintegrating theory in the mind of his grandfather Jonathan Edwards, and made him a profoundly revolutionary influence in his time, was wholly lacking in the grandson. The latter refused to follow the questioning intellect into unsurveyed fields. He would not meddle with change. His mind was closed as tight as his study windows in January. He read widely in the fields of rationalism, but he read only to refute. Now and then to be sure, certain generous promptings visited him: he spoke out against slavery; he encouraged the higher education of women. But from such temptations to become a living voice he turned away to follow the main-traveled road of Connecticut prejudice. His eyes were fixed lovingly upon the past, and his fondest dreams for his native commonwealth hovered about the ideal of a church-state which John Cotton had labored to establish and Increase Mather to preserve. It is with those capable theocrats of Massachusetts Bay, rather than with Thomas Hooker of Hartford, that he is to be associated. Two men could scarcely be more alike than Tinothy Dwight and Increase Mather; their careers ran in similar lines; each was the unmitered pope of his generation, and each owed his extraordinary influence to the same sterling qualities. As ecclesiastical politicians they drew no line between religious and secular affairs, but were prompt with a hand in every affair of the commonwealth. They spoke and wrote with unquestioned authority. They regarded the minister as the responsible leader of society who must not suffer his flock to be led astray. The church was the guardian of morality, and the state was its secular arm. The true faith must not be put in jeopardy by unfaith. To Timothy Dwight infidelity and democracy went hand in hand, and to suffer the commonwealth to fall under the control of the godless meant the end of all morality and religion. To uphold the established order-of which he was a distinguished member-was for him the first of Christian duties. A stalwart Federalist, he was a good hater of all Jacobins. His detestation of Jefferson was virulent and he swallowed the nastiest tales about the great Virginian without a qualm, never doubting their authenticity. It was sometimes hinted that he was too much the aristocrat to feel the warmest sympathy for the unprosperous, and there seems to have been ground for the suspicion. The unprosperous were likely to be infected with Jeffersonian heresies, and as he watched them being drawn off to the York-state frontier, he rejoiced that their voting power was no longer to be feared. Such restless spirits, he pointed out, "are impatient of the restraints of law, religion, and morality; grumble about the taxes, by which Rulers, Ministers, and Schoolmasters are supported . . . . We have many troubles even now; but we should have many more, if this body of foresters had remained at home."2 If the disaffected did not like the way the Congregational-Federalist party managed the good state of Connecticut, it were a godsend if they should remove beyond its boundaries.

But it is with the literary work of Timothy Dwight that we are more immediately concerned, and in all his abundant output, totaling fourteen volumes and perhaps as much more in manuscript, the same solid qualities are revealed. It is the occasional work of a man wanting humor, playfulness, grace, lacking subtlety and creative suggestiveness, but with a shrewd common sense, a great vigor, and a certain grandiose imagination. A sonorous declaimer, he dearly loved combat and the shock of marshaled argument. He went out of his way to invite majestic effects. In The Conquest of Canaan he described so many thunderstorms that Trumbull suggested he ought to furnish a lightning rod with the poem. Such a man could not move easily in narrow spaces. An epic was none too slight to contain his exuberant rhetoric. His ready versification, one often feels, runs like a water pipe with the faucet off; the words flow in an unbroken stream with never a pause to pick or choose. Yet even in his amazing copiousness there is vigor; a well-stocked mind is pouring out the gatherings of years. When he pauses to give advice-as he was fond of doing his abundant sense is worth listening to; the homely wisdom of his talk to the farmers in the sixth part of Greenfield Hill is not unlike Franklin. As a satirist he belongs to the Churchill school; he is downright, abusive, often violent, quite lacking the lightness of touch and the easy gayety that runs so pleasantly through M'Fingal. His Triumph of Infidelity is solid old-fashioned pulpit thumping. The spirit of toleration was withheld from him by his fairy godmother, and he knew no other way of dealing with those who persisted in disagreement after their mistakes had been pointed out, than the cudgel. In this tremendous poem he lays about him vigorously. On Hume and Voltaire and Priestley, and all their followers, his blows fall smartly. Bloody crowns ought to be plentiful, but-though he does not seem to know it-the blows fall on straw men and none proves mortal. On the whole one prefers him in the pastoral mood when he lays aside his ministerial gown, and Greenfield Hill, unless one excepts the Travels in New England and New York, remains his most attractive work. Yet even-that is sadly in need of winnowing. A great college president Timothy Dwight may very well have been; he was worshiped by his admirers only this side idolatry; but a great thinker, a steadfast friend of truth in whatever garb it might appear, a generous kindly soul loving even publicans and sinners, regardful of others and forgetful of self, he assuredly was not.

back to top

Most of the political satire of the Wits was done in collaboration, and consists of occasional sketches contributed to newspapers with explanatory comments and notes-dealing with matters of current interest. Of the major works thus produced, The Anarchiad, The Echo, and The Political Greenhouse, the first will suffice to reveal the political sympathies of the Hartford group. The Anarchiad is a mock epic designed to counteract the populistic tendencies of post-war times. It was published in The New Haven Gazette between October 26, 1786, and September 13, 1787. In 1861 it was resurrected from a long sleep by Luther G. Riggs, and reissued with an introduction and notes. "This fearless satire," according to the editor, "is supposed to have exerted great and beneficial influence upon the public mind, and to have tended in no small degree to check the leaders of insubordination and infidel philosophy"; and it must be regarded as "a national Poem, battling nobly for the right universal, for the majesty of law, and for the Federal government." The idea was got from a contemporary English screed entitled The Rolliad, one of the numerous political satires of which the late eighteenth century was so fond. Probably most of the members of the group had a hand in it, but the acrid quality of its comment owes more to Hopkins than to the others.

For such work the angular Connecticut physician was admirably fitted. The son of a Waterbury farmer, Dr. Lemuel Hopkins was the most picturesque member of the Hartford Wits, the most characteristically Yankee. Brought up at the plow-tail, he received nevertheless an excellent education, and because of a hereditary predisposition to consumption turned to the medical profession. After serving his apprenticeship at Wallingford he entered upon his practice at Litchfield in 1776. During the Revolution he served for a short time as a volunteer, but soon returned to his lancet and medicine case. In 1784 he removed to Hartford where he spent the remainder of his life. In person he was tall, lean, stooping, rawboned, with coarse features and large brilliant eyes. His uncouth appearance and eccentricity of manner made him a striking figure, and his caustic wit rendered him a redoubtable antagonist. As a physician he stood at the head of the Connecticut profession. He was one of the founders of the Medical Society of Connecticut, and as a frequent contributor to professional literature he exerted a wide influence on the current practice.

The eccentric doctor seems to have been as honest as he was outspoken. He was uncompromising in his warfare on all quacks, both medical and political. For a time as a young man he was a disciple of French infidel philosophy, but he cured his mental indisposition by a severe Biblical regimen, and having restored himself to the robust health of Calvinistic Christianity, he devoted himself to the work of curing others. He became in consequence a specialist in the treatment of the ravages caused by the bacillus gallicus. For every sort of humbug he had a hearty contempt, and any political nostrum not listed in the Federalistic materia medica he regarded as arrant quackery. He thought no better of old wives' remedies in government than in medicine, and when the Rhode Island legislature passed its paper-money act in 1785, and six months later Shays's Rebellion broke out, and mobs were besieging the legislature of New Hampshire, he proposed to speak plainly to the good people of Connecticut on the follies of popular delusions. This would seem to have been the origin of The Anarchiad. It sprang from the indignation of Dr. Hopkins, when, to quote from the poem,

In visions fair, the scenes of fate unroll,
And Massachusetts opens on my soul.
There Chaos, Anarch old, asserts his sway,
And mobs in myriads blacken all the way.

The sardonic temper of Dr. Hopkins fitted him for virulent satire, and in this bitterest of the productions of the Wits, the reins were on the neck of the muse. Scarcely another New England satire reflects so sharply the class consciousness that underlay the bitter struggle between agrarianism and capitalism. It is a slashing attack upon agrarian economics and democratic liberalism, a versified echo of the anger of creditors who were fighting the measures of populistic legislatures. The staple of the satire is the wickedness of all paper-money issues, with the State of Rhode Island as the chief of agrarian sinners. About this main theme is gathered a miscellany of Federalist shibboleths-the godlessness of Shays and his crew, the seditious spirit of all who oppose the new Constitution, the demagoguery of democratic politicians-and the satire rises to a patriotic crescendo in declaiming against the folly of the democratic ideal. So tremendous a work, however, cannot be adequately described; the lines must speak for themselves. The following bits may serve in lieu of the whole, the first of which is a comment on Rhode Island, the pariah of States:

Hail! realm of rogues, renown'd for fraud and guile,
All hail! ye knav'ries of yon little isle.
There prowls the rascal, cloth'd with legal pow'r,
To snare the orphan, and the poor devour;
The crafty knave his creditor besets
And advertising paper pays his debts;
Bankrupts their creditors with rage pursue,
No stop, no mercy from the debtor crew.
Arm'd with new tests, the licens'd villain bold,
Presents his bills, and robs them of their gold;
Their ears, though rogues and counterfeiters lose,
No legal robber fears the gallows noose.
Look through the State, the unhallow'd ground appears
A pen of dragons, and a cave of bears;
A nest of vipers, mix'd with adders foul;
The screeching night-bird, and the greater owl:
For now unrighteousness, a deluge wide,
Pours round the land an overwhelming tide;
And dark injustice, wrapp'd in paper sheets,
Rolls a dread torrent through the wasted streets;
While net of law th' unwary fry draws in
To damning deeds, and scarce they know they sin.
New paper struck, new tests, new tenders made,
Insult mankind, and help the thriving trade.
Each weekly print new lists of cheats proclaims,
Proud to enroll their knav'ries and their names;
The wiser race, the snares of law to shun,
Like Lot from Sodom, from Rhode Island run. . . .3

Nor less abhorr'd, the certain woe that waits
The giddy rage of democratic States,
Whose pop'lar breath, high-blown in restless tide,
No laws can temper, and no reason guide:
An equal sway, their mind indignant spurns;
To wanton sway, the bliss of freedom turns;
Led by wild demagogues, the factious crowd,
Mean, fierce, imperious, insolent and loud,
Nor fame, nor wealth, nor power, nor system draws
They see no object, and perceive no cause;
But feel, by turns, in one disastrous hour,
Th' extremes of license, and th' extremes of power. . . .4

Will this vain scheme bid restless factions cease,
Check foreign wars, or fix internal peace?
Call public credit from her grave to rise,
Or gain in grandeur what they lose in size?
But know, ye favor'd race, one potent head
Must rule your States, and strike your foes with dread.
The finance regulate, the trade control,
Live through the empire, and accord the whole.
Ere death invades, the night's deep curtain falls,
Through ruin'd realms the voice of UNION calls; . . .
On you she calls; attend the warning cry;

But chief the race allured by fleeting fame,
Who seek on earth the politicians name;
Auspicious race! whom folly joys to bless,
And wealth and honor crown with glad success;
Formed, like balloons, by emptiness to rise
On pop'lar gales, to waft them through the skies . . .
See, from the shades, on tiny pinions swell
And rise, the young DEMOCRACY of hell!
Before their face the powers of Congress fade,
And public credit sinks, an empty shade;
Wild severance ragest wars intestine spread,
Their boasted UNION hides her dying head;
The forms of government in ruin hurl'd,
Reluctant empire quits the western world.5

Amid such democratic welter and mortal confusion the sole hope of safety lies in Federalism, and the sapient leader who shall bring order out of the wild misrule is thus greeted:

Ardent and bold, the smiling land to save,
In council sapient as in action brave,
I fear'd young Hamilton's unshaken soul,
And saw his arm our wayward host control; . . .
Fire in his eye, and thunder on his tongue.6

Other work the Hartford Wits did, but none which need detain us. Soon changes and removals broke up the coterie, and they went diverse ways to diverse rewards: Timothy Dwight to safeguard Yale undergraduates in New Haven, Humphreys to the American legation at Paris, Trumbull to the Michigan frontier, and Barlow to his notable career in Europe. But happily not before they had contributed their portion of sweetness and light to the great debate. The Wits were no skulkers in presence of "insubordination and infidel philosophy," when their economic interests were touched.

back to top

The Wits were not devoid of cleverness, but they were wanting in ideas. They were partisans rather than intellectuals. In the role of self-appointed custodians of Federalist moralities they were rather tedious fellows, who substituted fustian for creative thought, and blew up their verses with flatulent rhetoric. They sealed the windows of their minds against the disturbing winds of doctrine that were blowing briskly; they inspected the family tree of every new idea to determine its respectability. An occasional fresh idea is necessary to keep one from falling into staleness and mediocrity; but the Wits chose to remain too ignorant to be interesting, and it is a relief to turn from them to the more stimulating company of the French partisans. Here at least there was intellectual sincerity: a genuine desire to understand what was going on in the larger world of thought; to use what brains God had given them to better the lot of the American people. Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow~ and Hugh Henry Brackenridge were not intellectual giants, but they represent the best intelligence then being devoted to literature in America, and their work retains a suggestiveness today far beyond that of the Hartford Wits.

back to top
Poet of Two Revolutions

It is fitting that our first outstanding poet should have been a liberal. The idealist has always seen deeper into the spirit of America than the realist, and been less complacent with halfway achievement. And it is equally fitting that his idealism should have got him into trouble with the dominant group of his generation. Philip Freneau was a volunteer in two revolutions, a color sergeant carrying the newly unfurled flag of democracy in the thick of civil strife. He was a lifelong rebel, whose rebellions turned out to be Patriotic or seditious as they went with or against the purpose of the victorious party. In the Revolution Of '76 he fought shoulder to shoulder with John Adams and Hamilton and Washington, and his services were accorded high praise. His poems inspired Patriotic enthusiasm, greatly aided the national cause, and won wide approval. But in the Revolution Of '93 he parted company with Adams and Hamilton and Washington. When the old leaders turned back in fear at the unloosing of democratic aspirations, he went forward to new battles. He served the cause Of '93 with the same ardor that had inspired his pen in '76. It was not a new cause in his eyes, but the old; not a different war, as Federalists asserted, but other battles of the same war the never ceasing struggle- for human freedom.

In thus breaking with the party of Federalism and casting his lot with the democratic Jacobins, Freneau contracted a serious mesalliance that destroyed his good name. Thereafter he was marked as a vulgar democrat, a disseminator of insubordination and infidelity, an evil influence among a respectable, God-fearing people. The further he went in his new crusade the lower he sank in decent opinion, until the poet of the American Revolution came to be regarded as the hireling mouthpiece of Jefferson, a writer of wretched and insolent doggerel, an incendiary journalist-a mean and paltry figure beside the stately forms of the Fathers of the Constitution. Gentlemen exhausted the resources of ample vocabularies to express their detestation of his leveling ways. To Dwight he was "A mere incendiary, or rather . . . a despicable tool of bigger incendiaries, and his paper . . . a public nuisance." To the gentle-natured Irving he was "A barking cur," and to Washington, whose words were accorded a quasi-royal respect, he was "That rascal Freneau": rather loose expressions, certainly, for cultivated gentlemen to apply to another cultivated gentleman, the friend of Madison and Brackenridge. It is evident that Freneau and the great Federalist leaders disagreed somewhat violently in their interpretations of the purpose and scope of the new venture in republicanism.

The source of their disagreement lay in divergencies of social philosophy too great to be bridged. In his republicanism Freneau had gone far in advance of the Federalists. He was a democrat while they remained aristocrats. He had rid himself of a host of outworn prejudices, the heritage of an obsolete past, which held them in bondage. He had read more clearly the meaning of the great movement of decentralization that was shaping a new psychology, and must lead eventually to democratic individualism. He had no wish to stay or thwart that development; he accepted it wholly with all its implications. He had freed his mind from the thralldom of caste; he was impelled by no egoistic desire to impose his will upon others; he was wholly free from the lust of economic aggression, either for himself or for his class. He was an idealist who cared only for the res publica, the common well-being, and he desired chiefly that the new American government should serve the needs of a free people. There was no envy in the soul of Freneau, and no self-seeking. He was the friend of civilization rather than the advocate of particular forms of government. He put his trust in local self-rule rather than in a coercive state. Like Paine he distrusted all centralizing power. Like Franklin he regarded the every-day world of business and politics as a preposterous arrangement, unconcerned with justice; and he took it on himself to do what he could to make it over. All his life he was an unmuzzled advocate of whatever new movements gave promise of lessening the old tyrannies. In championing the cause of democracy, he championed a score of lesser causes: Unitarianism, deism, antislavery, Americanism in education: thereby bringing down on his head the resentment of all the conservatisms,religious, political, economic, social, then prospering in America. Nevertheless he went his way through a sordid world of politicians and speculators, feeding upon whatever shreds of beauty he met with, a dreamer and an idealist sneered at by exploiters, a spirit touched to finer issues than his generation cared for.

The chief desire of Freneau's life was to be a poet, and if the country had not been turmoiled by revolution, doubtless he would have been content to "live unpromoted and write poems." But revolution and not poetry was the serious business of the age, and he chose to have a hand in that business. Many later critics have lamented his choice. They regret that he did not turn aside from the battle-ground to wander in pastoral fields; that he was not content with the noctes coenaeque deum where the minstrel's song is sufficient passport to hospitality. It is a nice question of literary ethics. The raw material of poetry was in Philip Freneau; there was need only of calm years to master his art and clarify the vague romanticism of his nature. He had only to stand apart from the turmoil, refusing to soil his hands with politics, and cultivate his faculty for verse, to have made himself the indisputable founder of American poetry. He was endowed with a romantic imagination and love of natural beauty, a generation before the romantic revival, and he might well have become a notable contributor to that revival.

But he refused to stand apart. He would not hire a substitute to defend the cause of freedom. There was rough work to be done, and the democrats were too few to spare so competent a workman. So when poetry proved unequal to the task he turned journalist, and set to work in a field unclaimed by the muses. It was an immense sacrifice, bringing disaster to all hope of contemporary fame, and tarnishing his reputation in after years. His place in American letters was fixed by a Federalist verdict, and he has since remained obscure and neglected by all, save an occasional historian who dips into a few poems, regrets that the smell of revolution is so rank, and dismisses him with the comment that Campbell and Scott did him the honor to appropriate a figure of speech without acknowledgment. Only within recent years has a collected edition of his poems been accessible, and his prose writings still remain buried in newspaper files. In consequence the literary critics have echoed the political critics, and given new life to the old partisanship. Thus Professor Wendell remarks that "a considerable part of his poetry . . . consists of rather reckless satire, not conspicuously better or worse than much other satire of the period."7 Even Professor Tyler, usually so generous in sympathy for our early writers, dismisses Freneau with these words:

The poor old man, thus found dead on the lonely New Jersey moor, had undoubtedly some sweetness in his heart; but he permitted very little of it to work its way down to the tip of his pen. With that pitiless pen of his he had fought many a fierce fight in his day. . . . He was the poet of hatred, rather than of love. . . . Among all his verses, the reader finds scarcely one lyric of patriotic enthusiasm, nor many lines to thrill the hearts of the Revolutionists by any touch of loving devotion to their cause, but everywhere lines hot and rank with sarcasm and invective against the enemy. . . . Like Odell, Freneau was a good hater; his was the wrathful muse; his chosen warfare was grim, unsparing, deadly. He was the satirical gladiator on behalf of the Revolution, even as Odell was the satirical gladiator in opposition to it.8

Such commentary is neither discriminating nor just. That the ways of Freneau were often ruthless it needs only a casual reading of his satire to perceive; that he was a good hater is quite as apparent; but that the deeper springs of his nature were bitter is not true. He was no satirist like Churchill to love filth and delight in venom. It was an age of partisan ruthlessness, and if Freneau was a fierce partisan it was because the new hope then whispering to liberals was in danger of being stifled by selfish men who feared it. The vision of a free republic arising on the ruins of colonial monarchy had taken possession of his imagination; a republic admirable in justice and righteous in all its ways. That vision, he believed, might be realized if the republicans stood firm in its defense. A thousand perils beset it. The lingering colonial traditions-the ties of old custom-were powerful advocates of the old inequality; the greed of profit and power-the ambitions of a monied aristocracy-were equally powerful advocates of new tyrannies. Not only must George III and his Tory supporters be driven from the land, but the work thus begun must be carried through. An army of domestic enemies must be dealt with-a formidable aristocracy of wealth and family. Naturally it would be no holiday task. The King had no mind to be driven out of his American dominions, and the Federalists had no mind to surrender control of the new American state. And so no choice remained to the republicans but to make the advocates of monarchy and aristocracy appear so hateful in the eyes of the people that they would rise and destroy them.

In times of profound upheaval the demands of partisanship are, stem and exacting. The gray-goose quill may serve the cause of peace, but the porcupine quill stings and rankles more; and if Freneau was given to using the latter it was because he cared greatly for the ends to be achieved. "How oft has rugged nature charged my pen with gall," he lamented late in life as he contemplated the enemies he had made. Sensitive and proud, he had a Gallic impetuosity of onset. If he plundered the broadsides of their store of abuse and ransacked the dictionaries of their wealth of scurrility, it was not because he loved abuse and scurrilities. If like Sam Adams, he was given to robbing men of their characters, it was due to no personal or selfish motives; those great ones whom he lampooned so fiercely, he believed were enemies of the new order. If "his chosen warfare was grim, unsparing, deadly," as Professor Tyler asserts, it was because he was fighting for a great ideal against men who were equally grim, unsparing, deadly. Unembittered laughter had little opportunity to try its sanative qualities in that long warfare of bushwhackers.

During the last quarter of the century the writings of Freneau in verse and prose constitute an abstract and brief chronicle of the times. If they seem old-fashioned to us today, they were quite new-fashioned to the men who first read them. The early satires, printed in 1775 must have fallen upon American ears with almost startling effect. A revolutionary change had come over Freneau; he had broken wholly with the colonial temper and turned nationalist a year before the Declaration of Independence. When he graduated from Princeton College in the summer of 1771, he wrote in collaboration with Hugh Henry Brackenridge a commencement poem entitled The Rising Glory of America, in which the youthful collegians, bred up in a hotbed of Whiggery, were as British as Pitt himself. The new English imperialism fairly rioted in the swelling couplets. The poem is a prophecy of the time when the British flag should wave from the Atlantic to the Pacific over a contented people, who "warm in liberty and freedom's cause," gloried in the name of Briton. Agriculture and commerce are duly celebrated as the twin pillars of American prosperity, and the pages of colonial history are combed for great names and heroic deeds. On the roll of American heroes Braddock, Sir William Johnson, and Whitefield are the most conspicuous. Oddly enough Washington's valor at the time of Braddock's defeat was unknown to these collegians in 1771, but was afterwards discovered and inserted in later editions. Following independence Freneau revised the poem and the changed circumstances played havoc with the colonial text. Braddock was silently expunged together with "Britannia's warlike troops, Choice spirits of her isle." "False Gallia's sons" becomes "Gallia's hostile sons." A notable tribute to English generosity seemed incongruous to Freneau after his experience on the prison ship and was deleted. He no longer felt that

The British epithet is merciful,
And we the sons of Britain learn like them
To conquer and to spare.

What happened to Freneau during the years following his graduation is uncertain, but in July, 1775, he appeared in New York City with his pockets stuffed with another sort of verse, which he scattered among the printshops, the rebellious spirit of which may be judged from the prayer,

Libera Nos, Domine.-Deliver us, 0 Lord, not only from British dependence, but

From the scoundrel, Lord North, who would bind us in chains, From a royal king Log, with his tooth-full of brains,
Who dreams, and is certain (when taking a nap)
He has conquered our lands, as they lay on his map.

From a kingdom that bullies, and hectors, and swears,
We send up to heaven our wishes and prayers
That we, disunited, may freemen be still,
And Britain go on-to be damned if she will.9

The colonial slipped easily from Freneau and left him wholly American. And with the colonial psychology there slipped from him also the useless impedimenta of old-world social and political philosophies. How far he advanced towards the democratic conception of society, during those first rebellious years, is not clear; but he had set his foot on a path that must conduct him far if he did not turn back. And it is certain that he never turned back. His declaration of independence from King George was the first of many such declarations of independence-for himself and his fellow Americans. Thereafter his serious business was the work of stripping from the colonial every loyalty which still bound him to England. He supplemented the work of Paine in teaching men whose fathers were English that they were of another nation; that they could no longer remain both English and American, but must make choice between the two allegiances. Year after year he stirred the troubled waters, arousing the spirit of nationalism by attacking everything pro-British. His attacks on the English generals, the Tories, the royalist printers, were but means to the great end of uprooting the traditional dependence on England and quickening the new national psychology.

The second stimulus to Freneau's revolutionary ardor came from the French uprising. Later in the summer of 1775 he had quitted New York and sailed for the West Indies. He spent two years on the Island of Santa Cruz, then and later engaging in sea voyages about the islands and along the American coast. They were creative years, when removed equally from the distractions of war and the utilitarianism of America, he was free to cultivate the romantic strain of poetry that was strong in him. Then followed unhappier days. A period of stagnation had come to him during the years of post-war reaction; and if fresh fuel had not been brought from overseas to kindle anew his social en thusiasms, it is likely that he would have drifted into a stale and unprofitable old age. The spirit of romantic poetry was deadened by an unsympathetic environment, but with the democratic hope rising in France came a fresh call to arms. He discovered a larger and nobler interpretation of his republican creed, that was to transform it into French Jacobinism and arm it for a new leveling crusade. If he could not be a poet to America he would enlist in the army of democracy. Not only must the new government be made French-democratic instead of English-Whig, but all dis tinctions of rank must be swept away, together with every tyran nical dogma of church and state. In short there must be a social house-cleaning, the limits of which were to be determined only by reason and the common democratic good. So Freneau en thusiastically joined with Paine and Jefferson in the partisan labor of spreading the new faith.

His literary activity during this second period was remarkable. Songs and odes and satires came from his ready pen in unending stream, eager, cutting, vibrant with feeling. It requires an intimate knowledge of the times to make out the identity of every figure at which he shoots his arrows, but it needs no very intimate knowledge to measure the intensity of his partisanship. The democratic hopes and fears of those vibrant days find reflection in many an acrid verse. He was at one with Jefferson in his concern at the monarchical reaction.

In ten short years, of freedom weary grown The State, Republic, sickens for a throne.

The man who attached to the pen name of Peter Slender the letters 0. S. M.-One of the Swinish Multitude--would not fail to take the part of the private soldier neglected by the state:

Sold are those arms which once on Britons blazed,
When, flushed with conquest, to the charge they came;
That power repelled, and Freedom's fabrick raised,
She leaves her soldier-famine and a name!10

Nor would he fail to capitalize the aristocratic contempt of the Federalists for that same swinish multitude.

Lodge where you must, drink small-beer where you can,
But eat no roast pig, if no Federal man. . . .

Your mouth was made for rye or barley bread;
What claims have you to halls of state,
Whose business is to stand and wait,
Subservient to command?
What right have you to white-bread, superfine,
Who were by nature destin'd for "a swine"--
As said good Edmund Burke,
The drudge of Britain's dirty work,
Whose mighty pamphlets rous'd the royal band!11

During the tumultuous year of '93 Freneau issued a series of Probationary Odes by Jonathan Pindar, Esq., which reflect sharply the partisan passions aroused by the French Revolution. They were lampoons directed at members of government who were in the democratic black-book, chiefly John Adams, Knox, and Hamilton. The introductory poem was addressed To all the Great Folks in a Lump; the second, To Atlas, was an attack on Hamilton; the third, To A Select Body of Great Men, was a lampoon of the Senate; and the fourth, To a Would Be Great Man, was addressed to Freneau's particular bête noire, John Adams. This last, apropos of Davila, will serve to show the popular reception which that unfortunate work received.

Daddy Vice, Daddy Vice,
One may see in a trice
The drift of your fine publication.
As sure as a gun
The thing was just done
To secure you a Pretty high station.

When you tell us of kings
And such pretty things
Good mercy! how brilliant your page is!
So bright is each line
I vow you'll shine
Like--a glow worm to all future ages.

On Davila's page
Your discourses so sage
Democratical numskulls bepuzzle,
With arguments tough
As white leather or buff,
The republican Bull Dogs to muzzle.

'Tis labor in vain,
Your senses to strain,
Our brains any longer to muddle;
Like Colossus you stride
O'er our noddles so wide
We look up like frogs in a puddle.

If Freneau's hatred of the men who opposed the democratic movement was immeasurable, his enthusiasm for the new age of reason that he believed was rising was as boundless. His pages during those years of Jacobin radicalism are dotted thick with. odes to liberty and addresses to republicans; probably more fully than any other pages they reflect the spirit that in England and America was forming Tom Paine clubs, and projecting innumerable programs of social reform. A new social conscience was stirring in Freneau, broadening immensely the horizon of his thought-, and if he counted rather too confidently on the appeal to reason to bring the golden age, he proved himself thereby a true child of his generation. In such lines as these one discovers the spirit that moved Godwin to write Political justice.

How can we call those systems just
Which bid the few, the proud, the first
Possess all earthly good;
While millions robbed of all that's dear
In silence shed the ceaseless tear,
And leaches suck their blood. . . .

Let laws revive, by heaven designed,
To tame the tiger in the mind
And drive from human hearts
That love of wealth, that love of sway,
Which leads the world too much astray,
Which points envenomed darts:

And men will rise from what they are;
Sublimer, and superior, far,
Than Solon guessed, or Plato saw;
All will be just, all will be good--
That harmony, "not understood,"
Will reign the general law.

For, in our race, deranged, bereft,
The parting god some vestige left
Of worth before possessed;
Which full, which fair, which perfect shone,
When love and peace, in concord sown,
Ruled, and inspired each breast.12

In quite another vein, that reveals Freneau's unusual mastery of colloquial prose, is the following passage, impersonating Robert Slender, the country philosopher.

Mr. Editor,
Having heard that there was a tavern at about the distance of a mile or so from my favorite country spot, where now and then a few neighbors meet to spit, smoke segars, drink apple whiskey, cider or cider-royal, and read the news--a few evenings ago, I put on my best coat, combed out my wig, put my spectacles in my pocket, and a quarter dollar-This I thought was right; for although Mrs. Slender told me eleven-pence was enough, says I, I'll e'en take the quarter dollar, for a man always feels himself of more consequence when he has got good money in his pocketso out I walks with a good stout stick in my hand, which I always make a point to carry with me, lest the dogs should make rather freer with my legs than I could wish. But I had not gone more than half the way, when, by making a false step, I splash'd my stocking from the knee to the ancle. Odds my heart, said I, see what a hand I have made of my stocking; I'll be bail, added I, I'll hear of this in both sides of my head--but it can't now be helped--this, and a thousand worse accidents, which daily happen, are all occasioned by public neglect, and the misapplication of the public's money-Had 1, said 1, (talking to myself all the while) the disposal of but half the income of the United States, I could at least so order matters, that a man might walk to his next neighbor's without splashing his stockings or being in danger of breaking his legs in ruts, holes, gutts, and gullies. I do not know, says I to myself, as I moralized on my splash'd stocking, but money might with more profit be laid out in repairing the roads, than in marine establishments, supporting a standing army, useless embassies, exorbitant salaries, given to many flashy fellows that are no honor to us, or to themselves, and chartering whole ships to carry a single, man to another nation--Odds my life, continued I, what a number of difficulties a man labors under, who has never read further than Lilly's grammar, and has but a poor brain-had I been favored with a good education, I could no doubt readily see the great usefulness of all these measures of government, that now appear to me so unaccountable-I could then, said I, still talking to myself, see the reason why the old patriots, whose blood flowed so freely in purchasing our independence, are cast aside, like a broken pitcher, (as the Scripture says) and why the old tories and active refugees are advanced to places of power, honor and trust.13

In another writer so whimsical a note would have no other purpose than to fill a Spectator paper. But the garrulous Robert Slender is Freneau in quieter vein, pursuing his old purpose. As a social philosopher his opinions are oddly like those of Tom Paine. In commenting on the government's use of the people's money he was seeking to awaken interest in the social possibilities of government: that government would better serve the res publica through internal improvements, than by creating armies and navies and providing posts and pensions for great men. This was a fashion of thought which Paine had done much to spread, and in the midst of a pompous Federalism, when gentlemen professed to believe that government could acquire reverence in the people's eyes only by being hedged about with ceremonial, Robert Slender's cogitations were very much to the point. If government were truly democratized, if it concerned itself with realities, serving the people in the homely affairs and common needs of everyday life, there would be no need of aristocratic ceremonial. Like Paine, Freneau was an idealist, with his head full of ideas which to practical men were only silly French notions; and yet the idealist, in this matter of the res publica, was the true realist.

For all his Jacobinism Freneau might have been spared some of the odium that gathered about his head if he had not turned partisan journalist and put himself in the thick of the fight. In the eighteenth century the newspaper editor had not yet wholly risen from the rank of mechanic; he was still a master-printer, with hands much too ink-stained to pass himself off as a gentleman, and with financial resources too limited to be intellectually independent. If his paper were largely literary he made no powerful enemies, but let him enter politics or seek to mold public opinion on important matters, and he was likely to meet the fate of John Mein, outspoken editor of the Boston Chronicle, who was destroyed for exposing the weakness of the merchants' non-importation policy.14 Freneau had had considerable experience in newspaper work at times when his sea life had grown irksome, but he took no active part in politics until the fall Of 1791, when he set up the National Gazette in Philadelphia, and began that tumultuous career lasting two years which brought so much abuse upon him.

The detailed story of his connection with the Gazette is given in an admirable study.15 and need not be recounted further than to bring into relief the bare essentials. Soon after the formation of the new government Hamilton had provided himself with a newspaper, The United States Gazette, that was an effective advocate of all Hamiltonian policies. The editor, John Fenno, seems to have been a vigorous fellow, into whose hands Hamilton threw much of the public printing, and whose debts he paid when they became pressing. Alarmed at the influence wielded by the newspaper, Jefferson and Madison approached Freneau, who had been contemplating a new venture, with the suggestion that he set up a rival democratic paper. To encourage him Jefferson gave Freneau a small post as translator in the State Department, worth $25o a year. The National Gazette was thereupon established, and for two years a war between the hostile papers went on fiercely. If the United States Gazette lauded the virtues of the English government, extolled the wisdom of Hamilton and abhorred all Jacobins, the National Gazette retorted in kind, attacking the Secretary of the Treasury and applauding the growing Jacobite spirit that struck at every form of aristocracy. It became the common clearing house for democratic propaganda, and Freneau's influence spread so widely that he may justly be regarded as "the leading editor in America" during those critical years.

It is quite evident today that "the chief business of the Gazette was to destroy Hamilton." Probably more largely than any other writer, Freneau awakened a popular distrust of Federalist men and measures, which a few years later was to break the party. Jefferson's often-quoted remark, "His paper has saved our Con stitution which was fast galloping into monarchy, and has been checked by no one means so powerfully as by that paper," is somewhat extravagant; nevertheless the universal detestation in which Freneau was held by all Federalists is sufficient testimony to his influence. Washington was greatly ruffled and wanted to remove him from his petty post in the State Department, but Jefferson would not consent. It seems that Washington felt no ill-will toward John Fenno, who drew six times the sum from the public treasury that Freneau received. But Fenno was no democrat, "hostile to garter, ribbon, crown, and star;" Fenno was no unsparing critic who would attack even Washington if he lent himself to undemocratic ends; whereas Freneau was plain-spoken, and no gentleman likes plain speaking from subordinates.

All this was a hundred years ago and more. The inditers of those partisan scurrilities, Democrat and Federalist alike, have long since ceased their bickerings. Words which once stung like a whiplash have become only echoes of dead passions. As the struggles of those tumultuous years fall into truer perspective, the figure of Philip Freneau takes on larger and nobler proportions. The cloud of calumny that long obscured his virtues is dissipating, and we discover in him an eager child of an age of democratic aspiration, the friend and advocate of social justice. Like Paine and Jefferson and Franklin, he was a notable American, who gave himself unselfishly to the work of furthering the common well-being. "It was a long and stormy life," says Forman, "and it was lived for human rights and human freedom"-

Still on the people's, still on Freedom's side;
Still in the cause of man severely true.

After all, the poet in Freneau was deeper than the partisan. Despite his conviction that a sordid America cared nothing for poetry-that "an age employed in edging steel can no poetic raptures feel"--his love of beauty was never killed nor the spring of poetic creation dried up. In moments of release from cares he found solace in the poetry that welled up from the unembittered depths of a rich and generous nature. The portrait drawn by Professor Tyler depicts one side of Freneau; the following lines, from a very late poem, reveal another:

The world has wrangled half an age,
And we again in war engage,
While this sweet, sequestr'd rill
Murmurs through the valley still.

But, with all your quiet flow,
Do you not some quarrels know!
Lately, angry, how you ran!
All at war-and much like man.

When the shower of waters fell,
How you raged, and what a swell!
All your banks you overflow'd,
Scarcely knew your own abode!

How you battled with the rock!
Gave my willows such a shock
As to menace, by its fall,
Underwood and bushes, all:

Now you are again at peace:
Time will come when that will cease;
Such the human passions are;
--You again will war declare.

Emblem, thou, of restless man;
What a sketch of nature's plan!
Now at peace, and now at war,
Now you murmur, now you roar;

Muddy now, and limpid next,
Now with Icy shackles vext--
What a likeness here we find!
What a picture of mankind!16

This was the valedictory of Philip Freneau. His life was bitter and turbulent, cast in a bitter and turbulent age; yet he found some grains of comfort in the contemplation of nature and the exercise of the poet's craft. Through it all his heart remained clean and his hands unstained. If he was not a great poet whom all the critics praise, he loved beauty and served it in a careless world among an indifferent people, and it ill becomes America to forget his contribution or deny him some portion of the honor that has fallen generously to others no more deserving.

back to top


That he should have long associated with the Hartford Wits and collaborated with them in defense of Connecticut Federalism must have seemed to Joel Barlow in after years the choicest bit of comedy in his varied career. His subsequent adventures led him far from the strait path of Yale orthodoxy. In those ripe later years life had pretty well emptied him of all dogmatisms and taught him the virtue of catholic sympathies. He bad become acquainted with diverse philosophies and had observed the ways of alien societies, and from such contacts the horizons of his mind had broadened and his character mellowed. It was a long road that he traveled from New Haven to his Washington salon. Born a Connecticut Yankee, he accepted in his youth all the Connecticut conventions, and graduated from Yale with as complete a stock of respectable opinions as his classmate Noah Webster. An energetic capable fellow, he wanted to get on in life. He wanted to be rich and famous, and he tried many roads that promised to lead to that desirable goal-law, politics, journalism, poetry, psalmody, speculation. Needing a job he volunteered soon after graduation as chaplain in the army. He had not prepared for the ministry and while preaching somewhat indifferently to ragged soldiers he dreamed of poetic fame, and devoted more time to his couplets than to pious meditation. His abilities discovering no more profitable field for exercise than writing verse, he was pretty much at a stand till chance sent him abroad as agent for one of the speculative land-companies that were springing up like mushrooms in post-war America. There he found his opportunity. In France, where he established his headquarters, he entered a world of thought vastly different from that of prim little Hartford. It was an extraordinarily stimulating experience into which he threw himself with zest. Eighteen years, from 1788 to 1805, he spent abroad on that first visit, and those years changed the provincial Yankee into one of the most cosmopolitan Americans of his generation. From a member of the Hartford Wits, ar dent in defense of the traditional Connecticut order, he had become a citizen of the world, outspoken in defense of the rights of man.

It was this later Barlow, completely new-outfitted by French romantic tailors, that after years remember and that early friends could not forgive. In adopting the Jacobin mode and setting himself to the serious business of political thinking, he invited the caustic criticism of his former associates; yet nothing in his life was more creditable or marks him more definitely as an openminded, intelligent man. He was as receptive to new ideas as Timothy Dwight was impervious. He plunged boldly into the maelstrom of speculation then boiling in Europe. He moved in the society of the intellectuals, inquired into the latest political and social theories, turned humanitarian, reexamined his Calvinistic theology in the light of current deism, and became one of the free democratic thinkers swarming in every European capital. He was equally at home in London and Paris, passing long periods of time in both cities. An active member of the Constitutional Society of London, he was intimate with Joseph Priestley, Horne Tooke, and Tom Paine, sympathized with every liberal movement, and offered his pen to the cause of a freer England. His Advice to the Privileged Orders was eulogized by Fox on the floor of Commons, and the Pitt ministry was moved to suppress the work and proscribe the author. Thereupon Barlow went into hiding. There seems to have been considerable provocation for the government's action. "It is safe to say," remarks his biographer, "that no political work of the day created so wide an interest or was so extensively read." With Paine and Barlow both loose in England there was need of the government looking to its fences.

In 1793 he was made a citizen of France. His French career was not unlike Paine's, whom he resembled in many ways. He had much of the latter's genius for publicity and skill in propaganda, and his career was a great stimulus to radicals at home. He was not too busy to serve his country in a diplomatic way. He risked his life to aid American prisoners in Africa and by his skill and address eventually freed them-an achievement that few men could have gone through with successfully. In the meantime he had not neglected his private affairs. He made a fortune in the French funds, which he increased by able merchandising. He had come to his goal by distant roads, and on his return to America in 1805 he took up his abode at Washington, creating a delightful countryseat on the outskirts of the raw little capital where he maintained a salon for American liberals. He seems to have felt no inclinations towards Connecticut; the old ties were broken now for good, the French Jacobin could not fit into the rigid grooves of Hartford Federalism. Six years later he was impressed a second time into the diplomatic service, was sent to France on a difficult mission, followed Napoleon, then on the Russian campaign, was caught in the break-up of the grand army, suffered exposure, contracted pneumonia, and died in a village near Cracow in Poland--a fate which many honest Federalists regarded as amply merited by his vicious principles.

The later reputation of Barlow has been far less than his services warranted or his solid merits deserved. His admirable prose writings have been forgotten and the Columbiad returns always to plague him. The common detraction of all Jacobins and democrats fell heavily on so conspicuous ahead. "It is simply impossible," says his biographer, "for the historian of Federal proclivities and environment to do justice to the great leaders of Republicanism in America." Barlow was forced to pay a heavy price for his intellectual independence. Detraction was always lying in wait for him. John Adams, who had suffered many a sharp thrust from him, wrote to Washington, "Tom Paine is not a more worthless fellow." Of the Yale dislike Barlow was well aware, for he once confessed that he would have presented the school with some needed chemical apparatus but he "supposed that, coming from him, the college authorities would make a bonfire of them in the college yard."17 Yet it is hard for a later generation to discover wherein lay the viciousness of his life or principles. A warmhearted humanitarian, he was concerned always for the common well-being. The two major passions of his life were freedom and education. During the last years at Washington he was ardently promoting a plan for a great national university at the seat of government, and had he lived ten years longer his wide influence would probably have accomplished it. His sins would seem to have been no other than an open break with the Calvinism and Federalism of the Connecticut oligarchysomewhat slender grounds on which to pillory him as an infidel and a scalawag.

The social foundation of Barlow's political philosophy is lucidly presented in the Advice to the Privileged Orders, a work that deserves a place beside Paine's Rights of Man as a great document of the times. It does too much credit to American letters to be suffered to lie buried with a dead partisanship. It is warm with the humanitarian enthusiasm that had come down as a rich heritage from the Physiocratic school of social thinkers. Two suggestive ideas lie at the base of his speculations: the doctrine of the res publica, and the doctrine of social responsibility for individual well-being. 'The former, given wide currency by the Rights of Man, resulted from the imposition of social conscience on abstract political theory, out of which was derived a new conception of the duties and functions of the political state-the conception that the state must be the responsible agent of society as a whole rather than the tool of a class, and that its true concern is the public thing, safe guarding the social heritage as a common asset held in trust for succeeding generations; the latter resulted from the inquiry into the relations of the political state to the individual citizen--its responsibility as the social agent, for the social waste of wrecked lives and thwarted happiness, a waste that a rational social order would greatly lessen if not eradicate. Barlow flatly denied that the primary function of the state is the protection of property interests; its true end lies in securing justice. But justice without equal opportunity is a mockery; and equal opportunity is impossible unless the individual citizen shall be equipped to live on equal terms with his fellows. Hence the fine flower of political justice is discovered in education; in that generous provision for the young and the weak that shall equip them to become free members of the commonwealth. Like Paine's Agrarian Justice, the Advice to the Privileged Orders is an extraordinarily modern work, far more comprehensible today than when it was written. That the"State has no right to punish a man, to whom it has given no previous instruction," and that "She ought not only to instruct him in the artificial laws by which property is secured, but in the artificial industry by which it is obtained," are doctrines that seem far less preposterous to us than they seemed to Timothy Dwight. The president of Yale College was greatly troubled over Calvinistic sin; Joel Barlow was greatly troubled over social injustice; in that difference is measured the distance the latter had traveled in company with the French Jacobins.

The root-of his political thinking is the doctrine of equalitarianism. "Only admit," he says, "the original, unalterable truth, that all men are equal in their rights, and the foundation of everything is laid." Accepting the romantic doctrine that human nature is excellent in its plastic state, and capable of infinite development, he is untroubled by the fact of human selfishness. He sees no bogey in democracy to frighten timid souls, no specter of anarchy in the rule of the people.

They say mankind are wicked and rapacious, and "it must be that offences will come." This reason applies to individuals; but not to nations deliberately speaking a national voice. I hope I shall not be understood to mean, that the nature of man is totally changed by living in a free republic. I allow that it is still interested men and passionate men, that direct the affairs of the world. But in national assemblies, passion is lost in deliberation, and interest balances interest; till the good of the whole community combines the general will.

If government be founded on the vices of mankind, its business is to restrain those vices in all, rather than to foster them in a few.13

It was his sensitive social conscience that brought him to revolt against all class government. He had seen the naked sordidness of such governments in Europe, and he watched with concern the beginmings of like government in America. The significance of the Hamiltonian program could not escape so shrewd an observer as Barlow; he was too much a realist to take political professions at face value. "I see," he wrote, "immense fortunes made by our funding legislators out of the public funds which they funded for themselves." Politics for profit was a sorry spectacle to him, and he occupied his mind much with the problem of erecting the machinery of an adequate democratic state that should be faithful to its stewardship as agent of the whole.

It was this difficult problem with which he dealt in his Letter to the National Convention of France. In this suggestive work two ideas determined his thinking: the doctrine of the sovereignty of the majority will, and the doctrine of government as a social agent. In both he returned to the position of Roger Williams a hundred and fifty years before. The sovereignty of the majority will he conceives to be continuous and immediately effective; it cannot be held in check by a rigid constitutionalism, for as Paine had pointed out, such constitutionalism is no other than government from the grave. He proposed therefore, that the fundamental law be amendable by legislative enactment, one legislative body proposing and the next determining, under full publicity. As a guarantee that such action should express the popular will, that love of power on the part of the agent should not defeat the purpose of society, he held that there must be annual elections. Representatives should be periodically excluded from candidacy, and other representatives fresh from the people sent up, for "power always was and always must be a dangerous thing." The principle of recall he regarded as indispensable in a democratic government, for it "will tend to maintain a proper relation between the representatives and the people, and a due dependence of the former upon the latter. Besides, when a man has lost the confidence of his fellow citizens . . . he is no longer their representative; and when he ceases to be their's, he cannot in any sense be the representative of the nation." The fundamental principle of state-craft Barlow states thus: "Every individual ought to be rendered as independent of every other individual as possible; and at the same time as dependent as possible on the whole community." The familiar romantic doctrine of the diminished state is implicit in all his reasoning. Like Paine he would do away utterly with the old mystery of government under which ambitious men cloak their will to power; "for whatever there is in the art of government, whether legislative or executive, above the capacities of the ordinary class of what are called well-informed men, is superfluous and destructive and ought to be laid aside."

A thoroughgoing radical in economics and politics, Barlow was no innovator in polite literature. He had pulled himself out of many a Connecticut provincialism, but he stuck fast in the bog of provincial poetry. It has long been the fashion to make merry over The Columbiad, and there is only too patent a reason for it. To criticize it is a work of supererogation. The appeal of "the grand style" seems to have been too much for him. Some explanation doubtless is to be found in the fact that he was working over an earlier poem done in the days of an ebullient patriotism. It was a mistake to return to it, for the heroic note in the vein of a political pamphleteer must play havoc with it. What he now attempted, in the light of his long European experience, was to embody in the narrative suitable political ideas, transforming The Vision of Columbus into an epic glorifying the great republican experiment. His purpose is set forth in the preface.

[The] real object of the poem is to inculcate the love of national liberty, and to discountenance the deleterious passion for violence and war; to show that on the basis of republican principle all good morals, as well as good government and hopes of permanent peace, must be founded; and to convince the student in political science, that the theoretical question of the future advancement of human society, till states as well as individuals arrive at universal civilization, is held in dispute and still unsettled only because we have had too little experience of organized liberty in the government of nations, to have well considered its effects.

The humanitarian note is strong. War, slavery, monarchy, injustice, the tyranny resulting from political inequality, and a host of other evils, social and political, are assailed in vigorous declamation. It may not be good poetry but the sentiment& are those of an enlightened and generous man. The conclusion rises to a vision of a golden age of international commerce and universal peace, when "earth, garden'd all, a tenfold burden brings," and the sundered nations shall draw together, and --

... cloth'd majestic in the robes of state,
Moved by one voice, in general congress meet
The legates of all empires.

In that future time science will have learned "with her own glance to ken the total God," and philosophy will "expand the selfish to the social flame." Of the political ideas incorporated in the massive work some suggestion may be got from the following lines:

Ah, would you not be slaves, with lords and kings,
Then be not Masters; there the danger springs.
The whole crude system that torments this earth,
Of rank, privation, privilege of birth,
False honor, fraud, corruption, civil jars,
The rage of conquest and the curse of wars,
Pandora's total shower, all ills combined
That erst o'erwhelmed and still distress mankind,
Boxt up secure in your deliberate hand,
Wait your behest to fix or fly this land.

Equality of right is nature's plan;
And following nature is the march of man.
Whene'er he deviates in the least degree,
When, free himself, he would be more than free,
The baseless column, rear'd to bear his trust,
Falls as he mounts and whelms him in the dust.

Too much of Europe, here transplanted o'er,
Nursed feudal feelings on your tented shore,
Brought sable sires from Afric, call'd it gain,
And urged your sires to forge the fatal chain. . . .
Restore their souls to men, give earth repose,
And save your sons from slavery, wars and woes.

Based on its rock of right your empire lies,
On walls of wisdom let the fabric rise;
Preserve your principles, their force unfold,
Let nations prove them and let kings behold.
EQUALITY, your first firm-grounded stand;
This holy Triad should forever shine
The great compendium of all rights divine,
Creed of all schools, whence youths by millions draw
Their themes of right, their decalogues of law;
Till men shall wonder (in these codes inured)
How wars were made, how tyrants were

Diverse politics incline to diverse literary judgments, and the critics are not yet done with Joel Barlow. If he was not a great poet or a great political thinker, he was at least capable, open minded, generous, with a sensitive social conscience-certainly the most stimulating and original of the literary group that fore gathered in Hartford. Injustice has long been done him by over looking his picturesque career, and his services to America, and restricting his introduction to posterity to a few lines from Hasty Pudding. To make a mush of so honest a thinker, to ignore his very considerable contributions to the cause of democracy, is to impose too heavy a penalty for his defection from Connecticut respectability. He suffered quite enough in his lifetime. In the thick of his revolutionary struggles abroad his wife begged him "to go home and be respectable"; but it was not in the ardent nature of Joel Barlow to listen to such counsel of timidity. He was in too deep to go back, and so while Timothy Dwight was gathering laurels from every bush in Connecticut, this apostle of humanita rianism, this apostate from Calvinistic Federalism, was content to remain a byword and a shaking of the head in the villages of his native commonwealth. For all which, perhaps, the Washington salon and the intimate association with Jefferson may have served as recompense. Better society could not be found even in Hartford.

back to top
Free-Lance Democrat

In taking leave of this disturbant time when new social theories were bringing confusion to weak understandings, one cannot do better than to dip into the wittiest and most readable sketch produced by that vigorous generation, as well as one of the sanest. Modern Chivalry was the single noteworthy contribution to American letters by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a western Pennsylvanian of Scotch birth, and a graduate of Princeton in the class with Freneau and Madison. With the former he had practised his couplets, collaborating in writing the commencement poem, The Rising Glory of America. After leaving college he tried his hand at the usual things open to young graduates, was tutor in the college, taught in an academy, studied divinity, served as chaplain in the Revolutionary army, and later read law. He removed eventually to the frontier town of Pittsburgh, was active in Republican politics, became an ardent pro-French sympathizer, and finally went upon the supreme bench of Pennsylvania. He wrote for his own amusement and tried his hand at various kinds of polite literature, producing a masque, a poetic drama on Bunker Hill, prose essays, some sermons, and turned at last to satire. For this he was admirably equipped; he possessed a keen, well-balanced. mind, a prose style delightfully colloquial and a wit pleasantly caustic.

Brackenridge is a refreshing person to come upon after one is satiated with the heroic. A free-lance critic, independent in thought and act, he was no vociferous party or class advocate given to enlisting God on his side. Federalist and Republican alike might lose their heads and indulge in unseemly clamor, but Brackenridge with good Scotch judgment refused to howl with the pack. A stout and unrepentant democrat, he was no visionary to shut his eyes to unpleasant facts lest they disturb his faith. As he considered the turbulent confusions of an America in rough process of democratization, he saw the evils as clearly as the hope, and it amused him to satirize those evils after the manner of Don Quixote. Modern Chivalry has proved somewhat of a puzzle to later critics who have not cleared their minds of the old cobwebs of Federalist criticism. Thus a literary historian has suggested that it is "a half-hidden satire on democracy" 20 and he inclines to number it among the literary ram's horns that were blown against the walls of the democratic Jericho. But such an interpretation certainly misses the point. Brackenridge had become a thorough Westerner with a fresh point of view. Among the stump fields of his Pennsylvania circuit he was equally removed from the cynicism of Hamilton and the romanticism of Barlow. He saw all about him a rough and tumble democracy, living a vigorous and capable if not lovely life. As a democrat he accepted the fact of political equality and approved of it; the thing was there and needed no justification or defense. Some of its ways were foolish, many of its purposes were shortsighted; it amused him therefore to sharpen his pen against certain of its absurdities and essay the remedial effects of unembittered laughter.. He was a realist concerned with realities.

Modern Chivalry is our first backcountry book. It is redolent of stumplands and their rude leveling ways, and for years it was immensely popular along the western frontier. It is a satire aimed primarily at backwoods shortcomings, but with an eye that kept turning towards the older settlements to scrutinize their equal shortcomings. Its main theme is concerned with certain weaknesses of popular sovereignty already unpleasantly evident as a result of the extension of suffrage; and in particular with the unseemly office-hunting zeal of coonskin candidates. The preposterous spectacle of a pushing fellow with no qualifications setting himself up for high office was to become more frequent with the later rise of Jacksonian democracy; but already there was abundant justification for the satire of Brackenridge. The records of the time are loud in criticism of the demagoguery that resulted from the sudden shift of leadership in consequence of the social upheaval following the Revolutionary War. The old leaders of the aristocratic tradition had fled or had fallen into disfavor, and new men, too often of small capacity and less breeding, had pushed into the seats of authority. With the triumph of Jefferson this transfer of power went forward briskly to the scandal of all aristocrats. The lust of office spread like the plague, and demagogues caught the popular ear, none too nice to distinguish between sense and fustian. Irving brushed against the democratic weakness in his brief venture into politics, and vented his spleen in Rip Van Winkle. It is this which Brackenridge deals with primarily in Modern Chivalry, the first part of which was published in 1792 and the second in 18o5. The general leveling of offices, he pointed out, was not democracy, but the abuse and ruin of democracy. America was engaged in a great and noble experiment; the success of that experiment depended upon an honest and intelligent electorate; it must not be brought to failure by demagogues through the incapacity of the voter.

Brackenridge had come in later years to be a pacifist. He had bad his fill of revolutions and armed revolts. As a principal arbitrator during the tumult of the Whisky Insurrection, he had come to fear popular lawlessness; and as a friend of the French Revolution he was concerned at the methods of the Jacobin leaders. Commenting on the Whisky Insurrection he said in later years:

I saw before me anarchy, a shock to the government, a revolution impregnated with the Jacobin principles of France. . . . Let no man suppose I coveted a revolution; I had seen the evils of one already in the American; and I had read the evils of another, the French. My imagination presented the evils of the last strongly to my view, and brought them so close to a possible experience at home, that during the whole period of the insurrection, I could scarcely bear to cast my eye on a paragraph of French news.21

A reasonable and intelligent democracy, holding steadily to the purpose of the common good, was his cherished ideal. He was not a political philosopher interested in general principles. His purpose was to satirize manners, not to speculate on causes; and in the days of triumphant republicanism the most conspicuous target was offered by the tousled head of the demagogue, "the courtier of democracy." In the preface to the 1846 edition, the editor thus summarizes the political views of Brackenridge:

An enlightened democracy was looked upon by him as the true nobility. He considered the true democrat as the true gentleman, who ought to feel a stain on his fair reputation, teas a wound." He maintained "that democracy is not in its nature coarse, and vulgar, or destitute of high integrity and honor." The aim and end of his writings was to raise the standard of democracy, and to elevate "the noble of nature" to the same level with any other noble, in those qualities which constitute true nobility. The noble of nature, in his opinion, ought not to yield to the noble of aristocracy or monarchy, in strict integrity, in liberal and benevolent feelings, in propriety of manners and general intelligence.

The work is a string of adventures, interspersed with miscellaneous discussion, of Captain John Farrago--who is evidently Brackenridge himself--and his bog-trotting servant Teague O'Regan. The Captain is an intelligent person, well read in the literature of the times, and "a good deal disposed to subscribe to the elementary principles" of Paine's Rights of Man. He can summarize neatly the arguments on both sides of the political questions of the day, but he retains the open mind and cautious judgment of the independent. He is a free-lance critic, democratic in sympathies but unsparing in exposure of absurdity. His hits fall right and left, on the country yokel, the city speculator, members of Congress, the institution of slavery. He is greatly concerned to preserve his servant from the temptations of ambition which assail him in the backwoods as well as in Philadelphia. The career of Teague O'Regan is a broad satire on the mounting ambition of old-world peasants to push their way up. That the underling should rise in a democratic country was well; but that he should be in unseemly haste to scramble into positions beyond his capacities, that in pushing his private fortunes he should bring ridicule upon the democratic experiment, was not well. Teague O'Regan's desire to scramble discovered quite too fertile a field for his own or the country's good. He is nearly sent to Congress by a backwoods constituency, listens to other seductive appeals, and in the end is sent by President Washington to the West as a revenue officer, where he falls into the untender hands of the whisky rioters, and finds his Irish beauty marred by a coat of tar and feathers.

It is in his burlesque of electorate methods that Brackenridge hits most sharply at the current tendencies of republicanism. The ways of the backwoods he caricatures by describing a contest between an honest deacon and an ignorant Scotch-Irishman, which he came upon in his peregrinations.

When they looked upon the one, they felt an inclination to promote him. But when, again, on the other hand, they saw two kegs which they knew to be replenished with a very cheering liquor, they seemed to be inclined in favor of the other. The candidates were called upon to address the people, and the grave person mounted the stump of a tree, many of them standing round, as the place was a new clearing. His harangue was listened to by some of the older and more sedate' and one man, hard of hearing, seemed to make great effort to catch the sounds. As soon as the man of the two kegs took a stump, he was surrounded by an eager crowd." Frinds," said he, in the native Scotch-Irish, "I'm a good dimicrat, and hates the Brattish--I'm an elder of the meetin', forby, and has been 'overseer of the roads for three years:--An' ye all know, that my mammy was kilt o' the Ingens--now all ye that's in my favor, come forit an' drenk." Appetite, or rather thirst, prevailed, and the voters gave their votes to the man with the two kegs.22

If whisky decided elections in the backcountry, business controlled them in the city. The following is almost modern in its caricature:

The candidates were all remarkably pot-bellied; and waddled in their gait. The captain inquiring what were the pretensions of these men to be elected; he was told, that they had all stock in the funds, and lived in brick buildings; and some of them entertained fifty people at a time, and ate and drank abundantly; and living an easy life, and pampering their appetites, they had swollen to this size.

"It is a strange thing," said the captain, "that in the country, in my route, they would elect no one but a weaver or a whisky-distiller; and here none but fat squabs, that guzzle wine, and smoke segars.". . . "No, faith" (said his friend), "there is na danger of Teague here, unless he had his scores o' shares in the bank, and was in league with the brokers, and had a brick house at his hurdies, or a ship or twa on the stocks . . . all is now lost in substantial interest, and the funds command everything."23

That there might be no mistake as to the meaning of his satire Brackenridge set down at the end an explicit statement of his purpose.

As already hinted by some things put into the mouth of the captain, I could make it a principal matter to form the heart of a republican government. And in order to this, keep out all that nourishes ambition, the poison of public virtue. . . . In the American republics, we retain yet a great deal of the spirit of monarchy. The people are not aware of the phraseology itself, in some instances. . . . The first lesson I would give to a son of mine would be to have nothing to do with public business, but as a duty to his country. To consider service in civil life, no more to be desired than service in the military. . . . Those who say to them, vox populi vox dei, offer up an incense to flattery, as impious as the worshippers of the Caesars. They should be warned to beware of flatterers, whose object is not to serve them, but themselves. The demagogue in a democracy, and the courtier in a monarchy, are identical. They are the same, plying the same arts in different situations. . . . I shall have accomplished something by this book, if it shall keep some honest man from lessening his respectability by pushing himself into public trusts for which he is not qualified; or when pushed into public station, if it shall contribute to keep him honest by teaching him the folly of ambition, and farther advancement. . . . This is in great part, the moral of this book; if it should be at all necessary to give a hint of it.

One may do a worse service to democracy than to point out its faults. Brackenridge was no truckler either to King George or to his neighbors. Living in the midst of a coonskin democracy, he refused to believe that there was any particular virtue in coonskin. It is not the cap but what is under it that signifies. He was a vigorous individualist, a confirmed democrat, a friend of all honest liberalisms, a man who honored his own counsels and went his own way. We could better spare more pretentious books from the library of our early literature than these clever satires that preserve for us some of the homely ways of a time when American institutions were still in the making.

back to top
1 Quoted by Samuel Eliot Morison in Harrison Gray Otis, Vol. I, p. 107.
2 Travels, Vol. II, p. 458.
3 Number III.
4 Number X.
5 Number XI.
6 Number IX.
7 Literary History of America, P. 300.
8 Literary History of the American Revolution, Vol. I P. 172.
9 Poems, Pattee edition, Vol. I, P. 141.
10 The American Soldier.
11 To Duncan Doolink.
12 On False Systems of Government.
13 Letters on Various Interesting and Important Subjects, etc., by Robert Slender, 1799; quoted by Pattee, Introduction to Poems of Philip Frencau.
14 See A. M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, Chapter 1V.
15 Forman, "The Political Activities of Philip Freneau," in Johns Hopkins Studies in History and Political Science, Vol.
16 The Brook of the Valley.
17 Purcell, Connecticut in Transition, p. 27.
18 Advice to the Privileged Orders, pp. 66, 70.
19 Book VIII.
20 Cairns, History of American Literature, p. 147.
21 Modern Chivalry, edition of 1846, p. 170.
22 Ibid., p. 105.
23 Ibid., pp. 127-128.