The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter III. The Third and Fourth Generation

When the eighteenth century opened, many signs of change were in the air. The third generation of native-born Americans was becoming secularized. The theocracy of New England had failed. In the height of the tragic folly over the supposed “witchcraft” in Salem, Increase Mather and his son Cotton had held up the hands of the judges in their implacable work. But before five years had passed, Judge Sewall does public penance in church for his share of the awful blunder, desiring “to take the shame and blame of it.” Robert Calef’s cool pamphlet exposing the weakness of the prosecutors’ case is indeed burned by Increase Mather in the Harvard Yard, but the liberal party are soon to force Mather from the Presidency and to refuse that office to his son. In the town of Boston, once hermetically sealed against heresy, there are Baptist and Episcopal churches–and a dancing-master. Young Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706, professes a high respect for the Mathers, but he does not go to church, “Sunday being my studying day,” and neither the clerical nor the secular arm of Boston is long enough and strong enough to compel that industrious apprentice into piety.

If such was the state of New England, the laxity of New York and Virginia needs little evidence. Contemporary travelers found the New Yorkers singularly attached to the things of this present world. Philadelphia was prosperous and therewith content. Virginia was a paradise with no forbidden fruit. Hugh Jones, writing of it in 1724, considers North Carolina “the refuge of runaways,” and South Carolina “the delight of buccaneers and pirates,” but Virginia “the happy retreat of true Britons and true Churchmen.” Unluckily these Virginians, well nourished “by the plenty of the country,” have “contemptible notions of England!” We shall hear from them again. In the meantime the witty William Byrd of Westover describes for us his amusing survey of the Dismal Swamp, and his excursions into North Carolina and to Governor Spotswood’s iron mines, where he reads aloud to the Widow Fleming, on a rainy autumn day, three acts of the “Beggars’ Opera,” just over from London. So runs the world away, south of the Potomac. Thackeray paints it once for all, no doubt, in the opening chapters of “The Virginians.”

To discover any ambitious literary effort in this period, we must turn northward again. In the middle colonies, and especially in Philadelphia, which had now outgrown Boston in population, there was a quickened interest in education and science. But the New Englanders were still the chief makers of books. Three great names will sufficiently represent the age: Cotton Mather, a prodigy of learning whose eyes turn back fondly to the provincial past; Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the most consummate intellect of the eighteenth century; and Benjamin Franklin, certainly the most perfect exponent of its many-sided life.

When Cotton Mather was graduated from Harvard in 1678, in his sixteenth year, he was publicly complimented by President Oakes, in fulsome Latin, as the grandson of Richard Mather and John Cotton. This atmosphere of flattery, this consciousness of continuing in his own person the famous local dynasty, surrounded and sustained him to the end. He had a less commanding personality than his father Increase. His nervous sensibility was excessive. His natural vanity was never subdued, though it was often chastened by trial and bitter disappointment. But, like his father, he was an omnivorous reader and a facile producer of books, carrying daily such burdens of mental and spiritual excitement as would have crushed a normal man. Increase Mather published some one hundred and fifty books and pamphlets: Cotton Mather not less than four hundred. The Rev. John Norton, in his sketch of John Cotton, remarks that “the hen, which brings not forth without uncessant sitting night and day, is an apt emblem of students.” Certainly the hen is an apt emblem of the “uncessant” sitter, the credulous scratcher, the fussy cackler who produced the “Magnalia.”

Yet he had certain elements of greatness. His tribal loyalty was perfect. His ascetic devotion to his conception of religious truth was absolute. His Diary, which has recently been published in full, records his concern for the chief political events in Europe in his day, no less than his brooding solicitude for the welfare of his townspeople, and his agony of spirit over the lapses of his wayward eldest son. A “sincere” man, then, as Carlyle would say, at bottom; but overlaid with such “Jewish old clothes,” such professional robings and personal plumage as makes it difficult, save in the revealing “Diary,” to see the man himself.

The “Magnalia Christi Americana,” treating the history of New England from 1620 to 1698, was published in a tall London folio of nearly 800 pages in 1702. It is divided into seven books, and proceeds, by methods entirely unique, to tell of Pilgrim and Puritan divines and governors, of Harvard College, of the churches of New England, of marvelous events, of Indian wars; and in general to justify, as only a member of the Mather dynasty could justify, the ways of God to Boston men. Hawthorne and Whittier, Longfellow and Lowell knew this book well and found much honey in the vast carcass. To have had four such readers and a biographer like Barrett Wendell must be gratifying to Cotton Mather in Paradise.

The “Diary” of Mather’s fellow-townsman Judge Samuel Sewall has been read more generally in recent years than anything written by Mather himself. It was begun in 1673, nine years earlier than the first entry in Mather’s “Diary,” and it ends in 1729, while Mather’s closes in 1724. As a picture of everyday happenings in New England, Sewall’s “Diary” is as far superior to Mather’s as Pepys’s “Diary” is to George Fox’s “Journal” in painting the England of the Restoration. Samuel Sewall was an admirably solid figure, keen, forceful, honest. Most readers of his “Diary" believe that he really was in luck when he was rejected by the Widow Winthrop on that fateful November day when his eye noted–in spite of his infatuation–that “her dress was not so clean as sometime it had been. Jehovah Jireh!”

One pictures Cotton Mather as looking instinctively backward to the Heroic Age of New England with pious nervous exaltation, and Samuel Sewall as doing the day’s work uprightly without taking anxious thought of either past or future. But Jonathan Edwards is set apart from these and other men. He is a lonely seeker after spiritual perfection, in quest of that city “far on the world’s rim,” as Masefield says of it, the city whose builder and maker is God.

The story of Edwards’s career has the simplicity and dignity of tragedy. Born in a parsonage in the quiet Connecticut valley in 1703–the year of John Wesley’s birth–he is writing at the age of ten to disprove the doctrine of the materiality of the soul. At twelve he is studying “the wondrous way of the working of the spider,” with a precision and enthusiasm which would have made him a great naturalist. At fourteen he begins his notes on “The Mind” and on “Natural Science.” He is graduated from Yale in 1720, studies theology, and at twenty-four becomes the colleague of his famous grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the church at Northampton. He marries the beautiful Sarah Pierrepont, whom he describes in his journal in a prose rhapsody which, like his mystical rhapsodies on religion in the same youthful period, glows with a clear unearthly beauty unmatched in any English prose of that century. For twenty-three years he serves the Northampton church, and his sermons win him the rank of the foremost preacher in New England. John Wesley reads at Oxford his account of the great revival of 1735. Whitefield comes to visit him at Northampton. Then, in 1750, the ascetic preacher alienates his church over issues pertaining to discipline and to the administration of the sacrament. He is dismissed. He preaches his “farewell sermon,” like Wesley, like Emerson, like Newman, and many another still unborn. He removes to Stockbridge, then a hamlet in the wilderness, preaches to the Indians, and writes treatises on theology and metaphysics, among them the world famous “Freedom of the Will.” In 1757, upon the death of his son-in-law, President Aaron Burr of Princeton, Edwards is called to the vacant Presidency. He is reluctant to go, for though he is only fifty-four, his health has never been robust, and he has his great book on the “History of Redemption” still to write. But he accepts, finds the smallpox raging in Princeton upon his arrival in January, 1758, is inoculated, and dies of the disease in March–his dreams unfulfilled, his life-work once more thwarted. Close by the tomb of this saint is the tomb of his grandson, Aaron Burr, who killed Hamilton.

The literary reputation of Jonathan Edwards has turned, like the vicissitudes of his life, upon factors that could not be foreseen. His contemporary fame was chiefly as a preacher, and was due to sermons like those upon “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence” and “The Reality of Spiritual Life,” rather than to such discourses as the Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which in our own day is the best known of his deliverances. Legends have grown up around this terrific Enfield sermon. Its fearful power over its immediate hearers cannot be gainsaid, and it will long continue to be quoted as an example of the length to which a Calvinistic logician of genius was compelled by his own scheme to go. We still see the tall, sweet-faced man, worn by his daily twelve hours of intense mental toil, leaning on one elbow in the pulpit and reading from manuscript, without even raising his gentle voice, those words which smote his congregation into spasms of terror and which seem to us sheer blasphemy.

Yet the “Farewell Sermon of 1750” gives a more characteristic view of Edwards’s mind and heart, and conveys an ineffaceable impression of his nobility of soul. His diction, like Wordsworth’s, is usually plain almost to bareness; the formal framework of his discourses is obtruded; and he hunts objections to their last hiding place with wearisome pertinacity. Yet his logic is incandescent. Steel sometimes burns to the touch like this, in the bitter winters of New England, and one wonders whether Edwards’s brain was not of ice, so pitiless does it seem. His treatise denying the freedom of the will has given him a European reputation comparable with that enjoyed by Franklin in science and Jefferson in political propaganda. It was really a polemic demonstrating the sovereignty of God, rather than pure theology or metaphysics. Edwards goes beyond Augustine and Calvin in asserting the arbitrary will of the Most High and in “denying to the human will any self-determining power.” He has been refuted by events and tendencies, such as the growth of historical criticism and the widespread acceptance of the doctrine of evolution, rather than by the might of any single antagonist. So, too, the Dred Scott decision of Chief Justice Taney, holding that the slave was not a citizen, was not so much answered by opponents as it was superseded by the arbitrament of war. But the idealism of this lonely thinker has entered deeply and permanently into the spiritual life of his countrymen, and he will continue to be read by a few of those who still read Plato and Dante.

“My mother grieves,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to his father in 1738, “that one of her sons is an Arian, another an Arminian. What an Arminian or an Arian is, I cannot say that I very well know. The truth is I make such distinctions very little my study.” To understand Franklin’s indifference to such distinctions, we must realize how completely he represents the secularizing tendencies of his age. What a drama of worldly adventure it all was, this roving life of the tallow-chandler’s son, who runs away from home, walks the streets of Philadelphia with the famous loaves of bread under his arm, is diligent in business, slips over to London, where he gives lessons in swimming and in total abstinence, slips back to Philadelphia and becomes its leading citizen, fights the long battle of the American colonies in London, sits in the Continental Congress, sails to Europe to arrange that French Alliance which brought our Revolution to a successful issue, and comes home at last, full of years and honors, to a bland and philosophical exit from the stage!

He broke with every Puritan tradition. The Franklins were relatively late comers to New England. They sprang from a long line of blacksmiths at Ecton in Northamptonshire. The seat of the Washingtons was not far away, and Franklin’s latest biographer points out that the pink-coated huntsmen of the Washington gentry may often have stopped at Ecton to have their horses shod at the Franklin smithy. Benjamin’s father came out in 1685, more than fifty years after the most notable Puritan emigration. Young Benjamin, born in 1706, was as untouched by the ardors of that elder generation as he would have been by the visions of Dante–an author, by the way, whom he never mentions, even as he never mentions Shakespeare. He had no reverence for Puritan New England. To its moral beauty, its fine severity, he was wholly blind. As a boy he thriftily sold his Pilgrim’s “Progress.” He became, in the new fashion of that day, a Deist. Like a true child of the eighteenth century, his attitude toward the seventeenth was that of amused or contemptuous superiority. Thackeray has somewhere a charming phrase about his own love for the back seat of the stage-coach, the seat which, in the old coaching days, gave one a view of the receding landscape. Thackeray, like Burke before him, loved historical associations, historical sentiment, the backward look over the long road which humanity has traveled. But Franklin faced the other way. He would have endorsed his friend Jefferson’s scornful sentence, “The dead have no rights.” He joined himself wholly to that eighteenth century in which his own lot was cast, and, alike in his qualities and in his defects, he became one of its most perfect representatives.

To catch the full spirit of that age, turn for an instant to the London of 1724–the year of Franklin’s arrival. Thirty-six years have elapsed since the glorious Revolution of 1688; the Whig principles, then triumphant, have been tacitly accepted by both political parties; the Jacobite revolt of 1715 has proved a fiasco; the country has accepted the House of Hanover and a government by party leadership of the House of Commons, and it does not care whether Sir Robert Walpole buys a few rotten boroughs, so long as he maintains peace with Europe and prosperity at home. England is weary of seventeenth century “enthusiasm,” weary of conflict, sick of idealism. She has found in the accepted Whig principles a satisfactory compromise, a working theory of society, a modus vivendi which nobody supposes is perfect but which will answer the prayer appointed to be read in all the churches, “Grant us peace in our time, O Lord.” The theories to which men gave their lives in the seventeenth century seem ghostly in their unreality; but the prize turnips on Sir Robert’s Norfolk farm, and the wines in his cellar, and the offices at his disposal–these are very real indeed. London merchants are making money; the squire and the parson are tranquilly ruling the country parishes; the philosophy of John Locke is everywhere triumphant. Mr. Pope is the poet of the hour, and his “Essay on Man,” counseling acceptance of our mortal situation, is considered to be the last word of human wisdom and of poetical elegance. In prose, the style of the “Spectator" rules–an admirable style, Franklin thought, and he imitated it patiently until its ease and urbanity had become his own. And indeed, how much of that London of the third decade of the century passed into the mind of the inquisitive, roving, loose-living printer’s apprentice from Philadelphia! It taught him that the tangible world is the real world, and that nothing succeeds like success; but it never even whispered to him that sometimes nothing damns like success.

In his limitations, no less than in his power of assimilation, Franklin was the representative man of his era. He had no artistic interests, no liking for metaphysics after his brief devotion, in early manhood, to the dialogues of Plato. He taught himself some Latin, but he came to believe that the classics had little significance and that they should be superseded by the modern languages. For the mediaeval world he had no patience or understanding. To these defects of his century we must add some failings of his own. He was not always truthful. He had an indelible streak of coarseness. His conception of the “art of virtue” was mechanical. When Carlyle called Franklin the “father of all the Yankees,” we must remember that the Scotch prophet hated Yankees and believed that Franklin’s smooth, plausible, trader type of morality was only a broad way to the everlasting bonfire.

But it is folly to linger over the limitations of the tallow- chandler’s son. The catalogue of his beneficent activity is a vast one. Balzac once characterized him as the man who invented the lightning-rod, the hoax, and the republic. His contributions to science have to do with electricity, earthquakes, geology, meteorology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, navigation of air and water, agriculture, medicine, and hygiene. In some of these fields he did pioneer work of lasting significance. His teachings of thrift and prudence, as formulated in the maxims of Poor Richard, gave him a world-wide reputation. He attacked war, like Voltaire, not so much for its wickedness as for its folly, and cheerfully gave up many years of a long life to the effort to promote a better understanding among the nations of the world.

It is perhaps needless to add what all persons who love good writing know, that Benjamin Franklin was a most delightful writer. His letters cover an amusing and extraordinary variety of topics. He ranges from balloons to summer hats, and from the advantages of deep ploughing to bifocal glasses, which, by the way, he invented. He argues for sharp razors and cold baths, and for fresh air in the sleeping-room. He discusses the morals of the game of chess, the art of swimming, the evils of smoky chimneys, the need of reformed spelling. Indeed, his passion for improvement led him not only to try his hand upon an abridgment of the Book of Common Prayer, but to go even so far as to propose seriously a new rendering of the Lord’s Prayer. His famous proposal for a new version of the Bible, however, which Matthew Arnold solemnly held up to reprobation, was only a joke which Matthew Arnold did not see-the new version of Job being, in fact, a clever bit of political satire against party leadership in England. Even more brilliant examples of his skill in political satire are his imaginary “Edict of the King of Prussia against England,” and his famous “Rules for Reducing a Great Empire to a Small One."But I must not try to call the roll of all the good things in Franklin’s ten volumes. I will simply say that those who know Franklin only in his “Autobiography,” charming as that classic production is, have made but an imperfect acquaintance with the range, the vitality, the vigor of this admirable craftsman who chose a style “smooth, clear, and short,” and made it serve every purpose of his versatile and beneficent mind.

When the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 startled the American colonies out of their provincial sense of security and made them aware of their real attitude toward the mother country, Franklin was in London. Eleven years earlier, in 1754, he had offered a plan for the “Union of the Colonies,” but this had not contemplated separation from England. It was rather what we should call a scheme for imperial federation under the British Crown. We may use his word union, however, in a different field from that of politics. How much union of sentiment, of mental and moral life, of literary, educational, and scientific endeavor, was there in the colonies when the hour of self-examination came? Only the briefest summary may be attempted here. As to race, these men of the third and fourth generation since the planting of the colonies were by no means so purely English as the first settlers. The 1,600,000 colonists in 1760 were mingled of many stocks, the largest non-English elements being German and Scotch-Irish–that is, Scotch who had settled for a while in Ulster before emigrating to America. “About one-third of the colonists in 1760,” says Professor Channing, “were born outside of America.” Crevecoeur’s “Letters from an American Farmer” thus defined the Americans: “They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed that race now called Americans has arisen.” The Atlantic seaboard, with a narrow strip inland, was fairly well covered by local communities, differing in blood, in religion, in political organization–a congeries of separate experiments or young utopias, waiting for that most utopian experiment of all, a federal union. But the dominant language of the “promiscuous breed” was English, and in the few real centers of intellectual life the English tradition was almost absolute.

The merest glance at colonial journalism will confirm this estimate. The “Boston News-Letter,” begun in 1704, was the first of the journals, if we omit the single issue of “Publick Occurrences” in the same town in 1690. By 1765 there were nearly fifty colonial newspapers and several magazines. Their influence made for union, in Franklin’s sense of that word, and their literary models, like their paper, type, and even ink, were found in London. The “New England Courant,” established in Boston in 1721 by James Franklin, is full of imitations of the “Tatler," “Spectator,” and “Guardian.” What is more, the “Courant” boasted of its office collection of books, including Shakespeare, Milton, the “Spectator,” and Swift’s “Tale of a Tub."* This was in 1722. If we remember that no allusion to Shakespeare has been discovered in the colonial literature of the seventeenth century, and scarcely an allusion to the Puritan poet Milton, and that the Harvard College Library in 1723 had nothing of Addison, Steele, Bolingbroke, Dryden, Pope, and Swift, and had only recently obtained copies of Milton and Shakespeare, we can appreciate the value of James Franklin’s apprenticeship in London. Perhaps we can even forgive him for that attack upon the Mathers which threw the conduct of the “Courant,” for a brief period, into the hands of his brother Benjamin, whose turn at a London apprenticeship was soon to come.

* Cook, E. C. “Literary Influences in Colonial Newspapers, 1704-1750.” N. Y., 1912.

If we follow this younger brother to Philadelphia and to Bradford’s “American Mercury” or to Franklin’s own “Pennsylvania Gazette,” or if we study the “Gazettes” of Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, the impression is still the same. The literary news is still chiefly from London, from two months to a year late. London books are imported and reprinted. Franklin reprints Pamela, and his Library Company of Philadelphia has two copies of “Paradise Lost “for circulation in 1741, whereas there had been no copy of that work in the great library of Cotton Mather. American journalism then, as now, owed its vitality to a secular spirit of curiosity about the actual world. It followed England as its model, but it was beginning to develop a temper of its own.

Colonial education and colonial science were likewise chiefly indebted to London, but by 1751 Franklin’s papers on electricity began to repay the loan. A university club in New York in 1745 could have had but fifteen members at most, for these were all the “academics” in town. Yet Harvard had then been sending forth her graduates for more than a century. William and Mary was founded in 1693, Yale in 1701, Princeton in 1746, King’s (now Columbia) in 1754, the University of Pennsylvania in 1755, and Brown in 1764. These colonial colleges were mainly in the hands of clergymen. They tended to reproduce a type of scholarship based upon the ancient languages. The curriculum varied but little in the different colonies, and this fact helped to produce a feeling of fellowship among all members of the republic of letters. The men who debated the Stamp Act were, with a few striking exceptions, men trained in Latin and Greek, familiar with the great outlines of human history, accustomed to the discipline of academic disputation. They knew the ideas and the vocabulary of cultivated Europe and were conscious of no provincial inferiority. In the study of the physical sciences, likewise, the colonials were but little behind the mother country. The Royal Society had its distinguished members here. The Mathers, the Dudleys, John Winthrop of Connecticut, John Bartram, James Logan, James Godfrey, Cadwallader Colden, and above all, Franklin himself, were winning the respect of European students, and were teaching Americans to use their eyes and their minds not merely upon the records of the past but in searching out the inexhaustible meanings of the present. There is no more fascinating story than that of the beginnings of American science in and outside of the colleges, and this movement, like the influence of journalism and of the higher education, counted for colonial union.

Professor Tyler, our foremost literary student of the period, summarizes the characteristics of colonial literature in these words: “Before the year 1765, we find in this country, not one American people, but many American peoples . . . . No cohesive principle prevailed, no centralizing life; each little nation was working out its own destiny in its own fashion.” But he adds that with that year the colonial isolation came to an end, and that the student must thereafter “deal with the literature of one multitudinous people, variegated, indeed, in personal traits, but single in its commanding ideas and in its national destinies.” It is easy to be wise after the event. Yet there was living in London in 1765, as the agent for Pennsylvania, a shrewd and bland Colonial–an honorary M. A. from both Harvard and Yale, a D.C.L. of Oxford and an LL.D. of St. Andrews who was by no means sure that the Stamp Act meant the end of Colonialism. And Franklin’s uncertainty was shared by Washington. When the tall Virginian took command of the Continental Army as late as 1775, he “abhorred the idea of independence.” Nevertheless John Jay, writing the second number of the “Federalist” in 1787, only twelve years later, could say: “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government.”


Chapter I. The Pioneers  •  Chapter II. The First Colonial Literature  •  Chapter III. The Third and Fourth Generation  •  Chapter IV. The Revolution  •  Chapter V. The Knickerbocker Group  •  Chapter VI. The Transcendentalists  •  Chapter VII. Romance, Poetry, and History  •  Chapter VIII. Poe and Whitman  •  Chapter IX. Union and Liberty  •  Chapter X. A New Nation  •  Bibliographical Note

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