Glance At Colonial And Revolutionary Literature
Literature At The Dawn Of The Century
Charles Brockden Brown
Washington Irving And The Knickerbocker Group
William C. Bryant
James Fenimore Cooper
The Early Literary Magazines
New England Literature
Read More Articles About: American Literature
Glance At Colonial And Revolutionary Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century American literature had but a small legacy from Colonial and Revolutionary authors. Our forefathers had been compelled to exercise their powers mostly in the development and control of the material and political problems of the New World. And yet much time and attention as they gave to these urgent matters there were two things which most of them prized above all worldly considerations religion and religious freedom. Pilgrims and Puritans, Separatists and Quakers, Huguenots and Roman Catholics, had all come to this country that they might have a place in which to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience. Nor were the stout Churchmen, the first settlers of Virginia, less pronounced in their profession of faith. When the British colonists began to realize their actual separation from the mother country, with all its benefits and privileges, they set themselves vigorously to work to supply their needs according to their own estimate of the comparative importance of these. To obtain a learned and godly ministry seemed a prime necessity. Hence the early establishment of colleges Harvard and Yale in the Seventeenth Century. Though both bear the name of English benefactors, they really depended on the support of the colonists themselves. In loyal Virginia, the ancient William and Mary received more substantial aid from England and bears the name of the sovereigns who granted its charter; yet it has not been able to survive the vicissitudes of later revolutions. King's College, founded in New York City, in the same loyal spirit, afterward entered on a new career as Columbia College, and has commenced a still more promising era as Columbia University. Dartmouth, near the northern frontier of New Hampshire, was a missionary enterprise, intended to benefit Indians as well as whites, but found its work practically confined to the latter. Princeton, in New Jersey, and Brown at Providence, Rhode Island, depended on denominational support, the former from Presbyterians, the latter from Baptists. The University of Pennsylvania is the outgrowth of one of the numerous proposals of Benjamin Franklin for the benefit of his fellow citizens of Philadelphia. In all of these educational institutions a large majority of the graduates before the Nineteenth Century became ministers in various churches. The intellectual activity aroused in the colonies was chiefly directed to religious and theological questions. The few printers that set up their hand presses in the colonies were employed in printing sermons and religious treatises, as well as laws and proclamations, almanacs and handbills. The learned and industrious Cotton Mather is said to have published four hundred works, mostly sermons, solemn and full of quotations from all sources. His ponderous history of New England is called "Christi Magnalia Americana" (The Great Works of Christ in America). It treats more of the churches, the ministers, and their little controversies, and their political activity, than of the progress of the people in other matters. The greatest intellect of New England in the Eighteenth Century belonged to Jonathan Edwards, who astonished the philosophers of Great Britain by the metaphysical ability shown in his 'treatise "On the Freedom of the Will." In his "History of Redemption" he set forth the unity of all history and thus anticipated the German philosophers, whose speculations were to be so fruitful in that field.
But besides theology Americans were compelled to give attention to questions of government. The revolutions in England produced important corresponding changes in the colonies, and aroused animated discussion from one end of the land to the other. The endeavor to protect the rights of the colonists, inherited or acquired, led to close study of charters, laws and acts of Parliament. The ultimate result was seen in the Constitution of the United States, which was not struck off at one blow, but was framed by careful examination and discussion of many plans already in operation here and there through the country. Enlightened publicists in Europe, who had imagined that the Americans were a rabble of law-defying revolutionists were surprised on reading their political documents to find in them nearly every element of personal and national greatness. Thomas Jefferson takes high rank among the political writers of his time, and the "Declaration of Independence," for literary merit, is not only worthy of the highest enconiums, but stands unmatched in the annals of the world. Benjamin Franklin, who added a few touches to that document, was also eminent as a practical philosopher able to reach the hearts of his countrymen by his pithy proverbs and pointed paragraphs. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, by their masterly exposition of the Constitution in "The Federalist" have laid the American people under lasting obligations which have been duly acknowledged. John Adams was a writer of state papers not inferior in style to those of his great contemporaries. George Washing-ton, though reserved in speech, and more accustomed and inclined to action, made his Presidential addresses, and particularly his ever-memorable "Farewell Address," models of a pure and effective literary style.
The American Revolution developed not only states-men and writers of public documents but also orators who possessed the faculty of so presenting the questions of their time as to excite the feelings of the people, to prove to them that the imposition of a trifling tax on tea or a stamp on paper involved the great question of liberty, and to arouse them to action on its behalf. When the great orators from Patrick Henry to Fisher Ames had so moved the hearts of the people, there were responses not only in assemblies and associations, in preparation for war and actual fighting, but in a general outburst of patriotic songs, ballads, and doggerel, which seem to suit well with the Continental fife and drum. The best of all the satires of the Revolution was Trumbull's "MacFingal," a Yankee imitation and perversion of Butler's "Hudibras." It marks well the ludicrous side of the turbulent epoch, and held the Tories up to popular ridicule. Captain Philip Freneau, a mariner of Huguenot descent, was the chief laureate of the Revolutionary War.
It was through the newspapers that Freneau and Franklin and writers of less capacity reached the great public. Newspapers had begun to appear early in that Century. In 1704 the first American newspaper, "The Boston News-Letter," was established. The second, "The New England Courant," was started by James Franklin in 1720. His troubles in connection with it are well known from his younger brother Benjamin's famous "Autobiography." While James by order of the Colonial Assembly was imprisoned for some unfortunate paragraphs the paper was issued in the name of Benjamin, then but a boy. Yet gradually the press worked its way to freedom in spite of stupid governors and assemblies.
In 1765, at the time of the Stamp Act, there were forty newspapers in the British American Colonies.