The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry

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Chapter IV. The Revolution

If we turn, however, to the literature produced in America between the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, we perceive that it is a literature of discord and passion. Its spirit is not that of “one united people.” Washington could indeed declare in his “Farewell Address” of 1796, “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles"; yet no one knew better than Washington upon what a slender thread this political unity had often hung, and how impossible it had been to foresee the end from the beginning.

It is idle to look in the writings of the Revolutionary period for the literature of beauty, for a quiet harmonious unfolding of the deeper secrets of life. It was a time of swift and pitiless change, of action rather than reflection, of the turning of many separate currents into one headlong stream. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” runs Franklin’s well-known witticism in Independence Hall, “or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Excellently spoken, Doctor! And that homely, cheery, daring sentence gives the keynote of much of the Revolutionary writing that has survived. It may be heard in the state papers of Samuel Adams, the oratory of Patrick Henry, the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, the satires of Freneau and Trumbull, and in the subtle, insinuating, thrilling paragraphs of Thomas Jefferson.

We can only glance in passing at the literature of the Lost Cause, the Loyalist or “Tory” pleadings for allegiance to Britain. It was written by able and honest men, like Boucher and Odell, Seabury, Leonard and Galloway. They distrusted what Seabury called “our sovereign Lord the Mob.” They represented, in John Adams’s opinion, nearly one-third of the people of the colonies, and recent students believe that this estimate was too low. In some colonies the Loyalists were clearly in the majority. In all they were a menacing element, made up of the conservative, the prosperous, the well-educated, with a mixture, of course, of mere placemen and tuft-hunters. They composed weighty pamphlets, eloquent sermons, and sparkling satire in praise of the old order of things. When their cause was lost forever, they wrote gossipy letters from their exile in London or pathetic verses in their new home in Nova Scotia and Ontario. Their place in our national life and literature has never been filled, and their talents and virtues are never likely to receive adequate recognition. They took the wrong fork of the road.

There were gentle spirits, too, in this period, endowed with delicate literary gifts, but quite unsuited for the clash of controversy–members, in Crevecoeur’s touching words, of the “secret communion among good men throughout the world.” “I am a lover of peace, what must I do?” asks Crevecoeur in his “Letters from an American Farmer.” “I was happy before this unfortunate Revolution. I feel that I am no longer so, therefore I regret the change. My heart sometimes seems tired with beating, it wants rest like my eyelids, which feel oppressed with so many watchings.” Crevecoeur, an immigrant from Normandy, was certainly no weakling, but he felt that the great idyllic American adventure which he described so captivatingly in his chapter entitled “What is an American"–was ending tragically in civil war. Another whitesouled itinerant of that day was John Woolman of New Jersey, whose “Journal,” praised by Charles Lamb and Channing and edited by Whittier, is finding more readers in the twentieth century than it won in the nineteenth. “A man unlettered,” said Whittier, “but with natural refinement and delicate sense of fitness, the purity of whose heart enters into his language.” Woolman died at fifty-two in far-away York, England, whither he had gone to attend a meeting of the Society of Friends.

The three tall volumes of the Princeton edition of the poems of Philip Freneau bear the sub-title, “Poet of the American Revolution.” But our Revolution, in truth, never had an adequate poet. The prose-men, such as Jefferson, rose nearer the height of the great argument than did the men of rhyme. Here and there the struggle inspired a brisk ballad like Francis Hopkinson’s “Battle of the Kegs,” a Hudibrastic satire like Trumbull’s “McFingal,” or a patriotic song like Timothy Dwight’s “Columbia.” Freneau painted from his own experience the horrors of the British prison-ship, and celebrated, in cadences learned from Gray and Collins, the valor of the men who fell at Eutaw Springs. There was patriotic verse in extraordinary profusion, but its literary value is slight, and it reveals few moods of the American mind that are not more perfectly conveyed through oratory, the pamphlet, and the political essay. The immediate models of this Revolutionary verse were the minor British bards of the eighteenth century, a century greatly given to verse-writing, but endowed by Heaven with the “prose-reason” mainly. The reader of Burton E. Stevenson’s collection of “Poems of American History" can easily compare the contemporary verse inspired by the events of the Revolution with the modern verse upon the same historic themes. He will see how slenderly equipped for song were most of the later eighteenth-century Americans and how unfavorable to poetry was the tone of that hour.

Freneau himself suffered, throughout his long career, from the depressing indifference of his public to the true spirit of poetry. “An old college mate of mine,” said James Madison–who was by tradition Freneau’s roommate at Princeton in the class of 1771–"a poet and man of literary and refined tastes, knowing nothing of the world.” When but three years out of college, the cautious Madison wrote to another friend: “Poetry wit and Criticism Romances Plays &c captivated me much: but I begin to discover that they deserve but a moderate portion of a mortal’s Time and that something more substantial more durable more profitable befits our riper age.” Madison was then at the ripe age of twenty-three! Professor Pattee, Freneau’s editor, quotes these words to illustrate the “common sense” atmosphere of the age which proved fatal to Freneau’s development. Yet the sturdy young New Yorker, of Huguenot descent, is a charming figure, and his later malevolence was shown only to his political foes. After leaving Princeton he tries teaching, the law, the newspaper, the sea; he is aflame with patriotic zeal; he writes, like most American poets, far too much for his own reputation. As the editor of the “National Gazette” in Philadelphia, he becomes involved in the bitter quarrel between his chief, Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. His attachment to the cause of the French Revolution makes him publish baseless attacks upon Washington. By and by he retires to a New Jersey farm, still toying with journalism, still composing verses. He turns patriotic poet once more in the War of 1812; but the public has now forgotten him. He lives on in poverty and seclusion, and in his eightieth year loses his way in a snowstorm and perishes miserably–this in 1832, the year of the death of the great Sir Walter Scott, who once had complimented Freneau by borrowing one of his best lines of poetry.

It is in the orations and pamphlets and state papers inspired by the Revolutionary agitation that we find the most satisfactory expression of the thought and feeling of that generation. Its typical literature is civic rather than aesthetic, a sort of writing which has been incidental to the accomplishing of some political, social, or moral purpose, and which scarcely regards itself as literature at all. James Otis’s argument against the Writs of Assistance in Massachusetts in 1761, and Patrick Henry’s speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765, mark epochs in the emotional life of these communities. They were reported imperfectly or not at all, but they can no more be ignored in an assessment of our national experience than editorials, sermons, or conversations which have expressed the deepest feelings of a day and then have perished beyond resurrection.

Yet if natural orators like Otis and Henry be denied a strictly “literary” rating because their surviving words are obviously inadequate to account for the popular effect of their speeches, it is still possible to measure the efficiency of the pamphleteer. When John Adams tells us that “James Otis was Isaiah and Ezekiel united,” we must take his word for the impression which Otis’s oratory left upon his mind. But John Adams’s own writings fill ten stout volumes which invite our judgment. The “truculent and sarcastic splendor” of his hyperboles need not blind us to his real literary excellencies, such as clearness, candor, vigor of phrase, freshness of idea. A testy, rugged, “difficult” person was John Adams, but he grew mellower with age, and his latest letters and journals are full of whimsical charm.

John Adams’s cousin Samuel was not precisely a charming person. Bigoted, tireless, secretive, this cunning manipulator of political passions followed many tortuous paths. His ability for adroit misstatement of an adversary’s position has been equaled but once in our history. But to the casual reader of his four volumes, Samuel Adams seems ever to be breathing the liberal air of the town-meeting: everything is as plainly obvious as a good citizen can make it. He has, too, the large utterance of the European liberalism of his day. “Resolved,” read his Resolutions of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts in 1765, “that there are certain essential rights of the British constitution of government which are founded in the law of God and nature and are the common rights of mankind.” In his statement of the Rights of the Colonists (1772) we are assured that “among the natural rights of the colonists are these, First, a right to Life; secondly to Liberty; thirdly to Property .... All men have a Right to remain in a State of Nature as long as they please . . . . When Men enter into Society, it is by voluntary consent." Jean-Jacques himself could not be more bland, nor at heart more fiercely demagogic.

“Tom” Paine would have been no match for “Sam” Adams in a town-meeting, but he was an even greater pamphleteer. He had arrived from England in 1774, at the age of thirty-eight, having hitherto failed in most of his endeavors for a livelihood. “Rebellious Staymaker; unkempt,” says Carlyle; but General Charles Lee noted that there was “genius in his eyes,” and he bore a letter of introduction from Franklin commending him as an “ingenious, worthy young man,” which obtained for him a position on the “Pennsylvania Magazine.” Before he had been a year on American soil, Paine was writing the most famous pamphlet of our political literature, “Common Sense,” which appeared in January, 1776. “A style hitherto unknown on this side of the Atlantic," wrote Edmund Randolph. Yet this style of familiar talk to the crowd had been used seventy years earlier by Defoe and Swift, and it was to be employed again by a gaunt American frontiersman who was born in 1809, the year of Thomas Paine’s death. “The Crisis," a series of thirteen pamphlets, of which the first was issued in December, 1776, seemed to justify the contemporary opinion that the “American cause owed as much to the pen of Paine as to the sword of Washington. “Paine, who was now serving in the army, might have heard his own words, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” read aloud, by Washington’s orders, to the ragged troops just before they crossed the Delaware to win the victory of Trenton. The best known productions of Paine’s subsequent career, “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason,” were written in Europe, but they were read throughout America. The reputation of the “rebellious Staymaker” has suffered from certain grimy habits and from the ridiculous charge of atheism. He was no more an atheist than Franklin or Jefferson. In no sense an original thinker, he could impart to outworn shreds of deistic controversy and to shallow generalizations about democracy a personal fervor which transformed them and made his pages gay and bold and clear as a trumpet.

Clear and bold and gay was Alexander Hamilton likewise; and his literary services to the Revolution are less likely to be underestimated than Thomas Paine’s. They began with that boyish speech in “the Fields” of New York City in 1774 and with “The Farmer Refuted,” a reply to Samuel Seabury’s “Westchester Farmer.” They were continued in extraordinary letters, written during Hamilton’s military career, upon the defects of the Articles of Confederation and of the finances of the Confederation. Hamilton contributed but little to the actual structure of the new Constitution, but as a debater he fought magnificently and triumphantly for its adoption by the Convention of the State of New York in 1788. Together with Jay and Madison he defended the fundamental principles of the Federal Union in the remarkable series of papers known as the “Federalist.” These eighty-five papers, appearing over the signature “Publius” in two New York newspapers between October, 1787, and April, 1788, owed their conception largely to Hamilton, who wrote more than half of them himself. In manner they are not unlike the substantial Whig literature of England, and in political theory they have little in common with the Revolutionary literature which we have been considering. The reasoning is close, the style vigorous but neither warmed by passion nor colored by the individual emotions of the author. The “Federalist” remains a classic example of the civic quality of our post-Revolutionary American political writing, broadly social in its outlook, well informed as to the past, confident–but not reckless–of the future. Many Americans still read it who would be shocked by Tom Paine and bored with Edmund Burke. It has none of the literary genius of either of those writers, but its formative influence upon successive generations of political thinking has been steadying and sound.

In fact, our citizen literature cannot be understood aright if one fails to observe that its effect has often turned, not upon mere verbal skill, but upon the weight of character behind the words. Thus the grave and reserved George Washington says of the Constitution of 1787: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.” The whole personality of the great Virginian is back of that simple, perfect sentence. It brings us to our feet, like a national anthem.

One American, no doubt our most gifted man of letters of that century, passed most of the Revolutionary period abroad, in the service of his country. Benjamin Franklin was fifty-nine in the year of the Stamp Act. When he returned from France in 1785 he was seventy-nine, but he was still writing as admirably as ever when he died at eighty-four. We cannot dismiss this singular, varied, and fascinating American better than by quoting the letter which George Washington wrote to him in September, 1789. It has the dignity and formality of the eighteenth century, but it is warm with tested friendship and it glows with deep human feeling: “If to be venerated for benevolence, if to be admired for talents, if to be esteemed for patriotism, if to be beloved for philanthropy, can gratify the human mind, you must have the pleasing consolation to know that you have not lived in vain. And I flatter myself that it will not be ranked among the least grateful occurrences of your life to be assured, that, so long as I retain my memory, you will be recollected with respect, veneration, and affection by your sincere friend, George Washington.”

There remains another Virginian, the symbol of the Revolutionary age, the author of words more widely known around the globe than any other words penned by an American. “Thomas Jefferson,” writes the latest of his successors in the Presidency, “was not a man of the people, but he was a man of such singular insight that he saw that all the roots of generous power come from the people.” On his father’s side Jefferson came from sound yeoman stock, in which Welsh blood ran. His mother was a Virginia Randolph. Born in Albemarle County, near the “little mountain"–Monticello–where he built a mansion for his bride and where he lies buried, the tall, strong, red-haired, gray-eyed, gifted boy was reputed the best shot, the best rider, the best fiddle-player in the county. He studied hard at William and Mary over his Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, but he also frequented the best society of the little capital. He learned to call himself a Deist and to theorize about ideal commonwealths. There was already in him that latent radicalism which made him strike down, as soon as he had the power, two of the fundamental principles of the society into which he was born, the principle of entailed property and that of church establishment.

Such was the youth of twenty-two who was thrilled in 1765 by the Stamp Act. In the ten years of passionate discussion which followed, two things became clear: first, that there had long existed among the colonists very radical theoretical notions of political freedom; and second, that there was everywhere a spirit of practical conservatism. Jefferson illustrates the union of these two tendencies.

He took his seat in the Continental Congress in June, 1775. He was only thirty-two, but he had already written, in the summer of 1774, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” which had been published in England by Burke, himself a judge of good writing and sound politics. Jefferson had also prepared in 1775 the “Address of the Virginia House of Burgesses.” For these reasons he was placed at the head of the Committee for drafting the Declaration of Independence. We need not linger over the familiar circumstances of its composition. Everybody knows how Franklin and Adams made a few verbal alterations in the first draft, how the committee of five then reported it to the Congress, which proceeded to cut out about one-fourth of the matter, while Franklin tried to comfort the writhing author with his cheerful story about the sign of John Thompson the hatter. Forty-seven years afterwards, in reply to the charge of lack of originality brought against the Declaration by Timothy Pickering and John Adams–charges which have been repeated at intervals ever since–Jefferson replied philosophically: “Whether I gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned neither to book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.” O wise young man, and fundamentally Anglo-Saxon young man, to turn his back, in that crisis, to the devil of mere cleverness, and stick to recognized facts and accepted sentiments! But his pen retains its cunning in spite of him; and the drop of hot Welsh blood tells; and the cosmopolitan reading and thinking tell; and they transform what Pickering called a “commonplace compilation, its sentiments hackneyed in Congress for two years before,” into an immortal manifesto to mankind.

Its method is the simplest. The preamble is philosophical, dealing with “self-evident” truths. Today the men who dislike or doubt these truths dismiss the preamble as “theoretical,” or, to use another term of derogation favored by reactionaries, “French.” But if the preamble be French and philosophical, the specific charges against the King are very English and practical. Here are certain facts, presented no doubt with consummate rhetorical skill, but facts, undeniably. The Anglo-Saxon in Jefferson is basal, racial; the turn for academic philosophizing after the French fashion is personal, acquired; but the range and sweep and enduring vitality of this matchless state paper lie in its illumination of stubborn facts by general principles, its decent respect to the opinions of mankind, its stately and noble utterance of national sentiments and national reasons to a “candid world.”

It has long been the fashion, among a certain school of half-hearted Americans–and unless I am mistaken, the teaching has increased during the last decades–to minimize the value of Jefferson’s “self-evident truths.” Rufus Choate, himself a consummate rhetorician, sneered at those “glittering generalities,” and countless college-bred men, some of them occupying the highest positions, have echoed the sneer. The essence of the objection to Jefferson’s platform lies of course in his phrase, “all men are created equal,” with the subsidiary phrase about governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Editors and congressmen and even college professors have proclaimed themselves unable to assent to these phrases of the Declaration, and unable even to understand them. These objectors belong partly, I think, in Jefferson’s category of “nervous persons"–"anti-republicans,” as he goes on to define them–"whose languid fibres have more analogy with a passive than an active state of things.” Other objectors to the phrase “all men are created equal” have had an obvious personal or political motive for refusing assent to the proposition. But “no intelligent man,” says one of Jefferson’s biographers, “has ever misconstrued it [the Declaration] except intentionally.”

Nobody would claim today that Thomas Jefferson’s statement of the sentiments and reasons for the independence of the thirteen British colonies in 1776 was an adequate handbook of political wisdom, fit for all the exigencies of contemporary American democracy. It is not that. It is simply, in Lincoln’s phrase, one of “the standard maxims of free society” which no democracy can safely disregard.

Jefferson’s long life, so varied, so flexible, so responsive to the touch of popular forces, illustrates the process by which the Virginia mind of 1743 became the nationalized, unionized mind of 1826. It is needless here to dwell upon the traits of his personal character: his sweetness of spirit, his stout-heartedness in disaster, his scorn of money, his love for the intellectual life. “I have no ambition to govern men,” he wrote to Edward Rutledge. He was far happier talking about Greek and Anglo-Saxon with Daniel Webster before the fire-place of Monticello than he ever was in the presidential chair. His correspondence was enormous. His writings fill twenty volumes. In his theories of education he was fifty years ahead of his time; in his absolute trust in humanity he was generations ahead of it. “I am not one of those who fear the people,” he declared proudly. It is because of this touching faith, this invincible and matchless ardor, that Jefferson is today remembered. He foreshadowed Lincoln. His belief in the inarticulate common people is rewarded by their obstinate fidelity to his name as a type and symbol. “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves,” wrote Jefferson, and with the people themselves is the depository of his fame.


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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