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John Franklin Jameson

The History of Historical Writing in America

Note editoriali

Index & preface | Ch. I | Ch. II | Ch. III | Ch. IV

[1]

THE HISTORY OF HISTORICAL WRITING IN AMERICA

I. THE HISTORIANS OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

The history of historical writing in the English colonies and in the United States falls, naturally, into four periods; and this alike whether we take as the basis of our classification its characteristics as historical literature, or its characteristics as historical science. In the first period, the heroic age of discovery and settlement, such history as we have is the work of the Argonauts themselves, who, with little consciousness of authorship, still less of membership in a literary profession, wrote down, in simplicity of mind, accounts of things which they had seen and in which they had themselves borne a great part. This period is roughly [2] equivalent to the seventeenth century. Upon this followed two or three generations of what we might call epigonal historiography, bearing clear marks of a colonial or provincial origin, yet often careful and scholarly, and mainly devoted to investigating and recording with pious care the achievements of those who had preceded. The third period, lasting from the Revolution to the Civil War, was one in which history shared, in common with other departments, the effects of the general effort toward the creation of an independent American literature. During this, the classical period of our historical writing, the favorite subjects were portions of European history. Since then we have had a marked improvement in method and scholarship; but the dominant impulse of the fourth period has been toward a closer, and especially a broader, study of our own history. It is with these four periods that the chapters of this book are respectively to be occupied. In general, only the most important writers of each will be considered; and no effort will be made to relate at length the picturesque and interesting details of these writers' lives - not from any such disdain of the picturesque as [3] modern students of history are supposed to affect, but because the subject is not the lives and personalities of American historians, but the development of American historiography.

In the time of the first adventurers and settlers, some historical literature of value had already been produced by the nation from which they sprang - chronicles like those of Hall and Holinshed, collections like those of Stow, and a few more notable performances, Lord Bacon's Henry VII, Knollys Historie of the Turkes, Fox's Martyrs, and the great fragment of a History of the World which Raleigh had composed during his long imprisonment in the Tower. But no one of these was in any way the model of our earliest historians, whose purposes were quite different. The purpose of one class was to awaken immediate interest in a given colony, and stimulate immigration into it by accounts of what had been done there; to this class belong Captain John Smith and Captain Edward Johnson. The model of some of them may be seen in the pages of Hakluyt, in the Relations and Narratives of voyagers. The other class, of which Governor Bradford and [4] Governor Winthrop are the chief examples, believing themselves to have been concerned in memorable beginnings, wrote for the benefit of posterity permanent memorials, which they did not intend to be published till after their deaths. It i8 to these four, as best deserving, among our writers of the seventeenth century, the name of historian, that the present chapter is to be mainly given.

At the beginning at once of our colonial history and of American historical literature stands the burly figure of Captain John Smith; and yet he stands somewhat apart from both. There is no need to recount at length the stirring events of his early life - how, after wandering over much of Europe and the Levant, he took service against the Turk, slew three Turkish cavaliers in single combat before the walls of Regall, was captured and sold as a slave, was befriended by a noble lady at Constantinople, was sent to serve as a slave in Crim-Tartary, and escaped with many adventures, but it is plain, from the nature of them, that he belonged in character to the generation that had just passed away. He had more in common with Hawkins and [5] Frobisher and Drake, with those who repulsed the Armada, and sought Eldorado, and braved the northern ice, and «singed the King of Spain's beard», with all the freshness and buoyancy and adventurousness of the Elizabethans, than with Eliot and Pym and Selden, with the sobriety, the seriousness, the prosaic strenuousness, which had begun to overspread and to characterize the England of James I. It was these traits of character that made him really unsuited to much of the work which now needed to be done in the American settlements. He was a colonial adventurer in a generation of colonial founders. At the beginning, the services of such a man were invaluable, and the colony probably owed more to him than to any other man during the thirty months that he spent in it. But, the initial work once done, another sort of talent was needed if the colony was to be, not abortive, as the Elizabethan colonial experiments had been, but a strong and prosperous community, founded on sober and humdrum agriculture and trade; and so the shrewd London merchants of the Virginia Company were not wrong in making no further use of Smith.

The same qualities shine conspicuous in [6] the writings of Smith, and mark him off from the rest as, though the precursor, yet not the father of the American historical writers. His writings breathe the spirit that invests the pages of Hakluyt and Purchas with so surpassing and so imperishable a charm, not that which has made our colonial history dull and our nation great. He writes, by preference, of encounters, of explorations, of opportunities for present gain, as one who is directing a band of adventurers, not as one who is thoughtfully laying foundations for the gradual growth of a mighty state. He does not lack seriousness, but he is more a knight-errant than a man of business. But if both his role and his attitude are those of a knight-errant, bearing in his veins the enthusiastic blood of the sixteenth century, but set to do the sober tasks of the seventeenth, he was in the main a worthy knight, fearing God after the simple, untroubled fashion of the earlier time, without overmuch sojourning in Meshec and Kedar, serving faithfully and energetically his king and the company, giving good government, and doing with his might what his hand found to do. He wrote of all this with keen zest and enjoyment [7], and with not too much of modesty, or of mildness toward his adversaries; but when was a knight-errant ever modest or conciliatory ?

The strictly historical works of Captain John Smith are but two in number. The first is a brief tract of thirty or forty pages, entitled A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of note as hath happened in Virginia since the first planting of that Colony, which is now resident in the South part thereof, till the last returne from thence. The second is the extensive book entitled The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, a brief continuation of which was printed as part second of his True Travels, Adventures, and Observations. His other books are mostly of a descriptive character: they have a value as historical material; they are not themselves historical writings. The True Relation was written in Virginia about the end of May, 1608, when the colony had been in existence a little more than a year; it was sent home by Captain Nelson in the Phonix, and was published at London in August. It is only a pamphlet, and a somewhat hastily prepared one at that. It [8] is mainly occupied with the personal adventures of Smith himself, the exploring expeditions which he conducted, and his dealings with the Indians. Not much is told us of events at Jamestown. While that little is valuable, in the paucity of eye-witness ac- counts of the first year's doings, its value is much diminished, or at least rendered doubtful, by the fact that it is everywhere seen to be colored by Smith's hostility to certain fellow-members of the Council. Which was right in their frequent quarrels is hard now to determine; but no one can fail to see that Smith was too censorious of the actions of others, too vain of his own, to be a historical witness of the highest degree of merit.

The same animosities are to be found, unallayed after a period of sixteen years, in the Generall Historie, published in 1620, the book which forms Smith's chief title to be numbered among the American historians. Or rather, it exhibits these animosities widened into partisanship in a more important conflict, and applied to the events of a greater number of years. Coming home in 1609, and never afterward succeeding in getting employment from the [9] company, Smith seems to have extended his resentment against those who had ruled the colony with him to their successors, and eventually to the managers of the company. In the last years of James I., the Virginia Company's proceedings reflected the conflict going on in the country at large, the minority being of the court party, the managers belonging to the opposition. Smith takes many opportunities in the Generall Historie to attack them, to accuse the mismanagement of the colony since he left it, and to lament that his advice was not rather followed and his services employed. «I know», he adds, «I shall be taxed for writing so much of my selfe; but I care not much, because the judiciall know there are few such Souldiers as [those who] have writ their owne actions, nor know I who will or can tell my intents better then my selfe».

The book which the doughty captain had prepared with so resolute a disregard of all natural impulses toward self-effacement was proposed, as the records of the Virginia Company show, as early as 162t, but published in 1624, in a volume of two hundred and fifty pages folio, embellished with several [10] quaint and well-engraved maps. Smith was, after all, the author of only about seventy-five pages out of the two hundred and fifty; and of these seventy-five, nearly seventy comprise mere reprints from three of his descriptive books. Of all the rest he was but the editor or compiler. The composition of the book is in fact singular. The first book, treating of the English voyages to Virginia before 1607, is entirely a compilation or patchwork of previous narratives. The second book is a reprinted description of Virginia as it was in 1607. The third book is a republication, with some variations, of a body of narratives by some of the original planters, which had been edited by one Dr. Simonds, and published in 1612; they cover the thirty months of Smith's stay in the colony, and are from persons belonging to his faction. What he himself has contributed to this division is limited to the insertion, here and there, of verses more remarkable for sententiousness than for beauty, and, it must be added, the addition of striking adventures not mentioned in the True Relation, and a general heightening of the picturesqueness of his own career. The fourth book, giving [11] the history of Virginia from 1609 to 1624, is almost wholly a compilation, or rather a transcription, of the narratives of residents; the fifth, treating of the history of the Bermudas, is wholly so. Finally, to make Book VI., entitled The Generall Historie of New England, he reprints his Description of New England, 1616, and New England's Trials, 1620, inserts Edward Winslow's Plantation in New England, and, with a few interesting pages on the present estate of New Plymouth, closes this remarkable historical mosaic, of which it may almost be said that what is historical is not his, and what is his is not historical. But herein, also, we must confess, he has been the precursor of many of our historical writers, not all of whom have enumerated as frankly as he the victims of their scissors.

Nothing has been said, thus far, of the story of the saving of Smith by Pocahontas. The historical student who is not entirely steeped in haughty professionalism, who would himself «strictly meditate the thank- less Muse», yet wishes to temper that austere cult with a regard for the unscientific preferences of Amaryllis and Neæra, will certainly [12] hesitate long before assailing the most famous of the few romantic legends of our early colonial history. And yet it appears that, in spite of a dozen novels and perhaps a gross of poems that have gathered about it, the legend must go. A whole chapter would hardly be long enough for a full discussion of the arguments, but in brief the case is this. Not only is there no mention of such an episode in the full account of his Chickahominy expedition which Smith gave; a few months after he went upon it, in the True Relation, but everything there indicates a most friendly reception by Powhatan; nor do any of his companions mention an adventure so striking. It first appears in print in the Generall Historie of 1624, interpolated as one of those embellishments of his friends' accounts, to which allusion has been made. It appears that Smith, in 1616, hinted at such a service performed by Pocahontas, in a letter to the Queen, written when Pocahontas was in England. In short, the probability is that he invented the episode in order to connect himself in a picturesque manner with one who had lately been attracting so much attention. One need not stop to defend [13] historical criticism for destroying so pretty a legend, for historical criticism brings to light two stories of heroism that are true where it removes one that is false; but perhaps we may more easily be reconciled to the loss of this particular romance if we remember that, pictures and poems and story-books to the contrary notwithstanding, the real Pocahontas was only ten years old at the time of the alleged rescue.

To turn from Captain John Smith to Governor William Bradford is like turning from Amadis of Gaul to the Pilgrim's Progress. The worthy governor of Plymouth Plantation had slain no Turks, had undergone no romantic adventures, had been signally befriended by no princesses or noble dames, whether heathen, Mohammedan, or Christian. But if fortune denied him interesting adventures - except in so far as the high purposes of the Pilgrim Fathers and the permanent/ importance of their work invest all that they did with interest - it did not deal so with his book. The story of its vicissitudes is a curious one. It was well known to historical scholars that Governor Bradford had left behind him a manuscript history of Plymouth Plantation.

[14] Some extracts from it had been given in print by certain historical writers of the hundred years succeeding his death, the last being Governor Hutchinson, in 1767. It was supposed that Bradford's descendants had lent it to the Rev. Thomas Prince, the noted historical scholar of Boston, and that Prince had deposited it in the New England Library which he was forming, in the tower of the Old South Church. During the first year of the Revolutionary War, while Boston was occupied by the British, that church was, as is well known, used by them as a riding-school. After that time, nothing was heard of the precious manuscript of Bradford's history, until, one day in 1855, a local antiquary most unexpectedly found a trace of it. While reading a small English book by Bishop Wilberforce on the history of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, he came upon certain passages which were identical with some of the extracts from Bradford given, as already mentioned, by American writers of the last century. The foot-notes of the book described these passages as taken from a manuscript history of the Plantation of Plymouth, in the library of the Bishop of London at [15] Fulham. The discovery was communicated to one of the leading members of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a correspondence was entered upon. The manuscript in the bishop's library was proved to be that of Governor Bradford's long-lost history, and was copied, and printed in 1856. How it came to be in the Fulham library no one knows; nor does any one know how to get it back from there.

However, we have the printed text, and a most important and interesting work it is. Governor Bradford's qualifications for preparing such a history are manifest. From the first year of the settlement down to the time of his death - during a period, that is, of thirty-six years-there had been but five years in which he had not been elected governor of the colony. He had been among the earlier fugitives to Holland, and was, therefore, personally cognizant of the history of the little community in the period preceding its transfer to America. During most of the long period of his governorship he had had in mind the preparation of such an account, of which it appears that he wrote the beginning in 1630, and the end in 1650, and had been saving and collecting letters [16] and documents important to his purpose. He had, therefore, the most entire familiarity with the history of the colony, and time enough to insure deliberation and care. Moreover, he had not only a thoughtful mind and a high degree of intelligence, but was even, like so many of the early American governors, a man of some scholarship. Cotton Mather says of him: «He was a person for study as well as action; and hence, notwithstanding the difficulties through which he passed in his youth, he attained unto a notable skill in languages; the Dutch tongue was become almost a vernacular to him as the English; the French tongue he could also manage; the Latin and the Greek he had mastered; but the Hebrew he most of all studied, because, he said, he would see with his own eyes the ancient oracles of God in their native beauty. He was also well skilled in history, in antiquity, and in philosophy; and for theology, he became so versed in it that he was an irrefragable disputant against [...] errors [...] But the crown of all was his holy, prayerful, watchful, and fruitful walk with God, wherein he was very exemplary». It may illustrate the cast of Bradford's mind [17] to repeat what he himself has said in regard to one of these studies. Eight manuscript pages of Hebrew roots with English equivalents, and of Hebrew exercises, have been found, written in his handwriting, and prefaced with these remarks: «Though I am growne aged, yet I have. had a longing desire to see, with my owne eyes, something of that most ancient language, and holy tongue, in which the law and oracles of God were writ; and in which God and angels spake to the holy patriarchs of old time; and what names were given to things, from the creation. And though I cannot attaine to much herein, yet I am refreshed to have seen some glimpse hereof (as Moyses saw the land of Canan afarr of). My aim and desire is, to see how the words and phrases lye in the holy texte; and to discerne somewhat of the same, for my owne contente».

But whatever scholarship the excellent governor may have had, he does not obtrude it into his book, which has nothing of the pedantic manner so frequent in the seventeenth century. He writes a plain, sober, and straightforward account, the evident care and accuracy of which make it one of the most valued sources for our colonial [18] period. His narrative covers the history of the colony down to the year 1646, at which point it was left unfinished. It embraces the events which led, in England and Holland, to the exodus of the Pilgrims, the now familiar tale of their early sufferings and achievements, the occasional controversies in which they were involved, their negotiations with other colonies, their troubles with the London merchants, and their correspondence and relations with the body whom they had left behind at their departure. The phrases in which that departure is described are memorable: s; So they lefte that goodly and pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest countrie, and quieted their spirits». Such words as these, which have been often quoted, do not stand alone in the narrative; with all its sobriety, it is clothed in many passages with that exquisite and singular beauty of expression which a close familiarity with the English translation of the Bible has so often bestowed on writers of little literary art. Of such is the following, written in appreciative commemoration of his companions' fortitude. [19] «But hear», he says, «I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader, too, when he well considers the same. Being thus past the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation [...] they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repair too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to the apostle & his shipwraked company, that the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them [...] were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that cuntrie know them to be sharp and violent, and subjecte to cruell and feirce stormes, deangerous to travail to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious and desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts and willd men ? And what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to the tope of Pisgah, to vew from this [20] wildernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turned their eys (save upward to the heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects [...] Let it also be considered what weake hopes of supply and succoure they left behind them, that might bear up their minds in this sade condition and trialls they were under [...] What could now sustaine them but the spirite of God and his grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great occan, and were ready to perish in this willdernes; but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie, &c. Let them, therefore, praise the Lord, because he is good, and his mercies endure forever. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how he hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressour. When they wandered in the desert willdernes out of the way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie and thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord his loving kindnes, and his wonderful works before the sons of men».

[21] It is a curious good fortune by which we happen to have accounts of two of our earliest colonies, those of Plymouth and of Massachusetts Bay, written by the two men who had most to do with managing the affairs of each in the earliest period. Moreover, the two governors and historians were in some degree typical of the two colonies whose history they helped to make and to write. The Separatist colony and the Puritan colony were widely different. The history of the Pilgrim Fathers is full of suffering, of poverty, of humility, of patience, and of mildness. It is the story of a small and feeble enterprise, glorified by faith and hope and charity, but necessarily and always limited by the slender resources of the poor and humble men who originated it. The founding of the Bay colony, on the other hand, was less a colonial enterprise than a great Puritan emigration. It was organized by men of substance and standing, supported by the wealth of a great and prosperous body of the English nation, and consciously directed toward the high end of founding in America a great Puritan state. And as Massachusetts was to Plymouth Plantation, so, in many respects, was Governor John [22] Winthrop to Governor William Bradford. He was, in the first place, a man of much more prominent position, lord of the manor of Groton, one of the attorneys of the Court of Wards and Liveries, a magistrate, and a man of considerable wealth. But he was also a man of a broader, larger, and more philosophic intellect, as well as of a more regular and extensive education. In short, he had more thoroughly those powers and acquisitions of mind which would fit one to direct worthily the larger concerns of a strong and important state, and to describe worthily its origin and early development. For beauty of character, it is hard to give the preference to either governor. Long posses- sion of great power in a community resolute to defend its independence and suppress dissension with a high hand, strong, self-reliant, and intolerant, never succeeded in marring the exquisite sensitiveness of Winthrop's conscience, or affecting the gentleness and sweetness of his deportment. Scrupulosity of aonscience we perhaps expect to find in a Puritan, but the second point is worth a little more attention. It is worth while frequently to insist that harshness, and sourness, and gloom were not [23] characteristic of all periods of Puritan history alike. Puritanism in New England as in Old England, went through three different stages - the period of origin and growth, the period of conflict, the period of decline. The Puritanism which was satirized in Hudibras, and which fell with Richard Cromwell, was not the Puritanism of the civil wars. Still less was it the Puritanism of Milton's earlier years - of Comus and L'Allegro and Il Pense- roso. In that earlier time, Puritanism had not dissevered itself from the cheerfulness and spontaneity of the Elizabethan period, but had simply added to them, on the one hand a greater degree of moral earnestness, and on the other hand a greater zeal for innovation in church and state So it was in New England. The well-known and most amusing diary of Chief Justice Sewall shows us Puritanism as it had come to be among the men of the third generation - Puritanism gone to seed, grown narrow and harsh and petty, and rapidly becoming mundane and Philistine. But before this, and before the preceding generation of conflict, and before the hardships of life and the wildness of nature had begun to depress [24] men's minds to the level of the awful righteousness with which we are so familiar, there was a Puritanism of a less unlovely type; serious and strict, but not uncheerful, nor insensible to the delights and beauty of life. Of such Puritanism John Winthrop was the type and the exponent. In him Puritanism is seen at its best, not only caring (and compelling others to care) for what was in its opinion true and honest and just, but also observant of whatsoever things are lovely and of good report. The poetic imagination which led him to prefer, of all books of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, the depth and beauty of his religious experiences, the exquisite tenderness of his letters to his wife, the mildness of his efficient rule as governor, all show us a nature singularly attractive. He was, in short, a gentleman; not in the spurious sense of one whose ancestors and connections have been highly distinguished for being related to each other, but in the better sense of one who combines with a noble character the additional graces of a perfect sweetness of temper and a perfect refinement of manner.

I have enlarged upon Winthrop's personal characteristics because they were an important [25] factor in the composition of his book. Of a historian of our day, writing of these things, this need not be true. But in the ease of one who writes of the genesis of a state of which he has been the foremost founder, the study of his personality is a matter of much consequence to the critic, not only because it helps to understand his book, but also because it helps to understand the movement which he headed. Milton, in a famous passage of the Apology for Smectymnuus, reminds us «that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, [...] not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy». John Winthrop did have within himself these things. They shone out plainly in the acts of his public life, and they are not less conspicuous in the history which he left behind him.

The History of New England has the form of annals, or even, at first, of a journal, begun by the governor on board the Arbella on the day when he set sail from England in 1630. It is continued to the winter of 1648, [26] a few months before his death. Naturally, many matters of small moment are treated in it - minor doings of the governing body and the churches, moving accidents, remarkable providences, and so forth. But the narrative is never undignified and never gos- siping. And when events of greater importance to the colony, or deliberations and discussions involving the essential principles of its policy, fall to be described, we could hardly desire a guide more impartial, more informing, or more thoughtful. Together with the actions of the rulers their reasons are set before us, and set before us with a high-minded confidence and a philosophic breadth of view that leave nothing to be desired. Once in a while occur really admirable reasonings and statements in matters of political philosophy; while the absence of passion and intolerance and pettiness is very marked. The early years of the colony were a time of strong party feeling and of bitter dissensions; yet Winthrop never takes the opportunity of private writing and posthumous publication to set down aught in malice against any of his opponents. Of the chief among them, Sir Harry Vane, he says that at all times «he showed himself a true [27] friend to New England, and a man of a noble and generous mind». The severest thing that he says of any of them, so far as I know, is found in some words of grave and temperate disapprobation which he uses with regard to Governor Bellingham, and even here he does not fail to suggest what excuse he can for Bellingham's factious ill temper. Speaking in one passage of some of these disagreements, he says: «Indeed, it occasioned much grief to all the elders, and gave great offence through the country; and such as were acquainted with other states in the world, and had not well known the persons, would have concluded such a faction here as hath been usual in the council of England and other states, who walk by politic principles only. But these gentlemen were such as feared God, and endeavored to walk by the rules of his word in all their proceedings, so as it might be conceived in charity that they walked according to their judgments and conscience, and where they went aside it was merely for want of light, or their eyes were held through some temptation for a time, that they could not make use of the light they had; for in all these differences and agitations about them, they [28] continued in brotherly love, and in the exercise of all friendly offices each to other, as occasion required». And the story of the governor's own reconciliation with Dudley shows that, so far as he himself was concerned, he has not overstated the case Winthrop's narrative, like Bradford's, was left in manuscript at his death, and came to be a part of the New England Library in the Old South Church. Its subsequent vicissitudes were curious, though not so remarkable as those of the History of Plymouth Plantation. After the Revolution, two of the three volumes of the manuscript were found in the possession of the elder branch of the Winthrops in Connecticut, edited, very superficially it must be said, by the redoubtable lexicographer, Noah Webster, and published in 1790. In 1816, the third volume was discovered in the dormitory of the Old South Church. The Massachusetts Historical Society entrusted the preparation of a new edition of the whole to James Savage. Before he had accomplished the collation of the second volume of the manuscript, that volume was destroyed by a fire which broke out in his office. The first and the third volumes are now in the library of the society [29]; for the second, our text is that of Webster's edition.

He who is seeking a characteristic production of the traditional Puritan should without doubt resort to that of the fourth and last writer upon our list. Its very title is characteristically Puritan. It was an age of quaint title-pages; but nowhere were they quainter than in the books of the New England Puritans. New England's Teares for Old England's Feares, New England's Salamander Discovered, New England's Jonas cast up at London, The Heart of New England rent at the Blasphemies of the Present Generation, and, for a longer example, that of John Cotton's famous pamphlet, Milk for Babes, drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments, chiefly for the Spiritual Nourishment of Boston Babes, but may be of like use to other Children - such are the names of some of the early historical and controversial tracts of New England. Among them all, few have a quainter title than that which the author of the historical book before us bestowed upon it - The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion's Saviour in New England. The London publisher saw fit to alter this upon the titlepage [30] to The History of New England; but in the head-lines of the pages the title chosen by the author is followed throughout. A history of New England the book is not, but rather a history of Massachusetts down to the year 1651. Among the New England histories it has the distinction of having been the first to appear in print, for it was printed in London in 1653 (dated 1654). It was printed anonymously, but its author is known to have been Captain Edward Johnson, selectman and town clerk of the town of Woburn in Massachusetts. In Governor Winthrop, as 1 have declared, we may see Puritanism at its very best. But the élite of humanity are nowhere in a majority. A better representative of the average Puritan of the middle class is doubtless Captain Johnson. He was a Kentish farmer, and probably also a shipwright, who came out in the same fleet with Winthrop in 1630. A dozen years later, he was, in company with half a dozen others, one of the founders of the new town of Woburn It is interesting to note that, of his dozen companions in this undertaking, one, John Sedgwick, afterward became one of Cromwell's major-generals, while another rose in the naval service of [31] England to be Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves. But the stout Kentishman, having put his hand to the plough, chose to remain in the town he had helped to plant. He had always an important part in the affairs of the town, was chosen selectman nearly every year, was again and again elected to represent the town in the general court or legislature of the colony, acted as town clerk, and was captain of the train-band. He was, therefore, more or less concerned in the public affairs in the colony, but never had a leading part in them. Though he was a more prominent, a wealthier, and perhaps a more intelligent man than most of his fellow citizens, we may well enough take him as in most respects a type of the rank and file of the original settlers. This is in the main what gives its value to this first printed history of Massachusetts.

Captain Edward Johnson was far inferior to Governor Winthrop in breadth, in culture, and in fineness of spirit. The hot zeal, the narrow partisanship, the confident dogmatism, which characterized so much of Puritanism, have in him a striking example. No one could be more remote from the cool, skeptical, examining temper of the modern [32] historian, who hears, and smiles, and deducts, and balances. All Johnson's opinions are self-evident to him. He sees no good in the lords bishops. He will not listen to the servants of the chief priests; rather, his first impulse is to draw a sword and cut off Malchus' ear. He is full of that narrow Hebraism which, when it prayed, kept open its windows toward Jerusalem, but closed every other avenue to the soul. To hew Agag in pieces before the Lord is to his mind not the least attractive of religious duties. With him the church militant is more than a metaphor. The life of the colony appears to him most frequently in the guise of an armed conflict; he hears in its story the noise of battle, the thunder of the captains and the shouting, and in vehement canticles summons the Israel of New England to the help of the Lord against the mighty. Old Testament phrases are his delight; he speaks, throughout, the dialect which the French wittily call the patois de Canaan. To the Puritan zeal he adds the Puritan superstition. Everywhere the hand of the Lord is seen protecting his saints; his wonder-working Providence appears not only in the general movement of the events [33] narrated, but in every detail of the fortunes and misfortunes of individuals, so that his pages bristle with special providences. His account of one of these may be quoted:

To end this yeare 1639, the Lord was pleased to send a very sharp winter, and more especially in strong storms of weekly snows, with very bitter blasts; And here the Reader may take notice of the sad hand of the Lord against two persons, who were taken in a storme of snow, as they were passing from Boston to Roxbury, it being much about a mile distant, and a very plaine way. One of Roxbury sending to Boston his servant maid for a Barber-Chirurgion to draw his tooth, they lost their way in their passage between, and were not found till many dayes after, and then the maid was found in one place, and the man in another, both of them frozen to death; in which sad accident, this was taken into consideration by divers people, that this barber was more than ordinary laborious to draw men to those sinfull Errors, that were formerly so frequent, and now newly overthrowne by the blessing of the Lord, [...] he having a fit opportunity, by reason of his trade, so soone as they were set downe in his chaire, he [34] would commonly be cutting of their haire and the truth together; notwithstanding some report better of the man, the example is for the living, the dead is judged of the Lord alone.

This last is a redeeming touch. It cannot be said that it is not in some degree characteristic. With all the illiberality and harshness of his theological zeal, the man was not unkindly. Something of the spirit of Winthrop appeared in even the less enlightened of those who followed him; Johnson's Puritanism was not all unlovely, and at any rate it was far from ignoble. Let us be just to the Puritans. Doubtless they would not be agreeable neighbors. Doubtless they would have hanged or burned a considerable number of us, and banished all the rest; for in these degenerate days hardly any one is orthodox according to their standards. Yet let u8 remember that they did possess, in an eminent degree, those virtues that spring from confidence in a high purpose and a mission felt to be momentous and sacred, from belief in character, from belief in enthusiasm, from belief in strenuous effort. If the bit of quaint superstition which has been quoted is characteristic of Johnson and his [35] companions, not less characteristic is the following passage, in which is exhibited in an instructive manner the attitude of the struggling colony toward its cherished college. Describing the eager desire of the colonists that learning should be adequately maintained among them, he says: «And verily had not the Lord been pleased to furnish N. E. with means for the attainment of learning, the work would have been carried on very heavily, and the hearts of godly parents would have vanish'd away with heaviness for their poor children, whom they must have left in a desolate wilderness, destitute of the meanes of grace». After picturesquely setting forth their sense of the magnitude of such an enterprise as the foundation of a college in comparison with their feeble resources, he goes on to say:

Hereupon all those who had tasted the sweet wine of Wisdom's drawing, and fed on the dainties of knowledg, began to set their wits a work [...] Means they know there are, many thousands uneyed of mortal man, which every daies Providence brings forth; upon these resolutions, to work they go, and with thankful acknowledgement, readily take up all lawful means as they [36] come to hand, for place they fix their eye upon New Town, which to tell their Posterity whence they came, is now named Cambridg, and withal to make the whole world understand, that spiritual learning was the thing they chiefly desired, to sanctifie the other, and make the whole lump holy, and that learning being set upon its right object, might not contend for error instead of truth; they chose this place, being then under the Orthodox, and soul-flourishing Ministry of Mr. Thomas Shepheard [...] The scituation of this colleg is very pleasant, at the end of a spacious plain, more like a bowling green, then a wilderness, neer a fair navigable river, environed with many Neighboring Towns of note, [...] the building thought by some to be too gorgeous for a wilderness, and yet too mean in others apprehensions for a colleg, it is at present inlarging by purchase of the neighbour houses, it hath the conveniences of a fair Hall, comfortable Studies, and a good Library, given by the liberal hand of some Magistrates and Ministers with others. The chief gift towards the founding of this Colledg, was by Mr. John Harvard, a reverend Minister; the country being very weak in their public [37] Treasury, expended about 500. £ toward it, and for the maintenance thereof, gave the yearly revenue of a Ferry passage between Boston and Charlestown, the which amounts to about 40. or 50. £ per annum [...] This Colledg hath brought forth, and nurst up very hopeful plants, to the supplying some churches here, as the gracious and godly Mr. Wilson, son to the grave and zealous servant of Christ, Mr. John Wilson, [and others] [...] Mr. Henry Dunster is now president of [it], fitted from the Lord for the work, and by those that have skill that way reported to be an able Proficient, in both Hebrew, Greek, and Latine languages, an Orthodox preacher of the truths of Christ, very powerful through his blessing to move the affection; and besides he having a good inspection into the well-ordering of things for the Students' maintenance (whose commons hath been very short hitherto) by his frugal providence hath continued them longer at their studies than otherwise they could have done; and, verily, it's great pity such ripe heads as many of them be, should want means to further them in learning. One curious feature of Johnson's style of [38] historical composition remains to be noted. This is his habit of inserting in his narrative bits of original verse. The earliest colonial writers were somewhat addicted to this habit. Roger Williams closes each short chapter of his Indian grammar, or Key into the Language of America, with a stanza or so of verses as bad as any that one often encounters; John Smith, we have seen, developed in later life something of this habit. But few among them all had it in a more aggravated form than the author of the Wonder-Working Providence. His book contains no less than sixty-eight poems. The present writer has read them all, with the pious care of a lineal descendant, and can confidently state that they are all very bad. One of them, on the Massachusetts Company, runs in this unconsciously brisk and jaunty manner:

For richest Jems and gainfull things most Merchants wisely venter;
Deride not then New England men, this Corporation enter;
Christ cans for Trade shall never fade, come Craddock factors send;
Let Mayhew go and other more, spare not thy coyne to spend;
Such Trades advance did never chance, in all thy Trading yet,
Though some deride thy losse, abide, her's gaine beyond man's wit

[39] Most of them, however, are in honor or commemoration of individual persons prominently concerned in the foundation of the colony, or godly ministers of its churches. The author, after mentioning the person, inserts some modest introductory phrase, such as, «of whom the author is bold to say as followeth», or «in remembrance of whom mind this meeter», and then, to use a phrase now become classic, «drops into poetry». One of the most characteristic is that which ensues after the mention of Governor John Endicott. «And now», he says, «let no man be offended at the author's rude verse, penned of purpose to keepe in memory the names of such worthies as Christ made strong for himselfe, in this unwonted worke of his».

Strong valiant John wilt thou march on, and take up station first,
Christ cal'd hath thee, his soldier be, and faile not of thy trust;
Wilderness wants Christ's grace supplants, then plant his Churches pure,
With Tongues gifted, and graces led, help thou to his procure;
Undaunted thou wilt not allow, Malignant men to wast:
Christs Vineyard heere, whose grace should cheere, his well-beloved's tast.
Then honoured be, thy Christ hath thee their Generall promoted: [40]
To show their love, in place above, his people have thee voted.
Yet must thou fall, to grave with all the Nobles of the Earth,
Thou rotting worme, to dust must turn, and worse but for new birth.

But in truth the service of Clio can hardly be profitably mixed with the meditation of other muses, and Johnson's book, in spite of his «meeters» and his excellent intentions, is not a historical source of the first quality. For while he gives much valuable information, especially as to the successive planting of new towns and churches in Massachusetts, he is not seldom inaccurate.

Such were the four historians, and such was the historiography of our first colonial period. Of other writers, whose works were not of purely historical import, or who attained not unto the first four, it is not my purpose to speak. Yet one of these works, Hubbard's Narrative of the Indian War, a book marked by much vividness of narration, was in its own time esteemed of such importance that, for the perusing and approving it, we are told, «three honorable Magistrates were deputed by the Governor and Council of the Massachusetts Colony (one of whom was a Major-General, and the other two were [41] afterwards Governors)». The whirligig of time brings its revenges. In our day, major-generals and governors, and even presidential candidates, have taken to the writing of history, and the historical scholar has the opportunity of reviewing them.

 

Index & preface | Ch. I | Ch. II | Ch. III | Ch. IV