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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



According to the arrangements of chronology, the seventeenth century ended with the year 1700. According to the real facts of history, the period that we always think of as the seventeenth century ended at least a dozen years earlier, and the real eighteenth century then began. In other words, though there was no violent break, yet with the fall of the House of Stuart and the formation of the Grand Alliance a new page in the history of western Europe was turned. The age of Richelieu, of Strafford, of Cromwell, and of Milton had ended; the age of Walpole, of Dubois and Fleury, of Pope and Voltaire, had already begun. A century of prose, of criticism, of wit, and of finish set in. The very wars that have been alluded to are typical of the change. The conflicts in which the preceding generations had been engaged - the Thirty Years' War, the civil wars in England and in France - were [43] conflicts for great religious or constitutional principles. The war which opened with the formation of the Grand Alliance and the expulsion of James II. was more like the wars of the succeeding period - wars not wholly dynastic, indeed, but of a dryly political character, and waged rather with gallantry than with lofty enthusiasm. Polities, at any rate in England, where alone polities was a popular concern, subsided into a condition unenthusiastic, inanimate, and humdrum. Material prosperity was rapidly increasing, and the world, tired of the age of conflict, became devoted to the pursuit of wealth. Society settled down into that prosaic and secular temper, that engrossment with the material elements of life, that absence of high ideals, to which of late we have been giving the name Philistinism. Political life consisted of little but selfish personal conflicts, between statesmen who laughed good-naturedly at the mention of patriotism or public virtue. The church was lifeless. The world was its own god, and Sir Robert Walpole was its prophet.

The independence of Europe which America has enjoyed since the War of 1812, and has more distinctly felt since the close of [44] the Civil War, inclines us sometimes to speak and think of our earlier history as if an equal degree of independence prevailed in those times. The history of America is written as a separate story, as the story of something quite isolated. In reality, the same waves of thought and feeling generally agitated both, though they sometimes reached the American shores a little later. Fashions in these matters were as naturally followed in the colonies as fashions in dress or in social usages are followed in colonies everywhere. So it happened that the age of Walpole was marked by much the same phenomena on this side of the water as in England. No period in our history was so dull. Political enthusiasm, whether it were enthusiasm for liberty or enthusiasm for loyalty, declined, and gave place to an unheroic apathy. Religious zeal declined not less. Even controversial life in the church was concerned with matters less vital than heretofore; while as to controversies in matters of state, they centred almost universally about interests of a petty and personal and selfish sort, so that history finds little better to record than the quarrels of the royal governors with the colonial assemblies. The [45] country was growing rich and prosperous, and as it sought wealth and prosperity more and more, the intensity which had marked the preceding period rapidly relaxed. The generation grew broader and more tolerant, indeed, but it at the same time grew more worldly and more commonplace in its aims and thoughts.

The incoming of this age of prose had, I am persuaded, more unhappy results in New England than in Virginia, or in the Southern and Middle colonies generally. Its easier tone was better suited to the life and manners that had grown up in those milder and softer climates. The alteration from the seventeenth century was less marked and less demoralizing. But in Massachusetts the candid inquirer is forced to admit a deterioration for which the gain in liberality was hardly a compensation. Few things in our history are more pathetic than the grief of the uncompromising elders when the Massachusetts charter was taken away and the Puritan theocracy fell. But the succeeding generation grew accustomed to the change, and submitted themselves willingly unto Cæsar. The great experiment, the object of so much prayer and solicitude and ceaseless [46] effort, had failed. The strenuousness which had arisen from high aims and devotion to a great and religious task in part gave way, in part became diverted into pettier channels. The elder Puritans had shown harshness and austerity, but mixed with these were elements of grandeur. In the eighteenth century there is much of the same harshness and rigor, but the diary of Judge Sewall, the New England Pepys, shows us minds painfully exercised about small things - about periwigs and surplices and the observance of Christmas.

Sewall does not properly fall within the scope of these papers. In his solemn yet amusing way, he furnishes us with valuable historical material, indeed, but not with a professed historical composition. But much the same character is borne by the most prominent historian of the age, that redoubtable New England Boanerges, the Reverend Doctor Cotton Mather, the «literary behemoth» of our colonial era, as Professor Tyler has called him; author of no less than four hundred and fifty-two published writings, and especially of the Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, from Its First Planting in the Year 1620, unto the Year of our Lord, 1698. [47] This miracle of learning and piety and factious ambition and pedantry and conceit was born to every advantage which could attend a New England historian of the colonial period. He was the grandson of two of the chief lights of the pulpit in the days of the settlement, the Rev. John Cotton and the Rev. Richard Mather. His father, Dr. Increase Mather, was minister of a large parish in Boston, president of Harvard College, himself author of ninetytwo writings, and for many years the most influential as well as the most learned man in New England. Great things were expected of one who began life under such auspices - non sine dis animosus infans. Cotton Mather early began to satisfy these expectations. He was graduated from Harvard College at an age younger than that of any bachelors save two in its whole history, and three years later took the master's degree, sustaining in public disputation the thesis that the Hebrew points are of divine origin. His early piety was not less conspicuous. «When he began to speak almost, says his son and biographer, «he began to pray, and practiced this Duty constantly while he was a School-Boy; and, [48] altho' he used no Forms in Secret, he composed some for his School-Fellows & obliged them to pray. Before he could write notes of sermons in public Assemblies, he commonly wrote what he remembred when he came home. He read the Scriptures with so much Ardor and Assiduity, that fifteen Chapters a Day divided into three Exercises, and nothing less, would suffice him. He would moreover reprove his Play-mates for their wicked Words and Practices». At fourteen he began the practice of frequent fasting.

Not many years after his graduation, this pink of youthful priggery was called to be assistant in his father's church, of which he remained a pastor for nearly half a century, for much of that time directing the affairs of the province, like a pope, from the pulpit of the Old North Church. His rich and fruitful activity in public affairs during that period cannot here be described, although important illustrations of his character may be derived from his course in the witchcraft troubles, in which he was extraordinarily active; urging on the courts to more and more prosecutions, stimulating the popular excitement, and making the most violent [49] efforts to prevent the natural reaction. It is with his literary activities and mental characteristics that we are concerned. His son, relating his death-bed conversation, says: «I asked him what Sentence or Word, what Pyknon Epos, He would have me think on constantly, for I ever desired to have him before me and hear him speaking to me? He said "Remember only that one word Fructuosus"». The advice was highly characteristic. Never was there a mortal of more prodigious industry. In one year he prepared and published fourteen books, preached more than seventy-two public sermons and nearly half as many private ones, kept sixty fasts and twenty-two vigils, besides attending to his other varied duties, for he was most assiduous in pastoral labors. The amount of his work in the study was enormous; that of his work among men was scarcely less so. The 361st of his works, as catalogued by Mr. Sibley, is entitled Honesta Parsimonia; or, Time Spent as it should be. Proposals, [...] To prevent that Great Folly and Mischief, The Loss of Time. Herein, at least, the learned and painful doctor practiced what he preached. The record of the various ingenious means which [50] he employed in order not to waste any time is an amusing and interesting one. Even his prayers and meditations and thoughts were carefully systematized. The topic and method of his meditations while dressing were prescribed for each morning in the week. There was method observed even in the occasional thoughts with which he strove to have odd moments profitably occupied.

«When the Doctor waked in the Night», says his son, «he would impose it as a Law upon Himself ever before he fell asleep again to bring some Glory of his Saviour into his Meditations, and have some agreeable Desire of his Soul upon it [...] When he washed his Hands, he must think of the clean Hands, as well as pure Heart, which belong to the Citizens of Zion. And when he did so mean an Action as paring his Nails, he tho't how he might lay aside all Superfluity of Naughtiness [...] He was very constant in Ejaculatory Prayers and Praises [...] While he walked the Streets, or sat in a Room with his Mind otherwise unemployed, he would not lose the Time, but use his Wit as well as Grace in contriving some suitable Blessing for such and such as were before him; and then he would form [51] it into an Ejaculation for them [...] When he walked the Streets, he still blessed many Persons who never knew it, with secret Wishes after this manner for them; Upon the sight of a tall man "Lords Give that Man high attainments in Christianity". A lame Man, "Lord, help that Man on moral Accounts to walk uprightly". A Negro, "Lord, Wash that poor Soul; make him white by the Washing of thy Spirit". A Man going by without observing him, "lord, I pray Thee, Help that Man to take a due Notice of Christ"». The punning habit which is here noticeable crops out in all his writings, and indeed a general habit of verbal jingles and ingenuities which might justify one in applying to himself what he in the Magnalia says in praise of Rev. John Wilson, and commending

His care to guide his flock and feed his lambs,
By words, works, prayers, psalms, alms
and anagrams.
Enough has been cited to show thoroughly the character of this extraordinary man - a man of extraordinary piety, no doubt, but also of extraordinary self-consciousness, rising at times into the most amusing vanity. His tireless energy and industry in study [52] went far towards fitting him to be a historian of New England. His family connections and his prominent position gave him additional facilities for such a task. Already, among his multitudinous publications, he had issued a few minor ones of historical content, such as The Bostonian Ebenezer, Decennium Luctuosum, Arma Virosque Cano, and A Pillar of Gratitude. But about 1693 he formed the design of writing a general church history of New England, a design which the neighboring ministers much encouraged. It was finished in 1697. On January 12, 1698, he records in his diary: «I set apart this day for the exercise of a secret fast before the Lord. One special design of my supplications was to obtain the direction of Heaven about my Church History, the time and way of my sending it into Europe, and the methods of its publication. I think I am assured that my supplications are heard in this matter». After long delays, an opportunity occurred to send it to London; but still further delays intervened. The book was large, the publishers were cold; but at length one was found who, not with any expectation of gain, but for the glory of God, undertook its publication. It [53] may be interesting to note the mode in which the historian manifested his concern for his precious work - a mode perhaps not often observed by the historians of our day. In his diary, under date of April 4, 1702, occurs the following entry:

I was in much distress upon my spirit concerning my Church History, and some other elaborate composures, that I have sent into London; about the progress towards the publication whereof the Lord still keeps me ill the dark. To have those composures, with all my labors and all my prayers about them, lost, would be a terrible trial to me. But I thought it my duty to prepare for such a trial. Wherefore I set apart a vigil this night peculiarly for that service. Accord- ingly, in the dead of the night, I first sang some agreeable psalms; and then, casting myself prostrate in the dust, on my studyfloor, before the Lord, I confessed unto him the sins for which he might justly reject me and all my services; and I promised unto him, that if He would reject those particular services, which I have been laboring to do for His name, in my Church History, and some of the composures now in England, though my calamity therein would be very [54] sensible, yet I would with His help submit patiently unto His holy will therein; and I would not be discouraged thereby at all from further endeavors to serve my Lord Jesus Christ, but I would love him still, and seek him still, and serve him still, and never be weary of doing so, but essay to serve him in other ways, if he would not accept of these. Thus did I resign unto the Lord; who thereupon answered me, that He was my Father, and that He took delight in me, and that He would smile upon my endeavors to serve Him, and that my Church History should be accepted and prospered.

Mather's solicitude for his books, it ought to be said, should not be regarded as arising solely from vanity. The desire to do good by them seems to have been ever present with him. }'rom both motives, he used the utmost care and ingenuity and diligence in disseminating copies of them in all directions, more especially throughout New England, as soon as he received them from the press of Boston or of London. The arrival of the first copy of the Magnalia is thus chronicled by him, October 30, 1702:

Yesterday I first saw my Church history since the publication of it. A gentleman [55] arrived here from Newcastle in England, that had bought it there. Wherefore I set apart this day for solemn thanksgiving unto God for his watchful and gracious providence over that work, and for the harvest of so many prayers and cares and tears and resignations as I had employed upon it. My religious friend, Mr. Bromfield, who had been singularly helpful to the publication of that great book (of twenty shillings price at London), came to me at the close of the day, to join with me in some of my praises to God».

The offspring of all these «prayers and cares and tears and resignations» is indeed a large book, distended by abundant divagations and moralizings and quotations, and even the insertion, in extended reprint, of essays already published. There is little consistency or method in the mode of presentation. It is the outpouring of a full mind working at great speed. The general scheme is plain enough, but it is such as to involve much repetition and looseness of arrangement. The first of the seven books of which the Magnalia consists gives a somewhat desultory history, not only ecclesiastical, but civil, of the colonies of New England. As an [56] appendix to this book is reprinted The Bostonian Ebenezer. The second book is entitled «Ecclesiarum Clypei», and contains the lives of the governors that were as shields unto the churches of New England. To each of the more important ones is consecrated a separate chapter, under some such quaint title as Nehemias Americanus, the Life of John Winthrop, Esq., Governour of the Massachuset Colony. The third book gives, in forty-three chapters, the lives of the principal New England divines. The first part, entitled «Johannes in Eremo» (John in the wilderness), commemorates four of the most prominent, grouped together, for no other reason, apparently, than that they all bore the name John - John Cotton, John Norton, John Wilson, and John Davenport. In the second part (quaintly entitled «Sepher Jereim, i. e. Liber Deum Timentium; or, Dead Abels yet speaking and spoken of»), in the third part, and in the fourth, other clerical worthies are commemorated who were of less consequence, or who did not have the name of John. The fourth book is devoted to the history of Harvard College, and the biographies of its more eminent graduates; the fifth, to the [57] acts and monuments of the New England church. The sixth book, perhaps the most curious of all, is called «Thaumaturgus, [...] i. e. Liber Memorabilium [...] wherein very many illustrious discoveries and demonstrations of Divine Providence in remarkable Mercies and Judgments on many particular persons among the people of New England, are observed, collected and related». One chapter, headed «Christus super Aquas», is given to remarkable deliverances by sea; another, «Ceraunius or Brontologia Sacra», to providences connected with thunder and lightning. Still another has as an appendix a history of criminals executed for capital crimes, with their dying speeches. But the most remarkable of all is that bearing the formidable title «Thaumatographia Pneumatica», and «relating the wonders of the invisible world in preternatural occurrences». «There has been», he says, «too much cause to observe, that the Christians who were driven into the American Desart, which is now call'd New England, have to their sorrow seen Azazel [Satan] dwelling and raging there in very tragical instances. The devils have doubtless felt a more than ordinary vexation, from [58] the arrival of those Christians with their sacred exercises of Christianity in this wilderness: But the sovereignty of heaven has permitted them still to remain in the wilderness, for our vexation, as well as their own». And so he proceeds to a detailed narration of fourteen selected eases of witchcraft, forming a chapter of most curious reading, and a monument of his own ingenuity and credulity. Finally, the Magnalia closes with a book called Ecclesiarum Prolia or, A Book of the Wars of the Lord. It is, however, mainly concerned with the conflicts of the colonial authorities against heretics; but at the end it includes a reprint of the two small books, Arma Virosque Cano and Decennium Luctuosum, giving an account of the Indian wars.

Such was the composition of this famous work. Its style was not less peculiar. Prince, indeed, in his funeral sermon upon Mather, confesses that «in his Style indeed He was something singular, and not so agreable to the Gust of the Age». He was probably the most learned man, and certainly had the largest library, in colonial America. The treasures of these intellectual resources were lavished upon his work, until [59] its tissue was heavy and stiff with the jewels of pedantic quotation. It is a very easy matter to appear erudite, and doubtless Mather knew the imposing trick of jauntily alluding to recondite authors, and ignoring their unfamiliarity to writer as well as reader. But with all deductions, he was really very learned. The jewels were genuine enough; the fault was that the fabric was overloaded with them. Some indeed have breathed a suspicion that they were out of all proportion to the value of the ground-stuff. An eminent but crotchery historical scholar of the last generation used systematically to refuse to believe any unsupported statement of Mather. This, however, is unjust. He is often inaccurate, but he has conveyed to us a great amount of information not elsewhere attainable. The criticisms upon his historical style may best be explained by showing a bit of it. With some difficulty, I select a passage not cumbered with Greek and Latin quotations. It is the beginning of the chapter called Venisti tandem ? or discoveries of America:

It is the opinion of some, though it is but an opinion, and but of some learned [60] men, that when the sacred oracles of heaven assure us, the things under the earth are some of those, whose knees are to bow in the name of Jesus, by those things are meant the inhabitants of America, who are Antipodes to those of the other hemisphere. I would not quote any words of Lactantius, though there are some to countenance this interpretation, because of their being so ungeographical [...] I can contentedly allow that America (which as the learned Nicolas Fuller observes, might more justly be called Columbina) was altogether unknown to the penmen of the Holy Scriptures, and in the ages when the scriptures were penned. I can allow, that those parts of the earth, which do not include America, are in the inspired writings of Luke, and of Paul, stiled, all the world. I can allow, that the opinion of Tornellius and of Pagius, about the apostles preaching the gospel in America, has been sufficiently refuted by Basnagius. But I am out of the reach of Pope Zachary's excommunication. I can assert the existence of the American Antipodes; and I can report unto the European churches great occurrences among these Americans.

[61] Even if the Americans were antipodes of Europeans in a geographical sense, which is hardly literally true, they were far from being so in respect to mental development. One of the most interesting facts about Mather as a literary phenomenon is that he is our chief American example of a remarkable historical school then dominant in every part of Europe, and shows America participating in the life and evolution of European thought. The sixteenth century and the early seventeenth had been an age of great historians who were also great men. Prominent statesmen and soldiers wrote brilliant accounts of events in which they had borne an active part. Something of this characteristic belongs, as we have seen in the previous chapter, to the American historical writers of that time. The period from 1650 to 1750, on the other hand, was in Europe distinctively an age of erudition. Excellence in historical narrative declined, but enormous labors of investigation, criticism, and publication were carried through. It was the age of Bollandists and Benedictines, of Mabillon and Muratori and Rymer. In every country giants of erudition arose, and vast additions were made to the sum of historical [62] knowledge. Obviously, Cotton Mather was nowise the equal of these Anakim. But he is their American analogue, and he, and Thomas Prince, and the Rev. William Stith, of Virginia, show us that already the English colonies so far shared the life of the world that even the movements of European scholarship found their counterpart on these shores.

But there was, at any rate, one American historian who was not thus mentally annexed to Europe, but retained an original spirit, racy of the Virginian soil. It has already been remarked that the incoming of the age of Walpole had less undesirable effects in Virginia than in New England. Something must be attributed to the happier influence of the climate; something, to origin from Englishmen whose traditions were not Puritan. But whatever were the causes, the tone of Virginia life and thought in the earlier part of the eighteenth century was an exceedingly attractive one. The tone of Virginia life, I ought perhaps rather to say; for of its thought we really know little. But its life, at any rate, was marked by an openness, a freshness, a geniality, strikingly contrasting with the narrow strenuousness which [63] the decline of Puritan fervor had left behind it in contemporary Massachusetts. The Virginian planters were not less worldly and unheroic, not less the children of the eighteenth century. But their engrossment with the world took the turn of a hearty delight in it, so fresh and spontaneous and agreeable as half redeemed its Philistinism. Of this life, easy-going and commonplace and sterile of intellectual achievement, yet pleasing and natural, we fortunately have an admirable exponent in Robert Beverley. Perhaps it is rather as such an exponent than as a historian that Beverley is valuable to us; for, excellent as his historical narration is, it occupies but little more than a third of the not very large book which, in 1705, he published under the title The History of Virginia. The rest is descriptive of the natural productions of the country, of the Indians and their civilization, and of the present state of the colony and the nature of its government. It is this last portion, apparently, out of which the volume grew. In his youth, Beverley's father was clerk of the House of Burgesses; he thus became familiar with the public records and public business of the colony, and for his own information [64] gathered many notes regarding its administration. These notes lay unused until the year 1703, when, after the fashion of the wealthy planters of that day, he went to London upon business. Soon after his arrival, his bookseller told him that a general account of all Her Majesty's plantations in America was being prepared for printing, and requested him to look over that part of it relating to Virginia and Carolina. The book was Oldmixon's British Empire in America. Half a dozen sheets of the manuscript of it were brought to Mr. Beverley. What followed may as well be related in the colonial proprietor's own words as in any paraphrase of them:

I very innocently (when I began to read) placed Pen and Paper by me, and made my Observations upon the first Page, but found it in the Sequel so very faulty, and an Abridgment only of some Accounts that had been printed 60 or 70 years ago; in which also he had chosen the most strange and untrue Parts, and left out the more sincere and faithful, so that I laid aside all Thoughts of farther Observations, and gave it only a Reading; and my Bookseller for Answer, that the Account was too faulty and too imperfect [65] to be mended: Withal telling him, that seeing I had in my junior Days taken some Notes of the Government, which I then had with me in England, I would make him an Account of my own Country, if I could find Time, while I staid in London. And this I should rather undertake in Justice to so fine a Country; because it has been so misrepresented to the common People of England, as to make them believe, that the Servants in Virginia are made to draw in Cart and Plow, as Horses and Oxen do in England, and that the Country turns all people black, who go to live there, with other such prodigious Phantasms. Accordingly before I left London, I gave him a short History of the Country, from the first Settlement, with an Account of its then State; but I would not let him mingle it with Oldmixon's other Account of the Plan- tations, because I took them to be all of a Piece with those I had seen of Virginia and Carolina, but desired mine to be printed by itself.

It is no wonder that Beverley took this course, in view of some of the errors he signalizes in that book. For instance, in one passage Oldmixon said, «When Indians [66] at the Head of the Bay [i. e. Chesapeake Bay] travelled to New York, they past, going and coming, by the frontiers of Virginia and traded with the Virginians», etc. Here we have, early exemplified, that originality of view respecting American geography on the part of Englishmen which was until recent times the source of so much vexation to American bosoms, and which, now that we have become less sensitive, proves so perennially amusing.

The paragraph which I have quoted to show the genesis of Beverley's book will also serve to exhibit the merits of his style. It is simple, clear, and direct, far removed from the curious involution and cumbersome pedantry of Cotton Mather's; it never smacks of the lamp. The author was a plain Virginia gentleman, who had read some books, not too many, perhaps, but did not think it necessary to mention them all, nor to quote them with a frequency inversely proportioned to the familiarity of the language in which they were written. A French traveler of the period has left us an interesting picture of the home and the simple rural life of Beverley, whom he happened to visit upon business. It is too long to be here quoted; [67] but the characteristics which it brings to light are most attractive and Arcadian. Again and again in Beverley's book his strong love of nature crops out, and some of his descriptions are truly delightful. This, however, is in the second, third, and fourth parts of the book. As to the first or historical portion, it is too brief to convey to us a very great body of information on Vir- ginian history; but the sprightliness and ease of the style prevent its ever seeming dry. For the latter years of the seventeenth century, the years just before it was written, its volume becomes greater, and it gives some interesting information on details of public affairs, such as might easily come to the writer not only from his own experience, but from his family connections, for he was brother-in-law at once to President John Robinson and to Colonel Byrd of Westover.

Leaving aside such plain and business-like accounts as that of Beverley, the histories hitherto written in America had mostly been written either for the glory of God, or for the glory of the writer, as in the ease of Captain John Smith, or for the glory of both in curious mixture, as in the case of Cotton Mather. It remained for some one [68] to prepare the soil for the growth of American historical scholarship by beginning to write history without didactic or personal tendency, and in a truly scientific spirit. It may fairly be said that the wealth and leisure of the torpid and money-getting age which has been described were necessary prerequisites. The traditional view is that scholarship and poverty are twin sisters. In reality, however it may be of scholarship generally, the thorough pursuit of history requires so much laborious research, and therefore so much leisure on the part of some one, that for its successful conduct it has generally been necessary that, if not the individual, at any rate the age, should be rich. At all events, with the increase of wealth a hundred and fifty years ago, there did appear our first historical scholars, one in Virginia, one in Massachusetts. There was a curious parallelism, not only in their purposes and methods, but also in the unfortunate immediate fate of their books.

The two scholars alluded to are the Rev. Thomas Prince, minister of the Old South Church in Boston, and the Rev. William Stith, president of William and Mary College in Virginia. The elder of the two was [69] the Boston clergyman, a man of high and amiable character, who from his boyhood had possessed an eager interest in whatever bore upon the history of New England. Appreciating more highly than those who had preceded him the need of scholarly thoroughness and the value of original authorities, he spent years in making a search, as exhaustive as he could, for printed and manuscript materials. Thus he formed that invaluable New England Library which has been already more than once referred to, and of which a considerable portion, surviving to our times, forms the priceless Prince Collection in the Boston Public Library. Of books, pamphlets, and printed papers he had accumulated, he tens us, about a thousand; he had also gathered together a multitude o£ manuscripts left by the early settlers, documents, copies, and letters, to the number of several hundred.

With these copious materials, Prince at length, though with diffidence, began the composition of a Chronological History of New England. His modest aim did not extend to the preparation of a historical composition in the fullest sense; he proposed merely to write a chronology, but with every [70] sort of care to secure the most minute accuracy. He proposed to include «remarkable providences», the deaths of prominent men, brief notices of transactions of the government, elections, grants and settlement of towns, the formation of churches, the ordination and removal of ministers, the erection of important buildings, remarkable laws, executions, wars, battles - ill short, all the events of the earlier history of those colonies in which his contemporaries might feel an interest. In the long introductory portion he notes down, in true annalistic fashion, the principal events in the history of the world from its creation down to the settlement of New England. This, he confesses, gave him a vast amount of trouble; and we must regret that he spent so much time in perfecting it, for the result was that the New England Chronology never got beyond the year 1633. Indeed, the first volume, published in 1736, carried the narrative no farther than to the autumn of 1630. Here the publication rested until eighteen or nineteen years later, when the author, then an old man, began the publishing of volume second by the issue of sixpenny [71] numbers, of thirty-two pages each. Only three such numbers, it is supposed, were ever issued; and of these three no one now possesses a perfect set. The truth seems to be, that there was not at that time an adequate public demand for a history so minute as Prince provided.

It will be evident from the plan of his work that it does not lend itself readily to interesting quotation. But it is the first of our histories, not itself an original source, which is of value as a contribution to historical science rather than to historical literature; and it is to this that it owes its great importance. Prince and his Virginian contemporary are the progenitors of modern American historiography. The wide sweep of the search after materials, the patience and industry in investigation, the minute accuracy and fidelity which characterize the best of the moderns, are all to be found in Prince, and to be found in a high degree.«It is exactness I aim at», he says, «and would not have the least mistake, if possible, pass to the world. If I have unhappily fallen into any, it is through inadvertency only». The spirit of the work, it will be seen, was that of the Benedictines of St. Maur; and the execution seems to have been as scholarly as the intention. [72]

Among the points of resemblance between Prince and Stith, their ill- success in publication is one of the most remarkable, and in truth not at all creditable to our forefathers. There is something highly amusing in the tone of annoyance with which Stith remarks the indifference of his contemporaries to his labors. After speaking of his intention to have included many more interesting documents, he says: «But I perceive, to my no small Surprise and Mortification, that some of my Countrymen (and those too, Persons of high Fortune and Distinction) seemed to be much alarmed, and to grudge, that a complete History of their own Country would run to more than one Volume, and cost them above half a Pistole. I was, therefore, obliged to restrain my Hand [...] for fear of enhancing the Price, to the immense Charge and irreparable Damage of such generous and publick-spirited Gentlemen». This, we may suppose, was the reason why the work was never carried beyond the year 1624. If it had been carried down, on the same scale, to the year of publication, 1747, it would have made au eight-volume history of the colony of Virginia, a work of such bulk that even «Persons of High Fortune [73] and Distinction» in Virginia might be excused for hesitating to support it.

Yet these persons might have done well to sustain him, for his History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia is an excellent piece of work - pleasing in style, accurate, and fair. That it is too prolix, however, is a thing that cannot be denied; and this is the more to be blamed because the proportions between the different parts show us clearly that the author was dominated by his materials, rather than master of them, and that he relates much of his story at great length simply because it is in his power to do so. Thus, out of the seventeen years which he treats, he devotes three fourths of his space to the first three years and the last five, evidently because materials were most abundant for these. For the years 1607-1609 he could draw on the most detailed portion of Captain John Smith's narrative - a source the complete trustworthiness of which he seems in general not at all to doubt, though disposed to make considerable allowances for personal pique and party spirit in regard to Smith's expressions concerning the Virginia Company. «Not», he says, «that I question Captain [74] Smith's Integrity; for I take him to have been a very honest Man, and a strenuous Lover of Truth».

When this esteemed guide leaves him, the ex-president of William and Mary fans back upon the papers in the Capitol at Williamsburg, and the collection of documents made, for historical purposes, by his late uncle, Sir John Randolph. With the year 1619, however, his narrative widens into a very copious account, which is derived, in a far greater degree than has been generally supposed hitherto, from one of the sources which he mentions. The mode in which he refers to it is as follows: «But I must confess myself most indebted, in this Part of my History, to a very full and fair Manuscript of the London Company's Records, which was communicated to me by the late worthy President of our Council, the Honorable William Byrd, Esq». The records so described have a curious history, and one which, it may be remarked parenthetically, authors have almost invariably related incorrectly. In 1624 King James I. seized the papers of the company and dissolved it. Shortly before this, in anticipation of such a seizure, certain officers of the company had secretly caused [75] to be prepared an attested copy of the records of its proceedings during the last five years, to serve as evidence for their justification in case of prosecution. The copy, when completed, was entrusted to the president of the company, Shakespeare's friend, the Earl of Southampton. On the death of his son, the Lord High Treasurer Southampton, in 1667, the two volumes of the copy were bought of his executors, for sixty guineas, by Captain William Byrd, of Virginia, and for more than a century formed a part of the extensive library of the Byrd family at Westover. These are the two volumes of which Stith made use, and he appeals to have used them very freely. All subsequent historians have referred to them, but to all appearances they have not really used them. It would take too long to relate how most of them passed into the possession of Thomas Jefferson, and then into that of Congress. In the Library of Congress these primary sources for the history of our first colony have now been buried for sixty years, and all efforts to make the public have hitherto failed before the apathy of Congress and the difficulties presented by its cumbrous machinery. Extracts from a copy have lately been printed.

[76] The fifth work to be mentioned, the best of all, was written by a man of conspicuous station -lieutenant-governor, chief justice, and finally governor of Massachusetts - and was bodily associated with a striking event in our Revolutionary history. The book referred to is the history of the colony and province of Massachusetts by Thomas Hutchinson, the famous Tory gov- ernor. The scene alluded to was in the time of the Stamp Act troubles, when already the first volume of the history had appeared. A Boston mob, of the sort which in our schooldays we are taught to venerate as gatherings of liberty-loving, patriots engaged in resisting oppression, attacked the lieutenant-governor's house. The fact was that he had disapproved of the Stamp Act policy, and had opposed it by every legal means. But liberty-loving patriots engaged in resistance to oppression cannot be expected to give attention to defenses so subtle. They broke in the doors and windows, demolished all the furniture in the house, and destroyed or scattered all the books and papers of the occupant. A clerical neighbor made efforts to save these last, and nearly all of the invaluable manuscript of the second [77] volume of the history was thus preserved. Although it had lain in the street, scattered abroad several hours in the rain, yet so much of it was legible that the author was able to supply the rest, and to transcribe it. In spite of the loss of materials, the second volume was published nine years later. «I pray God», says the writer in his preface, after speaking, of the riot, «to forgive the actors in and advisers of this most savage and inhuman injury, and I hope their posterity will read with pleasure and profit what has so narrowly escaped the outrage of their ancestors». It is well known that in this same year the governor retired to England, from which he never returned. Long afterwards, and years after he had died in exile, his grandson, at the request of the Massachusetts Historical Society, published the third volume of the history. The recent publication of his Diary and Letters has made clear to a generation more disposed to be just to those who were faithful to their king» that Governor Hutchinson was, both in patriotism and in character, fully the equal of his opponents. Of his qualities as a historian there is but one opinion. He was industrious in research, and had access [78] to many materials, especially those collected by Cotton Mather, for Mather's son was his brother-in-law. He wrote with excellent judgment, and in a good though not brilliant style. «His mind», says the late Dr. Deane, «was eminently a judicial one; and candor, moderation, and a desire for truth appear to have guided his pen». Even the third volume, which treats of the period from 1749 to 1774, the period in which he was himself so large a figure in the bitter political contests which led to the Revolution, is written with much fairness. The spirit with which Hutchinson approached the history of the colony and province is shown by a note found among his papers, and written near the end of his life, in which he says: «In the course of my education, I found no part of science a more pleasing study than history, and no part of the history of any country more useful than that of its government and laws. The history of Great Britain and its dominions was of all others the most delightful to me, and a thorough knowledge of the nature and constitution of the supreme and of the subordinate governments thereof I considered as what would be peculiarly beneficial to me in the line of life [79] upon which I was entering; and the public employments to which I was early called, and sustained for near thirty years together, gave me many advantages for the acquisition of this knowledge».

Here again, as in the case of Cotton Mather and Prince, we may suggest a parallel with the European movements. Hutchinson's approach to historical study was mainly from the point of view of the student of institutional history. In Europe, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the age of erudition had been succeeded by an age mainly devoted to the study of the development of institutions. The Puritan Hutchinson was in his way a member of the school of Montesquieu, Turgot, and Voltaire - a disciple, consciously or unconsciously, of the Essai sur les Mours.


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