The Connecticut Wits
The Connecticut Wits, also referred to as the Hartford Wits and the Friendly Club, were a group of colonial American intellectuals living in and around Hartford, Connecticut, who met regularly during the 1780s and 1790s to discuss politics, literature, and their own writings. The membership of the club fluctuated over the years, but the best-known Wits included John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, David Humphries, Theodore Dwight, Richard Alsop, Elihu Hubbard Smith, Mason Cogswell, and Lemuel Hopkins. Although they were engaged in different professions—farming, business, the law, medicine, education, the ministry—they were united by their affiliation with Yale College, Calvinist faith, conservative political views, and their strong interest in the creation of a national literature.
The group members' similarity in political outlook and literary taste is evident from their three anonymously published collaborative publications, satires written in a neoclassical style influenced by the works of Samuel Butler, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, and Charles Churchill. Writing in the postrevolutionary period, the Wits desired to celebrate American independence from England in their works, yet they were troubled by the political instability and the turbulent economic climate that prevailed in the new republic. Their first joint effort, The Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night, published in the New Haven Gazette from October 1786 to September 1787, is a collection of scathing satirical essays criticizing individual greed, political rebellion, and the reluctance of some states to ratify the Constitution. Members of the society also advocated a strong central government to bring nascent disagreements and unscrupulous business practices under control, and they reacted vehemently against Thomas Jefferson's liberal, democratic ideals then gaining popularity. The Wits burlesqued the views of Jefferson and his supporters in The Echo, a collection of verse published between 1791 and 1805. Many numbers of The Echo appeared individually in the American Mercury and were so popular that they were reprinted as pamphlets and broadsides before being published in book form. The Political Greenhouse, the work of Richard Alsop, Lemuel Hopkins, and Theodore Dwight, is a verse satire written from the federalist perspective describing events taking place in 1798. First appearing in the Connecticut Courant, it was reprinted in book form in 1799.
Aside from participation in the group's projects, three of the Connecticut Wits distinguished themselves in individual literary careers. Trumbull's two best-known works, The Progress of Dulness and M'Fingal, written in 1772-73 and 1782 respectively, are political satires that enjoyed enormous popularity in their time. Modeled on Butler's Hudibras, The Progress of Dulness narrates the events in the career of a farmer's son, named Tom Brainless, who ineptly makes his way through school, society, and, eventually, the ministry. Composed in a similar but more pointed vein, M'Fingal ridicules the Tory and Loyalist causes as it glorifies American independence; a mock epic, the poem deals with a Tory colonial official who is tarred and feathered by the townspeople of whom he is supposedly in charge. Following in the patriotic mode of Trumbull's works, Barlow in the The Columbiad (1807) looks back to the time of Christopher Columbus and weaves a mythological version of America's past. The premise of the poem is that Columbus, imprisoned by Spain's King Ferdinand, has a vision which encompasses the past, the present, and the future, and which foretells the discovery of America as well as explains the ramifications of that discovery for all humankind. Considered a highly ambitious undertaking, the epic was originally published in 1787 as The Vision of Columbus; Barlow expanded and extensively revised this early version in writing The Columbiad, but critics have generally preferred the first work because of its simpler style and less pompous treatment of the subject matter. The work that most endeared Barlow to his American readers, however, was a poem entitled The Hasty Pudding. Written during his travels in England in 1793 and published in 1796, it enthusiastically praises the farming life and the agrarian ideal. In a similar vein, Dwight's Greenfield Hill, published in 1794 and written in heroic couplets imitative of John Denham and James Thomson, celebrates American rural life as a source of poetic inspiration. Dwight's most noted work, The Conquest of Canaan, published in 1785, is considered by many commentators the first American religious epic. In it, he extols American values by way of biblical analogy with the Book of Joshua, retold in 10,000 lines of heroic couplets.
Criticism about the Connecticut Wits has focused on their historical significance as the first American school of poets and on their writings considered in the context of the conservative response during the postrevolutionary period in America. Their works have been studied as a kind of barometer to the changing values of the young American nation as it slowly shifted away from federalism and toward democracy. Some scholars have noted an inconsistency in the Wits's writings, pointing out that while they were earnest proponents of American literary, intellectual, and political independence from Europe, their works reveal a troubling tendency to imitate European forms and style. More recently, commentators have explored the ideas of the major Wits in terms of their relationship to the values of the enlightenment, humanism, and radical political and philosophical thought in Europe. In summarizing the importance of the Wits in American literature, Leon Howard has written that "the greatest value of [their] writings,… both in verse and in prose, lies in the illumination they cast upon an age which was to have, socially and aesthetically, an extraordinary influence upon the future. Their story shares how men of different temperaments found sustenance for their dispositions in a limited provincial environment and…prepared the way for a new literature and formed a new national character."
The Charms of Fancy 1856
The Anarchiad: A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night 1786-87
The Vision of Columbus 1787
The Hasty Pudding 1796
The Columbiad 1807
The Conquest of Canaan 1785
The Triumph of Infidelity 1788
Greenfield Hill 1794
Travels in New England and New York 1821-22
The Echo 1791-1805
The Guillotina, or a Democratic Dirge 1796
A Poem on the Happiness of America 1780
A Poem on the Industry of the United States of America 1783
The Political Greenhouse 1799
Elihu Hubbard Smith
American Poems (editor) 1793
The Progress of Dulness 1772-73
Annie Russell Marble
SOURCE: "A Group of Hartford Wits," in Heralds of American Literature, The University of Chicago Press, 1907, pp. 149-89.
[In the essay below, Marble surveys the major figures and literary output of the Connecticut Wits.]
Classification is a common substitute for literary criticism. Often a relative convenience, it has sometimes only obscured the distinct traits of an author. Occasionally an individual daunts the cataloguer and stands in comparative isolation—like Dante, Carlyle, Thoreau, or Tolstoy. Classification is often based upon the governing motif of the writers—as the "Transcendentalists," the "Pre-Raphaelites," and the "Decadents." The more common allotment is by eras and localities; the "Augustan age," the "Elizabeth dramatists," the "Victorian novelists," are phrases as familiar as the "Oxford Movement," the "Lake Poets," the "Knickerbocker Group," or the "Hartford Wits."
After the middle of the eighteenth century the center of literary activity in America was transferred from the vicinity of Boston, where it had been for many years inspired by Harvard College, to the environment of the younger colleges, Nassau Hall, or the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton, and the College of Philadelphia, which formed the nucleus of the University of Pennsylvania. Graduates of these institutions became progressive leaders in political and literary zeal. At Yale College, also, victory for modern educational methods had been gained, at about the same time that the first notes were sounded against British tyranny and in behalf of independence. John Trumbull was the leader among the Connecticut reformers and satirists, but his life reflected his association with a few companions, often called the "Hartford Wits." While the burlesques and satires that gave fame to Trumbull were written during the early years of the war, many of his later efforts in satire and reform were in collaboration with some patriot-comrades who realized the dangers which imperiled the new nation.
Although independence had been won, anarchy was menacing; government, finance, and commerce were unstable. Such affairs formed subjects for grave discussion, varied by witty verse, at the gatherings of a "Friendly Club" in Hartford. Among the nine names mentioned of those who formed the original membership of this club, there is a major and a minor list: familiar to our ears are the names of John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, and David Humphreys; seldom recalled are their associates, Theodore Dwight, Richard Alsop, and the three physicians, Elihu Smith, Mason Cogswell, and Lemuel Hopkins. Other men, possibly allied with this coterie, were Congressman Uriah Tracey, Judge Tappan Reeve, and Zephaniah Smith. The series of publications assigned to this first group of wits dated from 1785 to 1807.
Seventy-five years seems to us an incredibly long period to elapse between the appearance of some literary work in a journal and its first publication in book-form. On the title-page of The Anarchiad, dated 1861, is this editor's note, "Now first published in book form." Research shows that the twelve satiric papers constituting The Anarchiad were printed first in the New Haven Gazette, beginning October 26, 1786, and continuing, at intervals, until September 13, 1787. They were copied in Federalist journals throughout many of the states of the Union. In this first, belated edition of The Anarchiad, its editor, Luther G. Riggs, expresses an assurance "that he is in performance of a duty—that he becomes, as it were, an instrument of justice, a justice delayed for more than half a century, to the genius and loyalty of its authors, who were among the noblest and most talented sons of the Revolution." We would exchange his term "genius" for "wit," but we cannot question the quality of patriotism and the influence of these satires in subduing threatened anarchy, and in arousing higher ideals during the crucial years after the war, while feeling was strong regarding the Constitution and the basis of political and financial security.
The name, borrowed from Miltonic Anarch, suggested the purpose, which was further explained in the sub-title, A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night. The wits wished to show, with forceful satire, the warfare waged against the stability of the new nation by the promoters of local rebellion, paper money, and selfish greed. Although the papers were sent unsigned to the newspaper, and the various portions have never been perfectly identified, the series was undoubtedly the work of four men who had shown earlier evidence of their patriotism either by service in the army or by their writings—John Trumbull, David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, and Dr. Lemuel Hopkins.
To Colonel Humphreys belonged the credit for suggesting this unique literary plan. While abroad, serving on the commission for treaties with foreign powers, he had shared in the popular curiosity over an anonymous English satire, The Rolliad. Returning to America, he saw with dismay the signs of insurrection in Shay's Rebellion and other dangers. He suggested the use of satire in verse, akin to the form of The Rolliad and Pope's The Dunciad, to arouse public curiosity and also to teach lessons of patriotism.
The prose "Introduction" to the first paper mystified the readers and entertained them. It is an interesting commentary upon the credulity and emotional ferment of the period. The supposed archaeologist thus addressed the publishers of the New Haven Gazette:
I have the felicity to belong to a society of critics and antiquarians, who have made it their business and delight for some years past, to investigate the ancient as well as natural history of America. The success of their researches in such an unlimited field, pregnant with such wonderful and inexhaustible materials, has been equal to their most sanguine expectations. One of our worthy associates has favored the public with a minute and accurate description of the monstrous, new-invented animal which had, till its elaborate lucubration, escaped the notice of every zoologist … Others have spared no pains to feast the public curiosity with an ample supply of great bones from the Wabash, and, at the same time, to quench the thirst for novelty from the burning spring on the Ohio.
It has happily fallen to my lot to communicate through the medium of your paper, a recent discovery still more valuable to the republic of letters. I need scarcely premise that the ruins of fortifications yet visible, and other vestiges of art, in the west country, had sufficiently demonstrated that this delightful region had once been occupied by a civilized people. Had not this hypothesis been previously established, the fact I am about to relate would have placed it beyond the possibility of doubt. For upon digging into the ruins of one of the most considerable of these fortifications, the labourers were surprised to find a casement, a magazine, and a cistern almost entire. Pursuing their subterranean progress, near the north-east corner of the bastion, they found a great number of utensils, more curious and elegant than those of Palmyra and Herculaneum. But what rendered their good fortune complete, was the discovery of a great number of papers, manuscripts, etc., whose preservation, through such a lapse of years, amid such marks of hostility and devastation, must be deemed marvellous indeed, perhaps little short of miraculous. This affords a reflection, that such extraordinary circumstances could scarcely have taken place to answer only vulgar purposes.
Happening myself to come upon the spot, immediately after this treasure had been discovered, I was permitted to take possession of it, in the name and for the use of our society. Amongst these relics of antiquity, I was rejoiced to find a folio manuscript which appeared to contain an epic poem, complete; and, as I am passionately fond of poetry, ancient as well modern, I set myself instantly to cleanse it from the extraneous concretions with which it was in some parts enveloped, defaced and rendered illegible. By means of a chemic preparation, which is made use of for restoring oil paintings, I soon accomplished the desirable object. It was then I found it was called The Anarchiad, A Poem on the Restoration of Chaos and Substantial Night, in twenty-four books.
While public curiosity was thus assailed, the second, and ulterior, motive of patriotism was emphasized by some interwoven verses. Choosing Shay's Rebellion as a pivotal example of anarchy, the vision of its "mob-compelling," destructive course was outlined by the supposed prophet:
Thy constitution, Chaos, is restor'd,
Law sinks before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand unbars th' unfathomed gulf of fate,
And deep in darkness whelms the new-born state.
In addition to the insurrections against martial laws and state organizations, there was another lurking evil, especially in New England—the futile paper money, and the consequent depreciation and instability of all industries. Rhode Island was suffering much from this cause, and seemed to be in the power of wary, selfish schemers. In the second and third numbers of "American Antiquities," as the Anarchiad series was called, mock-heroics in verse were mingled with serious advice, in prose, from Connecticut to her oppressed neighbor state. With direct truth it was asserted:
For it will scarcely be denied in any part of the United States, that paper money, in an unfunded and depreciating condition, is happily calculated to introduce the long-expected scenes of misrule, dishonesty, and perdition.
The fourth and fifth papers in the series appealed for a revival of national pride and progress. Hesper, the promise of Dawn, confronts Anarch, god of Night, and by the contention seeks to arouse loyalty among the people:
Teach ere too late, their blood-bought rights to prize,
Bid other Greenes and Washingtons arise!
Teach those who suffer'd for their country's good,
Who strove for freedom and who toil'd in blood,
Once more in arms to make the glorious stand;
And bravely die or save their natal land!
In the fifth article of the series was an ode, "Genius of America"—a favorite title of the day. In offering it, the authors expressed a hope that, "should the taste of their countrymen in general be uncorrupted, as they flatter themselves it is, they expect this song will be introduced into most of the polite circles of the United States." The author of this ode was Humphreys; for it was included later among his poems. He must have rejoiced—for he sought appreciation—when the song was "introduced" and reprinted. Sung to the tune of "The watery god, great Neptune, lay," it won much popularity; but in thought and meter it ranks among the most inferior portions of The Anarchiad. A single stanza will indicate both form and theme—the dangers which threatened to destroy America's glory:
Shall steed to steed, and man to man,
With discord thundering in the van,
Again destroy the bliss!
Enough my mystic words reveal;
The rest the shades of night conceal,
In fate's profound abyss!
The dialogue between Anarch and his pupil Wrongheads, in the sixth and seventh portions, extorted a confession from the demagogue that his aim was selfish greed, and the enemies whom he most feared were the friends of law, justice, and education.
One of the objects of special censure by the Democrats, who feared the tendencies toward monarchy and militarism, was the Society of the Cincinnat. In eastern Connecticut there lived William Williams, a prominent lawyer, who had ventured to question the wisdom of continuing the Cincinnati as a banded society. Williams was a fine scholar, and had proved himself a staunch patriot during the war, by giving lavishly of his money and service in town offices. Later he became judge of Windham County, and married the daughter of Governor Trumbull. His criticisms of the Cincinnati, however, had aroused Barlow and Humphreys, who were prominent among its members and orators, and they found an opportunity to retaliate. In April, denial that "America had produced a Man of Genius in one single Art or one single Science" seemed anathema to these versifiers, who considered each other men of genius. They poured forth their wrath also against fictitious narratives about America by foreign writers, especially the false and maligning stories of Washington's amours, as told by D'Auberteul. Perhaps it was Humphreys who hurled that last shaft of invective, to redeem the honor of his commander:
In wit's light robe shall gaudy fiction shine,
And all be lies, as in a work of thine.
The Anarchiad was essentially a literary curiosity, although it had immediate influence upon the policies of Connecticut and more distant states. It is uneven in merit, and often anticlimactic. Probably it was written without any perfected plan, or expectation of publication in sequential form; later numbers were intended by the authors, if circumstances should call them forth. The series corresponded to the more didactic and aggressive columns of arguments in behalf of federalism which were contributed at the same time to newspapers in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and other states where there was contest over the adoption of the new Constitution, in place of the old Articles of Confederation.
The Echo was, in a way, a continuation of these satiric papers, although the members of the Hartford coterie had changed somewhat, and the subjects chosen for ridicule or remonstrance were more varied. The Echo had less significance in the politico-literary history of the age, yet here were satires of strong feeling directed against political evils, and lampoons upon democratic publications. A secondary motive of the writers was to caricature the excesses of literary style found in many publications of the time. Of the group who had written The Anarchiad in collaboration, Humphreys and Barlow were abroad when The Echo series appeared, and Trumbull's part has been questioned. Dr. Lemuel Hopkins, alone of the earlier coterie, was assuredly a contributor to the later series. Associated with him were Theodore Dwight, Richard Alsop, Dr. Elihu Smith, and Dr. Mason Cogswell.
That Trumbull had a vital interest in these papers written by his friends, and was informed regarding many matters there suggested, is shown by a copy of The Echo which belonged to him and bears his name, to be found now at the Connecticut Historical Society. His notes, in ink, assist one in deciding the authorship of certain portions. In the preface to the collected papers the explanation was given that the idea of these word-cartoons came
of a moment of literary sportiveness at a time when pedantry, affectation and bombast pervaded most of the pieces published in the gazettes,… thus to check the progress of false taste in American literature, the authors conceived that ridicule would prove a powerful corrective, and that the mode employed in The Echo was the best suited to this purpose.
The political evils were also emphasized and the plan of the authors to scathe and correct
that hideous morality of revolutionary madness, which levelled the boundaries of virtue and vice,… that destructive torrent which threatened to overwhelm everything good and estimable in private life, everything venerable and excellent in political society.
The first "Echo" appeared August 8, 1791, in the American Mercury—a weekly newspaper started in 1784 by Joel Barlow and Elisha Babcock. It was a parody upon a florid report in a Boston newspaper. The latter, in recording a thunderstorm, had used such language as this: "uncorking the bottles of Heaven, revealing livid flame, disploding thunders, amid the brilliance of this irradiated arch!" The wits thus parodied the prose:
Even the last drop of hope, which dripping skies,
Gave for a moment to our straining eyes,
Like Boston Rum, from heaven's junk bottles broke,
Lost all the corks and vanished into smoke.…
The sons of Boston, the elect of Heaven,
Presented Mercy's Angel, smiling fair,
Irradiate splendors frizzled in his hair,
Uncorking demi-johns, and pouring down
Heaven's liquid blessings on the gaping town.
The ornate phrases of Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Governor John Hancock, John Adams, striving to please both aristocrats and democrats, certain demagogues of Jacobin type, a Philadelphia "Mirabeau" who ventured to attack the politics and literary abilities of the Hartford group—such were some of the individuals singled out for special ridicule by the authors of The Echo. Many of the numbers appeared first in the American Mercury, and were reprinted in other newspapers, from 1791 to 1800. In the years that intervened before they were collected and published in book-form, in 1807, some of them appeared as broadsides or pamphlets, generally soon after they were written. Often the papers were intended as New Year's verses.
One of the most representative of the satires, which won popular reading among the Federalists and was printed in pamphlet form, was by Dr. Hopkins, The Democratiad: A Poem in Retaliation, for the Philadelphia Jockey Club. By a Gentleman of Connecticut. 1795. This passed into at least two editions; it is No. XVIII in The Echo. The Philadelphia Jockey Club, the publication which had roused the wrath of the Wits, gave the example of the Hartford writers and William Cobbett, or "Peter Porcupine," whom they echoed, as an excuse for its attacks upon individuals of prominence among Federalists. Thus, the Philadelphia satirists declared their course of personal attack was "authorized by the precedent of the infamous PETER PORCUPINE and the literary out-law Snub, whose political squabbles have involved the characters of many respectables." In his answering satire, Hopkins attacked the Democrats and Jacobins, leveling his shafts of abuse especially against Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Aurora, and a grandson of Franklin:
Thou great descendant of that wondrous man,
Whose genius wild through all creation ran—
That man who walk'd the world of science o'er,
From ink and types to where the thunders roar,—
To thee, friend Bache, these lines I now address,
Prepar'd on purpose for thy hallow'd press,
I've pick'd thee out because I highly prize,
Thy grandsire's memory and thy knack at lies.
After further invective against the leaders of the Jacobinical faction, the author said in apostrophe to Washington:
ILLUSTRIOUS MAN! thy indignation shew,
And plunge them headlong where they ought to go,
Then turn thine eye, this mighty realm survey,
See Federal Virtue bless thy glorious sway.
The next year Dr. Hopkins was again chosen to write the New Year's verses in The Echo series,—"The Guillotina; or, A Democratic Dirge: A Poem. By the Author of Democratiad." They first appeared in the Connecticut Courant, January 1, 1796, and were afterward published as a pamphlet, possibly also as a broadside. The bald witticisms are recognized as those of Hopkins, as in the stanza:
Come sing again! since Ninety-Five,
Has left some Antis still alive,
Some Jacobins as pert as ever,
Tho' much was hoped from Yellow-fever.
"The Political Green-House for 1798" was another widely quoted composition by this group. According to the record by Trumbull, in his copy of The Echo, this was written by Lemuel Hopkins, Richard Alsop, and Theodore Dwight. With earnest patriotism and wit blended, the verses began:
Oft has the NEW YEAR'S Muse essay'd,
To quit the annual rhyming trade,
Oft has she hop'd the period nigh,
When fools would cease, and knaves would die,
But each succeeding year has tax'd her
With "more last words of Mr. Baxter."
And most of all has Ninety-Eight
Outstripp'd the years of former date,
And while a Jacobin remains,
While Frenchmen live and Faction reigns,
Her voice, array'd in awful rhyme,
Shall thunder down the steep of Time.
With unexpected details, the authors of this New Year's message gave specific directions how to avoid contagion from yellow fever, which was the scourge of that year in New York. There was a reason for these references, since one of the wits had fallen victim to the fever and died, Dr. Elihu Smith. He made the first large compilation of American poetry during the summer of 1793, while he was resting at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut. He thus preserved many scattered verses by his friends and other writers, which would otherwise have remained unknown. Although associated somewhat with the Hartford Wits, he was more closely linked with the early writers of fiction and drama in New York.… According to a note by Trumbull, Dr. Smith was the author of one paper in The Echo series, "Extracts from Democracy by Aquiline Nimblechops." He probably assisted in collaborating others.
Burlesque and satire characterize the pages of The Echo, but there are also lines of earnestness, as these in "The Guillotina":
Spread knowledge then; this only Hope
Can make each eye a telescope,
Frame it by microscopic art;
To scan the hypocritic heart.
One poem, assuredly assigned as the composition of Theodore Dwight, was a feigned rejoicing at the election of Jefferson. It was entitled "The Triumph of Democracy," and revealed the feeling of bitterness on the part of the Federalists against Jefferson, with scornful innuendo against Aaron Burr, in the closing lines:
Let every voice with triumph sing—
JEFFERSON is chosen king!
Ring every bell in every steeple,
T' announce the "Monarch of the People!"
Stop,—ere your civic feasts begin,
Wait till the votes are all come in;
Perchance, amid this mighty stir,
Your Monarch may be Col. BURR!
Who, if he mounts the sovereign seat,
Like BONAPARTE will make you sweat,
Your Idol then must quaking dwell,
Mid Mammoth's bones at Monticelle,
His country's barque from anchors free,
On "Liberty's tempestuous sea,"
While all the Democrats will sing—
THE DEVIL TAKE THE PEOPLE'S KING!
While we acknowledge only occasional literary merit in the work of the Hartford Wits—and a large part of it has political rather than literary interest—it must be confessed by one who examines their writings in detail that they reflect strong, unique personalities. They have received far less attention than their predecessors in political and social progress, yet they bore a part in the development of an upright and sane Americanism. If Trumbull was considered the leader, as we have said, he had companions in fame, among his contemporaries,—Timothy Dwight, Joel Barlow, and David Humphreys. These Connecticut men formed a mutual-admiration society seldom equaled in extravagant tribute, which reads like a farce today. Thus Alsop praised
Majestic Dwight, sublime in epic strain,
Paints the fierce horrors of the crimson plain,
And in Virgilian Barlow's tuneful lines
With added splendour great Columbus shines.
In the eighth book of The Columbiad, Joel Barlow became effusive over the poetic gifts of the Connecticut poets, especially Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, and Humphreys:
See TRUMBULL lead the train. His skilful hand
Hurls the keen darts of satire round the land.
Pride, knavery, dulness feel his mortal stings,
And listening virtue triumphs while he sings.
Britain's foil'd sons, victorious now no more,
In guilt retiring from the wasted shore,
Strive their curst cruelties to hide in vain,
The world resounds them in his deathless strain.…
See HUMPHREYS glorious from the field retire,
Sheathe the glad sword and string the soothing lyre;
His country's wrongs, her duties, dangers, praise,
Fire his full soul and animate his lays:
Wisdom and War with equal joy shall own
So fond a votary and so brave a son.…
For DWIGHT'S high harp the epic Muse sublime,
Hails her new empire in the western clime.
The lines just quoted will suffice to indicate the exuberance of phrases, and the triteness of thought, which seem to have been the chief characteristics of the once famous Joel Barlow. Of all the Hartford group he was the most prominent in the earlier years. He was a chaplain in the war, was agent in Paris of the Scioto Land Company of Ohio, and served abroad on commissions for treaties with the Barbary tribes and other peoples. In spite of the popular verdict of his own day upon his voluminous Vision of Columbus, "Conspiracy of Kings," and The Columbiad, he will be remembered, if at all, by the simple rhyme of Hasty-Pudding, written during an hour of loneliness on foreign soil.
Barlow's published writings of varied sorts—poetry, addresses, "Advice"—are found at many libraries, and his life has been more often studied than that of contemporary writers and friends. In the Pequot Library at Southport, Connecticut, is a rare collection of manuscript letters, written by Barlow, only a few of which have been printed. The letters to his wife, which form the large part, are interesting revelations of the personality of this man who promised so much and achieved so little, in diplomacy, business, and literature. In the letters to his wife from Paris, in 1789, he describes the Revolution as he has witnessed it, and feels that it is "no small satisfaction to have seen two complete revolutions in favor of Liberty." With frequent apologies for remaining abroad, he explains that his "affairs are still in a degree of uncertainty." The chief faults which his friends deplored were vacillation and a proneness to speculate with money, both his own and that of others. Manuscript poems in embryo, especially inspired by his acquaintance in Paris with Robert Fulton, are found among these letters.
After Barlow's return to America, and the publication of his long poems, he expected wide recognition among his countrymen; but he was embittered by indifference on some sides, and criticisms from other sources upon his political vacillation and seeming infidelity. Two of his letters, unpublished and here given by permission, indicate his sensitiveness, and they also show his foresight regarding national evils. The first was addressed to Gideon Granger, postmaster-general, and urged the appointment of a friend to office, emphasizing his scholarship and mental abilities:
It is really discouraging to all liberal pursuits, & proves that the government is accessory to the great national sin of the country, which I fear will overturn its liberties,—I mean the inordinate & universal pursuit of wealth as a means of distinction.
For example, if I find that writing the Columbiad, with all its moral qualities, literature, & science which that work supposes, will not place me on a footing with John Tayloe, who is rich, why then (God damn you) I'll be rich too. I'll dispise my literary labors (which tend to build up our system of free government) & I'll boast of my bank shares (which tend to pull it down) because these & not those, procure me the distinction which we all desire.
I will teach my nephews by precept & all the rising generation by example that merit consists in oppressing mankind & not in serving them.
Another significant letter was written by Barlow to Jonathan Law, a prominent citizen of Hartford, with political influence in answer to charges brought against the would-be poet "by the malicious hypocrisy of such men as Dwight, & Parke & Coleman":
I know as well as they do that all they say against me is false. All they mean or ever did mean by calling me an antichristian is that I am a republican. This latter appellation they don't like to quarrel with openly, & for that reason they disguise it under the other.… But I shall probably never condescend to give my calumniators any sort of answer. I ask nothing from them, not even to let me alone. Poor fellows, they must live. Parke says individuals & nations have a right to get their bread in any manner they can. And these men slander me to get their bread.
I remember to have seen a song in praise of the guillotine in one of Cobbett's pamphlets about a dozen years ago, which he said was written by me. It might have served the purpose of the faction at the time to lay it to me; whatever might be their motive it was a forgery.
Timothy Dwight was deeply interested in the publications of this band of Hartford wits, but he did not contribute directly to their writings. He was included in their effusive praises of each other, and his ambitious Conquest of Canaan and Greenfield Hill were considered works of lasting renown. These voluminous poems are seldom read today, but the reposeful, hymnal lines by Dr. Dwight, and his strong influence upon young men in behalf of better citizenship, have won for him a revered name in American history. He was an ardent patriot and a great admirer of Washington. A letter to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., written after Dwight's visit to Philadelphia, in 1793, denounced Freneau and his paper for its attacks upon Washington. It was evident that Dwight considered Freneau's Gazette as a Jeffersonian organ:
The late very impertinent and shameless attacks on the first Magistrate are viewed with a general and marked indignation. Freneau your printer, Linguist, &c., is regarded here as a mere incendiary, or rather as a despicable tool of bigger incendiaries; and his paper as a public nuisance.
A few miles from New Haven is the hill-town of Derby. Here is an active chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution—the Sarah Riggs Humphreys chapter—that has preserved many relics which pertain to the life-history of David Humphreys. As a young captain in the army under Colonel Meigs, and later as aide-de-camp to Generals Putnam, Greene, and Washington, Humphreys showed his alertness of mind, his courage, and his zeal for American progress. After the war he was with Jefferson, for a time, at Paris on the commission for treaties with foreign powers, and also served as diplomat at Lisbon and at Madrid. With these manlier traits he blended gallantry and cleverness, which made him a social favorite in foreign circles of society, but which called forth censure from some court-despising Americans. After he had returned to America, he was invited to visit at Mount Vernon, and Washington offered him aid in pursuing a literary plan which he had mentioned in his letters, namely, to write a history of the Revolution. At first thought, it may seem unfortunate that this plan was abandoned by Humphreys because of its magnitude. His tastes and effusive style, however, would not have produced a history of permanent value. His biographic essays on Israel Putnam were subjected to severe censure, but they gave the materials for later historians to utilize with better results.
In letters and poetic ventures, Humphreys left a vivid impression of Washington's life at Mount Vernon, in the years between the close of the war and his presidency. He pictured him as supervising his eight hundred acres of wheat and seven hundred acres of corn, and giving his personal attention to the task of navigating the Potomac, and extending the settlement of the western boundaries of the country. Humphreys was very proud of his friendship with Washington, and often referred to the latter with deep admiration, marred sometimes by such lines of egotism as in this stanza:
Let others sing his deeds in arms,
A nation saved and conquest's charms
Posterity shall hear.
'Twas mine, return'd from Europe's courts,
To share his thoughts, partake his sports,
And soothe his partial ear.
This soldier-versifier was vain and aspiring to literary fame, but he showed sturdier qualities when occasion called them forth. He took command of a band of men to guard the arsenal at Springfield, when it was threatened in Shay's Rebellion; he served in the state assembly during the years when he was collaborating with his friends in the series of papers of The Anarchiad. His "Poem Addressed to the Armies of the United States of America," first published in 1780, was reprinted in Paris six years later; this sign of appreciation gave him much delight. While abroad he lived in a style which attracted attention for its luxury, but which he seemed to defend in a manuscript letter to Timothy Pickering, which I am permitted to print here. It was written soon after his appointment as minister at Madrid; he explained the necessary expenses involved in moving his effects from Lisbon to Madrid:
I do not wish to make any unnecessary display, foreign to the dignified simplicity so becoming, in every character, but more particularly in that of a Republican Miniter; or to live in any respect in an ostentatious manner; but I desire to be able to live in a decent style (as other ministers are accustomed to do) without being under the necessity of incurring debts.… I hope & believe I shall never affect a style of hauteur; and whenever I cannot live abroad without embarrassment or meanness, I shall think it time to retire from public life—for sometimes the embarrassed conduct of a Diplomatic Agent extends beyond his individual Character and leaves an unfavorable impression of the Character of his Nation on the Minds of foreigners.… The transportation of my Carriages (of which I shall be obliged to carry four) Baggage, and necessaries will certainly, in the augmented price of forage, etc. cost me a good sum of money—for besides taking with me my own horses, I must order six or seven Mules to be sent from Madrid, and moreover employ a considerable number of common Carriers.
In spite of such indications of coxcombry in Humphreys, shown also in his delight to introduce foreign forms into the President's levees in New York, he was a true patriot in his impulses and aims. At forty-five, while abroad, he married the daughter of an English banker, but he was unwilling to live abroad, after his diplomatic missions were ended. As he had shared in gaining the liberty of America, so he wished to help in fostering her industries and arts. While at Lisbon he had written "A Poem on Industry," which ranked with his poem to the armies in its patriotism, as well as its verbosity; Humphreys could not write in simple English. The poem, however, and his practical success in manufacturing homespun cloths, entitle him to credit for noble motives. He brought with him from Spain, in 1802, one hundred and fifty merino sheep, as a nucleus for his enterprise. Near his Derby home he established a number of mills which made the settlement, at first called Chusetown and later Humphreysville, a flourishing village. The fulling-mill, cotton-mill, and paper-mill were opened in turn, and employment was given to scores of artisans. He brought several boys from the New York almshouses as apprentices. From England came master-workmen to superintend the manufacture of cloth, which was worn by Jefferson and other statesmen, and which encouraged the growth of American industries.
Humphreys was not alone a patriotic manufacturer, but he was also a pioneer social settler. In his village he sought to produce fine manhood as well as fine cloth. He furnished a library and recreation-room for his operatives, led his boys in military drills, took part with them in games; and coached them in rehearsals of various plays and "pieces" of his own composition. One of these, The Yankey in England, was acted in 1815, and printed. In studying the life of Humphreys, we always find many evidences of his besetting sin, literary vanity. He won respect as a soldier and a promoter of industry, but he sought for rank in letters. This he obtained among his friends, and often he was highly praised in journals of the day. He cultivated his inferior talents too ardently, forgetting the moral in "The Monkey Fable," probably finished by Trumbull:
Who cannot write, yet handle pens,
Are apt to hurt themselves and friends.
In contrast with the admiration which Humphreys craved, and often gained in America, was the frank disgust of Southey. He had met Humphreys at Lisbon, and wrote later to a friend:
Timothy Dwight, an American, published in 1785 an heroic poem on the Conquest of Canaan. I had heard of it, and long wished to read it, in vain; but now the American Minister (a good-natured man, whose poetry is worse than anything except his criticism) has lent me the book. There certainly is some merit in the poem: but when Col. Humphreys speaks of it, he will not allow me to put in a word in defense of John Milton.
His writings were prefaced by long notes of explanation and tribute.
The poems which are least effusive and offensive in form, among those included in his Miscellaneous Works, were the odes descriptive of the burning of Fairfield by the British, in 1779, and that on the "Happiness of America." The stanza in the latter which portrays the interior scene of a humble American home in winter may be fittingly recalled:
The cattle fed—the fuel pil'd within—
At setting day the blissful hours begin;
'Tis then, sole owner of his little cot;
The farmer feels his independent lot;
Hears with the crackling blaze that lights the wall,
The voice of gladness and of nature call;
Beholds his children play, their mother smile,
And tastes with them the fruit of summer's toil.
During the War of 1812, Humphreys was general of a company of war veterans for home protection, and he wrote, with rejoicing, of his country's victories on the sea. His monument, erected soon after his death in 1818, stands near the entrance to the old cemetery at New Haven, close to Yale University buildings. Its verbose Latin epitaph was written by his friend John Trumbull.
Associated with the men of greater renown in their own day—Timothy Dwight, Trumbull, Barlow, and Humphreys—were three collaborators of less familiar but influential lives—Theodore Dwight, Richard Alsop, and Dr. Lemuel Hopkins. Theodore Dwight, the elder, and brother of Timothy, was a lawyer, and was editor of the Connecticut Mirror from 1809 until 1815. For two years previously, 1806-7, he was a member of Congress. The latter part of his life was passed in New York, where he conducted the New York Daily Advertiser from 1817 to 1835. He wrote a partisan study of Jefferson's character, a fervent hymn on Washington, some strong orations and an etymological dictionary. To him we owe the preservation of the long poem by Richard Alsop, The Charms of Fancy, and many interesting revelations of the poet, who was not alone Dwight's friend, but also his brother-in-law.
Alsop was probably the editor of the papers known as The Echo, when they were first printed. A letter, in manuscript, from him to Dr. Mason Cogswell is in the copy of The Echo owned by John Trumbull, now at the Connecticut Historical Society. Alsop mentioned some errata and continued, regarding the tone of the papers:
I should be very sorry to have The Echo considered as a party production, as it must considerably lessen its reputation, & any alterations which will take off from that appearance without injury to the object in view, in my opinion will be best.
Born in Middletown, Connecticut, Alsop prepared for college, but continued his studies at home, becoming a fine translator of Runic poetry, Homer, Ossian, and Molina's History of Chili. For a time he had a bookstore in Hartford, where he lived with his sister. In an address, To the Freemen of Connecticut, (which is classified as his by an ink ascription in a copy at the Massachusetts Historical Society, dated Middletown, September 12, 1803,) he expressed confidence that God would protect "the Vine of this state" against "the rude shocks of democratic violence, nor will He suffer its ripened clusters to be trampled in the dust."
In William Dunlap's manuscript journal, 1797, he mentions a visit to Alsop at Middletown, "to shoot ducks;" later he accompanied Alsop "in a chaise to Hartford where lived, at that time, Miss Fanny Alsop."
In the "Memoir" of Alsop which prefaced his visionary poem, The Charms of Fancy, we learn of his scholarship and scientific interests which blended with his poetic tastes. His sister said: "He seemed to know every variety of birds, and I might almost say, every feather." In boxes of his own design he kept his natural-history specimens—a large collection. His long, ambitious poem on fancy, and its inspiration for poet, painter, and musician, has a few fine lines, and reveals his wide reading and patriotic zeal for America's progress in the arts. The poem by Alsop which seems to me the most worthy, however, was not printed in permanent form, except in collections of poetry, but it suggests, as a forerunner, Bryant's "To a Waterfowl." Alsop's poem was entitled "Verses to a Shearwater on the Morning after a Storm at Sea":
… On the fiery tossing wave,
Calmly cradled dost thou sleep,
When the midnight tempests rave,
Lonely wanderer of the deep! …
Far from earth's remotest trace,
What impels thee thus to roam?
What hast thou to mark the place,
When thou seek'st thy distant home?
Without star or magnet's aid,
Thou thy faithful course dost keep;
Sportive still, still undismay'd,
Lonely wanderer of the deep!
Alsop spent the last years of his life in the vicinity of New York. He died at Flatbush in 1815. In his lifetime he was generally known as author of one of the most widely quoted elegies on Washington, and was honored for his translations from the Eddas, and from Spanish and Italian.
The sharpest wit among the Hartford writers was Lemuel Hopkins. He used travesties and imagery which defied all poetic standards. As a physician he ranked among the progressive leaders of his day; in his memory the Hopkins Medical Society was formed in 1826. Born at Hopkins Hill, in Waterbury, in 1750, he served as a soldier for a time, but lost no opportunity to study for the profession of medicine, which he had chosen in youth as a goal. After gaining some experience with two noted men of his day and state—Dr. Seth Bird, of Litchfield, and Dr. Jared Potter, of Wallingford—he settled in Hartford, in 1784, where he remained until his death sixteen years later. By success in his profession, and by his courageous advocacy of inoculation for small-pox, use of anaesthetics, and radical remedies for yellow fever, he gained repute outside his state and was often called into consultation. Yale conferred an honorary degree upon him.
Many traditions and local stories cluster about his personality. He was nervous, brusque, with keen eyes, and a peculiar, awkward gait. One story illustrates his brusqueness combined with faithfulness. On a stormy night he rode four miles to assure himself that a certain remedy was accomplishing the desired results. Arriving at the house, he entered, made a silent examination, refused to speak to any of the inmates, and rode away. He was a dreaded enemy of impostors and quacks. Another anecdote indicates this trait. With Dr. Cogswell, he was attending a patient who was dying of tubercular disease. The sister of the sick girl unreasonably besought the doctors to use some "fever powders," which she had bought from a peripatetic quack. Dr. Hopkins asked her to bring the powders, announced that one and a half was recorded as the largest dose which it was safe to take, calmly mixed twelve of the powders in molasses, and swallowed them, remarking to his colleague: "Cogswell, I am going to Coventry today. If I die from this, you must write on my tombstone: 'Here lies Hopkins, killed by Grimes'." In indignation against a "cancer doctor" who had troubled the neighborhood, he wrote the rugged verse, "On a Patient Killed by a Cancer Quack":
Here lies a fool, flat on his back,
The victim of a cancer quack;
Who lost his money and his life,
By plaister, caustic and by knife.
More dignified were the ironical stanzas, "The Hypocrite's Hope":
He tones like Pharisee sublime,
Two lengthy prayers a day,
The same that he from early prime,
Has heard his father say.…
Good works he careth nought about,
But faith alone will seek,
While Sunday's pieties blot out,
The knaveries of the week.
A few letters from Dr. Lemuel Hopkins to his friend Oliver Wolcott, Jr., are in manuscript at the Connecticut Historical Society; I have been given the privilege of quoting from them. One written in October, 1783, reveals Hopkins' wit and his interest in political affairs:
I thank you for your inteligence & thoughts on politicks; but have not time to tell you my own. But I lament with you the ill aspect of our affairs, and am afraid to think much of the next scene for of late, when I have indulg'd such thoughts, the Ghost of a certain text has grinn'd horrible at me a ghastly smile,—'tis this—"Wo unto thee oh land when thy king is a fool."
In a letter from Hartford, after his removal there from Litchfield, he refers to the American Antiquities (The Anarchiad) as having "given a considerable check to a certain kind of popular intrigue in this state."
During the prevalence of small-pox in the summer of 1793, he wrote to Mr. Wolcott regarding inoculation, which he practiced freely:
This business is much like that of the Treasury Department in regard to existing jealousies, raising party spirit &c., yet, from certain causes, my particular mode of conducting it, in case of any suspicion of wrong measures, does not admit of so unanswerable a justification.
There are some philosophic sentences in the same letter regarding the influences of city and village life, which are interesting today:
The more a man is among all sorts of people, the more fully will he learn the unmeasured difference there is between the sentiments of newspapers, replete with local politics, and the opinions of an enlighten'd people in the peaceable and successful pursuit of wealth & happiness.—I find more & more that a busy set of wrongheads can at pleasure stir up, for a time, any sentiments they please in cities—and that there is a great aptitude in most men to consider cities as worlds, or at least as the manufactories of sentiments for whole countries—and much of this may be true in the old world; but in N. England the contrary is, and ever will be true, as long as our schools, presses & Town-corporations last.
With his shrewd insight into the diseases of individuals and of the nation, with his urgent desire for progress through education, Dr. Hopkins was a good type of his time, and especially of this group of Connecticut writers. They were earnest, as well as witty; they sought to use their talents for the advance of industry and political sanity. Their writings mirrored many of the aspirations and fears of the period which followed the war and was concerned with the establishment of stable government.
Henry A. Beers
SOURCE: "The Connecticut Wits," The Yale Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, January, 1913, pp. 242-56.
[Beers is an American historian, researcher, and critic. Here, he offers a mixed assessment of the works of the Connecticut Wits, acknowledging that their 'patriotic enterprise of creating a national literature by tour de force was undertaken when Minerva was unwilling"—that is, under inauspicious circumstances.]
In the days when Connecticut counted in the national councils; when it had men in the patriot armies, in Washington's Cabinet, in the Senate of the United States—men like Israel Putnam, Roger Sherman, Oliver Wolcott, Oliver Ellsworth,—in those same days there was a premature but interesting literary movement in our little commonwealth. A band of young graduates of Yale, some of them tutors in the college, or in residence for their Master's degree, formed themselves into a school for the cultivation of letters. I speak advisedly in calling them a school: they were a group of personal friends, united in sympathy by similar tastes and principles; and they had in common certain definite, coherent, and conscious aims. These were, first, to liberalize and modernize the rigidly scholastic curriculum of the college by the introduction of more elegant studies: the belles lettres, the literce humaniores. Such was the plea of John Trumbull in his Master's oration, "An Essay on the Use and Advantages of the Fine Arts," delivered at Commencement, 1770; and in his satire, The Progress of Dulness, he had his hit at the dry and dead routine of college learning. Secondly, these young men resolved to supply the new republic with a body of poetry on a scale commensurate with the bigness of American scenery and the vast destinies of the nation: epics resonant as Niagara, and pindaric odes lofty as our native mountains. And finally, when, at the close of the Revolutionary War, the members of the group found themselves reunited for a few years at Hartford, they set themselves to combat, with the weapon of satire, the influences towards lawlessness and separatism which were delaying the adoption of the Constitution.
My earliest knowledge of this literary coterie was derived from an article in The Atlantic Monthly for February, 1865, "The Pleiades of Connecticut." The "Pleiades," to wit, were John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, Lemuel Hopkins, Richard Alsop, and Theodore Dwight. The tone of the article was ironic. "Connecticut is pleasant," it said, "with wooded hills and a beautiful river; plenteous with tobacco and cheese; fruitful of merchants, missionaries, peddlers, and single women,—but there are no poets known to exist there… the brisk little democratic state has turned its brains upon its machinery … the enterprising natives can turn out any article on which a profit can be made—except poetry."
Massachusetts has always been somewhat condescending towards Connecticut's literary pretensions. Yet all through that very volume of the Atlantic, from which I quote, run Mrs. Stowe's "Chimney Corner" papers and Donald Mitchell's novel, Doctor Johns; with here and there a story by Rose Terry and a poem by Henry Brownell. Nay, in an article entitled "Our Battle Laureate," in the May number of the magazine, the "Autocrat" himself, who would always have his fling at Connecticut theology and Connecticut spelling and pronunciation ("Webster's provincials," forsooth! though pater ipse, the Rev. Abiel, had been a Connecticut orthodox parson, a Yale graduate, and a son-in-law of President Stiles),—the "Autocrat," I say, takes off his hat to my old East Hartford neighbor, Henry Howard Brownell.
He begins by citing the paper which I have been citing: "How came the Muses to settle in Connecticut? … But the seed of the Muses has run out. No more Pleiades in Hartford… "; and answers that, if the author of the article asks Nathaniel's question, putting Hartford for Nazareth, he can refer him to Brownell's "Lyrics of a Day." "If Drayton had fought at Agincourt, if Campbell had held a sabre at Hohenlinden, if Scott had been in the saddle with Marmion, if Tennyson had charged with the six hundred at Balaclava, each of these poets might possibly have pictured what he said as faithfully and as fearfully as Mr. Brownell has painted the sea fights in which he took part as a combatant."
Many years later, when preparing a chapter on the literature of the county for the Memorial History of Hartford, I came to close quarters with the sweet influence of the Pleiades. I am one of the few men—perhaps I am the only man—now living who have read the whole of Joel Barlow's Columbiad. "Is old Joel Barlow yet alive?" asks Hawthorne's crazy correspondent. "Unconscionable man! … And does he meditate an epic on the war between Mexico and Texas, with machinery contrived on the principle of the steam engine?" I also "perused" (good old verb—the right word for the deed!) Dwight's Greenfield Hill—a meritorious action,—but I cannot pretend to have read his Conquest of Canadn (the diaeresis is his, not mine), an epic in eleven books and in heroic couplets. I dipped into it only far enough to note that the poet had contrived to introduce a history of our Revolutionary War, by way of episode, among the wars of Israel.
It must be acknowledged that this patriotic enterprise of creating a national literature by tour de force, was undertaken when Minerva was unwilling. These were able and eminent men: scholars, diplomatists, legislators. Among their number were a judge of the Connecticut Supreme Court, a college president, foreign ministers and ambassadors, a distinguished physician, an officer of the Revolutionary army, intimate friends of Washington and Jefferson. But, as poetry, a few little pieces of the New Jersey poet, Philip Freneau,—"The Indian Student," "The Indian Burying Ground," "To a Honey Bee," "The Wild Honeysuckle," and "The Battle of Eutaw Springs,"—are worth all the epic and pindaric strains of the Connecticut bards. Yet "still the shore a brave attempt resounds." For they had few misgivings and a truly missionary zeal. They formed the first Mutual Admiration Society in our literary annals.
Here gallant Humphreys charm'd the list'ning throng:
Sweetly he sang, amid the clang of arms,
His numbers smooth, replete with winning charms;
In him there shone a great and godlike mind,
The poet's wreath around the laurel twined.
This was while Colonel Humphreys was in the army—one of Washington's aides. But when he resigned his commission,—hark! 'tis Barlow sings:—
See Humphreys glorious from the field retire,
Sheathe the glad sword and string the sounding lyre,
O'er fallen friends, with all the strength of woe,
His heartfelt sighs in moving numbers flow,
His country's wrongs, her duties, dangers, praise,
Fire his full soul, and animate his lays.
Humphreys, in turn, in his poem "On the Future Glory of the United States of America," calls upon his learned friends to string their lyres and rouse their countrymen against the Barbary corsairs who were holding American seamen in captivity:—
Why sleep'st thou, Barlow, child of genius? Why
See'st thou, blest Dwight, our land in sadness lie?
And where is Trumbull, earliest boast of fame?
Tis yours, ye bards, to wake the smothered flame.
To you, my dearest friends, the task belongs
To rouse your country with heroic songs.
Yes, to be sure, where is Trumbull, earliest boast of fame? He came from Watertown (now a seat of learning), a cousin of Governor Trumbull—"Brother Jonathan"—and a second cousin of Colonel John Trumbull, the historical painter, whose battle pieces repose in the Yale Art Gallery. Cleverness runs in the Trumbull blood. There was, for example, J. Hammond Trumbull (abbreviated by lisping infancy to "J. Hambull") in the last generation, a great sagamore—O a very big Indian,—reputed the only man in the country who could read Eliot's Algonquin Bible. I make no mention of later Trumbulls known in letters and art. But as for our worthy, John Trumbull, the poet, it is well known and has been often told how he passed the college entrance examination at the age of seven, but forebore to matriculate till a more reasonable season, graduating in 1767 and serving two years as a tutor along with his friend Dwight; afterwards studying law at Boston in the office of John Adams, practising at New Haven and Hartford, filling legislative and judicial positions, and dying at Detroit in 1831.
Trumbull was the satirist of the group. As a young man at Yale, he amused his leisure by contributing to the newspapers essays in the manner of The Spectator (The Meddler, The Correspondent, and the like); and verse satires after the fashion of Prior and Pope. There is nothing very new about the Jack Dapperwits, Dick Hairbrains, Tom Brainlesses, Miss Harriet Simpers, and Isabella Sprightlys of these compositions. The very names will recall to the experienced reader the stock figures of the countless Addisonian imitations which sicklied o'er the minor literature of the eighteenth century. But Trumbull's masterpiece was M'Fingal, a Hudibrastic satire on the Tories, printed in part at Philadelphia in 1776, and in complete shape at Hartford in 1782, "by Hudson and Goodwin near the Great Bridge." M'Fingal was the most popular poem of the Revolution. It went through more than thirty editions in America and England. In 1864 it was edited with elaborate historical notes by Benson J. Lossing, author of The Field Book of the Revolution. A reprint is mentioned as late as 1881. An edition, in two volumes, of Trumbull's poetical works was issued in 1820.
Timothy Dwight pronounced M'Fingal superior to Hudibras. The Marquis de Chastellux, who had fought with Lafayette for the independence of the colonies; who had been amused when at Windham, says my authority, by Governor Jonathan Trumbull's "pompous manner in transacting the most trifling public business"; and who translated into French Colonel Humphreys's poetical "Address to the Armies of the United States of America,"—Chastellux wrote to Trumbull d propos of his burlesque: "I believe that you have rifled every flower which that kind of poetry could offer.… I prefer it to every work of the kind,—even Hudibras." And Moses Coit Tyler, whose four large volumes on our colonial and revolutionary literature are, for the most part, a much ado about nothing, waxes dithyrambic on this theme. He speaks, for example, of "the vast and prolonged impression it has made upon the American people." But surely all this is very uncritical. All that is really alive of M'Fingal are a few smart couplets usually attributed to Hudibras, such as—
No man e'er felt the halter draw
With good opinion of the law.
M'Fingal is one of the most successful of the innumerable imitations of Hudibras; still it is an imitation, and, as such, inferior to its original. But apart from that, Trumbull was far from having Butler's astonishing resources of wit and learning, tedious as they often are from their mere excess. Nor is the Yankee sharpness of M'Fingal so potent a spirit as the harsh, bitter contempt of Butler, almost as inventive of insult as the soeva indignatio of Swift. Yet M'Fingal still keeps a measure of historical importance, reflecting, in its cracked and distorted mirror of caricature, the features of a stormy time: the turbulent town meetings, the liberty poles and bonfires of the patriots; with the tar-and-feathering of Tories, and their stolen gatherings in cellars or other holes and corners.
After peace was declared, a number of these young writers came together again in Hartford, where they formed a sort of literary club with weekly meetings—"The Hartford Wits," who for a few years made the little provincial capital the intellectual metropolis of the country. Trumbull had settled at Hartford in the practice of the law in 1781. Joel Barlow, who had hastily qualified for a chaplaincy in a Massachusetts brigade by a six weeks' course of theology, and had served more or less sporadically through the war, came to Hartford in the year following and started a newspaper. David Humphreys, Yale 1771, illustrious founder of the Brothers in Unity Society, and importer of merino sheep, had enlisted in 1776 in a Connecticut militia regiment then on duty in New York. He had been on the staff of General Putnam, whose life he afterwards wrote; had been Washington's aide and a frequent inmate at Mount Vernon from 1780 to 1783; then abroad (1784-1786), as secretary to the commission for making commercial treaties with the nations of Europe. (The commissioners were Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson.) On returning to his native Derby in 1786, he had been sent to the legislature at Hartford, and now found himself associated with Trumbull, who had entered upon his Yale tutorship in 1771, the year of Humphreys's graduation; and with Barlow, who had taken his B.A. degree in 1778. These three Pleiades drew to themselves other stars of lesser magnitude, the most remarkable of whom was Dr. Lemuel Hopkins, a native of Waterbury, but since 1784 a practising physician at Hartford and one of the founders of the Connecticut Medical Society. Hopkins was an eccentric humorist, and is oddly described by Samuel Goodrich—"Peter Parley"—as "long and lank, walking with spreading arms and straddling legs." "His nose was long, lean, and flexible," adds Goodrich,—a description which suggests rather the proboscis of the elephant, or at least of the tapir, than a feature of the human countenance.
Other lights in this constellation were Richard Alsop, from Middletown, who was now keeping a book store at Hartford, and Theodore Dwight, brother to Timothy and brother-in-law to Alsop, and later the secretary and historian of the famous Hartford Convention of 1814, which came near to carrying New England into secession. We might reckon as an eighth Pleiad, Dr. Elihu H. Smith, then residing at Wetherfield, who published in 1793 our first poetic miscellany, printed—of all places in the world—at Litchfield, "mine own romantic town": seat of the earliest American law school, and emitter of this earliest American anthology. If you should happen to find in your garret a dusty copy of this collection, American Poems, Original and Selected, by Elihu H. Smith, hold on to it. It is worth money, and will be worth more.
The Hartford Wits contributed to local papers, such as the New Haven Gazette and the Connecticut Courant, a series of political lampoons: The Anarchiad, The Echo, and The Political Greenhouse, a sort of Yankee Dunciad, Rolliad, and Anti-Jacobin. They were staunch Federalists, friends of a close union and a strong central government; and used their pens in support of the administrations of Washington and Adams, and to ridicule Jefferson and the Democrats. It was a time of great confusion and unrest: of Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts, and the irredeemable paper currency in Rhode Island. In Connecticut, Democratic mobs were protesting against the vote of five years' pay to the officers of the disbanded army. The Echo and The Political Greenhouse were published in book form in 1807; The Anarchiad not till 1861, by Thomas H. Pease, New Haven, with notes and introduction by Luther G. Riggs. I am not going to quote these satires. They amused their own generation and doubtless did good. The Echo had the honor of being quoted in Congress by an angry Virginian, to prove that Connecticut was trying to draw the country into a war with France. It caught up cleverly the humors of the day, now travestying a speech of Jefferson, now turning into burlesque a Boston town meeting. A local flavor is given by allusions to Connecticut traditions: Captain Kidd, the Blue Laws, the Windham Frogs, the Hebron pump, the Wethersfield onion gardens. But the sparkle has gone out of it. There is a perishable element in political satire. I find it difficult to interest young people nowadays even in the Biglow Papers, which are so much superior, in every way, to M'Fingal or The Anarchiad.
Timothy Dwight would probably have rested his title to literary fame on his five volumes of theology and the eleven books of his Conquest of Canadn. But the epic is unread and unreadable, while theological systems need constant restatement in an age of changing beliefs. There is one excellent hymn by Dwight in the collections,—"I love thy kingdom, Lord." His war song, "Columbia, Columbia, in glory arise," was once admired, but has faded. I have found it possible to take a mild interest in the long poem, Greenfield Hill, a partly idyllic and partly moral didactic piece, emanating from the country parish, three miles from the Sound, in the town of Fairfield, where Dwight was pastor from 1783 to 1795. The poem has one peculiar feature: each of its seven parts was to have imitated the manner of some one British poet. Part One is in the blank verse and the style of Thomson's Seasons; Part Two in the heroic couplets and the diction of Goldsmith's Traveller and Deserted Village. For lack of time this design was not systematically carried out, but the reader is reminded now of Prior, then of Cowper, and again of Crabbe. The nature descriptions and the pictures of rural life are not untruthful, though somewhat tame and conventional. The praise of modest competence is sung, and the wholesome simplicity of American life, under the equal distribution of wealth, as contrasted with the luxury and corruption of European cities. Social questions are discussed, such as, "the state of negro slavery in Connecticut"; and "what is not, and what is, a social female visit." Narrative episodes give variety to the descriptive and reflective portions: the burning of Fairfield in 1779 by the British under Governor Tryon; the destruction of the remnants of the Pequod Indians in a swamp three miles west of the town. It is distressing to have the Yankee farmer called "the swain," and his wife and daughter "the fair," in regular eighteenth century style; and Long Island, which is always in sight and frequently apostrophized, personified as "Longa."
Then on the borders of this sapphire plain
Shall growing beauties grace my fair domain …
Gay groves exult: Chinesian gardens glow,
And bright reflections paint the wave below.
The poet celebrates Connecticut artists and inventors:—
Such forms, such deeds on Rafael's tablets shine,
And such, O Trumbull, glow alike on thine.
David Bushnell of Saybrook had invented a submarine torpedo boat, nicknamed "the American Turtle," with which he undertook to blow up Lord Admiral Howe's gunship in New York harbor. Humphreys gives an account of the failure of this enterprise in his Life of Putnam. It was some of Bushnell's machines, set afloat on the Delaware, among the British shipping, that occasioned the panic celebrated in Hopkinson's satirical balled, The Battle of the Kegs, which we used to declaim at school. "See," exclaims Dwight,
See Bushnell's strong creative genius, fraught
With all th' assembled powers of skillful thought,
His mystic vessel plunge beneath the waves
And glide through dark retreats and coral caves!
Dr. Holmes, who knew more about Yale poets than they know about each other, has rescued one line from Greenfield Hill. "The last we see of snow," he writes, in his paper on The Seasons, "is, in the language of a native poet,
The lingering drift behind the shady wall.
This is from a bard more celebrated once than now, Timothy Dwight, the same from whom we borrowed the piece we used to speak, beginning (as we said it),
Columby, Columby, to glory arise!
The line with the drift in it has stuck in my memory like a feather in an old nest, and is all that remains to me of his Greenfield Hill."
As President of Yale College from 1795 to 1817, Dr. Dwight, by his sermons, addresses, and miscellaneous writings, his personal influence with young men, and his public spirit, was a great force in the community. I have an idea that his Travels in New England and New York, posthumously published in 1821-1822, in four volumes, will survive all his other writings. I can recommend Dwight's Travels as a really entertaining book, and full of solid observation.
Of all the wooden poetry of these Connecticut bards, David Humphreys's seems to me the woodenest,—big patriotic verse essays on the model of the Essay on Man: "Address to the Armies of the United States"; "On the Happiness of America"; "On the Future Glory of the United States"; "On the Love of Country"; "On the Death of George Washington," etc. Yet Humphreys was a most important figure. He was plenipotentiary to Portugal and Spain, and a trusted friend of Washington, from whom, perhaps, he caught that stately deportment which is said to have characterized him. He imported a hundred merino sheep from Spain, landing them from shipboard at his native Derby, then a port of entry on the lordly Housatonic. He wrote a dissertation on merino sheep, and also celebrated the exploit in song. The Massachusetts Agricultural Society gave him a gold medal for his services in improving the native breed. But if these sheep are even remotely responsible for Schedule K, it might be wished that they had remained in Spain, or had been as the flocks of Bo-Peep. Colonel Humphreys died at New Haven in 1818. The college owns his portrait by Stuart, and his monument in Grove Street cemetery is dignified by a Latin inscription reciting his titles and achievements, and telling how, like a second Jason, he brought the auream vellerem from Europe to Connecticut. Colonel Humphreys's works were handsomely published at New York in 1804, with a list of subscribers headed by their Catholic Majesties, the King and Queen of Spain, and followed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and numerous dukes and chevaliers. Among the humbler subscribers I am gratified to observe the names of Nathan Beers, merchant, New Haven; and Isaac Beers & Co., booksellers, New Haven (six copies),—no ancestors but conjecturally remote collateral relatives of the undersigned.
I cannot undertake to quote from Humphreys's poems. The patriotic feeling that prompted them was genuine; the descriptions of campaigns in which he himself had borne a part have a certain value; but the poetry as such, though by no means contemptible, is quite uninspired. Homer's catalogue of ships is a hackneyed example of the way in which a great poet can make bare names poetical. Humphreys had a harder job, and passages of his battle pieces read like pages from a city directory.
As fly autumnal leaves athwart some dale,
Borne on the pinions of the sounding gale,
Or glides the gossamer o'er rustling reeds,
Bland's, Sheldon's, Moylan's, Baylor's battle steeds
So skimmed the plain.…
Then Huger, Maxwell, Mifflin, Marshall, Read,
Hastened from states remote to seize the meed; …
While Smallwood, Parsons, Shepherd, Irvine, Hand,
Guest, Weedon, Muhlenberg, leads each his band.
Does the modern reader recognize a forefather among these heroic patronymics? Just as good men as fought at Marathon or Agincourt. Nor can it be said of any one of them quia caret vate sacro.
But the loudest blast upon the trump of fame was blown by Joel Barlow. It was agreed that in him America had produced a supreme poet. Born at Redding—where Mark Twain died…,—the son of a farmer, Barlow was graduated at Yale in 1778—just a hundred years before President Taft. He married the daughter of a Guilford blacksmith, who had moved to New Haven to educate his sons; one of whom, Abraham Baldwin, afterwards went to Georgia, grew up with the country, and became United States Senator.
After the failure of his Hartford journal, Barlow went to France, in 1778, as agent of the Scioto Land Company, which turned out to be a swindling concern. He now "embraced French principles," that is, became a Jacobin and freethinker, to the scandal of his old Federalist friends. He wrote a song to the guillotine and sang it at festal gatherings in London. He issued other revolutionary literature, in particular an Advice to the Privileged Orders, suppressed by the British government; whereupon Barlow, threatened with arrest, went back to France. The Convention made him a French citizen; he speculated luckily in the securities of the republic, which rose rapidly with the victories of its armies. He lived in much splendor in Paris, where Robert Fulton, inventor of steamboats, made his home with him for seven years. In 1795, he was appointed United States consul to Algiers, resided there two years, and succeeded in negotiating the release of the American captives who had been seized by Algerine pirates. After seventeen years' absence, he returned to America, and built a handsome country house on Rock Creek, Washington, which he named characteristically "Kalorama." He had become estranged from orthodox New England, and lived on intimate terms with Jefferson, and the Democratic leaders, French sympathizers, and philosophical deists.
In 1811 President Madison sent him as minister plenipotentiary to France, to remonstrate with the emperor on the subject of the Berlin and Milan decrees, which were injuring American commerce. He was summoned to Wilna, Napoleon's headquarters in his Russian campaign, where he was promised a personal interview. But the retreat from Moscow had begun. Fatigue and exposure brought on an illness from which Barlow died in a small Polish village near Cracow. An elaborate biography, The Life and Letters of Joel Barlow, by Charles Burr Todd, was published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1886.
Barlow's most ambitious undertaking was the Columbiad, originally printed at Hartford in 1787 as The Vision of Columbus, and then reissued in its expanded form at Philadelphia in 1807: a sumptuous quarto with plates by the best English and French engravers from designs by Robert Fulton, altogether the finest specimen of book-making that had then appeared in America. The Columbiad's greatness was in inverse proportion to its bigness. Grandiosity was its author's besetting sin, and the plan of the poem is absurdly grandiose. It tells how Hesper appeared to Columbus in prison and led him to a hill of vision whence he viewed the American continents spread out before him, and the panorama of their whole future history unrolled. Among other things he saw the Connecticut river—
Thy stream, my Hartford, through its misty robe,
Played in the sunbeams, belting far the globe.
No watery glades through richer vallies shine,
Nor drinks the sea a lovelier wave than thine.
It is odd to come upon familiar place-names swoln to epic pomp. There is Danbury, for example, which one associates with the manufacture of hats and a somewhat rowdy annual fair. In speaking of the towns set on fire by the British, the poet thus exalteth Danbury, whose flames were visible from native Redding:—
Norwalk expands the blaze; o'er Redding hills
High flaming Danbury the welkin fills.
Esopus burns, New York's deliteful fanes
And sea-nursed Norfolk light the neighboring plains.
But Barlow's best poem was Hasty Pudding, a mockheroic after the fashion of Philips's Cider, and not, I think, inferior to that. One couplet, in particular, has prevailed against the tooth of time:—
E'en in thy native regions how I blush
To hear the Pennsylvanians call thee mush!
This poem was written in 1792 in Savoy, whither Barlow had gone to stand as deputy to the National Convention. In a little inn at Chambery, a bowl of polenta, or Indian meal pudding, was set before him, and the familiar dish made him homesick for Connecticut. You remember how Dr. Holmes describes the dinners of the young American medical students in Paris at the Trois Freres; and how one of them would sit tinkling the ice in his wine glass, "saying that he was hearing the cowbells as he used to hear them, when the deep-breathing kine came home at twilight from the huckleberry pasture in the old home a thousand leagues towards the sunset."
Vernon Louis Parrington
SOURCE: An introduction to The Connecticut Wits. edited by Vernon Louis Parrington, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1926, pp. ix-xlvi.
[Parrington was an American historian, critic, and educator who contributed regularly to such prestigious reference works as Encyclopaedia Britannica and The Cambridge History of American Literature. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the first two volumes of his influential Main Currents in American Thought (1927); the third volume remained unfinished at the time of his death. In this series, Parrington composed, according to Michael O'Brien, "not a study of American literature so much as of American political thought refracted through literature." While his efforts are still widely admired today, many critics contend that his unabashedly liberal bias, and his summary judgments of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and others, compromised his work In the following introduction to his The Connecticut Wits (1926), Parrington assesses the contribution of the Wits, noting that, "though they fell short of their ambitious goal, their works remain extraordinarily interesting documents of a critical period. "]
For a good many years now the members of the literary coterie that forgathered in Hartford in the closing years of the eighteenth century, and proffered their wit and wisdom to all New England, have enjoyed such shadowy fame as comes from the reprinting of their names in successive school histories of our literature. Their several individualities have long since gone the way of mortality, but their composite reputation has been happily preserved by the salt of a phrase. Under the quaint title of the Connecticut or the Hartford Wits—a title which, to borrow Whitman's Gallicism, has proved to be their carte de visite to posterity—they are annually recalled by a considerable number of undergraduates on the eve of an examination; but what sort of men they were, and what they severally and jointly contributed to a little world sadly wanting sweetness and light, are questions about which no undergraduate ever concerns himself. Their works lie buried in old libraries with the dust of years upon them; their descriptive title alone dwells among the living. To rescue them if possible from the obscuring shadow of their collective reputation, to permit them once more to speak for themselves in their eighteenth century vernacular, is the purpose of this partial reprinting of their works. The record as they left it, very likely will not appeal to the taste of a far different age. We shall probably find their verse stilted and barren, and their robust prejudices hopelessly old-fashioned; but stilted and barren though their couplets may be, and extraordinary though their dogmatisms may seem to us, they throw a clear light on provincial New England in the acrid years of the seventeen-nineties, when America was angrily debating what path to follow in order to arrive at its predestined objective. The Hartford Wits may not deserve the high title of poets; they were smaller men than they esteemed each other and their generation rated them; but though they fell short of their ambitious goal, their works remain extraordinarily interesting documents of a critical period.
The title of the group sufficiently reveals their intellectual antecedents. That they alone amongst our early dabblers in verse succeeded in preempting the excellent name of Wits, suggests how late the spirit of eighteenth century English culture came to expression in America, and also how inadequately. That they were not alone in their efforts to shape American letters after the Augustan pattern, every student of our early verse knows. Others before them aspired to be Wits, and others after them. From Mather Byles to Robert Treat Paine the refinement of Pope and the trenchant severity of Churchill had been the admiration of American poetasters; but they alone achieved a measurable degree of success in domesticating the Wit ideals, and by their persistent labors in the field of satire they created for the first time in America what may be called a school of poetry. By the end of the century their reputation had spread well beyond the confines of New England, and when an ambitious collection of native verse was issued in New York in 1794, under the title of The Columbian Muse, the editor felt constrained to give up considerably more than half the total space to their work. Only Philadelphia could hope to enter into poetic rivalry with the Connecticut group. In the social and literary capital of America poetry was sedulously cultivated. Francis Hopkinson, an amiable dabbler in polite arts, had contributed a number of sprightly jeux d 'esprit; young William Cliffton was preparing to dedicate his short life to verse; and Peter Porcupine—the brutally caustic William Cobbett—was achieving a lively notoriety as a purveyor of virulent couplets. But the culture of Philadelphia was smutched by the strife of partisan rivals. Young enthusiasts for the rights of man gathered there—Philip Freneau from New Jersey, and idealists from overseas—to throw their literary brickbats at the spokesmen of conservatism. There was wanting the solidarity of polite opinion that gave a sanction of authority to upper-class Yankee views, and no school of poetry arose to enshrine in clever couplets the culture of a homogeneous society.
This is what lends its chief significance to the work of the Hartford group. They embodied a conception of life and society that had taken form during nearly two hundred years of provincial experience; and they phrased that conception at the moment when vast changes were impending and the traditional New England was on the point of being caught in the grasp of forces that were to destroy what was most native in her life. The "Wits" were the last representatives of a literary mode that had slowly percolated through the crust of Puritan provincialism and imparted a certain sprightliness to a dour temper. They were the literary old guard of eighteenth century Toryism, the expiring gasp of a rationalistic age, given to criticism, suspicious of all emotion, contemptuous of idealistic programs. But though they aspired to follow the latest London modes, they could not wholly lay aside congenital prejudices, and they unconsciously gave to the imported fashion a homely domestic cut. If they were Wits they were Yankee Wits, and their manners were formed in Connecticut rather than at St. James's, at Yale College rather than Brooks Club. They aspired to unite culture with godliness, and this Puritan predilection for righteousness adds a characteristic native savor to their wit.
Although their writing was done at a time when the romantic revolution, soon to set all western civilization in ferment, was well under way in France, and had already entered America, there is in them no suggestion of sympathy for the new ideas. As good Calvinists and honest men they would hold no commerce with "French infidel philosophy." They stood stoutly by the customary and familiar. The age was visibly falling to decay before their eyes, yet they set themselves with the fury of dogmatic conviction to new-prop an order that had contented their fathers. They were the self-satisfied embodiment of the outworn. The nineteenth century was knocking at their door, but they would not open to it. And as they saw that century coming in the guise of revolution, exciting to unheard-of innovations in the fields of politics and economics and religion and letters; as they observed it sweeping triumphantly through Virginia, turmoiling the pugnacious society of Philadelphia, expressing itself in the rebellious work of Philip Freneau and Tom Paine and Matthew Carey, in Jacobin Clubs and Jeffersonian democracy, they set themselves seriously to the work of barring its progress in their own little world. They conveniently associated the economic unrest of post-war days—that gave birth to a strange progeny in Rhode Island and New Hampshire and Massachusetts—with the contamination of French atheism, charged all unrest to the account of democracy, and hastened to put it down in the name of law and righteousness. They hated new ways with the virtuous hatred of the well-to-do, and piously dreamed of a future America as like the past as one generation of oysters is like another.
There is a certain historical fitness in the fact that the Wits should have arisen in Connecticut and been the intellectual and spiritual children of Yale. For generations the snug little commonwealth had been the home of a tenacious conservatism, that clung to old ways and guarded the institutions of the fathers with pious zeal. In no other New England state did the ruling hierarchy maintain so glacial a grip on society. The Revolution of '76 had only ruffled the surface of Connecticut life; it left the social structure quite unchanged. The church retained its unquestioned control of the machinery of the commonwealth; and the church was dominated by a clerical aristocracy, hand in glove with a mercantile aristocracy. The Connecticut yeomanry was extraordinarily docile, content to follow its traditional leaders with implicit faith in their godliness. Those leaders would have been scarcely human if they had not come to regard authority as an inalienable prerogative of their caste, and office-holding as a natural right. To seek to turn a gentleman out of a place to which he had once been chosen, was reckoned by them wickedly Jacobinical. A small interlocking directorate controlled religion, business, and politics. Church, state, and trade were managed by the same little group to the common end of keeping all poachers off their preserves. If politics centered about the church it was because the church was the particular guardian of politics. In self-defense "her preachers were politicians and her politicians preachers," to quote a recent historian [Purcell, Connecticut in Transition]. So narrowly oligarchical was the domination of this clerical-mercantile group of politicians, that a contemporary Republican described Connecticut as an "elective despotism or rather elective aristocracy"—a domination that was never seriously threatened till the revolution of 1818 finally unseated the old order. Other commonwealths might yield to the blandishments of the Jacobins, but so long as Timothy Dwight and Governor Trumbull lived Connecticut would keep to her ancient ways.
It was her aloofness more than anything else that held the little commonwealth back from the plunge into the maelstrom of nineteenth century change. Few immigrants came bringing different ideals; the yeomanry followed a familiar round of life; currents of thought that were stirring the pulpits of eastern Massachusetts—suggestions of Arianism that was to be the forerunner of a Unitarian movement destined to create a schism in the traditional church order—did not reach so far as New Haven, and the intellectual life of Connecticut was undisturbed by the inchoate liberalisms of pre-Revolutionary days. Year after year her brightest young men went up to Yale to be trained in the orthodox Calvinism, and departed thence to re-thresh the old straw in every steepled meeting-house in the commonwealth. Yale College was a very citadel of political and theological orthodoxy. It had been founded by devout Calvinists to offset the supposed defection of Harvard, and in the intervening years it had stood loyally to its purpose. No doubt Yale undergraduates were not always models of Calvinistic propriety—as Trumbull plainly suggests in The Progress of Dulness; certainly during the early days of the French Revolution many of them were polluted by French atheism; but with the coming of Timothy Dwight to the presidency, all such uncleanness was swept away, and Yale dutifully turned to the pious work of preserving the commonwealth from all democratic innovation. The clergy who gathered for Commencement welcomed the young recruits to their ranks, impressing upon them the sacredness of the existing order with which their lives were to be linked, and dilating upon the social responsibility devolving on the holder of a Yale degree. If every Yale graduate were not a sound Calvinist and a sound Federalist it was no fault of a school that removed an instructor for espousing the Republican faith.
The daily round of life in Connecticut centered in the church to a degree that a later generation has difficulty in comprehending. Society was strait-laced in rigid dogma, and because that dogma was built about the core of total depravity, it imparted a peculiarly unfortunate bias to everyday thought. It is unnecessary here to discuss the familiar five points of Calvinism, but the intimate relations between those doctrines and the social and political faith of Connecticut require a measure of consideration. The Wits were stanch old-school Calvinists, and the robust prejudices that impart to their pronouncement a more than Johnsonian dogmatism, were the sour fruit of their religious faith. It is too often overlooked that historically and practically the doctrine of total depravity, in its larger implications, was quite as much social and political as theological; that it emerged originally as a by-product of social caste and carries in its face the mark of aristocracy; and that it has everywhere been pressed into the service of social inequality. Endowed with high theological sanction, pronounced by the church to be the inscrutable decree of God, it is perhaps the most pernicious doctrine that western civilization has ever given birth to. But pernicious as it is, carrying over into eternity the caste divisions of temporal orders, it has proved too convenient a doctrine to be lightly surrendered by those who find it useful. It wove itself through the entire fabric of social thought in old Connecticut. It provided an authoritative foundation for Connecticut Federalism. In the eyes of men like Timothy Dwight it sufficed to disprove the validity of all democratic aspiration. If the mass of men were outcasts from God—as the doctrine assumed—if they had no title or interest in the prerogatives of the elect, it was a presumption little short of blasphemous to assert that they were competent to manage the temporal affairs of society. Surely it was never intended by the divine wisdom that the sons of Adam should rule the children of God, that the powers of darkness should legislate for the lovers of light. In the background of Calvinistic thought the assumption persisted that the Saints are God's delegated policemen on whom devolves the responsibility of keeping order amongst the sinners. The politician seeking the votes of sinners would not, of course, put it so bluntly; but the doctrine was there implicitly, providing a high sanction for the major premises of New England Federalism. It was this translation into political terms of a decadent dogma that the democratic doctrine of natural rights ran full against in its slow progress through New England. It colored the thinking of the upper class, provided a useful sanction for their strict censorship of society, authorized their rigid monopoly of all political power. It is not easy to understand high Federalists like Jedidiah Morse, who taught the youth of New England in his Geography that the clergy was an autocratic balance against democracy, unless they are set against the background of such obsolete dogma.
A special and particular justification of the doctrine, in the opinion of New England conservatives, was provided in the disturbant spread of populistic heresies. The years following the peace of 'eighty-three were an unhappy period for a New England sadly confused by its Shays' Rebellion and its New...
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Benjamin Franklin V
SOURCE: An introduction to The Prose of the Minor Connecticut Wits, Vol. I, by Theodore Dwight, edited by Benjamin Franklin V, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1974, pp. iii-xv.
[Franklin is an American educator, editor, and critic. Below, he comments on the breadth and variety of prose pieces composed by the major and minor Connecticut Wits.]
It is the custom for each new appreciator of the Connecticut Wits to acknowledge that group's important place in the history of American letters and then lament that their books, some of which were among the most ambitious of their day, rest neglected on library shelves with two...
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A. Owen Aldridge
SOURCE: "The Concept of Ancients and Moderns in American Poetry of the Federal Period," in Early American Literature: A Comparatist Approach, Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 158-85.
[The editor of Comparative Literature Studies, Aldridge is an American educator and author. Among his works on the eighteenth century are Benjamin Franklin and His French Contemporaries (1957) and Man of Reason: Life of Thomas Paine (1959). Here, he analyses "the literary traditions affirmed by [the Federal period] poets" and the ideological effects of their embracing of Augustan Age values.]
Ordinarily the expression...
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Arner, Robert D. "The Connecticut Wits." In American Literature 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years, edited by Everett Emerson, pp. 233-52. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.
Concise overview of the works of the Wits. Arner concludes that, although their literary contributions have been by and large forgotten, "Barlow's democratic idealism and the dissenting voices raised by Trumbull and Dwight are perhaps their most important legacies to us."
Boynton, Percy. "Timothy Dwight and His Connecticut." Modern Philology XXXVIII, No. 2 (November 1940): 193-203.
Discusses Dwight's impressions of the state of Connecticut.
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