Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

On this solid basis the “Autobiography"—and the life it chronicled-went busily and cheerily on. The book tells us how Franklin organized a city watch and fire company in Philadelphia; started an academy and a philosophical society ; experimented with electricity ; invented the open stove still called after his name, and refused to take a patent for it; worked up from the Philadelphia common-council to the Continental Congress, and diplomacy, and treaty-making; concocted plans for a death-dealing militia on the one hand, and hospitals and hygienic streetcleaning on the other ; refused to become Colonel Franklin or General Franklin, but rejoiced in the peaceable honors of A.M. and LL.D., the first being given by Harvard and Yale “ in consideration of my improvements and discoveries in the electric branch of natural philosophy”; received the Copley medal and became a member of the Royal Society, being

excus'd the customary payments, which would have amounted to twenty-five guineas”; and so on, in things great and small. The book is a fragment, but it is a fragment which has formed the basis of all the many biographies of Franklin. It is idle to compare the “Autobiography” with “Robinson Crusoe,” as a piece of literature, but it certainly is wholesome and appetizing reading. Benjamin Franklin the author cannot be rated among writers of the first class; but it is seldom that the good motions of the world get jogged along by so sturdy and helpful a force as was Benjamin Franklin the man.

[ocr errors]
[graphic][merged small][merged small][merged small]

readers,

ers.

THE American literature which we have thus far studied is now interesting in many ways, Early Ameriand was not less interesting at the time of can literature its first appearance.

Much of it—as well as a considerable body of writing now justly forgotten or ignored—was regarded with pride by authors and readers alike. In poetry there were “tenth muses”; in theology there were mighty makers of systems; in the "literature of travel” there were pretentious chroniclers and resonant describ

It should not be forgotten, however, that these local magnates were little esteemed abroad. Specu· lators, geographers, and a part of the general public might read some of the wonderful accounts of life and scenery in the new world. Now and then a theologian purchased and studied one of the folios or less ambitious pamphlets produced by American divines. But the great mass of American literary productions had none but a home market. It will be remembered that thus far we have found not one American book of the first literary rank. Benjamin Franklin's great European reputation was personal, not literary; he was esteemed and listened to as

It was

diplomat, scientist, individual force, not man of letters. Jonathan Edwards' famous treatise, so potent at home, made no great stir abroad, and the interest aroused by it in England and Scotland, such as it was, of course depended upon its philosophical merit, not its literary. As a mere piece of writing, indeed, its rank was not high.

But we come now to a class of literature which American was perforce read and studied in Europe. political writing. Thinking men might ignore the American traveller, theologian, poet, but the American political orator spoke so that his words resounded across the Atlantic; and the authors of the political literature of the colonies and the nascent nation did not lack distant readers. Their foreign students, to be sure, heeded less their manner than their matter. the American word, not the American grace that won attention ; but henceforth one division of the growing literature of the west was to have its attentive public. When we consider the state and the wealth of English literature in the seventeenth century, and even in the eighteenth, it is at once apparent that London, Oxford, and Edinburgh had no need to concern themselves with the comparatively weak and poor books and pamphlets coming from America. But when American orators and politicians were attacking cherished British traditions, and threatening to curtail or destroy British power in the New World, it became necessary to listen to what they were saying, and either to accept or to repel the force of their words.

The most potent voice in Massachusetts was that

Samuel Adams,

of Samuel Adams, a Harvard graduate of 1740, a patriot and radical from his youth, intensely in earnest, poor and incorruptible, a man of 1722-1803 business who sacrificed private gains to the good of the colonial cause. The Saxon folk-mote, transferred to England, and thence to the American colonies, became the New England town-meeting. Boston was the chief New England town, and of the assembly of its citizens Samuel Adams was the natural leader. No other American had so good an opportunity to mould the form of a democracy in its best condition, and Adams made the most of his opportunity. A Calvinistic Congregationalist in religion, he applied to politics the principles of equality upon which he insisted in church order.

Boston was somewhat leavened with aristocratic and Tory tendencies; against both he fought with a vigor which finally triumphed. To him fell a work in the North like that done by Thomas Jefferson in the South. Democratic principles carried too far become communistic; but extreme Federalism endangers the rights of the people. In the latter Adams saw the greater danger; and his work, fortunately, came at a time when the centrifugal force was more needed than the centripetal. He lived too soon to reap the highest political rewards in the new nation which owed so much to his efforts; and, indeed, when political parties appeared after the Revolution, Adams was more radical than the average New England voter; though he became State legislator, congressman, and governor. His work was that of a strong personal force, a pioneer, a destroyer of oppression,

an upbuilder of liberty. He was the central figure in the town-meeting; he framed and voiced its policy; he drew up important instructions or appeals to home and foreign officers or legislators ; and his pen was almost constantly in his hand, for he wrote stirring articles for the people's newspaper in Boston. His signatures were many; now he was “ Vindex,” now“ Valerius Poplicola,” now“ A Son of Liberty," but the purport of his utterances was ever the same. In his speeches, epistles, or memorials he put the spirit before the letter, the matter before the manner. What wonder that his force made him as obnoxious to the home government as he was popular among the colonists? When a general pardon was offered the patriots, the year before the Revolution, Adams was excepted, and was proud of the fact. His course was unswerving from first to last. When he presented his thesis as Master of Arts, at the age of twenty-one, he debated the question : “Whether it be Lawful to resist the Supreme Magistrate, if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved "; and this question his life-work answered in the affirmative. He was the “chief incendiary,” said the Tories; the truest of patriots, thought the colonists.

Few now read Adams' “True Sentiments of America,” “Circular Letter (1768) to each colonial legislature,” “ Appeal to the World,” Vindex" letters, or “ Earnest Appeal to the People” (February, 1776, for independence). No collected edition of his writings—scattered and almost inaccessible-exists. But his intensity of thought, now calm, now fiery, his vigor of utterance, and his purpose in written or

« AnteriorContinuar »