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Toward the close of the eighteenth century, and indeed when the nineteenth century was well advanced, there was little to indicate the commanding place to be held by American historical writing in the literature of the world. The Saxon mind is an observant one; and certainly the early English settlers in America had written sufficiently numerous and voluminous chronicles of their sight-seeings and experiences.
But the admirable diaries of William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Samuel Sewall did not foretell, with any certainty, the coming of a historical literature.
To be a good writer of diaries is one thing; to be a broad and able historian quite another. Pepys was not a great social analyst, nor Boswell a critical biographer. Prince's “Annals” and Stith's “ History of Virginia,” of all the books recorded in the chapter on “Early Descriptive and Historical Writers,” were the only ones we can call precursors of Bancroft's works, or Motley's; and he would certainly be a very patriotic student who would pretend to find in them traces of the powers of
All praise, of its kind, belongs
a great historian.
to those who patiently treasured perishable information, or who set in order their little stock of colonial records ; but their time was not ripe for the appearance of historians in the truer sense.
Nearly every one of the earliest American historical writers was a man of affairs, a participator in the deeds he described. This was specially true of Smith, Bradford, Winthrop, the Mathers, Sewall, and Stith; and the remark applies equally well to Thomas Hutchinson, whose name may stand at the chronological head of this later list. When we look at the commanding figures of the Revolutionary leaders in Massachusetts, we are inclined to forget that Hutchinson, for a considerable
Hutchinson, period, was really the “leading spirit of 1711-1780 the Province."* It meant much, in colonial days, for a man to be member of the general court, speaker of the same, chief-justice, member of the provincial council, lieutenant-governor, and gover
Hutchinson, though a Tory, and a legal representative of the authority of the crown, was a native of Boston, a graduate of Harvard, and a genuine New-Englander. Modern readers sometimes forget that a fair share of the intelligence and conscience of the colonies, as well as of their wealth, was on the Tory side. Though Hutchinson became exceedingly, and naturally, unpopular during the patriotic American uprising in the decade before the Revolution ; though his house was more than once attacked, its contents burned, and its historical collections dispersed; and though,
* Hosmer, “Life of Samuel Adams," 34.
finally, Hutchinson was driven from the place of his birth, even before the guns of Lexington and Concord were fired, there is no reason why, in these dispassionate days, he should not be credited with an honest desire to do what he deemed right. Loyalty to conviction certainly cost him more than a similar fidelity to conscience cost the “traitor" Adams, or Hancock, or Otis.
Hutchinson sat in a chair occupied by Winthrop and William Shirley before him, and by John Hancock, Samuel Adams, James Sullivan, Elbridge Gerry, Edward Everett, Emory Washburn, and John A. Andrew after him. His intellectual ability was such as to make him worthy of mention in this honorable company. His “History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay,” which, in its comHutchinson's pleted form, brings the story down to the the Province very year of the author's exit from the colsetts Bay."" ony, may fairly be called a praiseworthy production, even from the literary standpoint. One old book may be valuable as an original authority, another may be prized for its quaintness of autobiographical detail or social chronicle. Hutchinson's work offers something more than this, and deserves some credit for its literary style. Notwithstanding the marked political opinions of the author, one feels a confidence in his statements greater than that reposed in the writings of the professional moralist Cotton Mather. Naturally, Hutchinson never attained a tithe of the popularity enjoyed by Increase and Cotton Mather in their capacity of historians; politics had crowded literature to the
wall, and Hutchinson was not the man to get an impartial hearing in his lifetime.
But it is now apparent that he possessed an ability shared but never fully displayed by Thomas Prince : that of accumulating, studying, and assimilating historical materials, and placing them before the reader in an orderly and intelligible form. It is this ability that makes the historian; and in the maturity and thoroughness of Hutchinson's work we find the beginning of the second and principal period of historical literature in America. More than this one cannot claim; to say less than this would be injustice. In Hutchinson's diary and miscellaneous papers are sometimes to be found a loftiness of thought and a transparency of diction which are similar to the good literary qualities of the “ History.” Hutchinson was an aristocrat, hence he was a political failure in New England ; but his aristocracy helped him win his success as a writer, because it taught him, in a time of hurry and excitement, which followed an age of Matherian, pompous half-knowledge, to be patient, serious, and just in his historical investigations, and to try to be stately and finished in verbal expression. The charge of trickiness and double-dealing, made and believed in Hutchinson's lifetime, affects his character as a man rather than as a historian. Reduced to its lowest terms, and patiently investigated, it means that Hutchinson, always a consistent Tory, wrote some things in his English letters which, very naturally, he left unsaid at home. Noble and beneficent as were the results of the Revolution to
America and the world, we are compelled to admit that, on both sides, the adaptation of means to ends was sometimes not in strict accord with the highest equity. Admitting against Hutchinson more than can be proved, his “ History” remains both creditable and trustworthy, an honorable leader of an honored line.
Naturally the earlier American historians selected local themes. Documents concerning foreign topics were lacking in America ; libraries were few and scantily supplied ; European travel or residence involved an expense impossible for writers not diplomats as well ; and the novelty and attractiveness of subjects close at hand led the first historians to address themselves to their home public. They were, for the most part, employed in other than literary tasks, and gave to writing such time as could be spared from exacting daily work. Jeremy Belknap, like so many of the American writers Jeremy who were laying the foundations for a Belknap, 1744-1795. future literature, was a minister. To go to college, teach school, to study divinity, to preach, and incidentally to turn out pamphlet sermons, “poetry,” or more ambitious work, was almost the rule among our early writers. Belknap's career may be summarized thus : his pastorates at Dover and Boston (where he preceded Dr. Channing in the Federal Street Church) were honorable ; and though his higher literary tastes were for historical study, he would hardly have been a New England minister had he not written a theological treatise or some similar production. Thus he prepared a