The Emancipation of Massachusetts

A GROWN, structural, living human society is a phenomenon so subtile and so complex as to defy the most searching powers of analysis, and even to be in large measure hidden from the ken of insight. The most penetrating and comprehensive eye can but look deeply, widely, into it, seeing much, but never seeing all. In the case of a young society, having a type of its own, and in which lies the germ of a large future, the difficulty of an adequate reading is apparently less, but really greater. The form is here simpler because less developed, but it conceals more ; hidden energies lie within it, some of them seemingly quite latent, some working obscurely to effects not distinct or defined. It is impossible to come at the secret of such a society by a mere inspection of it; we learn subsequently what was in it by seeing what came out of it. Every one who studies with a sincere and penetrating mind, taking together the original facts and the following history, will open it in a degree to the understanding of others ; but every student will put into his representation his own quality of mind, his dominant lines of intellectual and moral interest, and his manner of regarding history in general.

It follows that different representations, proceeding from inspections of the facts equally penetrating, candid, and assiduous, will be sure to differ more or less, and may differ somewhat widely ; but it follows also that each will have its value and reward the interest it engages. But that any representation may be valuable, the first requisite, after natural competence, is an entire intellectual sincerity. This implies not merely an honest purpose, but a perfect openness of mind, a contemplation of the facts from which every prejudice, every prepossession, every warping desire to find in them one character or import rather than another, has been quite discharged. Now, it must be acknowledged that American history has too seldom been Written in this spirit. To a large extent, our history has been covered with a highly colored wash of patriotism, which may indeed serve to edify, to foster a pride in our past, or to enhance the sense of national consequence and superiority to the rest of mankind, but which conceals the true character of men and events alike, and converts history into romance. We read to be inflated rather than instructed, and to see the figures of fiction in the place of real men.

Mr. Brooks Adams’s little work, The Emancipation of Massachusetts,1 is notably and admirably free from this fatal fault. No foreigner could address himself to the facts with a more unqualified, resolute purpose to ascertain their nature and import; and his veracity of speech equals his veracity of mind. Without fear and without favor he reports what assiduous study has enabled him to see. It illustrates this uncompromising sincerity that a more severely just estimate of Samuel Adams has not, been published in this country than that which has here been set down by the pen of an Adams. We do not undertake to say that the writer has been perfectly able to avoid one-sidedness, nor that his representation is in all respects adequate, for such is not altogether our opinion ; but if he has been at all misled, it has certainly not been by the purpose or wish, conscious or unconscious, to sustain a foregone conclusion. But perhaps the dominant impression produced upon him by a contemplation of the facts has been somewhat too dominant, and has imposed itself upon particular facts which were in truth of a different and contrary tenor. The complex phenomenon is unduly simplified in the representation, is too much reduced to a single color. Nevertheless, that impression was derived from the principal facts, not foisted upon them ; they speak through it, instead of being covered by it. As a consequence, the book, though dealing with matters of which so much has been written and spoken, and with which we had all supposed ourselves quite familiar, is fresh, salient, striking, almost startling; and this from the nature of the facts revealed, not from any mere effect of style. It is as if a fog of ancient continuance should suddenly rise from a landscape which had hitherto been seen only under that veil, and show it as at once the same and not the same, the same and yet surprising.

Mr. Adams has found in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay a sacerdotal despotism, peculiar in constitution, but of extraordinary power and rigor. From the outset the colony was liberally supplied with ministers, mostly men of learning and ability, sifted out from the English Church by a process which distinguished them as stringent in conviction, uncompromising in character, invincibly strong in scruples of a, particular cast, and by consequence wanting in scruples felt by men of a different order. Abhorring the Church of Rome, they yet had inherited to the full its tradition of magisterial power in the priest as a man supernaturally appointed and ordained, not merely to persuade, but to govern. They had come to these cold shores with no purpose to establish personal or civil liberty as these things are now understood, but with a very different and indeed contrary purpose. That liberty of conscience for which the great Cromwell and his sectaries contended was to them an abomination, and they hated the very word ” toleration.” Their spirit was more that of the Westminster Assembly, which, as Masson has remarked, elaborated a system of spiritual subjection more minute and searching than was ever put into operation by the prelacy of England or the priesthood of Rome. They wished to establish their form of religious faith, expressed in an elaborate system of doctrine and discipline, as the supreme, all-controlling, allmoulding law and order of a community ; they wished, that is, to derive the entire manifestation of life immediately and visibly from its highest principle. Righteousness should be the law of the land, — righteousness, not precedent, nor tradition, nor the will of man. Once more there should be a peculiar, a holy people ; once more a society sanctified and sacred in its government and conduct down to the minutest detail. It is difficult not to see something high-souled and grand in such an undertaking ; it is difficult not to admire the daring, the energy, the constancy and fortitude of purpose, with which they pursued it. Yet it was one which could not in the end succeed. The whole complex being and action of a society can no more be derived immediately from religion than the whole industry of a people, with all its springs and motives, can be drawn directly from a king. To make righteousness, in their sense, the law of the land is to set aside all those precise definitions of right, as applied to the multifarious conditions of social being, which have been slowly elaborated during a long series of centuries, and to substitute for them the improvisations of certain persons, probably not the fittest for a task which in any case is beyond human ability. Besides, their ideal of righteousness was narrow, in many respects arbitrary, copied by intention from the archaic Hebrew model, and irreconcilably at odds with the spirit and conditions of modern existence. The mould into which they would force life was one in which human nature must soon feel itself intolerably cramped, and all the more cramped in proportion to its natural largeness, energy, and fertility. Their enterprise could not in the end prosper: but it seemed to prosper greatly in the beginning. For a time they had everything their own way. The sympathy and reverence of the people, partners of their enthusiasm, sustained and invited them ; they were separated from the rest of the world, and unchecked by its influence ; the disturbed condition of England withdrew attention from them, and caused them to be left in a state of practical independence; and what with great heat within and the want of checks from without, the development of their scheme was rapid. But love of power sprang from the possession of it; bigotry, armed with power and flushed with the sense of it, grew in intensity, grew to ferocity, as it increased and became supreme in sway; and, with no conscience against the most pitiless use of power for the suppression of heretical opinion, they soon had such opinion to suppress. They entered upon the work with alacrity ; in the contest with those whom they esteemed servants of the devil they used weapons and methods that must seem to us little better than devilish, and there ensued a sad, a dreadful chapter of our history.

Mr. Adams has told the story of this “ theocracy ” with graphic force and unsparing fidelity : of the means by which it assured and consolidated its power; of the daring obstinacy with which it resisted every attempt to bring it under correction of the English court and the common law ; of the wretched system of judicature it established, and its consequent travesties of justice ; of its contests with the “ Antinomians,” the Baptists, and the Quakers; of its excesses, cruelties, enormities, in these contests, particularly the last; of the ultimate forfeiture of its patent, so dreadfully abused, and its loss of immediate supremacy; of the witchcraft craze as the lurid afterglow of its day; of the liberal revolt within its own ranks, which reduced its influence as it had already been reduced in direct power; of the rise of the legal profession to represent, as against sacerdotal improvisation, the long-grown tradition, the sober spirit, and tried methods of secular justice; and so on to the end, which is reached with the opening of the war for independence. Now, when a New England historian treats of those times, his power to see the facts in a dry light is tested especially by the case of the Quakers; and the test has too generally been ill-sustained. Labored and persistent attempts have been made to excuse the Puritans, while mildly censuring them, and to throw the chief blame of the persecution upon its victims. It has been said that the conduct of the Quakers was so disorderly, anarchical, and indecent as to drive the authorities beyond all bounds of patience, and to force them, in mere defense of civil order, upon a severe line of action. By confounding dates, by putting effect for cause and cause for effect, by reckless exaggeration and still more reckless assertion, without evidence and in contempt of evidence, this style of representation has been plausibly supported, and, seconded by local feeling, has been commonly accepted as true. One can see that it prevails more or less with historical writers whose desire to be simply just is quite apparent. Mr. R. P. Hallowell, in his ironically named Quaker Invasion of Massachusetts, has exposed unanswerably the quality of those pretenses ; but he is of Quaker descent, and wrote quite obviously with the special feeling of a Quaker. In the present work, however, a son of the Puritans tells the sad tale to the like effect. With a strong hand he brushes aside the entire cobweb of apology, and permits the naked facts to appear in their proper ugliness. We are heartily glad of it. The persecution was a shame to the times in which it took place, but the attempt to cloak its nature is a shame to our own. And Mr. Adams has not only made clean work at this point; his book as a whole is instructive, suggestive, and painfully interesting. Every page bears the marks of a penetrating mind, severe intellectual sincerity, assiduous research, and a disposition to see the particular case treated of as representative of processes in world-history.

Nevertheless, we do not regard the work with a satisfaction quite complete. There is an important aspect of the historical fact, which, it seems to us, does not sufficiently appear in the picture. The Puritan clergy were not drawn to this land by the vulgar love of power; they came as enthusiasts, radical enthusiasts, of an austere but not ignoble type. They were entranced by an ideal, the ideal of godliness, as not only the principle of personal conduct, but also as the organic, all-pervading law of social being. It was as dazzled by this ideal that they were blinded to the enormity of the action they took in the suppression of dissident opinion. No doubt they became enamored of power when it was in their hands ; no doubt the interested spirit of a dominant class arose and became strong among them ; but their coming to this country could have been dictated by no such spirit. Bigots they were from the first, but beneath the hard shell of their bigotry there was a glowing soul of aspiration. It is therefore incorrect to identify their spirit with that of a merely repressive conservatism, in which there is nothing of that ideal afflatus, but only the selfish and ruthless desire of a dominant caste or class to maintain its supremacy. Meantime, we can scarcely subscribe to what seems Mr. Adams’s notion concerning conservatism in general. The effect of his statement seems to be that there is a perpetual war between liberalism and conservatism, and that the latter, however it may have been of use at some primitive period, is now, has long been, and will ever hereafter be altogether bad, a purely obstructive force, to be utterly got rid of, if possible. But conservatism is a force without which no human society could exist. A wise liberalism removes injurious restraints, liberates energy, and thereby does a good work ; a wise conservatism nourishes the roots of historic life, maintains stability, continuity, and cohesion, conditions of all growth, and likewise does a good work. The two tendencies, even at their best, are often in conflict, and yet each is necessary to the other. Moreover, it may be doubted whether the dominating and despotic authority of the clergy in the colony of Massachusetts Bay, call it conservative or otherwise, was not in some important respects beneficial, one might say indispensable. The tendency of pioneer life, left quite to itself, is toward moral separation, social dissolution, and a rude individualism, intolerant of restraint, averse to law. incapable of obedience. Recovery from this condition, if at all accomplished, is commonly slow, painful, and exceedingly costly. Social principles and the moral power of an organic community are lost, and must be, as it were, created anew. Often, as in most of the South American States, the creation is not achieved. It was in view of such facts that Mr. Bagehot, in his instructive Physics in Politics, made a remark to the effect that those political societies have the largest and most enduring development in which the principle of authority had at the outset the most energetic expression. Now, the supreme influence of the Massachusetts clergy supplied a principle of authority, of cohesion, of structural unity and order; and we have no warrant for saying that, in the absence of this force, its place would have been taken by another. Mr. Adams has himself observed that the primitive structural unit in Massachusetts was not, as has been commonly said, the town, but the congregation. The observation is no less just than acute. Here it was, then, that structure actually began, here that it was for a considerable time maintained, and the fact should speak for itself. We should notice in this connection the source and nature of the authority exercised by the clergy. Wholly without foundation in physical force, it sprang from the free and fervid sentiments of their congregations. Seldom, if ever, has an authority so powerful and paramount had less the character of a coercive tyranny, or an obedience so entire been less in the nature of slavish subjection. Now, we have said that one must in part learn what was in a young society by observing what subsequently came out of it. The outcome in this case is significant. The plan of political structure in these American States proceeded from Massachusetts, while Pennsylvania, the home of the Quakers, was the most backward of all, and singularly, obstinately, slow to give itself an effective organic shape.

What Mr. Adams has to say of Harvard College is a little surprising. At this point he makes a wide excursion, remarks upon the institutions of the Zuñi Indians, and obtains from these a clue to the purposes of the Puritan clergy in establishing a college at Cambridge. The upshot of his representation seems to be that the clergy were a despotic caste, interested only to perpetuate their power; that this power was derived from their possession of certain secrets, affecting seriously, or supposed to affect, the welfare of the people they held in subjection ; and that Harvard College was designed for a place where these profitable secrets should be imparted under the seal of secrecy to the neophytes of their order. Perhaps he does not mean to go so far, but his remarks seem plainly to tend in that direction, and we cannot think them warranted. Harvard College was an institution of learning, in the proper sense of the term; it was modeled, so far as might be, upon the English universities, and was designed to give open instruction in the languages and sciences. Doubtless the chief object of its founders was to provide the colony with an educated ministry. Well, and what of it ? If a lawyer urge the establishment of a law school, does it signify a mere selfish devotion to the interests of his own order ? May it not import rather that he has a high standard of legal qualification ? The founders of the college were persuaded that no man is fitted for the office of a public teacher without learning and the discipline of systematic study. They believed in the acquisition of knowledge by definite intellectual process and the studious labor of trained minds, as, on the other hand, the Quakers believed in the acquisition of knowledge, or at least of imperative direction, by particular impressions supernaturally borne in upon the mind. quite without definite intellectual process. That is, the Puritans believed, after their fashion, in the rational method, and were so far in agreement with the spirit of science. It was this belief which they expressed in founding so early the school at Cambridge. Now, it is a virtue of this method that it cannot at last be contained within arbitrary limits ; there lies in it a principle of expansion which will not in the end be restrained ; and as matter of fact, liberalism in the colony sprang from Harvard College. Its founders builded better than they knew, as all men do who lend their efforts to the laws of growth.

Finally, Mr. Adams appears to be a zealous professor of the mechanical philosophy cherished and promulgated in our day by a particular sect of doctrinaires, and in various passages of the work under review he has indulged himself in confident expressions of it. For example, a chapter opens thus : “ As the working of the human mind is mechanical, the quality,” etc. The introduction of this speculative doctrine is gratuitous, for the aspect of the historical facts, with the judgment to be formed in view of them, is quite the same without it as with it. And were the case otherwise, one might doubt the propriety of assuming in that easy-going fashion the truth of a sweeping proposition, which is no less than revolutionary, and which has assuredly never yet been, if it ever can be, scientifically verified. One may assert, if he will, that when Calef, as Mr. Adams relates, exposed the witchcraft delusion a mechanical force passed from him to the readers he instructed, to operate upon their minds in the same way with that which drives an engine or turns a mill-wheel; but he will merely assert an opinion as little verified by the scientific method, and as little capable of verification by it, as the opinion of John Stuart Mill that in some other world parallel lines may meet.

Space, however, is here obviously wanting for any discussion of the subject; we have therefore only to say that, since Mr. Adams’s doctrine, whether true or false, has as yet only the standing, at best, of a questionable opinion, the needless intrusion of it as ascertained truth into a statement of historical fact is at least a literary infelicity, which can serve only to mar, and with some readers to discredit, a book which otherwise has many claims to an attention not unmingled with admiration.

  1. The Emancipation of Massachusetts. By BROOKS ADAMS. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.