Doyle's History of the New England Colonies

THERE is little to be said of Mr. Doyle’s work except in the way of praise. He is at some pains to inform us that he has written entirely from the original sources, and in this he has adhered to the best and soundest principles of modern historical work. But in his zeal for original sources he did not need to pass over in absolute and contemptuous silence all contemporary historians.

Mr. Doyle refers occasionally to Mr. Palfrey with disapprobation, and once or twice approvingly to Mr. Tyler’s history of American literature ; but with these exceptions one might suppose from Mr. Doyle’s foot-notes that he was in an unexplored field, and that no histories worthy of the name had preceded his. It is very proper not to rely on contemporaries, but it is foolish not to mention that they have existed, and that their opinions are such and such, whether correct or not. There is never anything lost by giving credit to others, and it guards a writer from any accusation of plagiarism. This is especially true in Mr. Doyle’s case. He has, without doubt, reached his own conclusions quite independently, but it is safe to say that not one of them is novel, and that all have been put forth by historians and essayists on this side of the Atlantic, and are familiar to American students, and in large measure to the American public.

It is not, however, for the American public that the volumes are most valuable, and the lack of novelty which is apparent to us does not detract from the importance of the work. The English public will read Mr. Doyle, while only a small fraction of them would read an American writer upon American topics. The English are not so ignorant of this country as they used to be, and they are slowly waking up to the fact that the United States are at least as important as Turkey or Afghanistan. This may seem a bold statement, but we are inclined to believe that it is not exaggerated, though the awakening process has not gone very far. Nevertheless, they have not reached the point of reading, to any great extent, American histories of America, and it is well that they should have a teacher of their own, so competent as Mr. Doyle, to instruct them and enlarge the scope of their vision.

To us the attraction of Mr. Doyle’s work is chiefly comparative. It is both interesting and instructive to see how an outsider, of our own race and speech, deals with historical questions which have been for years familiar to us. W e can learn a good deal from observing what impresses him, and noting the manner in which he emphasizes certain points and passes over others. With an inferior workman this would not be of much consequence, but all Mr. Doyle’s work is of the best kind. He is absolutely thorough and painstaking. He is not only master of his subject, but he has gone to the very bottom of it, and grappled with the driest details and the most obscure authorities. He is clear and strong in statement, and is scientific and dispassionate in his conclusions. The accuracy and care of his work is shown by the absence of errors. Some trifling mistakes are of course to be found, but the only surprising ones are two in relation to Mrs. Hutchinson, of whom he naturally has a good deal to say. Mr. Doyle states that Mrs. Hutchinson was the sister of Wheelwright, and that she was killed in the Narragansett country. She was a daughter of the Rev. Francis Marbury, and a relative of Wheelwright, probably his sister-in-law ; and after the death of her husband, in 1642, she removed to New Netherlands with her family, and perished there in an Indian raid upon the Dutch settlements near Hell-Gate.

In his first volume, Mr. Doyle says that his work is chiefly directed to the development of institutions, and this portion of it is certainly executed with great thoroughness and keenness. It is gratifying to New Englanders to have an impartial outsider say, “ The records of the Southern plantations are not wholly free from disputes and conflicts. But these almost always turn on matters of personal conduct or details of administration, scarcely ever on questions of principle. In New England, we are brought face to face with those great problems of legislation and government which are common to all free and progressive communities.” There can be no doubt of the fact, but it is pleasant to have it stated so forcibly by a writer wholly unbiased by state or local prejudices. Indeed, Mr. Doyle is particularly successful in dealing with the political life of New England, and it is not too much to say that no one has treated it better. He sees that there the great problems of democratic self-government and of federation were first dealt with, and that from the Puritan colonies in their earliest days emanated the ideas and principles which were destined to become dominant, after centuries of growth and struggle, throughout the United States. To have brought forward from a new point of view these great facts is a very important service to American history.

Mr. Doyle is almost equally successful in dealing with the religious side of New England history. His criticisms on the Massachusetts persecutions are temperate and just. He does not give quite sufficient weight to the fact that, harsh as the Massachusetts rulers often were, they maintained order and insured prosperity ; keeping clear in a sometimes tyrannical way, no doubt, of the distractions on which so many of the colonies were wrecked. Mr. Doyle sees the rigor of the system rather more clearly than its force and success, and he gives altogether too much credit to Rhode Island, which was turbulent, disorderly, and far behind the other colonies, and by no means so tolerant in deeds as in words.

The only absolutely untenable ground taken by Mr. Doyle on this point is the comparison, on page 141, of Massachusetts with the Church of England. The Puritan clergy of New England may have been bigoted persecutors, but in their worst estate they never fell below the Church of England ; and the English Church continued to impose disabilities upon Dissenters and Roman Catholics a hundred years after every man in Massachusetts was free before the law to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience. The truth is that an Englishman’s sense of humor and of facts always seems to desert him when he comes to deal with that venerable and by no means immaculate institution of successful compromises, the Established Church.

Although Mr. Doyle places the development of political institutions in the front, he covers with great thoroughness all parts of the field which he has chosen. He has a full and excellent narrative of events, which is thoroughly well done, and he gives a very good picture of social life and habits. His analysis of New England thought and character is particularly keen and true.

As we stated at the outset, there is little to be said of these volumes except, in the way of praise. Mr. Doyle is to be congratulated upon a very marked success, and the succeeding volumes will be looked for and read with the interest to which they are entitled, both in this country and in England.

  1. The Puritan Colonies. By J. A. DOYLE, M. A. [English Colonies in America, Volumes II. and III.] New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1887.