Front Page Titles (by Subject) PART ONE: The English Heritage and the Colonial Historical View - The Lamp of Experience
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
PART ONE: The English Heritage and the Colonial Historical View - Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience 
The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The English Heritage and the Colonial Historical View
History and the Eighteenth-Century Colonist
One of John Adams’s favorite questions was, “What do we mean by the revolution? The War?” No. “That was no part of the revolution. It was only an Effect and consequence of it.” As he told Hezekiah Niles, “the real American Revolution” was the “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people.” Effected between 1760 and 1775, this took place “before a drop of blood was shed.”1
The shift in American sentiment was startlingly rapid and comprehensive. Americans basked in the reflected glory of the British imperial victory in 1763, secure in the knowledge that the French menace was finally removed. Benjamin Franklin noted that the colonies felt closer to the mother country than to one another.2 Yet fifteen years later Americans were engaged in a bloody war with the very King and country who had won for them their prized security. And in resisting England the colonies found unity: “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together,” observed Adams.3
How was this radical change accomplished? In large part it was the achievement of literate politicians who enlightened and informed American opinion. A French observer, the Marquis de Chastellux, passed along Benjamin Harrison’s engrossing picture of “a number of respectable but uninformed inhabitants” waiting upon their intellectual betters: “ ‘You assert that there is a fixed intention to invade our rights and privileges; we own that we do not see this clearly, but since you assure us that it is so, we believe it. We are about to take a very dangerous step [against England], but we have confidence in you and will do anything you think proper.’ ” The American Revolution, the Marquis concluded, was made possible, in Virginia at least, by the popular trust in “a small number of virtuous and enlightened citizens.”4
David Ramsay, participant in and historian of the Revolution, concurred with this judgment. In his History of the American Revolution, published in 1789, he paid eloquent tribute to “the well-informed citizens” who made the Revolution possible. Theirs had been the enormously difficult task of first arousing the people to their danger, theirs the subsequent task of sustaining popular feelings over the years of political crisis preceding the war. “In establishing American independence,” Ramsay remarked, “the pen and the press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Upon the literary contributions of the Revolutionary leadership “depended the success of military operations.”5
Both the responsibility and the accomplishment of these “virtuous and enlightened citizens” is difficult to exaggerate. In standing against their mother country the patriot leaders knew they were undertaking a hazardous experiment. But they knew the justness of their cause. They were devoted to liberty, but it was liberty based upon “English ideas and English principles.” The patriots believed themselves inheritors of the privileges of Englishmen, and “though in a colonial situation,” they believed they “actually possessed them.”6 They knew the origins and the history of the rights to which they so persuasively laid claim.
To the eighteenth-century colonist, the study of history was a prestigious and a practical pursuit. The Enlightenment furnished arguments for man’s ability to re-create, with his God-given reason, a Heavenly City in this world (rather than patiently awaiting the next). Men argued that as Newton had discovered universal physical laws, so must there be universal laws of history, that human nature must be the same everywhere, that similar causes produce similar results, that history can repeat itself—or, mirabile dictu, that with the lessons learned from the past, errors might be avoided for the future. Condillac spoke for fixed unchanging principles in history: “Discover these,” he told his monarch, “and … politics will have no more secrets for you.”7
The testimonial on history’s behalf was overwhelming. Lord Bolingbroke called it “philosophy teaching by examples.”8 John Locke praised it as “the great Mistress of Prudence, and civil Knowledge.” Even though he was one of the few political writers of his day who failed to draw upon history to support his contentions, he thought history “the proper study of a Gentleman,” and urged others to take “a View of our English Constitution and Government in the antient Books of the Common-Law.” David Hume thought history was “the greatest mistress of wisdom,” and Lord Chesterfield told his grandson he would acquire much credit and reputation by knowing history well.9
But history was above all useful. James Harrington regarded knowledge of history as the prerequisite of a politician. James Burgh called history an essential study for statesmen, “the inexhaustible mine, out of which political knowledge is brought up.” In his Thoughts on Education, a manual popular in the American colonies, Burgh contended that “there is no kind of reading that tends more to settle the judgement, than that of History and Biography.” Useful, the hallmark of a civilized man, historical study had wide appeal. “Man without learninge, and the remembrance of things past,” wrote Sir William Dugdale, “falls into a beastlye sottishnesse and his life is noe better to be accounted for than to be buryed alive.”10
Colonial judgment settled firmly upon the value of history. “Good History,” claimed Benjamin Franklin, could “fix in the Minds of Youth deep Impressions of the Beauty and Usefulness of Virtue of all kinds.” History showed the “Advantages of Liberty, Mischiefs of Licentiousness, Benefits arising from the good laws and a due Execution of Justice.” John Adams expressed the same thought when he pronounced “a comprehensive Knowledge of Law and History necessary for an American Statesman.” Thomas Jefferson throughout his life found “a knoledge of British history … useful to the American politician.”11
To understand the peculiarities of the colonists’ historical vision, one should recall that history in eighteenth-century England was not only subject to the vagaries of intellectual vogue but was also under heavy political pressures. Two principal views of English history had developed: one, usually the more accurate by the standards of modern scholars, can be called the tory interpretation—although not in any party sense; the other is reasonably familiar as the whig interpretation, although it too existed long before a formal Whig party and continued long after whig politicians opportunistically lost interest in it. The historical whigs were writers seeking to support Parliamentary claims upon the royal prerogatives by exalting the antiquity of Parliament and by asserting that their political ambitions had solid foundation in ancient customs. They presented an idealized version of an Anglo-Saxon democracy, which they usually found overturned by Norman treachery and feudalism. The tory historians preferred instead to see no ancient source for the Parliamentary claims and viewed Anglo-Saxon England as feudalistic, but lacking in Norman stability and order.12
In the years of intensive and intensifying political debate preceding the American Revolution, Americans converted the arguments of whiggish historians into intellectual weapons, constantly finding resemblances between historical accounts and contemporary criticism of English society, then applying historical generalizations to the context of American debate over imperial relations.
The origins of whig history invoked by American colonists are obscure, but certainly it began during the reigns of the Tudors. In the sixteenth century Tudor monarchs presided over the rise of the English middle class, which then developed an interest in antiquarian research. This research, conducted under severe handicaps, led to a rediscovery of the feudal limitations on royal power, limitations which took on a new political significance during the seventeenth-century conflicts with the Stuart kings.13 The Society of Antiquaries (founded in the reign of Elizabeth I and abolished by James I) attempted to discover the antiquity of Parliament. In 1571 the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum appeared, purporting to describe Parliament as it existed in the time of Edward the Confessor and encouraging a belief in the pre-Norman existence of the House of Commons. Seventeenth-century whig writers discovered in Tacitus, author of the famed Germania, a useful source for contentions that the Saxon witan was the original of Parliaments. Tacitus had described how the Saxons chose their kings and generals, how they restricted the authority of those they set up to rule, how frequent assemblies were held for discussion of tribal affairs. “About matters of higher consequence,” Tacitus wrote, “the whole nation deliberates,” and at regular intervals there were conventions in which the people drafted their own laws.14 Tacitus contributed to the popular notion of a golden age of political liberty in the past—ancient laws and customs were the best. Liberty did not have to be created; it only needed to be restored.
For the whig historians the nemesis of Saxon liberties was feudalism, generally held to have been introduced into England by William “the accursed Norman” in 1066. Hence the idea of a “Norman Yoke.” The Conquest deprived Englishmen of their liberty, established the tyranny of an alien king and landlords, and replaced the Saxon militia of Alfred’s time with the odious form of holding land of the King in return for military service.15 The scholar who probably contributed most to English—and colonial—awareness of feudalism was Sir Henry Spelman; at least his books were the oft-quoted bases for subsequent studies on the subject. No whig in the general political sense, Spelman made discoveries highly susceptible to whig employment. Convinced that the Norman Conquest had brought feudalism into England, he believed pre-Norman land tenure had been generally “according to the ancient manner of the Germans.”16
Contributors to whig historiography came to view Magna Charta as a major chapter in the restoration of English liberties. Here Sir Edward Coke made a significant contribution: in Herbert Butterfield’s view, Coke “more than anybody else translated medieval limitations upon the monarchy into seventeenth-century terms … his anachronistic sins became a service to the cause of liberty.”17 In his Second Institutes Coke presented Magna Charta as an affirmation, not of feudal but of common law; and “the Common Law of England had been time out of mind before the Conquest.”18 Coke’s admiration for common law led him to develop the doctrine of an ancient or fundamental constitution which predated Normans and Saxons and owed its being to no man.
Concepts such as these proved enormously useful in the hands of Parliament-men against James I and Charles I. The Restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 brought fresh investigations into the antiquity of Parliament and English liberties from such writers as William Petyt (The Antient Right of the Commons of England Asserted, 1680) and William Atwood (Ius Anglorum ab Antiqua, 1681). With political success in 1688 came further volumes of historical justification. The constitution was now restored to its original principles, or so some whig historians would have it.
But historical contemplation had become a mainspring of political action. Englishmen in the eighteenth century persisted in this instinctive turning to the past for both an explanation and a solution to present problems. The whig interpretation did not die but took on a new life in the hands of critics who denounced the limitations of the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian succession. A group of historical writers, identified by Caroline Robbins as eighteenth-century “Commonwealthmen,” sought to maintain the revolutionary tradition of their seventeenth-century heroes, and in an endless stream of essays and histories (vastly more popular in America than in England) they kept fresh the memory and the political techniques of the crusades against the Stuarts. Rarely successful in practical politics, they denounced the whigs in power and regarded themselves as the Real Whigs in the tradition of the martyred Algernon Sidney, condemned as a traitor under Charles II for his unpublished “Discourses on Government,” which fixed sole power in Parliament and the people. Men such as Sir Robert Molesworth, Thomas Gordon (the translator of Tacitus), Walter Moyle, and John Trenchard, propagators of the new whig interpretation, formed the bridge between whig writers in the Stuart reigns and such “radical” reformers of the American Revolutionary era as James Burgh, Catherine Macaulay, and John Cartwright.19 For them all the past was a storehouse, not of mere example, but of authoritative precedents. This was the heritage of the eighteenth-century American colonist, raised and educated to think of himself as an Englishman, and eager to learn his history.
Books were the high road to history, providing the means to the “comprehensive Knowledge of Law and History” sought by John Adams and his fellow Americans. “How can I judge,” asked Adams of his diary in 1761, “how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading?”20 Reading, which made Lord Bacon’s full man, could also make the informed man, the history-conscious man, the American colonist firm in his view of his generation’s relationship to the long past, its place in the vivid present and the bright future.
Books were available, books of history ancient and modern, sacred and profane. Would-be American statesmen could find them in bookshops and printers’ shops, they could form their own libraries, they could read them in the “public” libraries of subscription companies, in towns large and small. History, particularly English whig history, was ready, on the shelves. In all of the lists of books there was a hard core of titles which served as common denominators and the solid majority of these volumes were either historical or political: often they were both. The more history a colonist read the more whigs he inevitably encountered, not only because of their weight or numbers but also because of their popularity and productivity.
Exposure to an academic library meant an early exposure to English history. Each of the nine colleges in colonial America had its library. Harvard College published library catalogues in which the number of secular historical volumes steadily increased as the eighteenth century advanced. The initial Harvard catalogue, issued in 1723, included such standard seventeenth-century historical sources as John Rushworth’s Historical Collections, and subsequent lists added Gilbert Burnet’s popular History of His Own Time and equally important whig works by Paul Rapin-Thoyras and James Tyrrell. Like many college collections, Harvard’s suffered from fire, but it was speedily restocked with the help of the strenuous English whig Thomas Hollis. A student at Harvard on the eve of the Revolution found numerous whig authors represented: Thomas Gordon, author of the Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters; Robert Molesworth, whose Account of Denmark revealed the nature of absolutism and portrayed liberty as “the greatest natural blessing mankind is capable of enjoying”; Edmund Ludlow (the regicide), whose Memoirs were an arsenal of arguments for republicanism and against standing armies; William Molyneux (friend to Locke), author of The Case of Ireland, which not only argued that Ireland was independent of the English Parliament but also elaborated a theory of natural inherent rights of men; and Catherine Macaulay, the anti-Stuart historian.21
Harvard’s collections were larger than those of any other colonial college, but not larger in the proportionate share given to history. Yale’s first library catalogue, 1743, listed many of the same history books; but where history had been at best a minor but interesting part of Harvard’s holdings, in Yale’s library history comprised the largest single category and continued to do so through successive catalogues.22 The College of New Jersey’s library was small, but again history was handsomely represented; and in 1755 when Governor Jonathan Belcher donated his library to the College, historical works of Burnet, Rapin, Ludlow, and Sidney and both Gordon’s Tacitus and Cato’s Letters were added. When fire caused destruction at Princeton, President John Witherspoon donated his personal collection including replacements for the burned volumes of Burnet, Vertot (the historian of revolutions), and Potter (Antiquities of Greece), and adding two editions of Tacitus for good measure.23 Rhode Island College, founded in 1764, issued a catalogue in 1782 which listed the familiar works of Mrs. Macaulay, Bishop Burnet, William Robertson (History of Scotland), and Lord Clarendon (History of the Rebellion). Fire destroyed the library of the College of William and Mary in 1705 and again during the Revolution; no catalogues were published by either King’s College in New York or the College of Philadelphia.24
Private libraries collected by the colonists were also full of history books, many of them the latest scholarship from Britain; but since books were expensive, private collections in the early eighteenth century were modest. In Virginia Richard Henry Lee II left his son Thomas a library of three hundred titles; the merchant Thomas Gadsden in South Carolina had one hundred and thirty-five volumes;25 Thomas Jefferson’s father, Colonel Peter Jefferson, willed him forty volumes. As the century advanced private libraries grew. Thomas Jefferson constantly added to his meager literary legacy, becoming one of the most important colonial collectors: at one point his library contained some thirty-two hundred titles comprising about six thousand volumes. Franklin’s collection was inventoried at forty-two hundred volumes, and the industrious John Adams collected forty-eight hundred. George Washington thought enough of his library by 1771 to order “a Plate with my Arms engraved and 4 or 500 copies struck.” Robert Carter of “Nomini Hall” had some fifteen hundred volumes by the eve of the Revolution; John Mercer’s library at “Marlborough” was large enough constantly to attract his younger friend and protégé George Mason. Even less wealthy colonists aspired to a literary estate of sorts: Joseph Smith was a Baltimore County ironmaster; when he died in 1770, his property was worth only £4 but it contained the first volume of Rapin’s History of England, along with clothes, a pen knife, two razors, and an ink pot.26
The size of the library mattered less, perhaps, than the industry of the owner. William Byrd made assiduous use of his fine collection of thirty-five hundred volumes at “Westover,” and besides, continually lent his books to interested neighbors.27 Jefferson loved his carefully chosen books; they were his windows on the world of the past, present, and future. He could not “live without books,” he confided to John Adams when both bibliophiles were in their great age. Neither fire nor finance kept him from such “pursuit of happiness.” Books were for Jefferson “a necessity of life.” Even after parting with his great library in 1815 (“the best collection of its size probably in America”) he found time and energy to collect another nine hundred volumes before his death eleven years later. He also took time to suggest a thirty-one-hundred-title library for his University of Virginia, so that students in Charlottesville also could look out the right windows.28
Most of the Revolutionary leaders shared what Jefferson called his “malady of Bibliomania.”29 John Adams tried to be financially careful as befitted a good Yankee, but when he was forty he ruefully confessed to his wife, Abigail: “I have been imprudent, I have spent an estate in books.” The habit never left him; his purchases and his reading continued throughout his life; even in his eighty-second year he modestly recounted the forty-three books read during the previous twelve months.30 John Dickinson, moderately wealthy, did not worry so much about his expenditures; he also had the advantage of inheriting the fine library of his father-in-law, Isaac Norris, Jr. His love for reading was constantly his refuge from the world: as a student he reported breathlessly how “I fly to Books, to retirement, to Labour, and every Moment is an Age, till I am immersed in Study.”31 As a mature man, he began his most famous work with the observation, “I spend a good deal of [my time] … in a library, which I think the most valuable part of my small estate.”32 One of the major penalties paid by William Hooper of North Carolina for his Revolutionary role was the British military spoliation of his books. “My library, except as to law books, is shamefully injured and above 100 valuable volumes taken away,” Hooper complained bitterly. This was bad enough, but “what vexes me most of all is that they [the British] have broken several sets of books … [so] as to make what remains useless lumber.”33
Books mattered to the eighteenth-century colonist. Frequently the owner wrote extensive marginal comments—Franklin did, and Dickinson, and Adams, and Jefferson. Sometimes a reader exerted himself to secure an American imprint to make a book more widely available. Jefferson did so in several instances. Sometimes a colonial reader would painstakingly transcribe selections into commonplace books or notebooks; Jefferson, Dickinson, and Mayhew filled wallpaper folios or tiny duodecimes with notes. As authors some colonists would divulge their private reading in lengthy footnotes or references in the text, to both dignify and illustrate their political argument. Dickinson piled citation on citation in his polemical pamphlets. Finally, colonists discussed with their correspondents their hopes and fears, their claims and arguments, commenting on the sources as they proceeded.
If academic and private libraries indicate the intellectual environment of the Revolutionary generation, there is a third source of importance—the eighteenth-century social or subscription library. Franklin inspired such a library for his adopted city of Philadelphia. His and other social libraries show not only the reading opportunities available to citizens of modest means, but insofar as the members determined contents, these libraries give further indications of colonial reading interests. Franklin’s Library Company, founded in 1731, enjoyed remarkable success and issued frequent catalogues to keep pace with its growth. Within ten years of its founding, the Company issued a catalogue with some three hundred and seventy-five titles, in which history proved the largest grouping by far—one hundred and fourteen titles, as compared with sixty-nine for literature. On the eve of the Stamp Act crisis in 1765 the Company ordered numerous additional volumes, including Henry Care’s popular English Liberties, Walter Moyle’s Tracts on Greek and Roman commonwealths, and Edward Montagu’s Rise and Fall of Antient Republicks, all contributors to whig history. On the eve of Independence the Company acquired Obadiah Hulme’s famous appeal to Saxon liberties, the Historical Essay on the English Constitution, suitably supported by Francis Sullivan’s slightly more sober Lectures on the Feudal Law. By 1775 the Library Company of Philadelphia had some eight thousand titles on its shelves, the vast majority of which continued to be historical.34
“Franklin’s Library” was a democratic institution: it served all categories of Philadelphians. A contemporary observer reported astonishment “at the general taste for books prevailing with all ranks of the citizens,” adding that the librarian “assured me, that for one person of distinction and fortune, there were twenty tradesmen that frequented this library.”35 A letter in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette developed the theme: “I am but a poor ordinary Mechanick of this city, obliged to work hard for the maintenance of myself, my wife, and several small children,” announced the writer, and “when my daily labour is over, instead of going to the Alehouse, I amuse myself with the books of the Library Company, of which I am an unworthy member.”36 Since a membership cost “upwards of TWENTY ONE POUNDS” by 1768, the number of poor “mechanicks” drinking in the intoxicating drafts of literary fare can be questioned. But as a contributor to the American intellectual scene, the Library Company was probably without peer. Not only did its membership supply ten signers of the Declaration of Independence, but the Library served as the reference collection for the Pennsylvania Assembly and the Continental Congress.37
By 1776 there were more than sixty subscription libraries, but the success of the Philadelphia Library Company has overshadowed the activities of these other institutions. As early as 1737 a catalogue had appeared for the joint library of Saybrook, Lyme, and Guilford in Connecticut, which included the works of Burnet, Vertot, and Rapin. In Newport, Rhode Island, the Quaker merchant Abraham Redwood launched the library named after him, which issued an impressive first catalogue in 1750. Providence, close behind Newport, issued a catalogue in 1768 which disclosed large quantities of whig history. New York established its Library Society in 1754 and published a plump catalogue the next year. This latter collection grew steadily. Although New York’s holdings never rivaled those of Philadelphia’s Library Company, the destruction during the Revolution of the Society’s three thousand volumes—“exterminated by the atrocious vandalism of the British troops”—aroused understandable bitterness.
Smaller towns endorsed Franklin’s subscription system for securing books. Burlington, New Jersey, established a library in 1758 and provided residents access to Sidney, Cato’s Letters, and the curious but popular Britain’s Remembrancer of James Burgh. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, founded its Juliana Library Company in 1766, diplomatically dedicating its whiggish catalogue of that year to Lady Juliana Penn.38
Probably the most impressive of the libraries south of Philadelphia was that established by seventeen citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1748: within two years the Charleston Society grew to one hundred and thirty subscribers and published a catalogue with such familiar authors as Burnet, Rapin, Potter, Atkyn, Petyt, Gordon, and Vertot. Gifts followed, and the Society’s 1770 catalogue showed addition of Rushworth’s Collections and such historical works as William Blackstone’s Commentaries, Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History, Squire’s whig Enquiry into the Constitution, Dalrymple’s Feudal Property, and Mrs. Macaulay’s History of England. When Josiah Quincy visited the Charleston Society’s library in 1773, he found a “large collection of very valuable books,” and by the time the library was destroyed by fire in 1778, it had grown to six or seven thousand volumes. Today only the catalogues survive to show the remarkable reading opportunities afforded Revolutionary South Carolinians.39
Besides the subscription, private, and academic libraries, another important indicator of historical tastes of the eighteenth-century colonist was, naturally enough, the American book trade. Booksellers used all avenues to their object of profit. They resorted to broadsides, liberally distributed catalogues, sale notices, and auctions, which grew increasingly popular. The adventure of bidding stimulated sales by appealing to the hope of a bargain. According to the Union List compiled by George L. McKay, fewer than a hundred book auctions took place in the colonial period, but of these, fifty occurred in the quarter-century preceding the Revolution.40
Records of the colonial bookdealer and publisher—roles often combined in one person—furnish an abundance of information on readers’ habits. Auctioneers listed their merchandise in order of anticipated interest, and history headed the procession. “A very large and valuable collection of books in history, divinity, law, and physic” ran one typical advertisement in the Maryland Gazette in 1773. In Philadelphia the sequence was “history, divinity, and miscellaneous literary entertainment.”41 This last advertisement was one of scores run by the energetic and enterprising Robert Bell, who was enamoured with the auction as a means of moving his stock. An astute businessman, he preferred profit before politics. Since he would import or publish whatever he thought would sell, his lists serve as a yardstick for the political interests of his customers; history and law books were his best sellers.42
Bell may have improved on the colonial book auction, but he had competition in more conventional operations. Here, too, the successful dealers were those who took the colonial political pulse and stocked accordingly. Some found political demands too great: William Aikman, a Scot who settled in Annapolis in 1773, decided that the colonial drift toward revolution was altogether distasteful. Since this judgment coincided with a miscalculation of the market, he decided to beat a retreat to Jamaica in 1775.43 Henry Knox was not so troubled and did well with the bookstore in Boston from 1771 until the war attracted him to a military career. In 1773 he published a long Catalogue of Books Imported and to be sold, which indicates his judgment of the reading tastes of Bostonians. Equally active in Boston were Joseph Greenleaf and Edes and Gill, the latter publishers of the Boston-Gazette. To the south was Hezekiah Merrill, the Hartford bookman who advertised in the Connecticut Courant; and in New York lists were published by such dealers as Garrat Noel, Ebenezer Hazard, John Donaldson, Samuel London, and James Rivington.44 Rivington, publisher of the New-York Gazetteer, had reputed Tory sympathies which cost him his press in 1775, but he handled whig publications, including large quantities of history books.45
Philadelphia, a hive of bookmen, had more dealers than any other city. Sale lists of William Bradford, Robert McGill, and David Hall disclose their emphasis upon historical publications.46 And this pattern extended to the south, from Annapolis to Williamsburg, from Williamsburg to Charleston. Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette office doubled as a bookstore,47 and in South Carolina at least three booksellers advertised stocks of “choice and useful books,” most “lately imported from London.”48
Almost all of the stock was imported, for English publishers could advance books, thus furnishing capital, and there was less risk in importing quantities of books of known reputation. Yet there was less profit in this safe sort of business enterprise, and judicious local publishing could improve both reputation and income. Despite shortages of paper and ink, colonial book printing in the eighteenth century increased. The bulk of American imprints was given over to inexpensive pamphlets, sermons, and almanacs, none of which demanded risk or investment. But as Lawrence C. Wroth observed, “there is no greater mistake possible than for the student of literature to assume that this production of the native press is beneath his notice.” By the mid-eighteenth century there were twenty-four presses in ten of the colonies,49 which produced over thirty-six hundred titles between 1743 and 1760, mainly in the population centers of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.50
Large publishing projects were undertaken with caution, frequently on a subscription basis. The result was the issuance of books expected to be sure-sellers. The availability of reprinted English historical studies assumes importance in this setting. For example, although there were several English editions of Henry Care’s English Liberties available in America, the book underwent an American edition by James Franklin in Boston in 1721, and another by John Carter in Providence in 1774. Much the same treatment was accorded such works as The Independent Whig, which enjoyed Philadelphia editions in 1724 and 1740, and Rapin’s Dissertation on the Rise … of the Whigs and Tories, reissued in Boston in 1773.
The energetic Robert Bell was active in the reprint trade. He brought out Blackstone’s massive Commentaries on a subscription basis between 1771 and 1772; his success can be measured by twenty-two pages of subscribers listed in the fourth volume. He was also successful with William Robertson’s History of the Reign of Charles V, and followed it with the Political Disquisitions of James Burgh. Bell’s performance with Burgh is the more remarkable when it is recalled that the Disquisitions were published first in London in 1774-75, and Bell’s Philadelphia edition appeared in 1775—with most of the Continental Congress subscribing. “His Excellency, George Washington, Esq.; Generalissimo of all the Forces in America,” headed the list, which included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Dickinson, James Wilson, Christopher Gadsden, and Roger Sherman among others. Adams commented, somewhat unnecessarily, that he and his colleagues held Burgh in “high estimation,” and he vowed that he would help “make the Disquisitions more known and attended to in several parts of America.”51 Bell was unable to secure support for an American imprint of Hume’s pro-Stuart History of England, but made up for this misjudgment with an edition of John Cartwright’s whiggish pamphlet American Independence the Interest and Glory of Great Britain in 1776.
Probably the most successful of English works reprinted in America was the Chronicle of the Kings of England, a curious Biblical parody. First reprinted in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1744, then in Boston in 1759, the Chronicle enjoyed two American editions on the eve of the Revolution. The last was brought out by Robert Bell (in association with Benjamin Towne) in 1774.52
The eighteenth-century colonist did not lack opportunity for satisfying his literary appetite. If he went to college, he could read in the academic library. If he wished to extend his literary horizon beyond the capacities of personal collection, there was usually a library society nearby, or a generous colleague who would lend a volume. But for the typical educated colonist, buying books was as natural as reading them. The colonial book trade made a variety of books available. No reading colonist could long remain in ignorance of the new publications, since larger book dealers advertised in newspapers even outside their native colony.
History was the main field of interest. If law is associated with history—and the colonists so regarded it—history emerges as the largest single category. This was as true of the college library as of the subscription library, of the personal collection of a Jefferson or a Dickinson as of the advertised stocks of a Bell or a Knox. Americans were reading large amounts of history. The catalogues of all kinds of collections prove it. “These libraries,” Franklin later observed, “have improved the general conversation of Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand as generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.”53
The Colonial Perspective: Ancient and Medieval
Truth is the eye of history.” Polybius said it, Jefferson read it in the two separate editions of Polybius he owned, and American readers studied it in four recent printings of Polybius’s General History.1 Citizens of the greatest, the latest of empires, Americans opened Polybius for information about earlier empires—how they rose, how they flourished, how they fell. Polybius, the stiff, earnest moralist, so determined to find the truth, so beguiled with detail, with fact, with simple preachments of virtue, made an irresistible appeal to colonial readers. There was conviction in him, in his details, in his facts.
American readers knew that history was more than an idle tale for winter nights. Their history reading was purposeful, part of their quest for a usable past as a guide to the present and the future. “Before the establishment of the American states,” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in retrospect, “nothing was known to History but the Man of the Old World.”2 This Man of the Old World was the predecessor of the American, the ancestor of the Man of the New; and his history, from ancient times on, should be enlightening for those who searched the past for present purposes.
Americans educated in the eighteenth century early acquired a familiarity with the classics, with civilizations and empires which had produced Greek and Latin literature. Classical allusions, metaphors, and similes peppered their writing and oratory; few were the events in the ancient past with which the American Revolutionary generation was unfamiliar. And yet, in spite of their early exposure to the originals—Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus in Latin, Thucydides in Greek—Americans usually preferred translations, popularizations, secondary surveys. For Jefferson, reading Latin and Greek authors in their original was a sublime luxury, but it was a luxury he managed frequently to resist, as the many uncut pages of his personal copies of the Latin and Greek classics bear witness.3
Shortcuts to the classics, printed in English, won universal popularity: Charles Rollin’s Ancient History, for example, was written “for those who do not intend to make very deep researches.” Rollin extracted from the Greek and Latin authorities material he judged “most useful and entertaining … most instructive.” This was all most colonial readers asked. Rollin wanted to reveal “by example rather than precept” the arts of war and peace, the principles of government, and the conduct of life “that suits all ages and conditions.” He hoped to assist men in knowing “the manners of different nations, their genius, laws and customs.”4
However, much of the colonial reading in ancient history was supplied not by ancient historians as such but by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political writers searching for illumination on problems of their own day. For example, Edward Wortley Montagu, regarding himself as an “Old Whig” true to “Commonwealth Principles,” demonstrated in his Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Antient Republicks, which appeared in 1759, “The principal causes of the degeneracy of manners which reduc’d those once brave and free people [the Greeks and Romans] into the most abject slavery.” After all, explained Montagu, “as the British state and the ancient free Republicks were founded upon the same principles, and their policy and constitution nearly simlar, so, as like causes will ever produce like effects, it is impossible not to perceive an equal resemblance between this and our manners.” Montagu blamed the collapse of Athens on the luxury and immorality of the citizenry, along with their proclivity for “venal orators, who encouraged that corruption to maintain their influence.”5
A contemporary of Montagu, Walter Moyle, a political dabbler in antiquarian studies, furnished American readers with two essays on the Greek and Roman commonwealths. “I am,” he said, “on the side of liberty.” He traced the history of Sparta to show the value of government by consent to a free maritime people who declined to be tyrannized by a clerical faction. He used Roman history to show the political decay brought by luxury and by magistrates remaining too long in office.6 James Burgh, whose Britain’s Remembrancer went through three American editions between 1747 and 1759, also fastened upon corruption, vice, and luxury as the reasons for the collapse of empires. A luxurious people were disinclined to do their own fighting, and by hiring others to do it for them, they invited tyranny and military despotism. All great empires had sunk “under Luxury and Vice.” When ordinary citizens wasted their time and money “getting drunk, haunting of Bawdyhouses, seeing Plays, hearing Musick, etc.,” the fabric of the empire began to tear.7
These remarks certainly applied to Rome, in the opinion of Oliver Goldsmith, novelist turned historian. Rome had risen “by temperance and … fell by luxury.” Rome was a victim of her own success and victories. Conquest of Carthage was fatal, for Romans felt smugly safe and superior and entered into a decline “from their ancient modesty, plainness, and severity of life.” Romans grew accustomed to luxury; they allowed themselves to be bribed into oppression because they dreaded “more the dangers of poverty than of subjection.”8 The men who overcame Roman liberty were military leaders backed by mercenaries. Standing armies were fatal. “The militia of antient Rome made her mistress of the world.” But standing armies enslaved that great people, and their excellent militia and freedom perished together.9
Whig historians singled out Julius Caesar for particular attention. He was the military despot, the tyrant whose assassination was so laudable if politically futile. Although neither Cato nor Brutus accomplished much by their opposition to Caesar, both were classic heroes of freedom. Cato failed to die gloriously in battle, but in disemboweling himself (to save Caesar the trouble), he died “one of the most faultless characters we find in the Roman history.”10 Joseph Addison’s play, Cato, A Tragedy, achieved enduring popularity in the colonies. It was the play with which the first professional drama company opened in Philadelphia in 1749,11 and it became especially popular after the Stamp Act crisis, appearing in four editions between 1767 and 1787. Cato supplied Lord Bolingbroke with a yardstick to estimate the threat of military despotism: after all, even the great Cato failed to save Roman liberty from the combination of a Caesar and a standing army.12
In the histories read by the colonists, Brutus had an acute sense of patriotism. “Love of his country broke all the ties of private friendship,” and his murder of Caesar was the destruction of “a tyrant who had usurped the rights of mankind.”13 Brutus was a historical justification for tyrannicide. His failure was his inability to persuade the corrupt Roman populace that their liberties needed immediate rescue. Against this background, Americans agreed with William Robertson’s conclusion that “the Roman empire must have sunk, though the Goths [had] never invaded it, because the Roman virtue was sunk.”14 Greece and Rome declined as they became rich, luxurious, corrupt, licentious; Rome gave way to the Goths because the Goths had retained their virtue—this was an agreeable explanation to American colonists, who, through their English and German forebears, claimed descent from the conquerors of Rome.
The American approach to medieval history, to the Goths, or, more popularly, to the Saxon chapter of their history, derived partly from this classical orientation, partly from colonial interest in common law in Saxon times. In a new country, land titles were frequently in question, leading, as David Ramsay observed, to an “infinity of disputes.” By the mid-eighteenth century, the profession of law was “common and fashionable.”15 To study law was to study its history. Sir John Vaughan’s Reports reminded colonial lawyers of the connection of law and history insofar as “much of the Saxon law is incorporated into our Common Law.” The virtues of both were duly digested by John Adams: “the liberty, the unalienable and indefeasible rights of man, the honor and dignity of human nature … and the universal happiness of individuals, were never so skillfully and successfully consulted as in that most excellent monument of human art, the Common Law of England.” In these words Adams echoed the awe and reverence of his generation toward an antique golden age of English history. Blackstone urged lawyers to investigate the “fountains” of their profession, “the customs of Britons and Germans, as recorded by Caesar and Tacitus,” wherein lay the common law as developed from the “northern nations.”16
Tacitus’s Germania enjoyed a remarkable vogue in the eighteenth century. John Adams read Tacitus frequently. Jefferson would enthusiastically tell any inquiring student to look to Tacitus as “the first writer in the world without a single exception”; his works were “a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example.”17 Tacitus was a convenient authority on many subjects—on Rome herself as well as on the Saxon tribes which emigrated from Germany to England. American admirers were not even obliged to strain their command of Latin, for they could enjoy the pleasures of Thomas Gordon’s new English translation, which came complete with moral discourses. Tacitus, Gordon explained, was “an upright Patriot, zealous for public liberty and the welfare of his Country,” a “declared enemy to Tyrants,” a historian “of extraordinary wisdom,” whose work demonstrated that “no free people will ever submit to … [tyranny] unless it steal upon them by treachery.” It was not surprising that Gordon’s new translation was on the first order list of the Library Company of Philadelphia.18
History in the Germania certainly stirred the blood of readers interested in ancient virtue. Fascinated by the virtues of the splendid Germans, Tacitus wrote at length of their purity, their independence, their democratic inclinations. True, the form of German government was monarchical, but it was an elective kingship, constrained by assemblies of the tribes. Royal authority was neither unbounded nor arbitrary, and the German kings secured obedience by the justice of their rule and the example of their behavior. Their people lived a simple, happy life, “in a state of chastity well secured, corrupted by no seducing shows and public diversions, by no irritations from banqueting.” Their private life would be acceptable to the most rigid puritan. The ancient Germans, Tacitus claimed, were “almost the only Barbarians contented with one wife.”19 It became hard to resist the frequently offered conclusion that a corrupted and depraved Roman Empire had little chance of surviving the onslaught of Germanic virtue.
Of contemporary writers on Germanic history the most popular in the colonies was a Frenchman, Paul de Rapin-Thoyras, “a Man of Learning and industry; Honesty and Candour.”20 His History of England depicted the English as direct descendants of Tacitus’s noble Germans. The fate and influence of these descendants he followed from the time they crossed the Channel to Britain until he concluded his account of English development with the eighteenth century. Rapin not only popularized Tacitus but at the same time also provided a bridge over which Americans could travel from ancient to medieval history. To an impressive roster of American admirers, Rapin in the translation by Tindal was as accessible as Gordon’s Tacitus. Although crusty John Adams questioned Rapin’s impartiality, he respected him; and John Dickinson referred to the History continually, in nearly every one of his publications.21
Rapin accepted the Germania as a basic source. He argued that the Anglo-Saxons, who were the very Germans celebrated by Tacitus, continued upon arrival in England their virtuous customs of government, banding together “to assist one another, and act in common for the good of All.” They set up a central government with an elected king and witenagemot or parliament, “where the Concerns of the whole nation only were consider’d.” Under Alfred, greatest of the Saxon monarchs, “all Persons accused of any Crime were to be tried by their Peers.” “This Privilege,” he added, “which the English have preserved to this day, is one of the greatest a Nation can enjoy.” His readers were reminded that Alfred was responsible only for securing a custom “established by the Saxons Time out of Mind.” Rapin, it might be added, was not an unreserved admirer of the Saxons. While ready to concede the virtues they brought from Germany, he noted that the Saxons also brought over their “reigning Vice,” an addiction to strong liquor.22
Rapin’s description was accepted by other historians contributing to the colonists’ portrait of their ancient ancestors. Thomas Lediard, translator of Mascou’s History of the Ancient Germans, justified his publication by proclaiming it The History of Our Great Ancestors. England’s laws, customs, and constitution were formed on the German model, according to Lediard, who issued Mascou’s work in 1737, the same decade Rapin’s appeared. A century earlier Richard Verstegan had written with the same ambition of showing what a renowned and honorable nation the Germans had been, “that thereby it may consequently appear how honourable it is for Englishmen to be from them descended.” Nathaniel Bacon, the Cromwellian lawyer, presented the same portrait of Saxons as a free people governed by laws made by themselves. Readers of Bacon’s Historical Discourse encountered a delightfully balanced and serene Saxon constitution: “a beautiful composure,” he called it, “mutually dependent in every part from the Crown to the clown, the Magistrates being all choice men, and the King the choicest of the chosen; election being the birth of esteem, and that of merit, this bred love and mutual trust.” In both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, significant political meaning lurked behind Bacon’s pious wish to know again “the happiness of our Fore-fathers the ancient Saxons.”23
There seemed general agreement on Saxon virtues in the histories Americans most often consulted. There was little need of filial piety to arrive at strong convictions on the reality of ancestral liberties. Even that cautious diplomat and statesman Sir William Temple praised the Saxon kings as “just, good, and pious Princes” who governed with such sense and moderation that “no popular Insurrection ever happened in any of the Saxon reigns.” David Hume, considered a tory historian because of his affection for the Stuarts, praised Britons and Saxons as lovers of liberty and fighters against despotism. Hume thought the Germans had carried “to the highest pitch the virtues of valor and love of liberty,” and it was inevitable that the Saxons “imported into this island [England] the same principles of independence which they inherited from their ancestors.” Like most writers Hume based his remarks on “the masterly pencil of Tacitus,” but unlike many such admirers he did not believe the Saxons especially democratic in political practices. He denied existence of a popular branch of the Saxon legislature and insisted that the House of Commons could not and should not seek its origins in Saxon times.24
Hume was an exception to the historical rule, and the colonial perspective was not changed by his doubts and reservations on the reality of Saxon democracy. His fellow Scot Lord Kames, the jurist and friend of Benjamin Franklin, endorsed the thesis of Saxon liberty. Kames in his popular British Antiquities portrayed a Saxon polity appealing to rural Americans: the Saxons, he asserted, were cultivators of corn, farmers whose economy allowed true social democracy; they elected their judges and gave security of tenure; their kings were men whose powers gradually developed, and originally the Saxon king was “no more than but the chief judge.”25 Kames contended that the Saxons migrating from Germany took only such customs and laws as suited their new English circumstances26 —an observation with point for Americans seeking parallels to their eighteenth-century circumstances.
Americans also liked the conclusions of Henry Care, whose English Liberties praised Saxon ancestors for the wisdom of their government, their “excellent Provisions for their Liberties,” and precautions against oppression. William Atwood, a seventeenth-century contemporary of Care and later Chief Justice of New York, renewed discussion of the elective nature of the Saxon king, whom he described as nothing more than a splendid general who maintained office and dignity by “hardy actions and tender Usage of his People.”27 George St. Amand, author of one of the many historical essays that flourished in the colonial bookmarket, reiterated this idea of an elective Saxon monarchy. Like Atwood, St. Amand used the Mirrour of Justices in contending for Saxon democracy. The Mirrour, considered an essential reference for the colonial lawyer’s bookshelf, professed to set forth the “ancient laws and usages” whereby Saxons governed themselves before the Conquest. First published in the sixteenth century, it claimed to be a commentary of early Saxon derivation.28 St. Amand inquired: “Why mayn’t we suppose the Book was a Translation of some Manual of the Saxon Laws, put into Norman French, with such additions as Horn [its editor, and a part-time fishmonger] thought proper, to accommodate it to the Usages of the Time he lived in?” Americans accepted the Mirrour as a contribution to Saxon history and agreed that the Mirrour’s pronouncements on Saxon government “ought to be received for Truth.”29
Obviously many historians who wrote about Saxon history found in it support for the political lessons they wished to demonstrate. Lord Somers was such a man. A Whig statesman who assisted in the arrangements for the offer to William and Mary in 1689, Somers believed people could change their rulers if they were tyrannical, and he was satisfied that history supported this belief. The many American purchasers of Somers’s Judgment of Whole Kingdoms (its twelfth and thirteenth editions were published in Newport and Philadelphia, respectively) at once knew the purpose of the book: to assure that “their Children’s children may know the Birth-right, Liberty, and Property belonging to an Englishman.” James Tyrrell, like Somers an associate of John Locke and an admirer of Saxon antiquity, felt that as a participant in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 he should contribute to justification of Parliament’s action against James II. After all, Tyrrell asked, had not the Saxon monarchs been obliged to seek the consent of their parliament to all legislation? Algernon Sidney was in the same situation. He was hardly a historian, but he was ready to praise the Saxons as lovers of liberty enjoying a government dominated by their witenagemot. Basing his remarks on that “wise author” Tacitus, he noted that Saxon “kings and princes had no other power than was conferred upon them by these assemblies.”30
As seventeenth-century writers found political satisfaction in this Saxon emphasis, so did writers in the eighteenth century. Among the most influential contributors to the Saxon myth,31 and from the colonial viewpoint among the most timely in publication, was the anonymous author of the Historical Essay on the English Constitution, whose work appeared in London and Dublin in 1771. The author’s identity has lately been a subject of some discussion—evidence points to a mysterious Obadiah Hulme—but American readers were content to accept the book for its content. They eagerly digested this summary of Saxon virtues, a veritable handbook on the historic rights of Englishmen. It rounded out the colonists’ picture of their Saxon ancestors. “Our Saxon forefathers,” according to Hulme, “founded their government upon the common rights of mankind. They made the elective power of the people the first principle of our constitution, and to protect it, they delegated power for no more than one year.” Hulme argued for annual Saxon parliaments, which he felt were the quintessence of the Saxon system along with an elective monarchy.32
After reading Hulme it was easier to agree with the conclusions of such men as Molesworth and Bolingbroke. According to Molesworth, one of the original Real Whigs, “all Europe was beholden to the Northern nations for introducing or restoring a constitution of government far excelling all others.” According to Bolingbroke, “the Principles of the Saxon Commonwealth were therefore very democratical.”33 The Saxon system epitomized freedom, a freedom consisting of “being subject to no Law but such to which the Person who is bound consents.” It was a system “agreeable to the Rules of Reason.”34 This view, expressed in England in the 1720s, became a basic Revolutionary doctrine in America in the 1760s.
One of the many charms of English history for its colonial readers was its occasional ability to furnish evidence of human happiness. They were attracted to the Saxon past because here they found an ancient political utopia; furthermore, one based on attractive economic arrangements. Tacitus wrote about Saxon land tenure as well as Saxon government; and colonial lawyers, concerned with quitrents, land titles, and rights of inheritance, were exposed to magnificently partisan accounts of the land system of their admirable ancestors.
Most of the historians popular in America described an agrarian Saxon society which was distinctly nonfeudal. Primogeniture was not practiced in ancient Germany; inheritance was “unto all their male children,” as Richard Verstegan phrased it in 1628. Migrating Saxons took this custom from Germany to England. The great seventeenth-century scholar and antiquary, Sir Henry Spelman, agreed that Saxon land tenure had been allodial in character, “according to the ancient manner of the Germans,” so that, owning their land outright, owners disposed of it as they desired, free of rents, encumbrances, or entails. He concluded that feudalism entered England with the Normans. After the Conquest of 1066, Duke William “divided all England among his soldiers,” so that “all things resounded with the feudal oppressions, which in the time of the Saxons had never been heard of.”35
American readers discovered that even when a writer considered feudalism desirable, he often conceded the nonfeudal nature of Saxon England. Spelman’s account may well have appeared more persuasive because he preferred the stability made possible by regulated feudalism—subsequent to the worst Norman excesses. This approach was somewhat similar to that later offered by David Hume. In Hume’s opinion Norman feudalism introduced into England “the rudiments of Science and cultivation,” and served as a corrective to the “rough and licentious manners” of the allodial practices of the Saxons. Hume praised feudalism for its system of primogeniture, but conceded that Norman feudalism was “destructive of the independence and security of the people.”36 Sir John Dalrymple, author of a popular eighteenth-century essay on Feudal Property, is another example of a writer who considered feudalism praiseworthy, but denied that the Saxons practiced it. Saxon land tenure, he claimed, was allodial, and descents were free. The Germanic invaders of Britain had found more land than they could use and therefore felt under no constraint to accept feudal restrictions. The Saxon nobility was “allodial, personal, and honorary,” and was presided over by a virtually elective monarch.37
The consensus of historical opinion studied in America supported the existence of a nonfeudal Saxon economic system, even though there was division over the merits of an allodial and a feudal system. Any discussion of feudalism inevitably led to a discussion of when and how feudalism came into England. Americans who admired Saxon political and economic freedom were curious to learn the reasons for the destruction of both. If Saxons were so virtuous, why were they vanquished? If allodial ownership was superior to feudal tenure, why was feudalism victorious? Most books Americans studied identified feudalism with despotism and tyranny. If feudalism was such a “barbarous system,”38 as Mrs. Macaulay described it, there was surely some extraordinary explanation for its success.
The usual answer was to identify the arrival of feudalism with the arrival of the Normans in 1066. According to Jean Louis de Lolme, a favorite of John Adams, “the establishment of the feudal system in England was an immediate and sudden consequence of that conquest which introduced it.” Obadiah Hulme, reading the same sources studied in the colonies, concluded that the Norman Conquest brought economic, political, and religious tyranny, “monsters till then, unknown in England.”39 But the whole question was complicated by the political sympathies of the historians who explored it.
Many seventeenth-century English writers felt that modern Parliamentary claims to political responsibility depended at least in part upon unbroken continuity in English development; to admit a break in historical evolution might admit grounds for monarchical pretensions. Sidney was inclined to propose that there had been no true Norman conquest, “neither conquering Norman nor conquered Saxon, but a great and brave people composed of both, united in blood and interest in the defence of their common rights.” As added political insurance he refuted royalist claims based on even an imagined conquest, insisting that “the rights … of kings are not grounded upon conquest. The liberties of a nation do not arise from the grants of princes.” William Atwood was equally concerned: admit the conquest and “the Inheritance which everyone claims on the Laws will be maintainable only as a naked Right, and naked Rights are thin and metaphysical Notions which few are Masters or Judges of.”40
There were ways of overcoming the embarrassment of a Norman military victory. For example, Isaac Kimber thought that the Saxons fell before Norman arms because of the softening influence of luxury, idleness, and vice; despite this handicap “the English fought with as much Valour as the Normans.” Henry Care argued that the Normans secured power by guile: it was true that the Normans defeated and killed the Saxon King Harold, but Duke William pretended a right to the English crown; William agreed to a compact to observe the Saxon laws and customs; on this understanding the English submitted as partners of the Normans. Unfortunately William then broke his oath, and he and his successors “made frequent Incroachments upon the Liberties of their People.” Care’s position was restated in the eighteenth century by the Irish law professor Francis Sullivan, who asserted that the Normans had pretended to an oath to support Saxon laws favorable to “the liberties of the people.” Once in authority, they “showed how little regard they had to that obligation, and how bent they were on setting themselves free from all restraint, and to destroy all traces of the old Saxon laws.” Sullivan acknowledged that the old elective Saxon monarchy continued in outward form, but held that William’s election was extorted “by dread of his power.” William had obligations to the “hungry adventurers” he had brought with him and thus seized Saxon allodial lands and parceled them out to eager Normans in return for pledged allegiance. In this way, Sullivan concluded, feudalism was introduced into England, and hence “the maxim prevailed that all lands in England are held from the king.”41
William I was no hero to these historians. He was a crafty Norman who had entered into a firm compact with the innocent English, pledging he would “Govern conformably to the Antient Constitution.” Yet William knew that “what is Introduced by Force, by Force may be removed.” Roger Acherley said it in his essay on The Britannic Constitution, and argued that in any case his only victory was a personal one over Harold. Even Lord Somers presented William as “unjustly stiled the Conqueror,” a man who secured the English crown “by a free Choice and Submission of the Peers and Body of the People.” Thus King William had obligations inconsistent with his subsequent imposition of feudal despotism. If not a Conqueror, he treated the English as conquered people. According to Kimber, William acknowledged from his deathbed that “he had unjustly usurped the Crown of England.” For Algernon Sidney this was an unavoidable conclusion. After all, if William had no right by conquest and no right by forced election or ruptured compact, he had no right by inheritance from Edward the Confessor. Sidney reminded his readers that William “was a bastard, and could inherit nothing.”42
For all the variety among various historical and legal views of the character of the Norman invasion, the preponderant opinion offered American investigators was that after 1066 feudalism and tyranny made their unwelcome appearance in England. Yet all agreed that whatever the Conquest actually was, it did not abrogate the Saxon constitution, since William and his successors had gone through the motions of observance of the Saxon system of Edward the Confessor. Rapin noted that William’s son, William Rufus, promised to restore English government to the basis enjoyed before the Conquest and to reestablish Saxon laws.43 Rufus failed in his pledge, but his promise certainly seemed to imply both that the submersion of the Saxon system was no more than temporary, and that English people expected its reinstatement. Most American students therefore looked upon the Norman arrival as “that period of English history, which contaminated the purity of the English constitution … with a despotick spirit; of which time has not been able totally to eradicate.”44
In American eyes English medieval history settled into a pattern of periodic efforts to reestablish pre-Norman liberties. Most authorities stressed the charters gained from successive Norman and Angevin monarchs, the Magna Charta of 1215 emerging as the most important of such measures of restitution. The best-selling Rapin served well in this respect. He reviewed the background of Magna Charta in his detailed History of England and added a summary in his Dissertation on the Whigs and Tories.
Rapin’s Dissertation served as a handy introduction to and summary of political developments in the post-Conquest era. Rapin reminded readers of the Parliamentary system of the Saxons before the arrival of William, “surnamed the Bastard.” Then he reviewed the dispossession of the English by the Normans. He pointed out that the Norman nobility acquired the same dislike of royal despotism as demonstrated by the Saxons, so that a political alliance developed in which the object was to restore government “to the same state, as in the times of the Saxon kings.” Faced with this opposition, Norman monarchs found it increasingly desirable to promise a return to ancient Saxon government and laws, and Henry I confirmed his promise in a charter. Unhappily Henry lived up to his commitments in the same fallible fashion as his brother William Rufus, and the most that could be said was that “the rights of the subject received strength from these promises.” Stephen and Henry II also found it necessary to bind themselves—more strongly than their predecessors—to restore the Saxon laws, but the political crisis was merely postponed. This came with the challenge to King John, the outcome of which was Magna Charta.45
In the colonial perspective Magna Charta was the most important and inspiring of steps backward in the direction of the glorious and virtuous Saxon system. For this view Americans owed much to Sir Edward Coke and John Selden. Certainly Coke was as frequently cited on Magna Charta as Tacitus on the ancient Germans, and in American eyes the reliability of both was self-evident. Coke had approached Magna Charta as “no new declaration” but as a reaffirmation “of the principal grounds of the laws of England.”46 This made the Charter an unrevolutionary document, no detraction for the conservative lawyers who gave it so much of their attention. As Henry Care commented, a public confirmation of Saxon common law could never be construed as a gracious royal concession.47 Coke’s popular interpretation meant new life for the supremacy of common law over royal prerogative, indicating that kings ruled on sufferance or under compact.
Algernon Sidney’s commentaries on the Great Charter, though written by a nonlawyer, were much admired by the colonial legal profession. For Sidney the Charter was an assertion of “the native and original rights of our nation” and embodied King John’s pledge that neither he nor his successors would ever encroach upon such rights. Magna Charta could not and did not give anything to the people, “who in themselves had all.” The chief merit of the document was bringing John to admit that there were popular rights “perpetually inherent, and time out of mind enjoyed.” (So said Coke in the Institutes.) Sidney might deplore John’s failure to adhere to his pledge in emulation of William I, who had “engaged his faith, but broke it”; nevertheless the rights persisted and received royal acknowledgement of their priority. Sidney concluded that by breaking the rights affirmed in Magna Charta, a king branded himself “an execrable perjured person” with whom the people would know how to deal.48
In the Charter was a historical illustration of the compact theory so honored four centuries later. Roger Acherley summed up Magna Charta as “a Renewal of the Original Contract,” and Anthony Ellis in his Tracts on Liberty insisted that the Charter’s provisions embraced the entire populace. Here, Ellis claimed, was a democratic document in which “the nobility and commonalty acted so much in concert, that there was no less provision made for the privileges of citizens and burgesses, than for the nobility and gentry.” This conclusion seemed justified in light of Coke’s legal interpretation. According to Henry Care, the famous thirty-ninth chapter of the Charter, with its guarantee of the rights of freemen, deserved to be written in gold. Under this provision “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed … except by the legal judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” Englishmen were assured, Care noted, of a trial “by Equals,” and Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic viewed this thirty-ninth chapter as one of their birthrights.49
The Charter reestablished ancient rights. It also represented a step toward the restoration of what Hulme’s Historical Essay called “the elective power of the people,” natural for a document patterned “in living memory of Saxon liberties.” Bolingbroke called the Charter “a rough Building raised out of the Demolitions, which the Normans had made, and upon the solid Foundations laid by the Saxons.” Rapin believed royal power was so curbed “that it was in a manner reduced to the same state as under the Saxon kings before the conquest.” The Charter became a yardstick to measure misgovernment, and English kings found themselves deposed “for intending to establish an absolute power contrary to magna charta.” Such was the fate, Rapin commented, of Edward II and Richard II. English monarchs acquired sweeping obligations: since Magna Charta was, as Lord Somers declared, only “an Abridgement of our antient Laws and Customs, the King that swears to it, swears to them all.”50
Thus the admiration that Magna Charta excited led to extravagance of thought and language. Even a cautious historian like David Hume praised the Charter for bringing “some order and justice into the administration” and charged King John with such minor vices as “cowardice, inactivity, folly, levity, licentiousness, ingratitude, treachery, tyranny, and cruelty.”51 According to the Historical Essay, England owed a debt to those barons who in resisting the rapacity of John revived English liberties.52
There was some disagreement over the political reality of what Rapin had called “the Charter of Liberties.” Some scholars, such as the Restoration historian Robert Brady, felt Magna Charta was misinterpreted by anti-Stuart writers who perverted historical truth for political advantage. Brady complained, if unavailingly, about those “turbulent men, who hold forth to the People, Ancient Rights and Privileges, which they have found in Records and Histories, in Charters, and other Monuments of Antiquity.” In his opinion Magna Charta was a minor relaxation of feudal practices which increased baronial and not popular privilege.53 But American readers had little cause to be impressed with this historical judgment. The overwhelming majority of their historians exalted Magna Charta, making the Brady school seem unimportant and partisan. In the opinion of Francis Sullivan, this historical controversy was a fight “between the favourers of arbitrary power and the asserters of freedom.”54
For colonial readers the accounts of ancient Greece and Rome told of contending liberty and tyranny, in which tyranny prevailed and empire disintegrated. Historical accounts of ancient and medieval England were far less conclusive: although the happy system of the colonists’ Saxon ancestors underwent drastic revision at Norman hands, most historians told of strenuous efforts to recapture Saxon liberty. Englishmen who had known utopia in the form of a free, nonfeudal government might know it again. Magna Charta epitomized their Saxon spirit. From the American viewpoint, the question now was England’s capacity to complete the Saxon restoration. But the books they studied offered disappointing and ominous answers.
The Colonial Perspective: Tudors, Stuarts, and Hanoverians
If for their time Americans were well informed on antiquity and medieval English history, they were no less aware of their more recent past. Appearing more immediate to present problems, recent history embraced the multitude of sins recorded since Magna Charta—those contained in the history of the Reformation, the history of the religious and political developments which impelled Englishmen to establish the American colonies. It was a history which examined England’s colonial behavior and described her emerging imperial consciousness. It paid close attention to the seventeenth-century struggle with the Stuart princes and to eighteenth-century Hanoverian politics.
The Tudors had certain undeniable attractions for the colonists. Henry VII, to be sure, was unlovable, if only because he was the first monarch to establish a standing army. But his son Henry VIII sundered the English ties with Rome and brought his people to Protestantism. Henry VIII may have been an arbitrary and capricious despot; still, “with all his Crimes and Exorbitancies he was one of the most glorious Princes of his Time.” Because Henry brought the Reformation to England, he represented an inscrutable Divine Will. “Providence often brings about the noblest Designs by the most exceptionable Instruments,” the historian Laurence Echard reflected. Even the judicious Rapin confessed that while Henry was “to be numbered among the ill Princes,” he could not be ranked among the worst.1
Henry VIII’s daughters were subjects for wider historical disagreement. Queen Mary’s efforts to restore England to the Catholic fold meant that few Protestants could view her reign with equanimity. A sympathetic comment came from the royalist historian Sir Richard Baker, who claimed for Mary “a merciful disposition,” since she “oftentimes pities the person, where she shed the blood.” Baker thought her religion “a deformity,” but admired Mary’s devotion to it.2 Few other writers were as kind: Rapin described her temper as “cruel and vindictive,” and Echard observed that “God thought fit to punish her with a Barren Womb and an untimely Death.” Robert Dodsley in his Chronicle summed up Mary’s unhappy reign as one which “stinketh of blood unto this day”; her name was “an abomination,” and “the vengeance of the Lord overtook her.”3
Elizabeth could hardly avoid improving this record. Sufficiently intelligent to have been born of a Protestant mother, she sensibly waged war on the Spanish Catholics. Bolingbroke gazed upon Elizabeth with reverence, and likened her to a patriot king—or queen—since “she united the great body of the people in her and their common interest, and she inflamed them with one national spirit.”4 Others praised Elizabeth’s sense and judgment: this “good and illustrious Queen” had the virtues and none of the vices of her “mighty Father.”5 Sir Richard Baker admired a Queen who “declined being a Mother of Children, to the end she might be a Mother of her Country.” Elizabeth did not need the love of a husband since “she delighted in nothing so much, as in the love of her people,” which she earned “by ordaining good Magistrates, and forbearing Impositions.”6
Some historians had reservations about Elizabeth’s political perfection: Thornhagh Gurdon in his widely read History of Parliament reminded readers that the Elizabethan House of Commons attempted to extend their privileges, but the Queen had seemingly forgotten their historical grounds, and nipped these “new Claims” in the bud. David Hume, on the other hand, saw in Elizabeth’s popularity evidence that she had not encroached upon any liberties of the people.7 There was room for uncertainty about the virtues of the Elizabethan era; but most sources consulted by eighteenth-century Americans were favorably disposed to the Virgin Queen, in part because the reign of Mary was so bleak, in part because the succeeding dynasty made Elizabeth appear admirable.
If uncertain about Elizabethan England, Americans had surer views on the unsagacious Stuarts. Rapin declared that “there is not an impartial historian” of the Stuarts and thought even Rushworth’s edition of source materials favored Parliament at expense of the Crown. Rapin nonetheless arrived at Rushworth’s conclusion: James I and Charles I had been “very fond of arbitrary power.”8
Stuart history was well represented in colonial collections, with fewer than a half-dozen capable writers taking the Stuart side. Isaac Kimber tried to be judicious about James I, who he thought was neither a sound Protestant nor a good Roman Catholic. He thought James, a melancholy contrast to his Tudor predecessor, “had a high Notion of his own Maxims of Government.” Echard strove to find a few kind words: James was “eminent for his Chastity, which was remarkable in a Court so loose and luxurious as his own.” Echard suggested that the King was “not well us’d” by Parliament, considering his circumstances, but weakened this point by taking James to task for executing Raleigh and observing that during his reign “the Reputation of England began sensibly to sink.” Baker’s royalist Chronicle saw James as “but a continuation of Queen Elizabeth,” with “the same vertue, though different sexes.” Some whig writers questioned Baker’s claim, suggesting homosexual relations between James and “a beautiful youth named George Villiers.”9
But much less attention was given to James I—even as a “fool and a pedant”10 —than to his son. James died in his bed; Charles I died on the scaffold, the only English king so executed. If a historian’s horizon went back to pre-Norman times, and he subscribed to the antiquity of Parliament, he would probably depict Stuart claims as encroachments on popular liberties. If a historian looked back only to the Conquest, then he might emerge as a royalist who, like Hume, attacked the “encroachments of the Commons.” Yet it was easy to sympathize with the tragic, foolhardy Charles I. One commentator wistfully observed how much better it would have been if Charles “had been as good a King as he was a Man.”11 Echard found in Charles “the ROYAL MARTYR,” who lost more by his kind heart and treacherous friends than “by all the pretended Acts of his Severity and Tyranny.” Another insisted that there was never a monarch “so formally and solemnly murdered.” Charles was “a Prince of great Wisdome, and all Princely Vertues,” whose death was lamented by the majority of his subjects.12 Lord Clarendon, popular as a contemporary historian, wrote of the death of the brave Charles, “wickedly Murder’d in the sight of the Sun.” According to this loyal admirer, Charles was “the worthiest Gentleman, the best Master, the best Friend, the best Husband, the best Father, and the best Christian, that the Age in which he liv’d produced.”13
Hume saw that Charles had some vices, but that “his virtues predominated extremely.” Charles, Hume added thoughtfully, was “a good rather than a great man” who lacked political prudence, but he was clearly undeserving of so harsh a fate. Hume professed amazement that “among a civilized people, so much virtue in the person of Charles could meet with so fatal a catastrophe.”14
Mrs. Macaulay, the “incomparable female historian,” wrote a nine-quarto volume History of England to refute Hume’s monarchical prejudices, taking some twenty years for her task. Horace Walpole once suggested that “England will be finished before her history.” The work aroused the enthusiasm of colonists: “I never met with a Mind so warmed and engaged in Sentiments of genuine Liberty,” was the report of one who visited with the lady before the American crisis, and another declared her “one of the brightest ornaments, not only of her sex, but of her age and country”15 Mrs. Macaulay resisted any inclination to historical mercy for Charles I. “In the suffering prince,” she explained, “we are apt to overlook the designing tyrant, to dwell on his hardship, and forget his crimes.” Allowed his way, he would “have destroyed every principle of Liberty in the constitution.” No other prince had undertaken so many innovations or schemes against the English constitution. Nor was Charles a gentleman: he was lewd, unchaste, and perhaps father of “one or two natural children.” His passion for political power, she claimed, was merely his “predominant vice.” Charles met with “the just vengeance” he brought upon himself for his career of “frantic” tyranny, destruction of liberty, and butchery of his subjects.16
There was a basic lesson which Americans learned from the political tragedy of Charles Stuart: it was unwise for a king to aim at more power “than the Constitution allow’d.” And, as Rapin wrote, Charles demonstrated “how difficult and how dangerous it is for a king of England, to attempt to subvert so well cemented a government.”17 But the miscarriage of the English Republic after the death of Charles I certainly dismayed Americans. Just as there had been anxiety to explain Saxon failure before feudal Normans, there was the problem of explaining the people’s inability to rescue their rights in the 1640s and 1650s. Although Mrs. Macaulay admired the Civil War and Interregnum as one of the most heroic periods of English history, replete with some of England’s noblest figures, she insisted that Oliver Cromwell was not one of them. He was the evil genius of the revolution, who dispensed with a people’s parliament and established despotism with the aid of his army. Cromwell was a usurper, “a master in all powers of grimace and the arts of hypocrisy”—as evil as Charles Stuart.
James Burgh offered the same judgment, terming Cromwell “the mock-patron of Liberty,” who took care of the free English constitution with an army of 30,000 men.18 Colonial readers found these opinions expressed earlier by Edmund Ludlow, one of the original regicides, a bitter critic of Cromwell. Ludlow denounced Cromwell with a steady sincerity and hoped “men may learn from the issue of the Cromwellian tyranny, that liberty and a standing mercenary army are incompatible.” Algernon Sidney believed Cromwell wrecked “the good old cause”; Cromwell was to the English Republic what Caesar had been to the Roman.19
Of course Cromwell also received a poor press from royalist writers. Baker treated Cromwell as a usurper, whose abundant vices obscured any merit in his character. Clarendon dismissed Cromwell as “a brave wicked Man,” guilty of the crimes “for which Hellfire is prepared.” Hume held Cromwell guilty of the “most atrocious” murder of Charles I, and thought him “covered under a mighty cloud of republican and fanatical illusions.”20
However, not all the writers popular with colonists agreed with this severe judgment. Rapin saw Cromwell as “one of the greatest men of his age,” a man attacked by republicans because he tried to temper Parliamentary authority. Bishop Burnet esteemed the Lord Protector, for “when his own designs did not lead him out of the way, he was a lover of justice and virtue, and even of learning.” Echard found Cromwell an honest patriot first, a republican afterwards. The failure of the English republican adventure of the 1650s was not entirely due to Cromwell’s despotism. Obadiah Hulme accused historians of being too obsessed with Cromwell to realize that the real culprit was the Long Parliament. Readers of Hulme’s Historical Essay found an attack both upon Charles I for tyranny and upon Parliament for seeking its own perpetuation. The House of Commons, Hulme claimed, “had no more regard, to the ancient form of government, to the rights, privileges, and franchises of the people, than William the Conqueror, or any other tyrant, since his time.” The Commons was responsible for the King’s murder, the destruction of the House of Lords, and the enslavement of the whole nation.21 Concerned with its own privileges, Parliament became incompetent and represented only itself. Tyranny need not be confined to one person, a Charles Stuart or an Oliver Cromwell; an oligarchy, even a Parliament, can be tyrannical.
Then came the Restoration, the cardinal fact of which was the loss of English virtue. Why else would Charles II receive such a welcome from a people who a dozen years earlier had cheered the execution of his father? Mrs. Macaulay diagnosed the occasion for Charles II’s return as a popular “fit of passion and despair”; the people “plunged themselves into a state of hopeless servitude” under a despotic dynasty.
Sensing the mood of his people more perceptively than his father had ever done, Charles II gave way to a love of luxury that accorded well with the desires of his many subjects. But one historian saw him as “rather Abandoned, than Luxurious,” and Americans were made to see the sensual side to Charles.22 Dodsley’s popular Chronicle edified Americans with Charles’s sexual propensities, describing how courtiers paraded a host of beautiful women before him, how “he was enamoured of them all; and he put forth his sceptre unto them, and the land was filled with royal bastards.” Moreover, “the nation, taking example from the court, ran headlong into all manner of licentiousness and immorality.” Dodsley could well conclude with his invitation to curious readers to look to modern “bawdy novels” for details on the gallantries of Charles II.23
England in the 1680s was thus pictured as a land without virtue, ruled by a monarch without virtue, a king who avoided conflict with his Parliament through the expedient of bribing it into submission. Charles II governed with his pensioned Parliament “in much the same arbitrary manner as William the Bastard did without a parliament.”24 Historians noted the martyrdom of Algernon Sidney, convicted by Judge Jeffries on the basis of the then unpublished “Discourses.” Even Hume, who found something to admire in Charles II, criticized the death of Sidney as “one of the greatest blemishes” of the Restoration.25
Jeffries attracted wide attention, and most historians served up at least one example of Jeffries’ injustice. A favorite story told and retold involved Colonel Kirke, Jeffries’ aide, whom the historical mythmakers rendered notorious. Kirke, it was said, liked music to hang men by—especially if their dying spasms kept time with a martial air. Rapin described Kirke’s cruelties as “beyond all imagination.” Writers enjoyed the Tosca-like tale of the young maiden who sought to save her innocent father (or brother, in some accounts) by submitting to Kirke’s “brutal lust,” after which he showed the swooning girl the gallows which her father adorned. According to the account by Burnet, Kirke’s superior, Jeffries, hanged over six hundred after Monmouth’s abortive rising against James II. The King, Burnet reported, was deeply pleased with “Jefferies’s Campain.”26
James II did not begin his reign auspiciously. Hume admitted James was “more imprudent and arbitrary than his predecessor.” De Lolme considered James “perhaps the guiltiest Monarch that ever existed.”27 One Englishman nodded chivalrously in the direction of James’s daughters, Queens Mary and Anne, and urged that James should be allowed to “fall gently” since he had bequeathed England two great queens whose contribution to the “bulwarks of the Protestant Religion, and the Liberties of Europe … may well atone for innumerable Failures in their unfortunate Father.” More typical was Isaac Kimber’s attack on James as “a thorough Bigot to Popery,” who would stick at nothing to bring the Pope to England. Dodsley saw James as “a worshipper of the church of Rome,” who “bowed the knee unto her idols, and went a whoring after all her abominations.” Moreover, Dodsley continued, James “was a zealous bigot to all the absurd and foolish tenets, which the cunning of her priests have invented to delude the ignorant, and enslave the mighty.”28
None of the historians popular in colonial America had other than praise and admiration for the great and Glorious Revolution of 1688. In every test, it was always “the grand Revolution,” or “the Epocha of English freedom,” when the Stuarts were expelled forever and England was restored to her rights and privileges. William III was “a wise prince,”29 a “heroic King,” sent to England by “the Hand of Providence” to foil “Popery and arbitrary Power.”30 William was the “glorious Deliverer,” who achieved the seventeenth-century political program. “He came; he saw; he delivered.”31 Exactly what did William III deliver? And how long enduring, how satisfactory was the product?
English Whigs worked hard both to explain and to justify seating the Dutch prince on the throne. William supported Parliament’s renewed campaign for “ancient Rights and Privileges.” Nothing new was introduced in 1688—this was a most unrevolutionary revolution. The contract given William and Mary was justified philosophically and historically. William and Mary, declared William Atwood, had become “our LAWFUL and RIGHTFUL King and Queen”; they undertook to restore the ancient Saxon system, and were elected part of it.32 The new monarchs were committed to Parliament’s right to approve taxes, and to rule without a standing army.33 No wonder De Lolme later marveled that 1688 demonstrated that in England “Liberty has at length disclosed her secret to Mankind, and secured an Asylum to herself.”34
The honeymoon did not last. William had the good sense to work with Parliament on money matters, but a flood of publications reminded Englishmen of the ancient system they were supposedly restoring, including a Saxon-style militia. Yet William believed that military common sense dictated a standing army. It became evident that William III’s contribution to England’s constitutional recovery was limited. In contemporary and later accounts Americans read of disillusionment with the halfway measures of the new administration. Bishop Burnet—“honest Burnet,” Burgh called him—remonstrated with William over the corruption introduced “on pretence of buying off the jacobites.” James Ralph, the American who first went to England with Franklin and stayed on to publish The Use and Abuse of Parliaments, wrote of the 1690s as a new “scene of iniquity … as made the pension-parliament of Charles II seem innocent.” Other comments referred to William as a foreigner (like the first William) who came to England “on pretence of delivering us from slavery; and makes it one of his first works to plunge us into the very vice which has enslaved all the nations of the world, that have ever lost their liberties.”35 William “was but half the friend to liberty he pretended to be” and “more fond of power than of squaring his government with the principles of the constitution.” Compared to “the immortal and blessed Alfred,” William was but “a cold-hearted Dutchman.”36
William’s many critics agreed that he had ample assistance in his misgovernment. Neither people nor Parliament remained alert to their danger. Lessons furnished by Cromwell’s Long Parliament were forgotten. Obsessed with the tyranny associated with the Stuarts, the people allowed Parliament to slide into sloth and decadence.37 There was no sensible action to prevent Parliamentary corruption or restore the Saxon system of annual parliaments.
The picture presented the colonial reader was one of recovery and decline—the promising beginning of 1688 was followed by a frustrating eighteenth century. In such history the colonial reader saw a magnificent postmortem on England’s last hope for constitutional liberty. There might be a new monarch, but this meant only a new name rather than a meaningful change. Queen Anne, William III’s successor, though “a most virtuous, just, and pious Princess,” was nevertheless a Queen “easily led by her Favorites.”38 There might be a change in dynasty, but hardly a change in the speed of English political decay. When Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard collaborated on Cato’s Letters in the 1720s, they selected their pseudonym because Cato had “contended for public Liberty and Virtue.” They commented on the current meaninglessness of political parties and political labels and explained the obsession for place and power: “A Tory under Oppression, or out of a Place, is a Whig; a Whig with Power to oppress, is a Tory.” Time had been when a Tory was an extreme royalist; in early eighteenth-century England the desire for power obliterated principle. “No Men upon Earth have been more servile, crouching, and abandoned Creatures of Power, than the Whigs sometimes have been,” observed Gordon.39
Changed conditions made for strange political bedfellows. Bolingbroke (long known as the wildest, wickedest Tory) saw that the 1688 Revolution had altered political landmarks. The Whigs in power were men “who succeeded to the name rather than the principles of this party after the revolution.”40 Bolingbroke’s solution to the transformation of England from decay to virtue was a miraculous regeneration through The Idea of a Patriot King. He looked, hopefully, for a prince who would “abandon corruption and restore Parliament.” Such a person might save a country whose ruin was so advanced. But even this might not be enough. “To preserve liberty by new laws and schemes of government, while the corruption of a people continues and grows, is absolutely impossible.”41 Bolingbroke was troubled by the thought that the elected might well be representative of the electors. When the people, the electors, “became universally corrupt, as well as the elected,” he warned, “the fate of Rome will be renewed in Britain.”42
From the American vantage point three alarming themes ran through many accounts of recent English history: moral degeneration; political irresponsibility, prelude to new despotism; and a standing army, historic ally of despots. “Liberty cannot be preserved,” Sidney had said, “if the Manners of the People are corrupted.”43 Many feared that Sidney’s warning was being fatally ignored in eighteenth-century England, that the English had become “the most luxurious people now in the world … a people enslaving themselves in luxury.”44 Luxury as a historical theme fascinated many eighteenth-century writers. Distaste for luxury was logical for intellectuals with puritan antecedents or historical recollections of luxury in ancient Greece and Rome. There was a disposition to trace luxury from the misrule of Charles II. The theatrical stage, which had supplied mistresses to Charles, supplied whig writers with awesome lessons in sinful luxury. Burnet’s complaint that “our Plays are the greatest debauchers of the Nation” was recited with telling effect. On the eve of the American Revolution, some were still distressed by actresses leading innocents astray, and Burgh attacked “the female dancers, whose immodest curvetting in the air, and exposing of their limbs” was so “fatally alluring to those already familiarized to vice.”45
The modern get-rich-quick schemes also seemed symptomatic. The mounting national debt burdened future generations and afforded unhealthy speculative opportunities to the present. Cato’s Letters gave a discussion of the South Sea Bubble, which involved debt and manipulation, and discussion of which allowed for appeal to the fate of innocent sufferers, the widows and orphans: speculators were worms eating at the English body politic, the “sort of Vermin that are bred and nourished in the Corruption of the State.”46
Yet in the view of many, England’s moral and economic decline stemmed directly from the fundamental failure of the political system. Political corruption was regarded as more dangerous than other outward manifestations of decay. The “True Whigs” deplored extravagance and venality; they worried over virtue; they returned again and again to the basic betrayal of the principles of England’s ancient constitution. It was hard not to conclude that all would have been well—at least, much better—had not Parliament coalesced with the King to ignore the constitutional rights of the people. If only Parliament, prone to corruption because of remoteness from the populace, could return to its ancient purity and independence. The political machine built by Walpole was constructed on infrequent general elections and few voters. Cato’s Letters drew attention to “the little beggarly Boroughs” which were “Pools of Corruption.”47 Hulme noted “the elective power of the people, hath, with the boroughs, been falling into decay, while many of the villages, and some parts of the open country … have risen by trade, into great opulence, and magnitude.” The industrial revolution was creating an increasingly unrepresentative situation, and “there is not, perhaps, one man in five thousand, who is now represented in parliament, by a member of his own election.” A comparison between the miserable eighteenth-century present and the glorious Saxon past was irresistible. “Our ancient parliaments were composed of The Wise Men of England, but … they have been changed into The Rich Men of England,”48 rich because of susceptibility to “places, pensions, contracts.” The man who managed Parliament, Robert Walpole, was “the Archcorrupter,” who contaminated the nation with “a venal spirit, and made the generality of our boroughs, rotten to the very heart.”49
Had England made any political progress since the 1688 Revolution? Not according to James Burgh: “The Stuarts meant a tyranny by one; the Walpolians an aristocracy.” There was little to choose between the two. Where the Stuarts had been butchers, attacking “the good lady Britannia with slaughtering knives,” recent England faced “genteeler corrupters” who “endeavoured her destruction by poison held out to her in a golden cup.”50
If only parliaments were elected more frequently, England’s future would be more encouraging. The seventeenth century had seen triennial parliaments, followed in 1716 by a disastrous septennial act. Eighteenth-century historians cited John Milton’s criticism of the triennial arrangement as “but the third part of one good step towards that which in times past was our annual right.” They revived the Mirrour of Justices to prove “that parliaments by the old laws, ought to be held twice a year”; by 1716 “we are deprived of 13 parts in 14 of our antient privilege.”51 Malachy Postlethwayt in his widely read Dictionary of Trade and Commerce observed that “Parliaments … were originally annual; and antiently all the people voted.” Times had changed, thanks to a House of Commons which had found a way to control “the creative power from whence they derive their authority.”52
Septennial elections, Americans were told time after time, were the basic source of all England’s political problems.53 Here was the spring from which flowed the destructive mischief of corruption which “hath sapped the foundation of a fabric, whose building was cemented with the blood of our best citizens,” a corruption which had “tainted the minds of men with such an incurable degeneracy, that the virtue of our forefathers is become the ridicule of every modern politician.” As Hulme reminded his readers, England’s Saxon forefathers had “made the elective power of the people the first principle of our constitution.” That first principle was now too obviously forgotten: “As standing water soon stinks … so a standing house of commons, will ever be a standing pool of corruption.” If England would return, not to a mere halfway house of triennial, but to the true Saxon system of annual elections, the pool of corruption might be sufficiently stirred up to permit a Parliamentary return to “pristine purity.” The nation needed an “ANNUAL CURRENT.”54
In eighteenth-century England nostalgic writers also faced the menace of standing armies with all their dreadful associations. History had shown that “when a country is to be enslaved, the army is the instrument to be used,” and that from the reign of William III there had been a steady increase in the standing army. European ventures under Queen Anne led to dangerous fascination with “great armies and land wars.” Arrival of the Hanoverians brought a dynasty “who had no idea of an insular situation, nor of any security, but what depends on numerous standing forces.”55 “He that is armed,” Andrew Fletcher, a protégé of Bishop Burnet,56 reminded his many American readers, “is always master of the purse of him that is unarmed.”57
There was, in short, diminishing evidence for England’s recovery of her constitutional freedom. Loss of the people’s militia may have sealed her fate—“we have quitted our antient security” was one cry heard in America.58 Luxury, corruption, an infrequently elected Parliament—the colonists’ portrait of their mother country was painted in dismal hues.
In more recent times the colonist’s perspective was determined, perhaps inevitably, as much by politics as by history. The disputes between England and the American colonies occupied a sizable space on the political stage. Americans discovered—with gratification—that many whig writers made injustice to the American colonies a part of a general indictment of England’s decadence. While there was disagreement on what should be done, Americans enjoyed a consoling commentary on their mistreatment. Early in the eighteenth century Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard found room in their Cato’s Letters for discussion of “ways to retain colonies.” England faced a choice—either “to keep independence out of their [the colonists’] power,” or “to keep independence out of their will.” Only “by using them well” could England be sure of her empire.59
However, there was more agreement on the necessity of generous treatment than on the colonial title to it. Some argued that the American colonies were economically rewarding and that enlightened self-interest dictated benevolent government. Others, concerned for England’s domestic situation, argued that tyranny in the colonies would augur ill for liberties in the mother country. Burgh warned if “the American charters may be destroyed, the charters of all the cities [i.e., London], and those by which all crown lands are held, may be annihilated.” He contended that Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights belonged as much to Englishmen in America as Englishmen at home, and that an invasion of documented privilege threatened rights of all Englishmen. Americans did not deserve to be attacked “for doing what the Bill of Rights allows every Englishman.”60
Among the basic rights of Englishmen was taxation by their own representatives. Although native Englishmen had at least a limited voice in Parliament, Americans had no representation there at all. Moreover, the example of the palatinates of Chester and Durham, which had enjoyed assemblies before the Norman Conquest and which were not taxed until granted representation in Westminster, applied to the palatinates of Maryland and Pennsylvania.61 The books that colonists read sparkled with this sort of illustration. William Molyneux gave Americans a variation of the argument for autonomy in his Case of Ireland, which appeared in 1698, but became so popular in America that three new editions were issued between 1770 and 1776. Molyneux championed the rights of Irishmen by arguing that Ireland (quite like the American colonies) had never been conquered and should not be treated as if it had been. He claimed Ireland had made “Voluntary Submission” to England in the distant reign of Henry II, and this move led to a compact between the two countries. With reference to Coke’s Institutes and the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, Molyneux insisted that the Irish “should enjoy the like Liberties and Immunities, and be Govern’d by the same Mild Laws … as the People of England.” If a people could claim the rights of Englishmen, to tax them without their consent was “little better, if at all, than downright Robbing.”62
Granville Sharp cheered his American readers by the observation that “all British subjects, whether in Great Britain, Ireland, or the Colonies, are equally free.” He could reach no other conclusion. America was no conquered country; feudal tyranny had no historic right in America; Americans possessed full title to all the fundamental rights embodied in English common law. Any other verdict, said Sharp, would be “Treason against the Constitution.”63
Was Sharp right? English government betrayed Sharp’s idea of the constitution. Ministerial demand for an American revenue rose steadily, but critics questioned the necessity as well as the justice of taxing the colonies: “Before the taxing of the unrepresented colonies was thought of, the ministry ought to have reduced exorbitant salaries, abated, or abolished excessive perquisites, annihilated useless places, stopped iniquitous pensions … and reduced an odious and devouring army, and taxed vice, luxury, gaming and public diversions.” Economies of this sort would bring the British treasury “ten times more than Grenville could ever expect from taxing, by force and authority, the unrepresented colonies.”64
Numerous authors offered to anxious colonial readers encouraging examples of resistance. Sir William Temple furnished an inspiring account of Dutch opposition to Spanish tyranny. There was an apparent parallel: George III, like Emperor Charles V, showed little understanding of provincial rights. Both maintained troops long after any need for them. Both encouraged religious strife—Charles V “by erecting new bishoprics along with the introduction of the inquisition.” Dutch resistance to oppression was logical for a people “fond of and tenacious of their ancient Customs and Laws.” Just as seventeenth-century Spain fell victim to luxury and corruption, so was England succumbing to the same corroding influences.65 Molesworth had related a similar tale in his celebrated Account of Denmark; here Americans learned of another Germanic people who failed to sustain liberties in the face of such forces as a selfish nobility, apathy and ignorance of history among the populace, and a standing army.66
While Americans did not lack information about their rights, neither did they lack conflicting suggestions about their proper course of action. Some sources discouraged colonial resistance to English rule and some suggested Anglo-American cooperation to revivify the constitution. William Blackstone wrote magnificently on “the liberties of Englishmen”—which he derived from “a restoration of that antient constitution, of which our ancestors had been defrauded by the art and finesse of the Norman lawyers.” But he flatly denied the possibility of such rights crossing the Atlantic to America. And Obadiah Hulme insisted that the colonists were subject to Parliament’s authority even if it was corrupt. Colonization was for the common good, not for “the particular good of the settlers.” Remedy for colonial complaints lay not with dissolution of empire but closer union. Americans should “unite with their brethren in England, to restore, and maintain … the English Constitution upon its genuine foundation.” There would be no colonial problem if the English government were restored to its historic Saxon character, and some believed a combined Anglo-colonial effort could restore it.67
But the vast majority of “True Whigs” insisted on American rights regardless of consequences to the empire. What was to be the route to these rights? There were grounds for doubt that they could be achieved through cooperation with England—even among those who advocated this very course. For example, Hulme conceded in his Historical Essay that “as things go, there will soon be very little left of the British constitution, besides the name and outward form.”68 The historical lesson taught by the whigs seemed to meet with little response in England. But in America the story was different. Forgotten or ignored as prophets in their own country, English whig historians were not without honor in America. Colonial patriots were prepared to determine just what this history taught about the preservation of their rights.
[1.]John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, Feb. 13, 1818, Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. (Boston, 1856), X, 282–83, hereafter cited as Adams, Works.
[2.]Cited in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1774–1776 (N.Y., 1958), 4.
[3.]John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, Feb. 13, 1818, Adams, Works, X, 283.
[4.]Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, ed. Howard C. Rice, Jr., 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, 1963), II, 429, 435.
[5.]David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1789), II, 322–23. Possibly Ramsay may yet secure the respect that is his due; see, as grounds for such a hope, Page Smith, “David Ramsay and the Causes of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 17 (1960): 51–77.
[6.]Ramsay, History, I, 42.
[7.]Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Oeuvres complètes …, 31 vols. (Paris, 1803), XXIX, 22–23; quoted in R. N. Stromberg, “History in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 302. Stromberg is concerned with the eighteenth century’s ideas about history.
[8.]Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Letters on the Study and Use of History (London, 1752), 14; see also Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought; Five Centuries of Interpretation (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), 84.
[9.]John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. R. H. Quick (Cambridge, 1892), 159, 161; David Hume, The History of England …, 6 vols. (London, 1754–62), V, 471; Bonamy Dobrée, ed., The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, 6 vols. (London, 1932), VI, 2630.
[10.]John Toland, ed., The Oceana of James Harrington, and His Other Works (London, 1700), 183; James Burgh, Political Disquisitions …, 3 vols. (London, 1774–75), I, vi, and Thoughts on Education … (Boston, 1749), 15; William Hamper, The Life, Diary, and Correspondence of Sir William Dugdale … (London, 1827), plate III.
[11.]Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania (Philadelphia, 1749), in Leonard W. Labaree, Whitfield J. Bell, Jr. et al., eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, 1960–), III, 412; John Adams to James Warren, July 17, 1774, Worthington C. Ford, ed., Warren-Adams Letters, 2 vols. (Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections, 72–73 [1917–25], I, 29; Jefferson to John Norvell, June II, 1807, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (N.Y., 1892–99), IX, 72.
[12.]The best short study of the development of whig history (and the tory response) is found in Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (Cambridge, Eng., 1944); more recent and more specialized is J. G. A. Pocock’s The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law; A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 1957), and David Douglas, English Scholars (London, 1939) has a brilliant sequel in his The Norman Conquest and British Historians (Glasgow, 1946). Also recent, and much indebted to Pocock, is F. Smith Fussner, The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought, 1580–1640 (N.Y. and London, 1962). Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), is the pathfinding study of the thought and philosopy of Real Whig writers active between 1660 and 1776.
[13.]Butterfield, Englishman and His History, 9–10.
[14.]Thomas Gordon, trans., The Works of Tacitus, 2 vols. (London, 1728), II, 328–32.
[15.]Christopher Hill, “The Norman Yoke,” in Democracy and the Labour Movement; Essays in Honour of Dona Torr, ed. John Saville (London, 1954), II.
[16.]Edmund Gibson, ed., The English Works of Sir Henry Spelman …, 2 pts. (London, 1723), pt. II, 57, 5.
[17.]Butterfield, Englishman and His History, 54.
[18.]Sir Edward Coke, The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England … (London, 1662), “Proeme”; Coke, The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, Kt., in English …, 7 vols. (London, 1738), IV, Pt. VIII, Preface. Jefferson owned this edition of the Reports; his copies survive in the Rare Book Room, Library of Congress; they are, however, uncatalogued.
[19.]Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, 3–21.
[20.]John Adams, Diary, Aug. 1, 1761, Adams, Works, II, 131.
[21.]For a review of early college libraries, see Louis Shores, Origins of the American College Library, 1638–1800 (N.Y., 1934); for more light on Hollis, see Caroline Robbins, “The Strenuous Whig, Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 7 (1950): 406–53; and also her “Library of Liberty—Assembled for Harvard College by Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn,” Harvard Library Bulletin 5 (1951): 5–23, 181–96. See Appendix II for a listing of Harvard’s historical holdings.
[22.]Yale issued library catalogues in 1743 and 1755; see Appendix II for listing of historical works.
[23.]See Julian P. Boyd’s edition of the 1760 Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (Woodbridge, N.J., 1949).
[24.]See Appendix II for listing of historical works in the Rhode Island College catalogue of 1782.
[25.]Louis B. Wright has surveyed the southern scene in quest of colonial reading tastes. See his First Gentlemen of Virginia: Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class (San Marino, 1940); “The Purposeful Reading of Our Colonial Ancestors,” ELH: A Journal of English Literary History 4 (1937): 85–111, and “The ‘Gentleman’s Library’ in Early Virginia,” Huntington Library Quarterly I (1938): 3–61.
[26.]Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston, 1948), 32; William H. Peden, Thomas Jefferson: Book Collector (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1942); George Simpson Eddy, “Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Library,” American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings 34 (1924): 208; Lindsay Swift, “The John Adams Library,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions 19 (1918), 267–69; Catalogue of the John Adams Library in the Public Library of the City of Boston (Boston, 1917); John Adams Manuscript catalogue, 1790, in the Adams Papers, reel 193, microfilm; George Washington to Robert Adam, Nov. 22, 1771, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 39 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1931–44), II, 77; Louis Morton, Robert Carter of Nomini Hall … (Williamsburg, Va., 1941), 215–16; Kate Mason Rowland, The Life of George Mason, 1725–1792, 2 vols. (N.Y., 1892), I, chap. 2; George K. Smart, “Private Libraries in Colonial Virginia,” American Literature 10 (1938): 24–52; Joseph T. Wheeler, “Books Owned by Marylanders, 1700–1776,” Maryland Historical Magazine 35 (1940): 339.
[27.]The manuscript catalogue of the Byrd Library reposes in the Library Company of Philadelphia; for just how scattered Byrd’s books finally became, see Edwin Wolf 2nd, “The Dispersal of the Library of William Byrd of Westover,” American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings 68 (1958): 19–106.
[28.]Jefferson to John Adams, June 10, 1815, Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, 1959), II, 443; Jefferson to Richard Rush, June 22, 1819, Ford, ed., Writings of Jefferson, X, 133; William H. Peden, ed., 1828 Catalogue of the Library of the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va., 1945).
[29.]Jefferson to Lucy Ludwell Paradise, June 1, 1789, Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950–), XV, 163.
[30.]John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 29, 1774, Charles Francis Adams, ed., Familiar Letters of John Adams and his Wife Abigail, during the Revolution (Boston, 1875), I, 4; Jefferson to John Adams, Jan. 11, 1817, Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 505.
[31.]John Dickinson to his father, Mar. 8, 1754, H. Trevor Colbourn, ed., “A Pennsylvania Farmer at the Court of King George: John Dickinson’s London Letters, 1754–1756,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 86 (1962): 257. For more on the library of Isaac Norris, Jr., see James W. Phillips, “The Sources of the Original Dickinson College Library,” Pennsylvania History 14 (1947): 110–13. There is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania a manuscript list of books ordered by Norris for the use of the Pennsylvania assembly (Mar. 16, 1752), which included such items as Petyt’s The Ancient Right of the Commons, and Thornhagh Gurdon’s History of the High Court of Parliament.
[32.]John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer …, in P. L. Ford, ed., The Writings of John Dickinson (Philadelphia, 1895), 307. Ordinarily one would discount such a comment in political propaganda, but it fits perfectly with Dickinson’s private disposition, and also shows his anxiety to demonstrate that his opinions are well informed.
[33.]William Hooper to James Iredell, Feb. 17, 1782, Griffith J. McRee, ed., The Life and Correspondence of James Iredell …, 2 vols. (N.Y., 1857–58), II, 5.
[34.]Edwin Wolf 2nd, “Franklin and His Friends Choose Their Books,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 80 (1956): 14; Franklin’s own account of his Library, in Labaree and Bell, eds., Franklin Papers, III, 308–9; Wolf, “The First Books and Printed Catalogues of the Library Company of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 78 (1954): 1–26; “A Book of Minutes … of the Library Company of Philadelphia,” I, 214, in MS, Library Company of Philadelphia. See also E. V. Lamberton, “Colonial Libraries of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 42 (1918): 193–234.
[35.]Austin K. Gray, Benjamin Franklin’s Library … (N.Y., 1937), 20.
[36.]Quoted in Edwin Wolf 2nd, ed., A Catalogue of Books Belonging to the Library Company (Philadelphia, 1956), iii.
[37.]It was into “the library-room” in Carpenter’s Hall that George Washington darted upon hearing his nomination as Commander in Chief, according to the report of John Adams. See Diary, Sept. 5, 1774, Adams, Works, II, 365.
[38.]See Appendix II for the historical works in the Connecticut library, the Redwood Library in 1750, the Providence Library in 1768, the New York Society Library in 1754, the Burlington Library in 1758, and the Juliana Library Company in 1766. For an account of the library societies, see C. Seymour Thompson, Evolution of the American Public Library, 1653–1876 (Washington, D.C., 1952). See also Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743–1776 (N.Y., 1955), 384–85; Austin B. Keep, The History of the New York Society Library … (N.Y., 1908), 119–20.
[39.]Frederick P. Bowes, The Culture of Early Charleston (Chapel Hill, 1942), 124–25; M. A. DeWolfe Howe, ed., “Journal of Josiah Quincy, Junior, 1773, Mar. 9, 1773,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 49 (1916): 447; see Appendix II for listing of historical works catalogued in the Charleston Library in 1750. It might be noted that the success of the social library probably came at the expense of commercial circulating libraries; William Rind in Maryland advertised an initial listing of 150 titles, including the customary items of Rapin, Robertson, and Hume; Rind lacked capital, could not increase his stock, and failed. In Boston John Mein stocked equally familiar works—those of Burnet, Ludlow, Vertot—but failed because he gave political offense to John Hancock; Mein is credited with popularizing fiction in Boston, but his 1765 catalogue suggests at least an equal devotion to history. See Charles A. Barker, The Background to the Revolution in Maryland (New Haven and London, 1940), 64–66; Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 382; Charles L. Bolton, “Circulating Libraries in Boston, 1765–1865,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions II (1910): 196–207. For the historical contents of Mein’s 1765 catalogue, see Appendix II.
[40.]George L. McKay, ed., American Book Auction Catalogues, 1713–1934: A Union List (N.Y., 1937).
[41.]Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), July 20, 1775; Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), Sept. 22, 1773. See also, for example, Connecticut Courant (Hartford), July 13, 1773; Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), Oct. 28, 1771; Newport [R.I.] Mercury, Sept. 7, 1772.
[42.]A useful review of Bell’s career is A. Everett Peterson, “Bell, Robert,” Dictionary of American Biography; see also Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 381–87.
[43.]Wheeler, “Booksellers and Circulating Libraries in Colonial Maryland,” Maryland Historical Magazine 42 (1939): 117.
[44.]“Henry Knox and the London Book-Store in Boston, 1771–1774,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 61 (1928): 225–304. For a review of his 1773 catalogue and the other dealers’ lists, see Appendix II.
[45.]There is an excellent account of James Rivington’s checkered journalistic career in Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence. See Appendix II for selections of Rivington’s sale lists.
[46.]The David Hall Letterbooks in the American Philosophical Society are particularly illuminating. See Appendix II.
[47.]Jefferson was among the book-buying customers of Dixon and Hunter; see Marie Kimball, Jefferson: The Road to Glory, 1743 to 1776 (N.Y., 1943), 102.
[48.]These are listed in Appendix II.
[49.]Lawrence C. Wroth, An American Bookshelf, 1755 (Philadelphia, 1934), 4.
[50.]Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt, 183.
[51.]John Adams to James Burgh, Dec. 28, 1774, Adams, Works, IX, 351.
[52.]Robert Dodsley may have been the author of the Chronicle, but no author was ever named in colonial listings until 1791, when Benjamin Franklin was erroneously given credit for the work. [Questions about the authorship of the Chronicle appear to have been resolved by Harry Solomon, The Rise of Robert Dodsley (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996)—T. C., 1997.]
[53.]Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols. (N.Y., 1905–7), I, 312.
[1.]James Hampton, ed., The General History of Polybius …, 3d ed., 2 vols. (London, 1772–73; 1st ed., 1756–61), I, 47. Jefferson owned the 1763–64 Ernesti edition, in Latin, which he had conflated with the third edition of Hampton’s English translation, 1762–63, thus creating a unique 8-volume set. See E. Millicent Sowerby, ed., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 5 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1952–59), I, 25.
[2.]Jefferson to John Adams, Oct. 28, 1813, Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 391.
[3.]Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, Jan. 27, 1800, Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1903), X, 146.
[4.]Charles Rollin, The Ancient History …, 2 vols. (Boston, 1827; 1st ed., 1730–38), I, i, vi.
[5.]For a discussion of Montagu’s political associates, see Robbins, Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, chap. 4. Edward Wortley Montagu, Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Antient Republicks (London, 1759), 5–7, 14–15.
[6.]Walter Moyle, The Whole Works … (London, 1727), 63, 99–148. Jefferson owned the rare Glasgow edition of 1750. Moyle sometimes had an interesting turn of phrase; the liberty of a government, he suggested, “is as nice as the chastity of a woman … if the fair one gives up the outworks, the citadel is not long maintained.” Ibid., 98.
[7.]James Burgh, Britain’s Remembrancer: or, The Danger Not Over … (London, 1746), 7–9, 15. Franklin published the fifth edition of Burgh’s Remembrancer in 1747, followed closely by his Philadelphia competitor Godhard Armbrister in 1748, and by Benjamin Mecom in Boston in 1759.
[8.]Oliver Goldsmith, The Roman History …, 2d ed., 2 vols. (London, 1771; 1st ed., 1769), I, 311–12; II, 29. Jefferson owned the second edition.
[9.]Burgh, Political Disquisitions, II, 400.
[10.]Goldsmith, Roman History, II, 16.
[11.]Joseph Addison, Cato, A Tragedy (London, 1713). The play ran through six editions in England in 1713, and another fourteen by the end of the century, not counting four editions published in Boston and Worcester, Mass., between 1767 and 1787. For the performance in Philadelphia in 1749, see Frederick B. Tolles, “A Literary Quaker: John Smith of Burlington and Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 65 (1941): 329. Nathaniel Ames, publisher of the Almanacs, recorded seeing the play when he was a Harvard student in 1758, and adorned a later Almanac with some slightly altered lines from a eulogy of Cato:
The original, in Addison’s Works, I, 264, reads:
See Chester Noyes Greenough, “New England Almanacs, 1766–1775, and the American Revolution,” American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings 45 (1935): 307. For other admiration of Cato, see chap. 7, 187, below.
[12.]Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Letters on the Spirit of Patriotism: On the Idea of a Patriot King; and on the State of Parties, at the Accession of King George the First (Philadelphia, 1749), 13. This edition published by Benjamin Franklin and David Hall.
[13.]Goldsmith, Roman History, 11, 24.
[14.]As quoted by Burgh, Political Disquisitions, III, 15. Robertson’s History of the Reign of Charles V was published by subscription in Philadelphia by Robert Bell in 1770; John Adams, John Dickinson, and Benjamin Rush were among the listed subscribers.
[15.]Ramsay, History of the American Revolution, I, 43.
[16.]Edward Vaughan, ed., The Reports and Arguments of That Learned Judge, Sir John Vaughan … (London, 1706), 358; John Adams, “On Private Revenge,” Boston-Gazette, Sept. 5, 1763; William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4th ed., 4 vols. (Oxford, 1770), I, 35–36.
[17.]John Adams to Jefferson, Feb. 3, 1812, Cappon, ed., Adams-Jefferson Letters, II, 295; Jefferson to Mrs. Anne Carey Bankhead, Dec. 8, 1808, Jefferson Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
[18.]Gordon, trans., Works of Tacitus, I, II; John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters … , 4 vols. (London, 1748), I, 192. Note that Jefferson was so fond of Gordon’s translation that he had three sets collated with the Latin original, two going to the Library of Congress in 1815, and the other eventually reposing in the private library of the late Arthur Machen of Baltimore. Wolf, “First Books and Printed Catalogues of the Library Company,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 78 (1954): 12.
[19.]Gordon, trans., Works of Tacitus, II, xxii, 325–33, 362.
[20.]Paul de Rapin-Thoyras, History of England, trans. Nicholas Tindal, 2d ed., 4 vols. in 5 (London, 1732–47); comment by Sir John Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, trans. John Glanvil (London, 1741), xvii.
[21.]Boston-Gazette, Feb. 1, 1773.
[22.]Rapin, History of England, I, 148, 27, 46, 42, 160–61.
[23.]John Jacob Mascou, The History of the Ancient Germans … , trans. Thomas Lediard, 2 vols. (London, 1737–38), I, xiv, 57, 64; II, 228; Richard Verstegan, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligencies in Antiquities … (London, 1628), 42; Nathaniel Bacon, An Historical Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England … , 2 vols. (London, 1647–51), II, 301; I, 112. The publishing history of Bacon’s work is curious and reveals the Stuarts’ hostility to such political history: the Historical Discourse was reprinted secretly with a 1651 date in 1672, and again in 1682; the last edition was suppressed, and reissued after the abdication of James II in 1689.
[24.]Jonathan Swift, ed., The Works of Sir William Temple … , 2 vols. (London, 1750), II, 584; Hume, History of England, I, ii, 141–42, 145.
[25.]Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays upon Several Subjects concerning British Antiquities … , 3d ed. (Edinburgh, 1763), 196.
[26.]Kames, Historical Law-Tracts, 2d ed. (Edinburgh, 1761), no. 1. Transcribed by Jefferson in Gilbert Chinard, ed., The Commonplace Book of Thomas Jefferson, A Repertory of His Ideas on Government (Baltimore, 1926), 99–103.
[27.]Henry Care, English Liberties: or, the Free-Born Subject’s Inheritance … (London, n.d. [1680?]), 95; issued in a fifth edition in Boston in 1721 and a sixth edition in Providence in 1774. William Atwood, The Fundamental Constitution of the English Government … (London, 1690), 37–39, 73.
[28.]See William Searle Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 12 vols. (London, 1903–38), II, 284–90.
[29.]George St. Amand, An Historical Essay on the Legislative Power of England. … (London, 1724), 94, 4–5.
[30.]John, Lord Somers, The Judgment of Whole Kingdoms and Nations … (London, 1710), 8, and title page; issued in Philadelphia in 1773 and Newport, R.I., in 1774. It was brief, to the point, and cheap at sixpence a copy; see also Robbins, Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, 78–80. James Tyrrell, Bibliotheca Politica … (London, 1689), 222; Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1805), II, 239. Sidney remarked that the Saxons were “lovers of liberty,” who “understood the ways of defending it.” Ibid., 238.
[31.]For a discussion of the Saxon myth, see Appendix I.
[32.]Obadiah Hulme, An Historical Essay on the English Constitution (London, 1771), 7, 24, 31. Published anonymously and long ascribed to Allan Ramsay. Also issued in Dublin, 1771. For a discussion of the authorship, see Sowerby, ed., Catalogue of Jefferson’s Library, V, 205; and Caroline Robbins, “Letter to the Editor,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 79 (1955): 378.
[33.]Robert Molesworth, An Account of Denmark as It Was in the Year 1692 (London, 1694), chap. 4, as transcribed by Jefferson, Commonplace Book, ed. Chinard, 212; Bolingbroke, Remarks on the History of England (London, 1747), 53.
[34.]George St. Amand, An Historical Essay on the Legislative Power of England (London, 1762), 148.
[35.]Verstegan, Decayed Intelligencies, 57; Gibson, ed., Works of Spelman, Pt. II, 5; see also Spelman, De Terminis Juridicis … (London, 1648), chap. 8, as transcribed by Jefferson, Commonplace Book, ed. Chinard, 186: “The feudal law was introduced into England at and shortly after the Conquest.”
[36.]Hume, History of England, I, 159–60, 162–63, 201.
[37.]Sir John Dalrymple, An Essay towards a General History of Feudal Property … (London, 1757), 18, 320, 336. See also, Jefferson, Commonplace Book, ed. Chinard, 149–50; and Pocock, The Ancient Constitution, 243–44.
[38.]Catherine Macaulay, An Address to the People of England, Scotland, and Ireland, on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs (London, 1775), 9. Reprinted in N.Y., 1775.
[39.]Jean Louis de Lolme, The Constitution of England … (London, 1880; 1st ed., Amsterdam, 1771), 13; Hulme, Historical Essay, 34–40.
[40.]Sidney, Discourses, II, 287, 300; William Atwood, ed., Lord Hollis His Remains (London, 1682), 293.
[41.]Isaac Kimber, The History of England, from the Earliest Accounts … , 3d ed. (London, 1762), 66; see also Robbins, Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, 240. Care, English Liberties, 8–9; Francis Stoughton Sullivan, An Historical Treatise on the Feudal Law, and the Constitution and Laws of England (London, 1772), 285–90.
[42.]Roger Acherley, The Britannic Constitution … , 2d ed. (London, 1741), 168. Somers cited Spelman as his authority, Judgment of Whole Kingdoms, 23; Kimber, History of England, 75; Sidney, Discourses, I, 152.
[43.]Rapin, A Dissertation on … the Whigs and Tories (Boston, 1773), 8. This essay was originally included in the full History of England.
[44.]Hulme, Historical Essay, 43.
[45.]Rapin, Dissertation, 6–9.
[46.]Coke, Second Part of the Institutes, “Proeme.” For further recent discussion of Coke and the Charter, see Pocock, Ancient Constitution, 44–45.
[47.]Care, English Liberties, 8.
[48.]Sidney, Discourses, II, 256.
[49.]Acherley, Britannic Constitution, 152–53; Anthony Ellis, Tracts on Liberty, Spiritual and Temporal, of Protestants in England (London, 1767), 335, 443; Care, English Liberties, 26 n. Chapter 39 of Magna Charta became chapter 29 in the familiar reissue of Henry III in 1225.
[50.]Hulme, Historical Essay, 62, 55, 58; Bolingbroke, Remarks on the History of England, 55; Rapin, Dissertation, 11; Somers, Judgment of Whole Kingdoms, 26.
[51.]Hume, History of England, I, 388–89, 395, 407.
[52.]Hulme, Historical Essay, 68, 125.
[53.]Rapin, History of England, I, 276; Robert Brady, A Complete History of England … , 2 vols. (London, 1685–1700), Preface. See also Butterfield, Englishman and His History, 77; and J. G. A. Pocock, “Robert Brady, 1627–1700. A Cambridge Historian of the Restoration,” Cambridge Historical Journal 10 (1951): 188–91.
[54.]Sullivan, Feudal Law, 362.
[1.]Laurence Echard, The History of England, 3d ed., 3 vols. (London, 1720), I, 298; Rapin, History of England, I, 849 n.
[2.]Sir Richard Baker, A Chronicle of the Kings of England … (London, 1670), 324.
[3.]Rapin, History of England, II, 49; Echard, History of England, 327; Robert Dodsley, The Chronicle of the Kings of England (Philadelphia, 1774), 54.
[4.]Bolingbroke, On Patriotism, 62.
[5.]Rapin, History of England, II, 56–57; Echard, History of England, 375.
[6.]Baker, Chronicle, 420.
[7.]Thornhagh Gurdon, The History of the High Court of Parliament … , 2 vols. (London, 1731), II, 391; Hume, History of England, V, 2–13.
[8.]Rapin, History of England, II, 347, 370.
[9.]Kimber, History of England, 287; Echard, History of England, 407–8; Baker, Chronicle, 446; Dodsley, Chronicle, 57.
[10.]Dodsley, Chronicle, 57.
[11.]Hume, History of England, V, 540; Kimber, History of England, 321.
[12.]Echard, History of England, 663; Baker, Chronicle, 592.
[13.]Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion … , 3 vols. in 6 (Oxford, 1731–32), III, 259.
[14.]Hume, History of England, V, 540.
[15.]James Burgh in his Political Disquisitions, I, vii, termed Mrs. Macaulay “incomparable,” and Horace Walpole’s remark is noted in Lucy Martin Donnelly, “The Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d ser., 6 (1949): 183; entry of May 31, 1772, Franklin B. Dexter, ed., The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, 3 vols. (N.Y., 1901), I, 319; John Adams to Catherine Macaulay, Aug. 9, 1770, Adams, Works, IX, 332.
[16.]Catherine Macaulay, The History of England … , 9 vols. (London, 1763–83), V, 100 n; IV, 418, 424, 435.
[17.]Kimber, History of England, 321; Rapin, Dissertation, 19.
[18.]Macaulay, History of England, V, III, 215; Burgh, Political Disquisitions, III, 377.
[19.]Edmund Ludlow, Memoirs … , 3 vols. (London [?], 1698–99), III, Preface; for similar sentiments, see also I, Preface, and 489, 503; Jefferson owned this edition; it survives in the Rare Book Room, Library of Congress, Sidney, Discourses, II, 201–2.
[20.]Baker, Chronicle, 625; Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, III, 653; Hume, History of England, V, 488–89.
[21.]Rapin, History of England, II, 602; Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time … , new ed., 2 vols. (London, 1850), I, 52; Echard, History of England, 725; Hulme, Historical Essay, 109– 17.
[22.]Macaulay, History of England, V, 390; Echard, History of England, 1047.
[23.]Dodsley, Chronicle, 86, 89.
[24.]Burgh, Political Disquisitions, I, 120.
[25.]Hume, History of England, VI, 271–72. Lacking a second witness to an overt act of treason, Judge Jeffries ruled that “Scribere est agere,” and so accepted Sidney’s manuscript “Discourses” as conclusive evidence. See Burnet’s History of His Own Time, I, 372.
[26.]Rapin, History of England, II, 750, cites Burnet.
[27.]Hume, History of England, VI, 316; De Lolme, Constitution of England, 315.
[28.]Echard, History of England, 1150; Kimber, History of England, 342; Dodsley, Chronicle, 90.
[29.]Dodsley, Chronicle, 96.
[30.]Kimber, History of England, 398.
[31.]Burgh, Britain’s Remembrancer, 31.
[32.]Sir Robert Atkyns, The Power, Jurisdiction and Privilege of Parliament … (London, 1689), 33; Atwood, Fundamental Constitution, title page.
[33.]Dodsley, Chronicle, 97–98.
[34.]De Lolme, Constitution of England, 540.
[35.]Burnet, like Rapin, reached American readers well recommended: “the good bishop,” observed Burgh, was “like a faithful preacher of righteousness.” See Burgh, Political Disquisitions, I, 403, 419; James Ralph, Of The Use and Abuse of Parliaments … , 2 vols. (London, 1744), I, 121; Burgh, Political Disquisitions, I, 403.
[36.]John Cartwright, To the Commonalty of Great Britain (London, 1776), xxxi-xxxii.
[37.]Bolingbroke, A Dissertation upon Parties … , 2d ed. (London, 1735), 218–21.
[38.]Kimber, History of England, 410.
[39.]Trenchard and Gordon, Cato’s Letters, III, 258–59.
[40.]Herbert Butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (N.Y., 1956), 151–54; Bolingbroke, Letters on the Study and Use of History, new ed. (Paris, 1808), 295.
[41.]Butterfield, Statecraft, 151–61.
[42.]Bolingbroke, Dissertation on Parties, as quoted in Burgh, Political Disquisitions, II, 135.
[43.]Quoted by Trenchard and Gordon, Cato’s Letters, I, 196.
[44.]Quoted by Burgh, Political Disquisitions, III, 65.
[45.]Burnet’s original comment was “The stage is a great corrupter of the town”; Burnet’s History of His Own Time, 915; Burgh’s paraphrase occurs in his Britain’s Remembrancer, 28 n. Burgh, Political Disquisitions, III, 99. Particularly imaginative was one plan to curb immorality and reduce the appalling national debt: since adultery was a major vice, the design called for flaying and curing the hides of convicted guilty gallants; the product should be auctioned for manufacturing purposes, and revenue would “go some considerable length toward paying the debt of the nation.” Consider the charms of a pair of gloves from “a blood royal hide” or a pin cushion “made of such rich stuff” that it might sell for a hundred guineas. There might be a problem of oversupply, but speculators who held up the price of corn could deal with the plentitude of adulterers in England. There was no end to such a program: there could be a Hide Office, with its commissioners and clerks, handsomely paid of course, all places filled by ministers grasping for influence and power. But despite such charges, the revenue for the national treasury might be as much “as we are likely to get by taxing our colonies.” Ibid., III, 140.
[46.]Trenchard and Gordon, Cato’s Letters, I, 17; III, 23, 209–24.
[47.]Ibid., III, 18.
[48.]Hulme, Historical Essay, 76, 126.
[49.]Burgh, Political Disquisitions, I, 387, 69.
[51.]Burgh’s anthology drew frequently on Milton and the Mirrour. See ibid., 84–85, 25.
[52.]Malachy Postlethwayt, The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, 2 vols. (London, 1751–55), II, 413; Hulme, Historical Essay, 126.
[53.]Macaulay, Address to the People, 18.
[54.]Burgh, Political Disquisitions, I, 267–486; Hulme, Historical Essay, 149–50.
[55.]Burgh, Political Disquisitions, II, 349, 338.
[56.]See Robbins, Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman, 180–84.
[57.]Andrew Fletcher, The Political Works … (London, 1737), 9.
[59.]Trenchard and Gordon, Cato’s Letters, III, 7.
[60.]Burgh, Political Disquisitions, II, 297, 319.
[62.]William Molyneux, The Cause of Ireland’s Being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England, Stated (Dublin, 1698), 37–38, 150, 48.
[63.]Granville Sharp, A Declaration of the People’s Natural Right to a Share in the Legislature … (London, 1774), 11, 230.
[64.]Burgh, Political Disquisitions, II, 315.
[65.]Swift, ed., Works of Temple, I, 22; Burgh, Political Disquisitions, III, 59.
[66.]Molesworth, An Account of Denmark, 124–27.
[67.]Blackstone, Commentaries, II, 45–53; Hulme, Historical Essay, 210.
[68.]Hulme, Historical Essay, 8.