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THE RENAISSANCE OF NEW ENGLAND
SOME GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF NEW ENGLAND
From the time, shortly after 1720, when Franklin left Boston, where Increase and Cotton Mather were still preaching, we have paid little attention to that part of the country. For during the seventy-two years which intervened between Cotton Mather's death and the nineteenth century, Boston was of less literary importance than it was before or than it has been since. To understand its revival, we must call to mind a little more particularly some general characteristics of New England.
A glance at any map will show that Boston, whose geographical position has obviously made it the principal city of that region, may be distinguished from most American cities by the fact that, comparatively speaking, it is not on the way anywhere. The main line of travel from abroad to-day comes to the port of New York. People bound thence for Washington proceed through Philadelphia and Baltimore; people bound westward are pretty sure to tend toward Chicago; people going southwest pass through St. Louis or New Orleans; people going around the world generally sail from San Francisco; but the only people who are apt to make the excursion from New York to Boston and return are those who do so on purpose. Of course, the ease of intercommunication nowadays combines with several other causes to disguise this isolation of the capital city of New
England. All the same, an isolation, socially palpable to any one who lives there, really characterises not only the city, but the whole region of which it is the natural centre.
This physical isolation was somewhat less pronounced when the English-speaking settlements in America were confined to the fringe of colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. Even then, however, a man proceeding by land from Boston to Philadelphia had to pass through New York; and so proceeding from New York to Virginia or the Carolinas had to pass through Philadelphia ; but the only people who needed to visit Boston were people bound thither. It had happened, meanwhile, that the regions of Eastern Massachusetts, although not literally the first American colonies to be settled, were probably the first to be politically and socially developed. Sewall's “ Diary,” for example, is an artless record of busy life in and about Boston, from 1674 to 1729. In spite of the many archaic passages which make it so quaintly vivid, it has few more remarkable traits than the fact that the surroundings and in many respects the society which it represents are hardly yet unfamiliar to people born and bred in Eastern New England.
In the first place, the whole country from the Piscataqua to Cape Cod, and westward to the Connecticut River, was almost as settled as it is to-day. Many towns of Sewall's time, to be sure, have been divided into smaller ones; but the name and the local organisation of almost every town of his time still persist; in two hundred years the municipal outlines of Massachusetts have undergone hardly more change than any equal space of England or of France. In Sewall's time, again, the population of this region, though somewhat different from that which at present exists, was much like that which was lately familiar to anybody who can remember the New England country forty years ago. It was homogeneous, and so generally native that any inhabitants but born Yankees attracted attention; and the separate towns were
that any one who knew much of the country could probably infer from a man's name just where he came from. So isolated a region, with so indigenous a population, naturally developed a pretty rigid social system.
Tradition has long supposed this system to have been extremely democratic, as in some superficial aspects it was.
The popular forms of local government which were early established, the general maintenance of schools in every town at public expense, and the fact that almost any respectable trade was held a proper occupation for anybody, have gone far to disguise the truth that from the very settlement of New England certain people there have enjoyed an often recognised position of social superiority. This Yankee aristocracy, to be sure, has never been strictly hereditary; with almost every generation old names have socially vanished and new ones appeared until it is now asserted that only one family of Boston has maintained itself without marked vicissitude from the settlement of the town to the present day. Until well into the nineteenth century, however, two facts about New England society can hardly be questioned : at any given time there was a tacitly recognised upper class, whose social eminence was sometimes described by the word “quality ;” and although in the course of time most families had their ups and downs, the changes in this respect were never so swift or so radical as materially to alter the general social structure. have changed, but not traditions or ideals; and no matter how fallen in fortune, people who had once been of good stock rarely forgot the fact and rarely suffered it to be forgotten.
In the beginning, as Cotton Mather's old word “theocracy” asserted, the socially and politically dominant class was the clergy. Until 1885, indeed, a relic of this fact survived in the Quinquennial Catalogues of Harvard College, where the names of all graduates who became ministers were still distinguished by italics. In the same catalogues
the names of graduates who became governors or judges, or in certain other offices attained public distinction, were printed in capital letters. These now trivial details indicate how the old social hierarchy of New England was based on education, public service, and the generally acknowledged importance of the ministry. When the mercantile class of the eighteenth century grew rich, it enjoyed in Boston a similar social distinction, maintained by pretty careful observance of the social traditions which by that time had become immemorial. And as the growing complexity of society in country towns developed the learned professions of law and medicine, the squire and the doctor were almost everywhere recognised as persons of consideration. From the beginning, meanwhile, there had been in New England two other kinds of people, tacitly felt to be of lower rank; the more considerable were those plain folks who, maintaining personal respectability, never rose to intellectual or political eminence, and never made more than enough money to keep decently out of debt; the other comprised those descendants of immigrant servants and the like whose general character resembled that of the poor whites of the South. Just as the local aristocracy of fifty years ago provided almost every Yankee village with its principal people, so this lowest class contributed to almost every village a recognised group of village drunkards.
The political forms which governed this isolated population were outwardly democratic; the most characteristic were the town meetings of which much has been written. The population itself, too, was nowhere so large as to allow any resident of a given town to be a complete stranger to any other ; but as the generations passed, the force of local tradition slowly, insensibly increased until, long before 1800, the structure of New England society had become extremely rigid. Sewall, as we have seen, preserves an unconscious picture of this society in the closing years of the