Second Half of Eighteenth Century


In the second half of the eighteenth century, our literature presents the vivid reflection of that momentous struggle for independence upon which the American colonies had entered. Fiery speeches, able arguments set forth in newspapers and in pamphlets, sharp and bitter satire served to give utterance to the thought and passion of men's minds. One feature of this activity must be emphasized: geographical lines were now forgotten; the literature of this period is no longer local; essayists, versifiers, orators were inspired by a common purpose and by a devotion to the interests of the country at large.

James Otis, 1725-83.

Greatest of the Massachusetts orators and conspicuous at the beginning of the struggle was James Otis. He was a graduate of Harvard, and a prominent lawyer in Boston. In 1761, following the accession of George III, in the previous year, there arose in Massachusetts a debate over granting the new Writs of Assistance to officers of the customs in that colony. In February of that year, Otis, in the council chamber at Boston, delivered an argument against the legality of these writs which is sometimes described as the prologue of the Revolution.1 Of this passionate address, no complete record exists, but John Adams, who reported it, declares that American independence was then and there born. "Otis was a flame of fire," Adams declares. "Such a profusion of learning, such convincing argument, and such a torrent of sublime and pathetic eloquence -- that a great crowd of spectators and auditors went away absolutely electrified."2 Three years later, Otis published a pamphlet, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved -- one of the most acute and powerful among the many political papers of these years.

Political Essayists.

The historic events of the period came in quick succession. The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, was repealed in the following year; but taxes on tea, paper, glass, paints, and other articles were levied in 1767. Petitions, appeals, and resolutions were numerous. Pamphlets and essays appeared in great numbers. To these years belong the political papers of Franklin, who contributed vigorously to these discussions. Samuel Adams (1722-1803), tax collector of the town of Boston, was a voluminous essayist -- of whom a tory governor declared "every dip of his pen stings like a horned snake."

Both sides participated in this fierce debate, for there were not a few in the colonies who remained loyal to England throughout the struggle. Following the assemblage of the first Continental Congress, in 1774, there appeared in New York a series of four pamphlets dealing with the great questions of the time from the tory standpoint. These were signed "Westchester Farmer"; they were incisive, picturesque, witty, and readable. "If I must be devoured, let me be devoured by the jaws of a lion, and not gnawed to death by rats and vermin," declared the audacious pamphleteer. These papers aroused a storm of patriotic protest in the midst of which it is interesting to find a pamphlet entitled The Farmer Refuted, the essay of a youth of eighteen, young Alexander Hamilton, then a student in King's College.1 The "Farmer" was identified with the Rev. Samuel Seabury, and Episcopal clergyman of Westchester, New York, and was made to pay dearly for his bold utterances by some of the excitable patriots in his vicinity. He suffered many indignities, but after the close of the conflict resumed his position and ended his life in peace, honored by many of his former foes.

The Orators.

Chief among the orators of the South was Patrick Henry (1736-99), of whom Jefferson said: "He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote." It was he who in the opening speech of the first Congress uttered the ringing declaration, "I am not a Virginian but an American"; and he who in the Virginia Assembly, March 23, 1775, delivered the address which ranks as one of the classics of American eloquence. Along with Otis, in the North, stands the familiar figure of John Hancock (1737-93). In the speech which he delivered in 1774, on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, he expressed in characteristic phrases the fervor of the time: "Burn Boston and make John Hancock a beggar, if the public good requires." Joseph Warren

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