You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

New England in the Republic

New England in the Republic, 1776-1850, by James Truslow Adams. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 438 pages. $5.

With this volume Mr. Adams completes his trilogy on the destiny of that corner of our country in which physiographical, psychological, political and moral influences combined to produce and to perpetuate for two ‘and a half centuries the most pronounced, self-conscious example of sectionalism in our history. I use the word trilogy in a more specific sense than the designation of a three-volume work merely, for there is in Mr. Adams’s study something akin to the Greek tragedy: the inexorable, self-conditioned fate, the confident tone of the protagonists, the disturbed choruses of the half-consenting, half-protesting victims. For the first time we have a thoroughly objective presentation of a theme which “filiopietistic” historians from Cotton Mather to John G Palfrey have used to corroborate the judgment of the old Governor Stoughton, who said that God sifted a nation to plant the seed of the choicest harvest in a Puritan commonwealth. The cold douche of Mr . Adams’s pitiless analysis of the New England psychology will come like a shock to many of the sons of that region. I had just finished reading the third volume on the train to Boston and laid the book on my knee, when a fellow graduate of Harvard caught sight of it from his seat across the club car, and said with a feeble smile, “ He is pretty hard on us, isn’t he?” Mr. Adams might have admitted or denied the impeachment. At any rate, he anticipated the complaint. For in the closing paragraph of his work he writes:

The story has not been drawn without its deep shadows. From the days of John Winthrop to those of William Lloyd Garrison, the leaders of New England, as well as its lesser characters, were human beings with all the mixture of motives which characterizes men. Perhaps, at times, in a reaction against the old point of view which regarded all Puritans and all Revolutionary soldiers and agitators as saints and patriots, we may have been tempted to stress the shadows rather than the lights. But it is well that all sides of the story he told, for our forebears were men like ourselves, and the work which they wrought can bear the truth.

Whether “the truth” has emerged, however, from a treatment in which the shadows of New England life and character have been so faithfully stressed, and the lights left to shine in comparative silence, is, perhaps, the very question which Mr. Adams’s adverse critics would raise. The author’s justification must be found in the fact that he regards his work as a corrective.

In this third volume of the trilogy Mr. Adams has been confronted with problems of arrangement and emphasis which were far less troublesome in the first two volumes. The integrating theme of the Founding of New England, 1620-1691, was obviously the establishment of the Puritan domination in conflict with various political, economic and social interests in both old and New England, until its modification in the new charter of King William III. The second volume, on Revolutionary New England, 1691-1776, also followed a well defined plot, or double plot, in the long development of the opposition of the most independently-minded section of the colonies to British control in government and commerce, and the increasing protest of the augmenting non-Puritan and non-privileged classes in the New England communities themselves. With the attainment of American independence, only the last of these problems remained. And to it Mr. Adams does full justice in the present volume. “The main theme of the book,” he says in his preface, “may be considered to be the continued struggle of the common man to realize the doctrines of the Revolution in the life of the community.” These doctrines, however, were certainly not the doctrines of Puritanism or of privilege. Therefore, while the theme, in a way, carries on from the preceding volumes, it is much changed; and in addition there are a multitude of new factors, caused by the new status of independence, which have to be woven into the story.

The most important of these factors, in the reviewer’s opinion, is the conflict between the new leaven of nationalism, which was inevitably working in every section of the country since 1776, and the old lump of sectionalism. Mr. Adams chooses the year 1850 as the date when “the current of nationalism swept the New England states into the swift movement of what had by then become a genuinely national life’; and hence he makes that year the terminus of his work. But, at the same time, he realizes that the current of nationalism was swirling about New England, deflecting her course continually, even if not yet fully sweeping her into the full “swift movement.” He is obliged, therefore, to write the history of a section whose sectionalism is not the sundered particularism of the quasi-independent regime of the colonial era, but is constantly subject to the exigencies of federal interests and conditioned by the intrusion of federal authority.

Mr. Adams might have yielded in this dilemma to the easy temptation to write a purely political history of England from the outbreak of the Revolution to the promise of 1850, which would have amply filled his and odd pages—and added very little to what we patch together from the histories of McMaster, Channing, Schouler and Henry Adams. Fortunately, he has resisted the temptation, and has relegated New England’s relation to the national government to the second in order to give the centre of the stage to New England herself. The skill and success with which he has performed this difficult task of continuing the history of a section as his main theme, without losing sight of the due influences of the larger concerns of the nation the section, are apparent in every chapter of the book. This is, we think, the peculiar merit of Mr. Adam’s work. It is a genuine history of New England in the time of the Republic that he gives us, and not a history of New England’s part in the Republic. The Revolutionary War, the Critical Period, the framing and adoption of the Constitution, the War of 1812, the era of national expansion are all included in the book, in their proper setting, as the scenic background; but the play is always the social drama of the struggle of the common people of New England for the liberty, equality and democracy so lavishly promised them by the Revolutionary leaders: the struggle of the masses who did the fighting, paid the taxes, and kept the farms and industries going, against the stubborn conservatism of the classes who, from the days of the Winthrops and the Endicotts to the days of the Cabots and the Dwights held to the privileges sanctioned by tradition.

Not only has Mr. Adams kept the distinctiveness of New England from being merged into the larger history of the nation, but he has also preserved the unity of the section from disintegrating into the separate history of the five (after 1820, six) states that comprised it. As in the two preceding volumes, Massachusetts, the most populous, the most aggressive and, until the separation of Maine, the largest state of the section, naturally receives the largest share of the book—and the lion’s share of Mr. Adams’s objurgations. “The spirit of intolerance and forcible coercion that appears again and again throughout the entire history of Massachusetts”; “a much greater tendency to descend to the arguments of threatenings, intimidation, physical violence, bloodshed, and mob action”; “a ruling class . . . singularly impervious to ideas”; “the state in which the doctrine of government by the Well born was carried to its furthest point and in which the government had the narrowest franchise,” and, withal, the one “which had the most trouble with its people”—are some of the indictments against the Bay State. Its native sons will have to find such comfort as they may in President Coolidge’s exhortation to “Have faith in Massachusetts!” Still, Mr. Adams features other states Occasionally, when they illustrate with peculiar aptness some phase of the struggle between privilege and the new social class brought to the surface by the Revolutionary agitation: for example, the method of preparing the “slate” for the election of the Council in Connecticut, the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, and the intrigues of certain discontented Vermonters during the Revolution to thwart the pretensions of New York to sovereignty over their territory by securing a neutral status under British protection. Indeed, this last topic, which Mr. Adams treats in some detail in sixteen pages, contains some very startling and disconcerting material for people who know Ethan Allen only as the lion-hearted patriot of 1775, who demanded the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga “in the name of Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”

It seems to the reviewer that Mr. Adams would have done better to bring his story of New England sectionalism to a close with the Hartford Convention of 1814. He confesses in the preface that the movement “reached its climax in the War of 1812,” and he devotes about three-quarters of his book to the period from the outbreak of the first to the close of the second war with Great Britain. The remaining five chapters, covering in 120 pages the almost equally long period from the Treaty Ghent to the middle of the nineteenth century, depart somewhat from the admirable plan of confining the narrative to that period of New England history when the sectional characteristics were not only clearly marked against the background of national interests, but also clearly directive of her own social and economic development. Of course, sectional interests have always played their part, and do today, in our national politics. One might find, I believe, as many factors prominent in New England history in the period from 1850 to 1920 (Sumnerism, Mugwumpism, anti-Imperialism, anti-Wilsonism) to justify the prolongation of the story of “New England in the Republic” into the twentieth century, as one finds in the period 1815 to 1850 to justify its prolongation into the middle of the nineteenth century. Many of the topics which occupy Mr. Adams’s attention in these closing chapters, such as the tariff, the Missouri Compromise, the immigration problem, anti-Catholic riots, the panic of 1837, humanitarian reforms, education, the anti-slavery movement, seem to have had but an incidental bearing on New England’s history. It may well be that each of them played a part in the decline of the sectionalism which is so clearly marked up to the close of the War of 1812, but the process is not so convincingly shown to the reader as are the stages of the growth and maintenance of New England sectionalism in the earlier chapters of the book.

There are very few factual criticisms that even the most meticulous scholar would make in this careful and well documented work. Evidently, the statement at the beginning of Chapter IX that the American colonies had been dependent on England for “over two hundred years” when the Revolution was won is a slip. Many would question the assertion that with the Embargo “the nation entered upon the most disastrous experiment in its history.” Squatter sovereignty was a far more “disastrous experiment.” Nor was the Embargo, if we may believe the reports of Pinckney to Madison from London, so contemptible a weapon in the eyes of “our European enemies.” On page 297, Mr. Adams says that “the delegation from Massachusetts comprised approximately one-third of die members” of the Hartford Convention; whereas, on the previous page he lists them as twelve out of a total representation of twenty-six. The statement that “the Southerners at once seized upon the idea of making the admission of Maine, which of course would come in as a free state, depend upon the admission of Missouri as a slave state,” is rather turning the matter around, since it wasSenator Thomas of Illinois who proposed making the admission of Missouri as a slave state depend upon the admission of Maine as a free state.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Adams has given us in these three volumes a classic of American history. The excellence of his work, despite the increased difficulty in handling the theme in the concluding volume, has been fully sustained; and the committee who awarded the Pulitzer prize to The Founding of New England could not hesitate retroactively to include Revolutionary New England and New England in the Republic in their commendation. Perhaps Mr. Adams’s severe handling of the Puritans of the seventeenth century, the patriots of the eighteenth and the particularists of the nineteenth will give offense to some New Englanders, but others will not be in the least troubled by the honest interpretation of a scholar who sees the drama of New England history from a different angle and in a different perspective from those of the old New England school. At any rate, we New Englanders have learned that there are other Adamses than those of Braintree and Boston.

This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.