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The citizens of the United States have sometimes been ridiculed, for an alleged propensity to please their imaginations with romantic visions concerning the future glory of their country. They boast, it is said, not of what the nation has been, nor of what it is, but of what it will be. The American faculty, it is affirmed, is anticipation, not memory.
If the truth of this charge were admitted, it might be replied, that the proper motion of the youthful imagination-in states as well as in individuals—is towards the future. It springs forward, with buoyant wing, forgetting the past, and disregarding the present, in the eagerness of its desire to reach fairer scenes. It is the instinct of our nature, the irrepressible longing of the immortal soul for something higher and better. It is never extinguished, though frequent disappointments abate its ardor, and long experience confirms the testimony of revelation, that perfect happiness is sought in vain on earth. In mature age, therefore, reason has corrected the errors of the imagination, and the old man looks backward to his early years, as the happiest period of his life, and praises the men and
the scenes of his youthful days, as far surpassing those which he now sees around him.*
Most nations are impelled, by the same principle, to recur to some past epoch in their history, as the period of their greatest glory. There is little in the prospect of the future to excite their hopes. The adherents to old institutions dread the progress of that spirit of innovation, which has already overthrown many of them, and which threatens speedy ruin to the rest. And the patriot, who is striving to raise his country to the enjoyment of liberty and happiness, foresees too many obstacles, too much fierce strife, suffering and bloodshed, to permit him to contemplate the future without anxiety.
It is the happiness of America, that almost every thing in her condition invites her to look forward with hope. Her perfect freedom,+ her rapid progress, the elastic energy of her national character, the boundless extent of her territory, her situation, far from the contentions of European nations, and safe from the dangers both of their friendshipand of their hostility, all awaken and justify the confident hope, that she is destined to reach a height of prosperity and power, which no other nation, of ancient or modern times, has attained.
But if Americans were so prone to look forward, that they forgot the past, it would certainly be a fault, which would deserve rebuke. Bright as the future may be, the past can present scenes, on which the American may gaze with pleasure, and from which he should draw lessons of wisdom and incitements to patriotism. Passing by the prosperous course of our history, since the adoption of the
* 66 Laudator temporis acti, Se puero, castigator censorque minorum."
Horace de Arte Poet. 1. 173–4. + It is mortifying and painful, that truth compels us to except any persons among us from this remark.
Constitution; not pausing to contemplate the formation of that Constitution, though it was one of the most glorious achievements of wisdom and national virtue ; looking beyond the unparalleled revolution itself; the character and actions of the men who laid the foundations of this country deserve the careful study, and must attract the admiration, of every true-hearted American. The motives, the policy, the personal qualities of the founders; their fervent piety, their courage and patience, their unwavering constancy, their calm wisdom, their love of learning, and their thirst for liberty, entitle those venerable men to the affection and gratitude of every succeeding generation. Their faults we may now see more clearly than their contemporaries; but those faults were, for the most part, the excesses of their virtues, the errors of wise heads and pure hearts, whose piety sometimes became austere, and whose conscientious love of truth occasionally betrayed them into intolerance. There is no stain upon their personal character; and the American may point, with grateful pleasure, to the bright names of Winslow, Winthrop, Hooker, Penn, Baltimore, Oglethorpe, and their associates, as among the choicest treasures of his country.
Among these names, that sense of justice, which eventually triumphs over temporary prejudice and wrong, has already placed that of ROGER WILLIAMS. Long misunderstood and misrepresented, he was excluded from his appropriate place among the chief founders and benefactors of New-England. The early historians, Morton, Mather, Hubbard, and even Winthrop, spoke harshly of his character. His principles, both political and religious, were offensive to the first generations; and it is not strange, that he was viewed and treated as a fanatical heresiarch in religion, and a factious disturber of the state.
Later writers have treated his memory with more respect; and we might quote many honorable testimonies to
his principles and his character. But no extended memoir of his life has ever before been published. It would not be difficult to assign reasons for this neglect.
The want of materials, and the contradictory accounts of various writers, were sufficient to deter his friends from the undertaking, and a lingering prejudice against him prevented others. The attention of some able writers has, nevertheless, been drawn to the subject. Dr. Belknap designed to give to the life of Roger Williams a place in his American Biography, and he made application to several persons in Rhode Island for materials, but without success. announced, a few years since, that Robert Southey, Esq. intended to write the life of Mr. Williams. He probably relinquished the plan, for the same reason. The Rev. Mr. Greenwood, of Boston, formed the design of preparing a memoir, at the suggestion, I believe, of Mr. Southey. Mr. Greenwood collected many valuable materials, but the failure of his health, and other causes, induced him to abandon the undertaking. *
My attention was directed to the subject, in 1829, by hearing the Rev. Dr. Sharp, of Boston, pronounce, with his usual eloquence and true love of freedom, a eulogium on the character of Roger Williams. I soon afterwards suggested to him, that the life of Mr. Williams ought to be better known. He urged me to undertake the office of biographer, and many other friends concurred in the request. I consented, having learned that Mr. Greenwood had resolved to relinquish the design. I made an appli
* Mr. Savage, in his edition of Winthrop, (vol. i. p. 42) excited, by the following note, a hope, which was unhappily disappointed : “ Deficiency in all former accounts of this great, earliest asserter of religious freedom, will, we may hope, soon be supplied by a gentleman, whose elegance and perspicuity of style are already known. Several quires of original letters of Williams' have been seen by me, transcribed by or for the Rev. Mr. Greenwood, of this city.”
cation to him, however, to be informed of his real purposes. With the most generous politeness, he placed at my disposal all the materials which he had collected. Among them were between twenty and thirty unpublished letters, copied from the originals, which were kindly lent to him by the Hon. Thomas L. Winthrop. These letters form a valuable part of this volume.
In my further search for information, I soon discovered, that many persons, well acquainted with our early history, knew very little of Roger Williams. In the books, I found almost every important fact, concerning him, stated differently. I was obliged to gather hints from disconnected documents, and to reconcile contradictory assertions; and in fine, my labor often resembled that of the miner, who sifts large masses of sand, to obtain a few particles of gold. I have spared neither toil nor expense to obtain materials. I have endeavored to make the book as complete and accurate as possible. It has cost me much time, and a degree of labor, which no one can estimate, who has not been engaged in similar investigations.
I have, however, received much aid from several individuals. Besides Mr. Greenwood, my thanks are especially due to the venerable Nestor of Providence, Moses Brown, and to John Howland, Esq. Other gentlemen are entitled to my gratitude, whom it would give me pleasure to name. I have, too, derived great assistance from several books. Among these I ought to mention Mr. Backus' History, from which I have copied a number of valuable documents, and gathered important information. Mr. Savage's admirable edition of Winthrop's Journal has been my chief guide, in narrating the early events of Mr. Williams' history, after his arrival in this country. From the valuable Annals of Dr. Holmes, and from the Library and the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, I have derived important aid.