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Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers. the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity.
SOMEWHERE in the writings of Montesquieu, it is laid down as a fundamental law of historical probability, that the representations of a triumphant party should always be distrusted, respecting the party over whom their victories are won. They have the strongest temptation to misrepresent the motives of their opponents, mutilate the facts, and give the most favorable coloring to their own side. Unluckily, the greatest part of history comes from the writers, encouraged or rewarded by a triumphant faction; and this is the circumstance which throws the greatest uncertainty on its truth or probability. Rome expelled her kings, and established a republic under the auspices of the first Brutus. Now it can scarcely be doubted, that
these warm republicans blackened the character of the Tarquins with every crime, which their inflamed passions could suggest to their fertile imaginations; and I have often thought the story of Tulla, driving his affrighted horses, consternatos equos, over the bloody corpse of her father, sounds much more like a republican fiction, to make tyrants hateful, than real truth. A very similar story is told of Buonaparte, driving his chariot over dying soldiers; an action which, if allowed by his humanity, would have been by his policy forbidden.
But this is precisely the suspected channel, through which the story of the Puritans has come to us. We receive still the laws of literature from the court of England; and the Puritans sunk under the ascendance of an exasperated party, on the restoration of Charles II. Every art was used to distort their principles, misrepresent their characters, and bring their whole proceedings into derision and contempt. Not only the historians told the story, with partial feelings and suppressing half the truth; but poets and moral writers united their genius, and blended their colorings, to roll down the false impression to a prejudiced posterity. Truth has seldom walked naked among mankind; not because she blushes at her own deformity, but because some faction or interest is afraid or ashamed to see her.
For more than a century and an half, the party which could hope to reign only by suppressing the
Puritan spirit, has held the throne of England; and in the management of the vast treasures of the nation, has been able to call around it all the prostituted geniuses, whose venal pens were ready to uphold the cause from which they derived their daily bread. Even in minds where better principles prevailed, strong prejudices have been seated; and they have been taught to look back on the Puritans as a routed faction, whose swords might be dangerous, but whose arguments were ridiculous. But what is worse, this perverted literature has been encouraged in this country, where its misrepresentations are certainly the most pernicious. Lured by the charms of wit, and willing to laugh, though at our own expense, we have suffered our memories to be crammed with falsehoods, and our feelings to become a medley of republican purposes, and monarchical prejudices; our reason and our fancy have been embattled against each other; and we have come very near to the double-minded man, who is unstable in all his ways. The Tory pages of Hume, I suspect, are more familiar to our countrymen, than the History of Mrs. Macaulay, though written with spirit and elegance; and in our imagination, at least, British literature has achieved a victory, which our ancestors and ourselves would have scorned to yield to the most valiant efforts of the British arms.
One of the first writers after the restoration, was the author of Hudibras, whose professed object it
was, to flatter his king by degrading the Puritans. His genius has been compared to that of Cervantes; and the satire of the Spanish author, has been supposed to have pointed the lash of the English poet. But there is an important difference. What makes Don Quixote superior to all other satires is, the wonderful DISCRIMINATION with which all that was good in the absurdities of chivalry is spared, and yet its follies made supremely ridiculous, without the least exaggeration. Cervantes pulled up the weed, and spared the adjacent flower. But Butler slashes with promiscuous vengeance through the whole garden; all is distorted, and nothing is spared. The poor Puritans are pounded as with a flail; and his satire wants, if not resemblance, at least moderation and truth. Butler always disposes his light, so that the object shall cast a deformed and gigantic shadow before the reader is incited to laugh. Hear how he anatomizes the Puritans.
A sect whose chief devotion lies
In falling out with that or this,
Their antipathies, however odd and perverse, were chiefly against such things as Laud, the Star Chamber, the Court of High Commission, cropping men's ears, and standing in the pillory for religious opinions; objects, which if a single being can now advocate, I must leave him to his taste. Cowley thus characterizes the Puritans:
I would not be a Puritan, though he
Can preach two hours, and yet his sermon be
Though from his old mechanic trade,
His faith was grown so strong;
Nay, though he think to gain salvation,
This perpetual reproach of preaching without learning, must be answered by the writings of Owen and Baxter; and by the schools and colleges they were in haste to establish in New England; and I question whether any Puritan ever wrote any verses more doggerel, than the two last in the above-quoted stanza—
Nay, though he think to gain salva-ti-on,
By calling the Pope the whore of Bab-y-lon.
How beautiful! how melodious and charming! If the reader cannot laugh with such a poet, he can cer tainly laugh at him.