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ART. X.-History of the Town of Plymouth, from its First Settlement in 1620 to the present time; with a Concise Account of the Aborigines of New England, &c. By JAMES THACHER, M. D. Second edition. Boston: 1835.
A good town history in this country is a rarity. Quite a number of books, purporting to be such, have been published; all within a few years, and mostly, as a matter of course, at the north, where the thing signified by the word town, in the sense we intend to use it in the following paper, is almost exclusively known. Some of these, if not all, we have seen. There are none of them, within our recollection, which do not deserve considerable praise, and which ought not, on the whole, to be in the library of every person who wishes to be thoroughly possessed not only of our general history, but of its particulars; and especially of the elementary materials out of which, and of the process by which it is, or should be, made. Many of them indeed are apparently first literary attempts; experiments, perhaps, a little in the way of historical maiden speeches; modestly intended to interest and gratify a comparatively small region of readers, who may be considered parties to the showing-up of the subject matter discussed. Yet these have their wider value. They save something from oblivion; sometimes a great deal; even treasures, it may be, of local tradition, recollection, or record, which at some day or other, in some hands, may be found of inestimable incidental value; and which, at all events, are decidedly worth the labour of preserving for various purposes. These local annals are full of little things, names, dates, and facts, and rumours of every sort, which seem at first sight almost too trifling to be noticed; and yet not only is it true that the general historian must essentially depend on the local to a very considerable extent, for the mass of loose seeds from which the spirit of his narrative should be laboriously distilled; but it is also true that there is almost always a good deal of that spirit already made, in such materials, at his hand. Many of these little things which we speak of, are little only in size and name. They are full of rich meaning. They are graphic and characteristic in a high degree. They suggest far more than they say. They illustrate classes of men, and ages of time. They are small but brilliant lights on the walls of the past, pouring floods of splendour from their little niches on the vast abysses around them.
We want more of these little things in our history. In all history, indeed, we want them. History teaches us, as it is, almost solely great results. It gives us the successions of
governments and empires, the names of great men, the places of mighty battles, and perhaps the number of the killed on either side; with a philosophy of comment, or inference proportionate to such a beggarly account of empty statistics. This is well as far as it goes, but we want more; or rather, we want less. We need the retail of history, as well as the wholesale. We need more facts which constitute or indicate real character and condition, in detail; the more the better. We need the little things which lead to the great things, and which follow from them. The skeleton of the past then would be clothed in flesh and blood, as it once was. It would come out of its long obscurity as the bodies of the poor Pompeians come out from theirs; life-like, if not living; surrounded and invested with the accompaniments which bespeak even the traits of individuals, as well as of races, generations, and communities; nay, in the very attitude of the act in which their fate surprised them, and with the expression of that action in the face. This would be a restoration worthy of the name. We could "live o'er" the scene, and "be what we behold." There would be no more complaint of the dullness and dryness of history. It would ask no art to teach, and no labour to learn it. It would be read instead of being studied. The truth, stranger than fiction, would come out on the surface, and attract even the eye of the child. The work of historical novels,
-the most successful the world has seen, because the most true, would be superseded by the historian's taking his own business into his own hands. We should have novels in histories, instead of histories in novels; and all, of course, not by the infusion of fiction or imagination, (which cannot but settle more or less into the chasms of history as it is,) but of truth. Herein consist, in a great degree, the value and interest of the poorest even of these town histories; for it would be far more difficult for the poorest, in a country so full of the materials of such history as ours is, to avoid, than it would be to accomplish, the preservation of many things, which are nobly worthy of the toil.
The value, then, of a good town history, such as we began with describing as a rarity, may be easily inferred; the value of one, we mean, which is the work of a person, in all, or in most respects, competent to his task; and that is saying a good deal. Such a person must, in the first place, be indefatigably industrious. There is almost no literary labour equal to that of looking up and working over the lumber of such a book, especially in cases of especial deficiency or redundance of documents, or other difficulties, which are incident to the task. He must have a thorough, genuine, antiquarian spirit. Ambition, or any other foreign consideration, will by no means answer the same end.
There is no ambition to be gratified in such drudgery, or by its result. No fame accrues to such a work, unless in very extraordinary cases, in a limited degree. It can never be a profitable undertaking in any pecuniary sense. It must be truly a labour of love.
But it must be much more than this. Most, if not all the requisite ability and accomplishments of the general historian must come in play; the experience, liberality, tact, self-control, general information, taste in style, sound sense in every thing; the arts of selecting, discriminating, comparing, arranging, inferring, expressing and discussing, thoroughly, truly, coolly, and well. It is no marvel in our eyes that such a work, done as it should be, is a rare thing, especially as the business of making these histories, when we consider what remains unwritten, can be deemed only to be just begun.
The force of these remarks applies, of course, peculiarly to peculiar cases. A town-a New England town-is itself a curiosity among communities, and in the history of the world. Any history almost, of almost any town, must be a curiosity in literature, to that extent, if no more. The annals of an important town, however,-of an ancient one, which has stood, suffered and acted through every stage of the country's history,-of a leading one, still more, which has taken a prominent share in the proceedings, and commanded the respect, and moulded, more or less, the character of surrounding and succeeding communities, the annals in a word, of such a town as Plymouth, "Old Plymouth," setting aside even the incident which specifically places it above all competition with all its neighbours, not to say with any other locality, the world knows,-how full should such a volume be of the fact and of the philosophy of the highest order of human records.
Old, we say; the oldest of our towns; the first of the settlements of New England; the second permanent one along the whole shore of the Union; and yet how young, as compared with the states and empires which have been commonly the historian's theme. How full of materials for his work-which have been almost always wanting in those cases. Their beginning has reached back into the darkness of unknown time. Hundreds and hundreds of years have rolled over them, like the clouds of the summer, and left no trace behind. Intervals in their existence, wider than the whole space of American history, are passed over with, perhaps, a mere conjecture, or the names or number of their kings. Two centuries alone have sufficed for us--and those two the last; a period comparatively enlightened throughout-the illuminated period of the world's annals; a period of revived mind, of intense activity, of free intercommunication, of the most extraordinary revolutions, cha
racters, and phenomena of every sort, recognised by the history of nations, which man has ever seen. Of all these things, so far as we are connected with them, nothing has been done in the dark. A complete record, with slight exceptions, has been preserved in some shape or other; chiefly, indeed, in a state of most plentiful confusion-but yet preserved. Our history, as a people, may be written from the beginning to the present hour.
The volume of Dr. Thacher has freshly impressed these considerations upon us. Great labour, of necessity, was to be encountered in the research it could not but require, and no small difficulty to be surmounted, and ingenuity exercised, in the condition in which the material to be relied on and wrought out was found. Yet it was not, as in the investigation of the origin of other states it generally has been, a fruitless and a hopeless task. The author knew, in the outset, that it need not and would not be so. He did not
It is wonderful to see, on the contrary, how, step by step, and stage by stage, he has traced back (or enabled his reflecting readers to do so) the growth of the country, and of the town, and of the colony, and of the individuals even who composed it, to the one and grand starting point of them all. Our whole progress is laid bare. The past is restored. All which belonged to Plymouth alone, in history, has become the property of the world. We have discovered "the cradle of that mighty birth." We have opened to the sunbeam "the far fountains" of the nation's "Nile."
We are reminded by this volume, we say, of the youth of our antiquity. The whole tenor of its contents, (such is their recency,) as compared with those of foreign histories, enforces that impression, difficult as it is to realize, when we take time to consider, how momentous a life, and how much of one for all the essential ends of national existence, we have compressed into this narrow space of two hundred years. We remember that when Professor Everett pronounced, in 1824, his justly admired oration before the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, he availed himself, with his usual tact, of an incident which is still, perhaps, the most beautiful illustration which that famous anniversary has ever elicited of the strange vastness of the results the settlement has produced. He spoke of the appropriation granted, during that season, by congress, for the security of the old harbour, where, on the day they celebrated, the germ of so much of the future America was tossed in one small vessel on the wintry tide. A few generations came and went, and, lo! from the little democracy organized in the cabin of
the May Flower-the first which the world has seen-from this weak and weary band of exiles, poorly armed (as he describes them), "scantily provisioned, depending on the charity of their ship-master for a draught of beer on board, drinking nothing but water on shore, without shelter, without means, and surrounded by hostile tribes"-more than half their number (he could have added) perishing on the spot within the first six months, and the residue, two years after, reduced to a distribution of a single pint of corn for their sustenance,*—from such an origin had sprung "a great American representation, convened from twenty-four independent and flourishing republics, taking under their patronage the local interests of the spot where our fathers landed;" and providing, adds the orator, in the same act of appropriation, for the removal of obstacles in the Mississippi, and the repair of the Plymouth beach. There were members of that congress, he would not say from distant states, but from different climates; from regions which the sun in the heavens does not reach in the same hour that he rises on us. "Happy community!" well might he subjoin, "glorious expansion of brotherhood! Blessed fulfilment of that first timorous hope which warmed the bosoms of our fathers!"
On the same occasion, Mr. Everett alluded to the circumstance of the but recent decease of those who had been intimate with the children of the first settlers. In the history before us we notice, in the account of the commemoration of 1817-when the Rev. Mr. Halley, of Boston, addressed his genius to the subject which so many master-minds have discussed before and since on the same sacred ground without the possibility of exhausting it-an allusion to the aid which he then derived from the reminiscences of the venerable Deacon Spooner; the same who, in his brown wig and ancient costume, was wont, if we mistake not, to appear on similar occasions previous to this, in discharge of the customary duty of reading a
* This statement we suppose to be traditional. It is, however, so well authenticated, as to have been revived at the memorable celebration of 1820 (when Mr. Webster gave the oration), by putting in each plate, at the dinner-table, five kernels of parched corn, which is understood to have been the share to each individual in 1623. At all events, the anecdote conveys no very exaggerated notion of the true state of things at the time. Governor Bradford writes, in one place, "By the time our corn is planted, our victuals are spent, not knowing at night where to have a bit in the morning;" and he says, again, when a few of their dearest old friends had just arrived in the colony, "the best dish we could present them with, is a lobster, or a piece of fish, without bread, or any thing else but a cup of fair spring-water." The best of them lived for months mostly on clams and ground-nuts.