The Hartford Wits were Federalists, but their arguments against democracy may ring familiar to modern libertarians.
"Realm of Rogues"
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
The formerly British North American colonies occupied a special place in world history during the 1780s. It was a tumultuous time, marked early on by cataclysmic warfare, a battle for national survival and existence. Once victory was secure early in the decade, though, Americans were still left with an ever‐looming, perhaps deepening, and still‐open question. Historian Carl Becker long ago identified the two concurrent “questions” at hand during the American Revolution: 1) Shall there be home rule?, and 2) Who shall rule at home? By 1783, Washington’s armies, King Louis’ navy, Dutch money, and a British desire to save the rest of their empire joined to answer the first question. Yes–there would be home rule in the American colonies. The old colonial governments spontaneously (that is, without central planning from Philadelphia) replaced their colonial corporate charters with state constitutions. This new form of popularly ratifying charters through representative assemblies replaced the medieval method of monarchs granting exclusive, monopoly rights and powers to specific individuals. So, now Americans ruled at home. But who, exactly, were these home‐grown, American rulers? Becker’s second question has been with us ever since–Who does rule us here at home?
The closest revolutionary Americans came to a central state was really a most odd creature: the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, ratified by the separate state assemblies and put into full legal effect in 1781. The Articles ran on voluntary contributions from the states, with no central mechanism or authority to tax. It conferred no one any sort of ability to compel state action on…well, anything. Under the Articles, we can see in American history a rare and perhaps even unique example of a sizeable number of physically large polities joining together on equal footing in a sort of “Sisterhood of Nations.” How remarkable, in hindsight, this magnificent blending of little nation‐states into one vast peaceful free trade zone! A model for all the world, perhaps.
But, then again, we libertarians are all too familiar with the principles and practices that have led to the decline of American classical liberalism. We understand the corrosive, even toxic effects of democracy and the full cast of collectivist “isms:” racism, nationalism, socialism, statism–Take your pick. In many respects, at least, we know how we got here. We have given far too power much to far too many people for far too long. In many ways, libertarians can in fact identify with a certain strain of Federalism prevalent in the 1780s. In the current series on the Hartford Wits’ faux‐epic poem, Anarchiad, we will explore the political culture of the Shays Era, the half‐decade between the war’s end and the Constitution’s beginning. We will have far more to say about our authors and their perspective in coming numbers, but for now we turn to a selection of “American Antiquities”–contemporary social commentaries thinly disguised as ancient poetry.
By David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, and Lemuel Hopkins
Anarchiad : a New England poem, 1786–1787
AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES.—No. I.
[From “The New Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine” of October 26th, 1786.]
MESSRS. MEIGS AND DANA:—I have the felicity to belong to a society of critics and antiquarians, who have made it their business and delight, for some years past, to investigate the ancient as well as natural history of America. The success of their researches, in such an unlimited field, pregnant with such wonderful and inexhaustible materials, has been equal to their most sanguine expectations. One of our worthy associates has favored the public with a minute and accurate description of the monstrous new‐invented animal which had, till his elaborate lucubration, escaped the notice of every zoologist. Another has regaled his readers with a most notable catfish. A third has brought them acquainted with a hermit who surpasses all other hermits in longevity, as much as his biographer does all other historians in point of veracity. Others have spared no pains to feast the public curiosity with an ample supply of great bones from the Wabash, and, at the same time, to quench the thirst for novelty from the burning spring on the Ohio. It has happily fallen to my lot to communicate, through the medium of your paper, a recent discovery still more valuable to the republic of letters. I need scarcely premise the ruins of fortifications yet visible, and other vestiges of art, in the Western country, had sufficiently demonstrated that this delightful region had once been occupied by a civilized people. Had not this hypothesis been previously established, the fact I am about to relate would have placed it beyond the possibility of doubt. For upon digging into the ruins of one of the most considerable of these fortifications, the laborers were surprised to find a casement, a magazine, and a cistern, almost entire. Pursuing their subterranean progress, near the northeast corner of the bastion, in a room that had evidently been occupied by the commandant, they found a great number of utensils, more curious and elegant than those of Palmyra or Herculaneum. But what rendered their good fortune complete, was the discovery of a great number of papers, manuscripts, &c., whose preservation through such a long lapse of years, amid such marks of hostility and devastation, must be deemed marvelous indeed, perhaps little short of miraculous. This affords a reflection, that such extraordinary circumstances could scarcely have taken place to answer only vulgar purposes.
Happening myself to come upon the spot immediately after this treasure had been discovered, I was permitted to take possession of it, in the name and for the use of our society. Amongst these relics of antiquity I was overjoyed to find a folio manuscript which appeared to contain an epic poem, complete; and, as I am passionately fond of poetry, ancient as well as modern, I set myself instantly to cleanse it from the extraneous concretions with which it was in some parts enveloped, defaced and rendered illegible. By means of a chemic preparation, which is made use of for restoring oil paintings, I soon accomplished the desirable object. It was then I found it was called THE ANARCHIAD, a Poem on the restoration of Chaos and substantial Night, in twenty‐four books.
As it would swell this paper beyond the limits I had prescribed, to give a critical analysis of this inimitable work, I must content myself with observing, that the excellency of its fable, the novelty and dignity of its characters, the sublimity of sentiments, and the harmony of numbers, give it the first rank in merit amongst the productions of human genius. I might also add, that it appears, from incontestible proofs, that this work was well known to the ancients, and that, as it is the most perfect, it has undoubtedly been the model for all subsequent epic productions. Perhaps, in a future essay, I shall attempt to prove that Homer, Virgil, and Milton, have borrowed many of their capital beauties from it. At present, to show that the matter is not fabulous, as well as to give a specimen of the author’s forcible style, and happy manner of expressing himself, I shall cite a few lines from the eighth book, which is denominated the Book of Vision. So lively are the descriptions following the images, so familiar and present is every object placed to our view, that the reader will, I dare say, be as much astonished as I have been myself, to find that a poet who lived so many centuries ago should have described with such amazing precision events that happened in our own times. The prophetic bard seems to have taken for the point of vision one of the lofty mountains of America, and to have caused, by his magic invocations, the years of futurity to pass before him. He begins with unfolding the beautifying scenes when those plagues to society, law and justice, shall be done away; when every one shall be independent of his neighbor; and when every rogue shall literally do what is right in his own eyes. Let us now hear the poet speak for himself, in his own words:
In visions fair the scenes of fate unroll, And Massachusetts opens on my soul; There Chaos, Anarch old, asserts his sway, And mobs in myriads blacken all the way: See Day’s stern port—behold the martial frame Of Shays’ and Shattuck’s mob‐compelling name: See the bold Hampshirites on Springfield pour, The fierce Tauntonians crowd the alewife shore. O’er Concord fields the bands of discord spread, And Wor’ster trembles at their thundering tread: See from proud Egremont the woodchuck train, Sweep their dark files, and shade with rags the plain. Lo, THE COURT FALLS; th’ affrighted judges run, Clerks, Lawyers, Sheriffs, every mother’s son. The stocks, the gallows lose th’ expected prize, See the jails open, and the thieves arise. Thy constitution, Chaos, is restor’d; Law sinks before thy uncreating word; Thy hand unbars th’ unfathom’d gulf of fate, And deep in darkness ‘whelms the new‐born state.
I know not whether it is necessary to remark, in this place, what the critical reader will probably have already observed, that the celebrated English poet, Mr. Pope, has proven himself a noted plagiarist, by copying the preceding ideas, and even couplets almost entire, into his famous poem called “The Dunciad.”
I will conclude, by entreating that the public may be acquainted that several other extracts from these curious manuscripts will be published, should the preceding specimen meet with the applause which I am confident it merits. The blessings of paper money and confusion, as now experienced in Rhode Island, are predicted in the most awful and beautiful manner. The vision then extends to Connecticut, where we shall leave it, unless a future opportunity of resuming the subject should render a further disclosure expedient.
I am &c.,
October 23, 1786.
P. S.— The several printers in Massachusetts are requested to republish this, for the benefit of their kind customers.
AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES.—No. II.
[From “The New Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine” of November 2d, 1786.]
MESSRS. MEIGS AND DANA:—In a late address, I gave you an account of the recent discoveries in the Western country, and engaged to furnish some further extracts from the epic poem called THE ANARCHIAD, if the specimen then exhibited should meet with merited applause. I am happy to find, as a proof of the good taste of the times, that it has been read with the greatest avidity. Though I have not been able to decipher all the lines of the Vision which evidently alluded to the beautiful scenes of paper money and confusion, now so gloriously displayed in Rhode Island; yet I thought I ought not to delay to gratify the Connecticut readers with a fragment of the speech which the old Anarch makes to Beelzebub, for the purpose of persuading him to come over and help his faithful friends in our Macedonia, since his affairs were in so thriving a posture in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, that his zealous and indefatigable substitutes and apostles might carry them to perfection without any further assistance from him. After describing, in a very pathetic manner, the necessity of his presence and personal influence, he encourages him to hope for every reasonable countenance from his faithful adherents and allies in this State. He gives as long and significant a list of their names and characters as Homer does of the troops that went to the siege of Troy. I can only have room to select a few of the most remarkable, which are sufficiently designated in the following lines:
Survey the State, behold the flame that draws Chiefs, mobs, conventions, to support thy cause. See where the frogs’ loquacious realms extend, Instructions on their deputies attend, O’er all the east new fangled magi rise, Join croaking choirs and boast the name of wise.
The north by myriads pours her mighty sons, Great nurse of mobs, of bankrupts, and of duns: There Froth, the sep’rate, glows with pop’lar rage, And G——n, type of dotards in old age.
Where lard and brimstone gild the itch‐vat shore, The soil that trays and wooden dishes bore, His full‐globed paunch the brainless Bubo draws, And solid ignorance threats the feeble laws.
Near Hartford stream, where groves perpetual bloom, And onion gardens breathe a glad perfume, Though sunk in dust, to his own stench a prey, Again our Laz’rus shall ascend to day; Thy potent voice shall burst the deathful chain, And raise him active in thy toils again. Where purslain harvests charm th’ extended sight, Clothe the fair fields and feed thy sons for fight; In act to speak, his eyes a smoky fire, His face of shadow, and his shins of wire, See Copper graceful ride, and, o’er his cane, Look like a pale moon sick’ning in its wane.
Why sleep’st thou, Blacklegs, child of knavery, why ? Seest thou, blest Wronghead, helpless how we lie ? And where is Wimble, earliest squib of fame ! Your tongues and pens must wake the factious flame ! And thou, poor Quack, behold thy efforts fail; Could one address thy o’erstrain’d wits exhale ? Wake, scribble, print; arouse thee from thy den, And raise conventions with thy blust’ring pen!
No more the Boatman’s call alarms the shore, Old Ben, exhausted, wields the quill no more; The Chairman’s snuff expir’d as erst was sung, And gouts have quelled the Irish Blunderer’s tongue. Yet, can a faction cease in craft to thrive, Where such high talents, such strong brains survive ? These, and a thousand yet unnam’d we find— Fame waits the thousand yet unnam’d behind.
The poetic seer has then the address, by a happy transition, to group his principal characters in solemn conclave, and to display their abilities in high debate. I am sorry I have not been able to cleanse that part of the manuscript, which contains their speeches, from filth and obscurity, so as to make it entirely legible. I do not yet despair of success; and the courteous reader is only requested to suspend the gratification of his curiosity to a future occasion. In the interim, I have found, by that part of the manuscript which is still legible, that the poet progresses, agreeably to the rules of his art, in unfolding the catastrophe, by predicting that a majority should be persuaded, by the power of intrigues and sophistry, to refuse a compliance with the requisitions of Congress—that a determination should be formed, and announced to the world, that we will not pay the interest on our foreign or domestic debts—that we should furnish nothing for the support of the federal government—that we should withdraw ourselves from the Union—that all government should be prostrated in the dust—that mobs, conventions, and anarchy, should prevail for a limited time, and then— .… But I draw the curtain; the picture is too melancholy to be viewed by a patriot eye without prompting the tear of sensibility, and forcing the sigh of sorrow, that THE GLORIOUS TEMPLE OF LIBERTY and happiness which had been erected in these ends of the earth, for an asylum to suffering humanity, should so soon be dissolved, and,
“Like the baseless fabric of a vision, Leave not a wreck behind.”
I am, &c.,
——.P. S.—The printers in the State of Connecticut are desired to republish the preceding account of AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES, for the benefit of their kind customers, who are also informed that the men who are to be considered as the authors of any future Revolution, are most clearly pointed out in another part of the before‐mentioned Vision.
AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES.—No. III.
EXTRACTS FROM THE ANARCHIAD, ON PAPER MONEY.
[From “The New Haven Gazette and Connecticut Magazine” of December 28th, 1786.]
MESSRS. MEIGS AND DANA :—The readers of newspapers through the several States in which the two first numbers of AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES have been published, will doubtless remember that the subject of Paper Money was more than once mentioned. That subject forms so beautiful an episode in THE ANARCHIAD, that it would be unpardonable not to make extracts from it. All the episodes ought to have some reference to the promotion of the principal action, as the underplots in a regular drama should conspire to the the development of the main plot. Such is the superlative advantages of this very poetical digression. For it will scarcely be denied, in any part of the United States, that paper money, in an unfunded and depreciating condition, is happily calculated to introduce the long expected scenes of misrule, dishonesty, and perdition.* On this point the citizens of the Union must be considered as competent judges, because they are inhabitants of the only country under heaven, where paper (of that predicament) is, by compulsory laws, made of equal value with gold and silver.
The society of critics and antiquarians, who have spared neither expense nor trouble, in recovering those valuable remains of antiquity from oblivion, cannot help flattering themselves that their disinterested labors will continue to be rewarded with the plaudits of a grateful public. They are conscious that the manuscripts from which they have already given specimens, as well as many others in their possession, contain performances in poetry and prose of a very different complexion from those which commonly appear in American newspapers. While they publicly disclaim all title to any merit in these productions, except that of assiduity in deciphering and preparing them for publication, they would advise the several printers on the continent to peruse them attentively, and to publish at least such pieces as may be applicable to their particular States. The society who are, will henceforward prosecute their research with redoubled diligence, only thinking it necessary to engage, on their part, that nothing shall appear sanctioned by them, unfavorable to freedom, literature, or morality.
It is to be remarked that the following speech is addressed, by the old Anarch, to a council of war, consisting of his compeers, his general officers, and counselors of state:
HAIL! fav’rite State, whose nursing fathers prove Their fairest claim to my paternal love! Call’d from the deck with pop’lar votes elate, The mighty Jacktar guides the helm of state; Nurs’d on the waves, in blust’ring tempests bred, His heart of marble, and his brain of lead, My foes subdued while knavery wins the day, He rules the senate with inglorious sway; Proud, for one year, my orders to perform, Sails in the whirlwind, and enjoys the storm.
Yet not alone the per’lous watch he keeps, His mate, great O——n, bustles while he sleeps; There G ——n stands, his head with quibbles fill’d; His tongue in lies, his hand in forg’ry skill’d; To him, my darling knave, my lore I teach, Which he to C ——s lends in many a pompous speech.
Oh, roguery! their being’s end and aim, Fraud, tendry, paper bills, whate’er thy name; That medium still, which prompts th’ eternal sigh, By which great villains flourish, small ones die. Plant of infernal seed, without hell’s heat, Say in what mortal soil thou deign’st to cheat? Fair from time Gen’ral Court’s unpardon’d sin, Ap’st thou the gold Peruvian mines within ? Wak’d to new life, by my creative power, The press thy mint, and dunghill rags thy ore. Where grow’st thou not ? If vain the villain’s toil, We ought to blame the culture, not the soil; Fix’d to that isle, it nowhere passes free, But fled from Congress, C—— s dwells with thee. Hail! realm of rogues, renown’d for fraud and guile, All hail ! ye knav’ries of yon little isle. There prowls the rascal, cloth’d with legal pow’r, To snare the orphan, and the poor devour; The crafty knave his creditor besets, And advertising paper pays his debts; Bankrupts their creditors with rage pursue, No stop, no mercy from the debtor crew. Arm’d with new tests, the licens’d villain bold, Presents his bills, and robs them of their gold; Their ears, though rogues and counterfeiters lose, No legal robber fears the gallows noose.
Look through the State, the unhallow’d ground appears A pen of dragons, and a cave for bears; A nest of vipers, mix’d with adders foul; The screeching night‐bird, and the greater owl: For now, unrighteousness, a deluge wide, Pours round the land an overwhelming tide; And dark injustice, wrapp’d in paper sheets, Rolls a dread torrent through the wasted streets; While net of law th’ unwary fry draw in To damning deeds, and scarce they know they sin. New paper struck, new tests, new tenders made, Insult mankind, and help the thriving trade. Each weekly print new lists of cheats proclaims, Proud to enroll their knav’ries and their names; The wiser race, the snares of law to shun, Like lot from Sodom, from Rhode Island run.
As it is vain to expect that a whole epic poem, containing twenty‐four books, should be republished in a newspaper: as it is equally impracticable to insert all the names of the worthies who were principal actors in it: and as it is the wish of the society to avoid the imputation of partiality, they direct me, as far as it may be done, to eternize those subaltern heroes here on earth, by informing the public that honorable mention is made of Mr. G—I— , as well as of most of the horse jockies and bankrupts in the State; and particularly, that not a single name is omitted of all those persons who have given due notice in the public gazettes, of their having lodged, agreeably to law, with some justice of the peace, paper bills, for the payment of certain honest debts. These good people are specified individually, in proportion to the Sums deposited, as proper to be captains over tens, over fifties, over hundreds, and over thousands, whenever the army shall be raised for the support of anarchy, or whenever that new state, (whereof the rumor runs so rife on earth,) the State of Confusion, shall be properly organized, and admitted into the confederacy. The characters of the Judges of the Supreme Court, of the Governors, Green and Bowen, the Generals, Varnum and .Miller, President Manning, Dr. Hitchcock, the Colonels Sherburne and Olney, the officers of the late army, with a long catalogue of names, (comprising all the honest men in the State,) are represented as the antipodes of the preceding. These are the thousands who have never bowed the knee to Baal, and who have never sacrificed their honor or their honesty at the shrine of Paper Money.