Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Benjamin Church (17341778)
DR BENJAMIN CHURCH was born in Boston, in 1734, and studied at Harvard College, where he was graduated in 1754. He chose the profession of medicine, which he exercised for many years in his native town, and rose to great eminence as a physician. He appears to have cultivated literary studies with considerable attention, and was the most distinguished among his contemporaries in Boston as a poet. A great number of prose writings also from his pen, upon subjects relating to politics, philology and the like, as well as of a lighter description, attest the versatility of his talent, and the extent of his acquirements. These casual performances are extant for the most part only in newspapers, and other periodical works, and we know of but one of his effusions either in prose or verse, which has occupied a more imposing or durable shape than that of a pamphlet.
Although the general estimation in which his abilities were held, and his own decided taste for letters, might be supposed to have inclined him to strive for eminence as a literary man, yet it does not appear that his labors were directed to this point with any very powerful endeavor. His poetical effusions were indebted for their origin on most occasions, to occurrences of local and temporary interest, and never appear to have been put forth in anticipation of the reward of public applause. They were all, we believe, published anonymously.
Dr Church had a high reputation as a poet and political writer previous to the revolution, but his treachery in deserting the American cause has contributed to throw a shade over his talents, and few have since thought of him as a man of science and letters, but only as the recreant to the cause of freedom and his country. His writings, therefore, have fallen into neglect, although his most spirited performance was executed before his political backslidings, and breathes a purely patriotic feeling.
At the commencement of the revolutionary troubles, Church was a staunch whig. His poem upon the Times, as just observed, is perfectly in accordance with the popular feeling at that period. His oration upon the massacre of the fifth of March, is distinguished for its patriotic sentiments, as well as elegance of style. His political essays, no less than his conversation, were in the same strain, and this unreserved devotion to the cause of his country, with his known talents, made him one of the leading politicians of the popular party. He was chosen a member of the Massachusetts Legislature, and on the beginning of hostilities, received the appointment of physician general of the American army. Although he was known to have kept up a strict intimacy with some of the British officers before this period, yet the reasons he assigned for this, by stating it to be done with a view of obtaining their secrets, removed all suspicion of his insincerity, and at the time of the battle of Lexington, he was one of the committee of safety. But with all this seeming attachment to the American cause, Church was partial to the British interest, and while openly professing the strongest zeal for the popular measures, he was laboring in secret against them. The patriotic songs current among the people were parodied by him in favor of the British. The political essays which he wrote on the popular side received answers from the same pen in a tory print.1 In 1775, shortly after the battle of Lexington, he visited the enemy in Boston upon pretence of an errand after medicines for the use of the army; according to the account he gave of his journey after his return, he was made prisoner by the British on entering the town, and carried before General Gage, where he underwent an examination, but it came to be known afterwards, that he visited the British generals house voluntarily, and held a long conference with him.
In October of the same year, his dealings with the enemy were discovered. A letter was intercepted, written in cipher by him to a British officer in Boston, and containing statements of the force of the American army, the designs of the government, the prevailing opinions of the people, conjectures on their ability to resist the British arms, and other varieties of the like intelligence. Church was arrested by order of Washington, and confined till the meeting of the General Court, of which he was then a member. On his examination he did not deny the letter, but endeavored to defend himself by asserting that he gave the information contained therein to the enemy, with a view to impress them with a high opinion of the strength of the Americans, in order that the meditated attack might be delayed till the continental army was stronger. The mode by which this intelligence was transmitted, he had adopted as a means of obtaining knowledge of the British, and he had on several former occasions, he averred, succeeded in thus getting possession of much important information which he had improved to the advantage of the Americans.
This explanation did not avail him, any more than the ardent and unreserved professions of attachment to the cause of the country, which he did not spare during his defence. The House of Representatives declared him guilty of holding a traitorous correspondence with the enemy, and deprived him of his seat. A court of inquiry at Cambridge, consisting of the officers of the army, passed the same judgment upon him, and referred the question of his punishment to Congress. A resolve of that body sentenced him to close confinement, and he was imprisoned some months in a jail in Connecticut, but his health suffering in this state, he was allowed occasional enlargement, and finally set at liberty. He went to Newport in Rhode Island, where he embarked in 1776 for the West Indies. The vessel in which he sailed was never heard from.
Some writers, struck with the bold strain in which he protested his innocence during his trial, and the ingenuity he displayed in coloring the circumstances which had brought the charges upon him, have been inclined to doubt any treacherous intention on his part, and represent him as having been sacrificed to the blind and headlong jealousy of party, which swept away, with inconsiderate rashness, every object touched by the slightest taint of suspicion. But the facts brought against him at the time, regarded in connexion with what has been before alluded to of his writing secretly on the tory side in the early part of the contest, seem to afford no room for doubt in the matter. Church, we may reasonably suppose, was well affected to the country, and was ready to lend his influence and exertions to secure its ultimate welfare; so far his professions of patriotism and honesty were sincere. But he was led to believe that this object would be most effectually secured by making the sway of the mother country predominant, an error of the understanding which could have been pardoned him, had he not followed it up by playing a scheme of double dealing, at variance with every principle of political honesty. To have been a partizan of the British crown, would have subjected him only to the fate of being pitied for his misguided zeal, and classed among hundreds of others, who gave equally small proof of sagacity in political affairs without any abandonment of moral principle. But the duplicity of openly espousing an interest which he was practising every art underhand to defeat, brings him under a much severer censure than we feel called upon to bestow an the ordinary disaffected to the cause of independence.
The poetical works of Dr Church which were the most widely known during his lifetime, are The Times, The Choice, An Elegy on the death of Dr Mayhew, An Elegy on the death of George Whitefield, An Address to a Provincial Bashaw, and a portion of the volume entitled Pietas et Gratulatio Collegii Cantabrigiensis apud Novanglos. This last was a poetical offering to George II, upon his accession to the throne, and consists of above thirty different pieces in Latin, Greek, and English, furnished chiefly by the officers of Harvard University. The part written by Church, may claim a just preeminence among them. The Times is a satirical piece, written just after the passing of the Stamp Act. The objects of the writers denunciation are in some parts not very clearly manifest to the modern reader, but the general scope of the performance is sufficiently intelligible to those familiar with the history of the period, while the polish and spirit of the verse recommend it very favorably to our notice.
Note 1. The Censor. The author of a tract in the fifth volume of the Massachusetts Historical Collections, has affirmed that there is no evidence that Church was a writer in this paper, or that he abandoned the whigs before the breaking out of hostilities. Circumstances, however, have been related to us by a person now living in Boston, who was familiar with the events of that period, which remove all doubts as to the fact stated above. [back]