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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Puritan in Secular and Religious Life
By Rufus Choate (1799–1859)
 
From Address Delivered at the Ipswich Centennial, 1834

TURN first now for a moment to the old English Puritans, the fathers of our fathers, of whom came, of whom were, planters of Ipswich, of Massachusetts, of New England,—of whom came, of whom were, our own Ward, Parker, and Saltonstall, and Wise, Norton, and Rogers, and Appleton, and Cobbet, and Winthrop,—and see whether they were likely to be the founders of a race of freemen or slaves. Remember then, the true, noblest, the least questioned, least questionable, praise of these men is this: that for a hundred years they were the sole depositaries of the sacred fire of liberty in England after it had gone out in every other bosom,—that they saved at its last gasp the English Constitution,—which the Tudors and the first two Stuarts were rapidly changing into just such a gloomy despotism as they saw in France and Spain,—and wrought into it every particle of freedom which it now possesses,—that when they first took their seats in the House of Commons, in the early part of the reign of Elizabeth, they found it the cringing and ready tool of the throne, and that they reanimated it, remodeled it, reasserted its privileges, restored it to its constitutional rank, drew back to it the old power of making laws, redressing wrongs, and imposing taxes, and thus again rebuilt and opened what an Englishman called “the chosen temple of liberty,” an English House of Commons,—that they abridged the tremendous power of the crown and defined it,—and when at last Charles Stuart resorted to arms to restore the despotism they had partially overthrown, that they met him on a hundred fields of battle, and buried, after a sharp and long struggle, crown and mitre and the headless trunk of the king himself beneath the foundations of a civil and religious commonwealth. This praise all the historians of England—Whig and Tory, Protestant and Catholic, Hume, Hallam, Lingard, and all—award to the Puritans. By what causes this spirit of liberty had been breathed into the masculine, enthusiastic, austere, resolute character of this extraordinary body of men, in such intensity as to mark them off from all the rest of the people of England, I cannot here and now particularly consider. It is a thrilling and awful history of the Puritans in England, from their first emerging above the general level of Protestants, in the time of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., until they were driven by hundreds and thousands to these shores; but I must pass it over. It was just when the nobler and grander traits—the enthusiasm and piety and hardihood and energy—of Puritanism had attained the highest point of exaltation to which, in England, it ever mounted up, and the love of liberty had grown to be the great master-passion that fired and guided all the rest,—it was just then that our portion of its disciples, filled with the undiluted spirit, glowing with the intensest fervors of Protestantism and republicanism together, came hither, and in that elevated and holy and resolved frame began to build the civil and religious structures which you see around you.  1
  Trace now their story a little farther onward through the Colonial period to the War of Independence, to admire with me the providential agreement of circumstances by which that spirit of liberty which brought them hither was strengthened and reinforced; until at length, instructed by wisdom, tempered by virtue, and influenced by injuries, by anger and grief and conscious worth and the sense of violated right, it burst forth here and wrought the wonders of the Revolution. I have thought that if one had the power to place a youthful and forming people like the Northern colonists, in whom the love of freedom was already vehement and healthful, in a situation the most propitious for the growth and perfection of that sacred sentiment, he could hardly select a fairer field for so interesting an experiment than the actual condition of our fathers for the hundred and fifty years after their arrival, to the War of the Revolution.  2
  They had freedom enough to teach them its value and to refresh and elevate their spirits, wearied, not despondent, from the contentions and trials of England. They were just so far short of perfect freedom that instead of reposing for a moment in the mere fruition of what they had, they were kept emulous and eager for more, looking all the while up and aspiring to rise to a loftier height, to breathe a purer air, and bask in a brighter beam. Compared with the condition of England down to 1688,—compared with that of the larger part of the continent of Europe down to our Revolution,—theirs was a privileged and liberal condition. The necessaries of freedom, if I may say so,—its plainer food and homelier garments and humbler habitations,—were theirs. Its luxuries and refinements, its festivals, its lettered and social glory, its loftier port and prouder look and richer graces, were the growth of a later day; these came in with independence. Here was liberty enough to make them love it for itself, and to fill them with those lofty and kindred sentiments which are at once its fruit and its nutriment and safeguard in the soul of man. But their liberty was still incomplete, and it was constantly in danger from England; and these two circumstances had a powerful effect in increasing that love and confirming those sentiments. It was a condition precisely adapted to keep liberty, as a subject of thought and feeling and desire, every moment in mind. Every moment they were comparing what they had possessed with what they wanted and had a right to; they calculated by the rule of three, if a fractional part of freedom came to so much, what would express the power and value of the whole number! They were restive and impatient and ill at ease; a galling wakefulness possessed their faculties like a spell. Had they been wholly slaves, they had lain still and slept. Had they been wholly free, that eager hope, that fond desire, that longing after a great, distant, yet practicable good, would have given way to the placidity and luxury and carelessness of complete enjoyment; and that energy and wholesome agitation of mind would have gone down like an ebb-tide. As it was, the whole vast body of waters all over its surface, down to its sunless, utmost depths, was heaved and shaken and purified by a spirit that moved above it and through it and gave it no rest, though the moon waned and the winds were in their caves; they were like the disciples of the old and bitter philosophy of paganism, who had been initiated into one stage of the greater mysteries, and who had come to the door, closed, and written over with strange characters, which led up to another. They had tasted of truth, and they burned for a fuller draught; a partial revelation of that which shall be hereafter had dawned; and their hearts throbbed eager, yet not without apprehension, to look upon the glories of the perfect day. Some of the mystery of God, of Nature, of Man, of the Universe, had been unfolded; might they by prayer, by abstinence, by virtue, by retirement, by contemplation, entitle themselves to read another page in the clasped and awful volume?  3
 
 
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