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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Gorham Palfrey (1796–1881)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN the preface to the fourth volume of his ‘History of New England,’ John Gorham Palfrey sets forth his conception of the significance of the work upon which he is engaged.
          “The history of New England,” he writes, “is considered to be dry and unpicturesque. But by peculiar titles it deserves, beyond the record of dynastic intrigues and wars, to be known to the philosophical student of man and society, of Divine Providence, and of the progress of the race. In more stirring narratives one may read of the conflicts of furious human passions, of the baseness of men in high degree, of revolutions due to nothing worthy and issuing in nothing profitable. In the colonial history of New England, we follow the strenuous action of intelligent and honest men in building up a free, strong, enlightened, and happy State. With sagacity, promptitude, patience, and constancy, they hold their ground from age to age. Each generation trains the next in the lessons of liberty, and advances it to further attainments; and when the time comes for the result of the modest process to be disclosed, behold the establishment of the political independence of America, and the boundless spread of principles which are working for good in the politics of the world.”
  1
  Mr. Palfrey’s New England ancestry must have influenced him not a little in forming this estimate of the importance of New England’s development in the economy of international affairs. He himself was of a prominent Massachusetts family; his blood was rich in traditions of honor and godliness; he was an outgrowth of the soil upon which many generations had fought for the maintenance of high principles. His grandfather, Colonel William Palfrey, had been a paymaster-general in the Revolutionary army. Later he was appointed by the young Republic consul-general to France, but the vessel on which he sailed was lost at sea. John Gorham Palfrey was born at Boston in 1796. He graduated from Harvard in 1815, and in 1818 he accepted the charge of the Brattle Street Unitarian Church in his native city. The ministry was not altogether congenial to him, and he entered gradually into other fields of activity. From 1831 to 1839 he held the Dexter professorship of Sacred Literature at Harvard; and from 1836 to 1843 he edited the North American Review. Towards the close of his editorship he was drawn into politics, or rather into the dignified and wholly worthy political life possible to a New England gentleman fifty years ago. He was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature in 1842; from 1844 to 1847 he was Secretary of State. The antislavery movement was attaining strength in the East during these years: Mr. Palfrey, who was a strong abolitionist, contributed a series of articles to the Boston Whig on the ‘Progress of the Slave Power.’ In 1847 he was sent to Congress as an antislavery Whig. Subsequently he was defeated in an election for the governorship of Massachusetts. After this defeat he devoted himself exclusively to his literary labors, taking office only once again, when from 1861 to 1866 he held the postmastership of Boston. He died at Cambridge in 1881.  2
  Among Mr. Palfrey’s minor works are his biography of his grandfather in Jared Sparks’s ‘Dictionary of American Biography’; his lectures on the ‘Jewish Scriptures and Antiquities,’ and his ‘Evidences of Christianity.’ His chief claim to distinction as a man of letters is founded, however, upon his ‘History of New England.’ The first three volumes of this important and significant work contain the record of New England’s development under the Stuart dynasty. The fourth and fifth volumes bring the narrative to the year 1765.  3
  Mr. Palfrey’s merits as a historian are chiefly those of scholarship. He has drawn freely upon a large number of sources for the material of his work, and he has made organic use of this material. His historical record, while lacking in dramatic and humanistic elements, is remarkable for its clarity and dignity. It is written with the candor and sympathy of one who has become the spiritual heir to the fruits of the struggles which he describes. Through his scholarship, and through his catholic view of the significance of history, he is entitled to high rank among American historians.  4
 
 
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