Home  »  Volume XV: English COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY LITERATURE EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 1. The Pre-eminence of American Political Literature

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. American Political Writing, 1760–1789

§ 1. The Pre-eminence of American Political Literature

AMERICAN history between 1760 and 1789—from the end, that is, so far as military operations were concerned, of the Seven Years’ War to the inauguration of the new government under the Federal Constitution—falls naturally into three well-marked periods. The first, comprising the development of the constitutional struggle with Great Britain over taxation and imperial control, reaches its culmination in the armed collision between the British and the patriot forces at Lexington, 19 April 1775. The second period covers the eight years of war, ending with the peace treaty of September, 1783; while the third embraces the so-called “critical period” of the Confederation, and the formation and adoption of the Constitution.

Such a time of storm and stress, of revolution and evolution, is pretty certain, especially in a new country, if it bring forth literature at all, to bring forth such as is predominantly political in content, style, and purpose. The Revolutionary leaders who have left a large and permanent impress upon American literature were concerned chiefly with such weighty matters as the nature of the British constitution, the formulation of colonial rights, and the elaboration of schemes of government and administration; and it was of these things that they chiefly wrote. It is a striking tribute to the classical education of the age, to the moulding power of closely-reasoned theological and legal treatises on which ministers and lawyers fed,and to the subtle, pervasive influence of the English Bible, that the best political writing of the Revolutionary period attained a dignity and impressiveness of style, a noble power of rhetorical form, and a telling incisiveness of phrase which won the instant admiration of English critics, and which stamp the political literature of American national beginnings as superior to the similar literature of any other people anywhere.