Not until Royall Tyler tapped the patriot theme (and the comic potential of the Yankee archetype) in his 1789 production of The Contrast would American playwrights finally discover their niche, somewhere in between high and low art.
In 18th century Charleston, Boston, and Philadelphia, the upper classes could occasionally hear Bach and Mozart performed by professional orchestras. Most musical endeavor, however, was applied to religion, as church hymns from the Bay Psalm Book (1640) and Psalms of David (1719) were sung acapella and, occasionally, to the accompaniment of church organ. Americans had customized and syncopated hymns, greatly aggravating pious English churchmen, indicating the true course that American music would follow. Reflecting the most predominant musical influence in colonial America, the folk idiom of Anglo, Celtic, and African emigrants, American music already had coalesced into a base upon which new genres of church and secular music—gospel, field songs, and white folk ballads—would emerge in the 19th century.
Like much of the early arts, colonial literature focused on religion and answered other needs of the common folk. This pattern was set in the 17th century when William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation related the exciting story of the Pilgrims with an eye to the all-powerful role of God in shaping their destiny. Anne Bradstreet, an accomplished 1600s Colonial poet who was read throughout eighteenth century New England, also conveyed religious themes and the divine inspiration that surrounded her Puritan lifestyle. Although in “The Prologue” (1650) she apologizes for her “obscure lines” and “foolish, broken, blemished Muse,” Bradstreet’s work in fact shows a keen intellect and lively, religious imagination. For example, in “The Flesh and the Spirit” she wrote,
My garments are not silk nor gold
Nor such like trash which earth doth hold
But royal robes I still have on
More glorious than the glist’ning sun
. . .
If I of heaven may have my fill
Take thou the world, and all that will.
The most popular eighteenth century colonial literature also addressed worldly concerns like religion, politics, and making money. Such habits revealed that Americans had a pragmatic, down-to-earth nature when it came to their reading. Although literacy was widespread, Americans read mainly the Bible, political tracts, and “how-to” books on farming, mechanics, etiquette, and moral improvement, not Greek philosophers or the campaigns of Caesar.
PROVINCIAL MATERIAL CULTURE can be seen in colonial American architecture, furniture, hygiene, transportation, and communication. With the exception of a few government buildings, colleges, and wealthy abodes, 18th century architecture was humble. Most Americans lived in one-room homes made of logs and rough-cut lumber. Families cooked, ate, worked, relaxed, and slept in a main room called the “keeping room.” Colonial homes were hot in summer and cold in winter—so cold that sometimes the ink on a quill pin would freeze! Folks burned giant logs in fireplaces to stay warm (not until five decades later would Ben Franklin invent the heat-efficient “Franklin Stove”). After a time, a growing family might add an additional room or dormers to their home.
Families made their own furniture, but their small houses did not require much. One good chair was usually “father’s chair”; everyone else sat on the floor, on wooden benches, or on a long, high-backed bench called a settle (like a wooden “love-seat” in houses today). Adults slept curled-up on short jack-beds with trundle beds for young children underneath. Older children might sleep in the attic, on mattresses stuffed with straw, feathers, or wool. There were no closets; folks hung their clothes on wall pegs. Since colonial homes had no bathrooms, family members relieved themselves in trenches or rough-built out-houses. As in Europe, bathing was viewed as unnecessary on a regular basis—and in some English colonies, especially in the West Indies, swimming in the clear blue Carribean was viewed as unhealthy. When weddings or special occasions made a bath necessary, however, colonials stood in wooden tubs of water in front of the fireplace.
And travel? After crossing a three thousand-mile ocean to America, most colonials traveled little further than their villages or farms. Roads were rough—they were not much more than improved game and Indian trails, capable of hobbling a valuable horse or throwing a wheel on a carriage. Narrow, muddy, and rutted roads ambled through thick forests. Rivers and streams proved formidable barriers to travel, and if and entrepreneur had provided a ferry or constructed a bridge, it required a toll to cross. Colonial folk crossed rivers initially on horseback or by wagon—which had to be caulked and sealed against leaks—or via crude log bridges. In winter, some traveled by pod and pung, sleighs drawn, respectively, by one or two horses. Trips from home often lasted so long that folks brought bedding, and hot coals to cook their food. No one, ever, just “ran into town.”
Not until the French and Indian War ended did colonials began to trek beyond the Appalachian mountains in great numbers. In the first half of the eighteenth century, travel was too difficult and the wilderness too dangerous a place to venture. Besides, there was too much opportunity (and work) at home.
Obviously, the lifestyle of colonial America was as coarse as the physical environment in which it flourished, so much so that English visitors expressed shock at the extent to which emigrants had transformed in the new world.
Black folk culture shows the way in which slaves combined African culture with Anglo- and Celtic-American culture to create a unique African-American folk culture. For example, blacks borrowed the “Jack Tales” (like “Jack and the Beanstalk”) of Anglo traditions and told stories about a new slave folk hero, also named Jack. In these stories, Jack made fools out of the whites, pretended to be more ignorant than he was, defied his master, and expressed a desire for revenge. Combining African beliefs in magic with Anglo superstitions, Jack sometimes became a “Conjuror” who cast “spells” on the master and rode him around the pasture “like a bull-yearlin’.”
Music also provided sustenance, in both secular and religious form. Working in the tobacco and rice fields, slaves customized Anglo and Celtic folk melodies, incorporating “call and response” style and syncopated rhythm. The resulting work songs made field labor less arduous, providing a rhythm to the work and helping the long hours pass more easily. To the extent that slaves were permitted Christian religious services, their songs combined Euro-American Protestant forms with a new frontier enthusiasm for religion and their own spirituality, resulting in a profoundly felt folk religion that stressed personal salvation and a hope for “a better day a comin’”–what the Old Testament called the “Day of Jubilee.” Together, black family life, folklore, medicine, conjuring, music and religion, made life worth living, with slaves always looking towards freedom and the “Jubilee.” As historian John Blassingame has written, slaves created a culture that “lightened their burden of oppression, promoted group solidarity, provided a way for verbalizing aggression, maintaining hope, and building self-esteem.”
SIDEBAR: FAMOUS TRIALS – The Trial of John Peter Zenger
Although Colonial legislatures and governors still held some judicial prerogatives (hence the Massachusetts legislature’s title, the “General Court”), a full-fledged judiciary branch of government had emerged and so too had a unique American bar. American lawyers were often self-trained and tended to learn on the job. Both the bar and judicial branch fostered an “Americanization” of English law, as evidenced in the case of John Peter Zenger, whose victory, some argue, set a precedent for what would later be termed “freedom of the press.” Zenger turned British libel law on its head while simultaneously attacking the power of an arbitrary Royal governor.
Born in Germany in 1697, John Peter Zenger emigrated to New York in 1710. Fervently religious—the Dutch Reformed Zenger played the organ each week in church— he learned the printing trade and in 1733 set up his own newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger’s paper formed a political counterweight to the supporters of Governor William Cosby, whom Zenger viewed as an enemy of legislative power and the forces of democracy. Biblical principles undergirded Zenger’s material. He diligently committed himself to “speaking and writing Truth,” and viewed governors who abused their power as “not Gods but dead Idols.” Soon, a newspaper war began between Zenger’s Journal and a pro-Cosby paper, the New York Gazette. The debate heated up as Zenger and his fellow editors severely lampooned the Governor and the royal administration. Outraged at attacks by a lowly newspaperman, Cosby ordered Zenger arrested and charged with seditious libel.
Authorities held Zenger incommunicado for ten months before bringing him to trial in 1735. In this landmark libel case Zenger was represented by a brilliant jurist, Andrew Hamilton (no relation to the Revolutionary hero). In order to win, Hamilton had to pursue a radical course of overturning centuries of precedent in English libel law. According to English law, a person could seek judgment for libel so long as he could prove that his reputation had been harmed. Note, this “harm” did not necessarily hinge on “truth”—thus a person could be libeled even if someone was telling the truth about him! In other words, all that was necessary to win in a seditious libel case in England was to prove harm, not the falseness of the libelous comments.
When the judge thereby refused to admit evidence regarding the truth of Zenger’s newspaper’s writings, Hamilton challenged English law. He “placed Zenger in the line of Martin Luther, John Foxe, and John Stubbes,” all of whom were persecuted religious leaders. Hamilton argued that the truth of his client’s statements should be the criteria on determining whether they were libelous:
May it please your Honor; I agree with Mr. Attorney, that government is a sacred thing, but I differ very widely from him when he would insinuate that the just complaints of a number of men who suffer under a bad administration is libeling that administration…if he can prove the facts charged upon us to be false, I’ll own them to be scandalous, seditious, and a libel. So the work seems now to be shortened and Mr. Attorney has now only to prove the words false in order to make us guilty. In the end, the jury broke with English law and acquitted Zenger. Governor Cosby and his supporters were outraged. The verdict had the practical effect of overturning English legal precedent of reshaping libel law. Christian editors started to see their role as challenging corruption and injustice: within a year of the Zenger decision, William Parks of the Virginia Gazette assailed the Virginia House of Burgesses for corruption, and when threatened with prosecution, he invoked the Zenger defense. Charges were dropped. Thus, the Zenger case paved the way for what Americans would come to embrace as “freedom of the press,” but, ironically for many modern Americans, only on the grounds that what was printed was true. The important immediate result of the Zenger case was to rebuke an authoritarian royal governor and provide further evidence of the democratization of American politics and government.
Sources: Rutherfurd Livingston, John Peter Zenger: His Press, His Trial, and a Bibliography of Zenger Imprints (Glouchester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1963 ); William Lowell Putnam, John Peter Zenger and the Fundamental Freedom (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1997); Ed Knappman, ed., Great American Trials (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1994); Melvin I. Urofsky, ed., Documents in American Constitutional and Legal History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989), 21-28; Frank B. Latham, The Trial of John Peter Zenger, August 1735; an Early Fight for America’s Freedom of the Press (New York: Watts, 1970). Quotations by Zenger appear in Marvin Olasky, Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books: 1996), 110, and his Prodigal Press (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988), Zenger’s quotation on 107.