Monday, October 13, 2008

A Blow Out Defeat for the Church-and-State Party

An episode of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Poganuc People recalls an important, but little discussed episode in American history: the landmark defeat of the Federalists in the 1817 election and the victory of the Democrats promising a disestablishment of the hitherto state-supported Congregational Church. Ironically, it was the support of the Episcopalians for the disestablishment line that sealed the fate of the Federalists. In this selection, Dr. Cushing is a lightly-fictionalized version of Mrs. Stowe's father (the Congregationalist preacher Lyman Beecher of Litchfield, Connecticut -- his institutional descendants here) and she herself is, roughly speaking, Dolly, his little girl.

Poganuc was, for a still town, pretty well alive on that day [Election Day]. Farmers in their blue lindsey frocks, with their long cart whips and their sleds hitched here and there at different doors formed frequent objects in the picture. It was the day when they felt themselves as good as anybody. The court house was surrounded by groups earnestly discussing the political questions; many of them loafers who made a sort of holiday, and interspersed their observations and remarks with visits to the bar-room of Glazier's tavern, which was doing a thriving business that morning. Standing by the side of the distributor of the Federal votes might be seen a tall, thin man with a white head and an air of great activity and keenness. In his twinkling eye and in every line and wrinkle of his face might be read the observer and the humorist; the man who finds something to amuse him in all the quips and turns and oddities of human nature. This was Israel Dennie, High Sheriff of the County, one of the liveliest and shrewdest of the Federal leaders, who was, so to speak, crackling with activity, and entering into the full spirit of the day its phases.

"Here comes one of your part, Adams," he said with a malicious side twinkle to the distributor of the Democratic votes, as Abe Bowles, a noted "
mauvais sujet" of the village appeared out of Glazier's bar-room, coming forward with a rather uncertain step and flushed face. "Walk up, friend; here you are." "I'm a-goin' for toleration," said Abe, with thick utterance. "We've been tied up too tight by these 'ere ministers, we have. I don't want no priestcraft, I don't. I believe every man's got to do as he darn pleases, I do." "And go straight to the Devil if he wants to," said Squire Dennie smoothly. "Go ahead, my boy, and put in your vote."

. . . . In fact the political canvass just at this epoch had many features that might shock the pious sensibilities of a good house-mother. The union of all the minor religious denominations to upset the dominant rule of the Congregationalists had been reinforced and supplemented by all that Jacobin and irreligious element which the French Revolution had introduced into America.

The Poganuc
Banner, a little weekly paper published in the village, expended its energies in coarse and scurrilous attack upon ministers, in general, and Dr. Cushing in particular. It ridiculed church-members, churches, Sunday-keeping, preaching and prayers; in short, every custom, preference and prejudice which it had been the work of years to establish in New England was assailed with vulgar wit and ribaldry.

Of course, the respectable part of the Democratic party did not exactly patronize these views; yet they felt for them that tolerance which even respectable people often feel in a rush push of society in a direction where they wish to go. They wanted control of the State, and if rabid, drinking, irreligious men would give it to them, why not use them after their kind. When the brutes had won the battle for them, they would take care of the brutes, and get them back to their stalls.

The bar-room of Glazier's Tavern was the scene of the feats and boasts of this class of voters. Long before this time the clergy of Connecticut, alarmed at the progress of intemperance, had begun to use influence in getting stringent laws and restraints upon drinking, and the cry of course was, "Down with the laws."

"Tell ye what," said Mark Merrill; "we've been tied up so tight we couldn't wink mor'n six times a week, and the parsons want to git it so we can't wink at all; and we won't have it so no longer; we're goin' to have liberty."

"Down with the tithing-man [traditional New England figure charged with enforcing Sunday laws], say I," said Tim Sykes. "Whose business is it what I do Sundays? I ain't goin' to have no tithing-man spying on my liberty. I'll do jest I'm a mind ter, Sundays. Ef I wan ter go a-fishin' Sundays, I'll go a-fishin'."

"Tell ye what," said Liph Kingsley, as he stirred his third glass of grog. "This 'ere priestcraft's got to go down. Reason's got on her throne, and chains is fallin'. I'm a free man -- I be."

"You look like it," said Hiel [a supporter of Dr. Cushing], who stood with his hands in his pocket contemptuously surveying Liph, while with leering ey and unsteady hand he stirred his drink. . . .

But, after all, that day the Democrats beat, and got the State of Connecticut. Sheriff Dennie was the first to carry the news of defeat into the parsonage at eventide.

"Well, Doctor, we're smashed. Democrats beat us all to flinders."

A general groan arose.

"Yes, yes," said the Sherif. "Everything has voted that could stand on its hind legs, and the hogs are too many for us. It's a bad beat -- bad beat."

That night when little Dolly came in to family prayers, she looked around wondering. Her father and mother looked stricken and overcome. There was the sort of heaviness in the air that even a child can feel when deep emotions are aroused. The boys, who knew only in a general way that their father's side had been beaten, looked a little scared at his dejected face.

"Father, what makes you feel so bad?" said Wil, with that surprised wonder with which children approach emotions they cannot understand.

"I feel for the Church of God, my child," he said, and then he sung for the evening psalm:

I love thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of thine abode;
The Church of our Redeemer saved
With his own precious blood.

For her my tears shall fall,
For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given
Till toils and care shall end.

In the prayer that followed he pleaded for New England with all the Hebraistic imagery by which she was identified with God's ancient people . . . .

But Dolly marveled in her own soul as she went to bed. She heard the boys without stint reviling the Democrats as the authors of all mischief; and yet Bessie Lewis's father was a Democrat, and he seemed a nice, cheery, good-natured man, who now and then gave her sticks of candy, and there was his mother, dear old Madam Lewis, who gave her the Christmas cookey. How could it be that such good people were Democrats? Poor Dolly hopelessly sighed over the mystery, but dared not ask such questions.

But the Rev. Mr. Coan [the local Episcopalian priest] rejoiced in the result of the election. Not that he was by any means friendly to the ideas of the Jacobinical party by whose help it had been carried; but because, as he said, it opened a future for the church -- for he too had his idea of "The Church." Meanwhile the true church, invisible to human eyes -- one in spirit, though separated by creeds -- was praying and looking upward, in the heart of Puritan and Ritualist, in the heart of old Madame Lewis, of the new Church, and of old Mrs. Higgins, whose soul was with the old meeting-house; of all everywhere who with humble purpose and divine aspiration were praying: "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done" (chapter 9, pp. 95-105)

. . . .

[A few days later, Dolly is allowed to go with her mother and father to an evening among fine company, where she hears more political talk]

Judge Belcher declaimed upon the subject in language which made the very hair rise upon Dolly's head.

"Yes, sir," he said, addressing Dr. Cushing; "I consider this as the ruin of the State of Connecticut! It's the triumph of the lower orders; the reign of 'sans culotte-ism' begun. In my opinion, sir, we are over a volcano; I should not be surprised, sir, at an explosion that will blow up all our institutions!"

Dolly's eyes grew larger and larger, although she was a little comforted to observe the Judge carefully selecting a particular variety of cake that he was fond of, and helping himself to a third cup of tea in the very midst of these shocking prognostications.

Dolly had not then learned the ease and suavity of mind with which both then and ever since people at tea drinkings and other social recreations declare their conviction that the country is going to ruin. It never appears to have any immediate effect upon the appetite . . . .

[But old Judge Gridley appears, who was always kind to Dolly, then asks]

"Come, now, Miss Dollly, you and I are old friends, you know. What do you think of all these things?"

"Oh, I'm so glad you came," said Dolly with a long sigh of relief. "I hoped you would, because mamma said I mustn't talk unless somebody spoke to me, and I do so want to know all about those dreadful things. What is a volcano? Please tell me!"

"Why, my little Puss," he said, lifting her in his lap and twining her curls round his finger, "what do you want to know that for?"

"Because I heard Judge Belcher say that we were all over a volcano and it would blow us all up some day. Is it like powder?"

"You dear little soul! don't you trouble your head about what Judge Belcher says. He uses strong language. He only means that the Democrats will govern the state."

"And are they so dreadfully wicked?" asked Dolly. "I want to tell you something" -- and Dolly whispered, "Bessie Lewis's father is a Democrat, and yet they don't seem like wicked people."

"No, my dear; when you grow up you will learn that there are good people in every party."

"Then you don't think Bessie's father is a bad man?" said Dolly. "I'm so glad!"

"No; he's a good man in a bad party; that is what I think."

"I wish you'd talk to him and tell him not to do all these dreadful things, and upset the state," said Dolly. "I thought the other night I would; but I'm only a little girl, you know; he wouldn't mind me. If I was a grown-up woman I would," she said, with her cheeks flushing and her eyes kindling.

Judge Gridley laughed softly to himself and stroked her head.

"When you are a grown-up woman I don't doubt you can make men do almost anything you please, but I don't think it would do any good for me to talk to General Lewis; and now, little Curly-wurly, don't bother your pretty head about politics. Neither party will turn the world upside down. There's a good God above us all, my little girl, that takes care of our country, and he will bring good out of evil. So now don't you worry" (chapter 12, pp. 133-36)

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