In the stories and images of medieval Europe, the natural world frequently appears as a green muchness, a sea of trees, perhaps with hills and mountains in the receding distance, a shadowed, disorderly region with little geometry and less geography. A knight might leave one castle hewn from the forest and pick up his narrative at the next one, with no clear sense of the passage between them. Visual art was intensely concerned with the walled garden, a refined space where the elements of the natural world might be symbolically represented – a fountain, a stone, a rose – under the ordering human eye and hand. This was in marked contrast to classical Roman landscape description and painting, which historians have described as having the villa, rather than the castle, as its paradigm: an interior space opening onto a worked landscape, with keen interest in inside and outside and a feel for their continuity.
There have been many sweeping interpretations of the classical and medieval views of nature. No doubt most are too sweeping: the more one looks at any time, the more its complexity and variety come to resemble one’s own. In this book, anyway, European experience figures mainly as backdrop to American themes. Nonetheless, some things are both sweeping and true.
There is something archetypal about the wall that separates castle, garden, or city from the terrain around it, especially from forest. Gilgamesh, often called the first hero of Western literature, is the builder of the walls of Uruk, and his first exploit is to slay the guardian forest demon of Cedar Mountain and retrieve the precious timber to his people. Rome rose from forest, and its wolf-suckled founders, Romulus and Remus, were said to be scions of the Sylvia, or woodlands, family, by their mother, Rhea Sylvia. The city, on the human side of the wall, was the space where our law governed: the Greek polis, source of polity and political, and Latin civitas, site of civilization, civility, and the whole public world of civic life. Outside the wall lay necessary natural wealth such as timber, and also, in mythic time, the dark origins of humanity, sometimes recoverable through a wild vitality that civilized people needed but could not quite control: medieval knights went berserk in the forest, acquiring great power but wreaking destruction that the castles and gardens could not have contained.
There was also material reality behind this contrast between classical Rome and medieval Europe. The Romans conquered and governed their landscape, at home and in their many colonies. The mastery that their civil engineering and agriculture embodied went along with their language and legal writ: the Roman roads, law, and tongue drew together the parts of an empire. This ordering power seemed to free what one critic has called “the landlord’s eye,” an appreciative, even admiring contemplation of a fruitful terrain. After Rome fell, sheep grazed in the Coliseum, trees grew up through the roads, and in much of northern Europe living standards, technology, and public order collapsed and took centuries to recover. It is rather as if the triumphal version of North American settlement were run in reverse, with wild nature reclaiming ground and overthrowing human control, in a war of natural chaos against human order.
The images of war and chaos in nature are extreme, but they are likely true to the experience of those who watched their civilization collapse. Although nature is deeply ordered, it is mainly indifferent or hostile to the aims of human order, and so, when it rules, it works as a disruptor, like oak roots overturning the flagstone of an imperial road. As for war, it is a contest over whose law will govern a landscape, and a people can be at war with natural forces over this question, much as two nations or empires can be. The gardens and castles of medieval Europe were walled, fortified, the architecture of an embattled world that achieved its order where it could keep encroaching wilderness at bay. The openness of the Roman villa partook of an imperial peace in the conflict with nature, while medieval Europe’s obsessive walls bespoke continued struggle.
Within and around the walls of their monasteries, medieval monks transformed wilderness into garden, an activity that was at once practical and a symbol of spiritual cultivation and God’s ultimate dominion over a fallen earth. Clarence Glacken recounts a description of twelfth-century Cistercians’ forest clearing in northern Germany, a picture that calls to mind Tocqueville’s pioneers:
In one hand [the abbot] had a wooden cross, in the other a vessel of holy water. When he arrived in the center of the woods, he planted the cross in the earth, took possession of this untouched piece of earth in the name of Jesus Christ, sprinkled holy water around the area, and finally grasped an axe to cut away some shrubs. The small clearing made by the abbot was the starting point for the monks’ work. One work group (incisores) cut down the trees, a second (exstirpatores) took out the trunks, a third (incensores) burnt up the roots, boughs, and the undergrowth.
The purpose of this conversion of the landscape, Glacken explains, was to create what St. Bernard called
a Jerusalem in anticipation, a place of waiting and desire, or preparation for that holy city…. The cloister is a true paradise, and the surrounding countryside shares in its dignity…. A wild spot, not hallowed by prayer and asceticism and which is not the scene of any spiritual life is, as it were, in the state of original sin. But once it has become fertile and purposeful, it takes on the utmost significance.
Jean Leclercq explains the meaning of this clearing, “rites are performed that symbolically repeat the act of Creation: the uncultivated zone is first ‘cosmicized,’ then inhabited.” The monastic clearing embodied and gathered the surrounding landscape in two joined qualities: human devotion to God and nature’s ordering under human mastery. Cultivation was also a kind of reclamation, restoring the harmonies among humanity, nature, and divinity. In some of the theologies that surrounded this activity, human labor drew nature toward its right purpose, as a participant in a more felicitous Creation.
These points cast suggestive light on the attitude to nature that powered early-modern developments. Charles Taylor has argued that modern life cannot be understood apart from our distinctive conception of the self, of what it means, and how it feels, to be a person. He suggests that our extraordinary orderliness and self-discipline, our knack for self-denial in pursuit of greater gain, our whole triumph of reason over impulse and appetite, is the result of monastic practices’ being generalized across the population by religious and social reformers. Self-scrutiny, self-interpretation, labor governed by a clock: in the medieval world, these disciplines belonged to a particular order of society, the monks (and may have been neglected as often as they were observed, even there), who took pastoral responsibility for the piety of all. A series of reforms changed this. The Protestant Reformation, which abolished monasteries, opened the bible to all, and drastically diminished the intermediary role of church hierarchy in favor of ultimate individual responsibility for devotion, was central; but pietistic reform movements within Catholicism had sought to increase lay devotion for centuries before Luther. There was also a broader pressure toward “civility,” the cultivation of one’s own character for more peaceful and congenial relations to others. As the early-modern period developed, religious and social goals borrowed force from political economy: the rising states of Europe goaded one another to develop armies, and domestic economies to finance those armies, meaning greater discipline, both economic and martial, than was common in the medieval world.
Taylor describes “the core image” of this reform as “taming raw nature.” Although that phrase refers to human nature, he also argues that a changing view of the natural world was important to these developments. To this point, I agree with him. I think, though, that the change he describes is too simple. He portrays the modern world’s view of nature as the product of pure disenchantment, born of theologians, philosophers, and lay devotees driving the saints, spirits, and sacred places from the world. All that remains is mute matter, open to our manipulation, with no meaning, value, or purpose beyond what we world-masters harness it to do. Taylor traces this development to a web of sources, prominently medieval nominalists, who denied that natural objects had essences (like the “plastic principle” and “vegetative soul” beloved of Henry More and Ralph Cudworth) in order to secure God’s sole dominion over the world, and Rene Descartes, whose philosophy centered thought and action in a radically isolated human mind. The end-point of this portrayal is a humanity standing above and sharply apart from nature, regarding the material world in terms of our own purposes, and manipulating it to satisfy them, limited only by our technical capacity and, perhaps, our duties to one another and to God. We have no responsibility to inert nature, and can have no intelligence with it: we learn from it only how to put it to use.
There is certainly something to this. The modern world was built by people who inhabited a less diversely and pervasively enchanted universe than their ancestors, and we today, in turn, are still more disenchanted. This story of nature’s disenchantment, too, is canonical, and it has been told with many heroes and anti-heroes, including Protestantism, capitalism, science, rationality itself, and, indeed, Christianity writ large. Taylor’s broad version of the story, which weaves in strands from others, is vividly recognizable in, say, Hobbes, and in Francis Bacon, the English prophet of mastering nature scientifically to serve human needs.
Not all was disenchantment, though. Much as laypeople took on apostolic personal discipline that had been reserved to monks, turning salvation into a broader practice of self-civilizing, so the sacral deforestation and planting of the monasteries became a widely shared mission: to make the world a garden. This mission, moreover, kept some of the theological trappings of its monastic predecessors, sometimes in secularized form, sometimes directly invoking divine design. North American continental settlement ran on the idea, so explicit in Locke, that nature was made to flourish under human labor, that our clearing and planting completed it and made it the world we were meant to inhabit. After nature’s tense medieval siege of the castles and gardens, after the monastic forays to re-enact Creation with axes and fire, the walls came down and human order re-took wild nature, reversing the epochal defeat of Rome. North America took the full force of this redemptive idea of settlement. The zeal and furor of the drive westward had this idea as part of its inner life, and a half-secularized form provided the public rhetoric of that mission to “reclaim the wilderness.”
My argument is a response to a familiar story, in which we modern humans spend several centuries stripping nature of the accumulated “enchantments” that our religion, storytelling, and metaphysical speculation have layered on it. This task leaves us facing what Matthew Arnold, in a poetic meditation on disenchantment, called “The naked shingles of the world,” the structure of matter laid bare. We moved from a richly interpreted nature to one freed of moral and anthropomorphic interpretation – and, ironically, for this very reason, laid open to any projects we choose to visit on it, in an utterly anthropocentric world. I am arguing that, contrary to this story, early Americans continued to infuse nature with meaning and purpose, treating the land not as an inert object, but as a collaborator in a national project that was itself in harmony with natural law and divine design. American nature has always been shaped by disputes about politics, the conditions and character of freedom, and the legitimacy, success, or failure of the national project. The Romantics, Progressives, and ecologists who dissented from aspects of the dominant and founding American story, and enlisted nature in their dissents, were working in line with this habit, one might say tradition, of intensively interpreting nature as part of political and moral conflict.
Consider a set-piece of such an argument, a mild but telling example from the early years of the independent United States. James Wilson, the Scottish-born founder and constitutional architect, gave used a 1788 Independence Day address to contrast the era of ancient Roman liberty, when “smiling harvests bore testimony to the bountiful boons of liberty,” with the present Mediterranean: “Waste and barrenness appear … in all their hideous forms …. With double tyranny the land is cursed.” Double tyranny referred to the combination of political despotism and Catholicism, a pair of yokes on the minds and action of the people.
But if history had seen great decline, it had also entered an era of revival. In republican North America, free Rome was reborn ecologically as well as politically: Wilson concluded with an “enrapturing prospect … Placid husbandry walks in front, attended by the venerable plough. Lowing herds adorn our vallies; bleating flocks spread over our hills; verdant meadows, enamelled pastures, yellow harvests, bending orchards, rise in rapid succession from east to west.” The language here is self-consciously neo-classical, and evokes the pastoral vistas of a strong and secure state, entirely unlike the castles and gardens of the medieval imagination, with their besieging forests. Under republican government, the new continent would flourish as a garden.
A fruitful landscape bespoke both freedom and prosperity. In some ways, this is a familiar story. It is well known that early Americans linked the prospects of republican freedom to the plenitude of the frontier. Thomas Jefferson argued in his first inaugural address that the United States could avoid the crowded cities and political tyranny that had shaped European history, thanks to an open continent with enough land to hold a thousand generations of settlers. In Eric Foner’s formulation, free land was the condition for a nation of free men, because it made possible widespread and expanding ownership, giving everyone (in theory) the chance to become a proprietor. The social ideal of small-scale ownership helped, in turn, to establish an ideal of personal dignity, free labor, in which manual and other productive work was revalued from a mark of low status to an egalitarian emblem of personal worth. The frontier made this ideal a widely shared prospect, and, in rhetoric and to considerable degree in fact, the property-building activity of small-scale labor made the frontier.
What is easy to overlook in this familiar story is how fully its partisans enlisted a vision of American nature to support it. A free people was also a productive people, and nature answered success with fruitfulness. Political rhetoric knitted together freedom and prosperity in an image of the ideal American landscape – and its opposite, an infertile landscape of tyranny. A sort of summation-by-diorama of a metaphysical theory, this landscape rhetoric portrayed the fruits of collaboration between human effort and natural design. Such images served as exhortation and reassurance, by portraying nature as the unfailing helpmate of its human inhabitants, and also as warning, by rendering vividly the bad consequences of departing from right use of the natural world.
Wilson is particularly interesting on these themes because his work suggests a divergence between American environmental ideas and those of the rest of the English-speaking world. A student of Scottish Enlightenment thought, Wilson followed Francis Hutcheson in affirming a “moral sense,” an innate power to tell right from wrong, and “sociability,” a natural affinity, even love, for one’s fellow man. The law, which Wilson both lectured on as a teacher and practiced at the highest level as a constitutional draftsman, was for him an expression of the innate sense of fairness, equality, and human solidarity. Progress, in Wilson’s account, was the natural logic of history, and it emerged as commerce and communication tied distant people ever closer together in more complex webs of mutuality: as the moral sense became less clouded by ignorance, tyranny, and parochialism, all peoples would tend toward peace and republican democracy. Wilson aimed his arguments at, among others, Epicurus and Hobbes, who had also been Hutcheson’s targets. He claimed – accurately – that Hobbes’s skepticism, his denying that an inherent moral sense could produce agreement on right and wrong, was essentially linked to Hobbes’s claim that sovereign governments enjoyed nearly unlimited power. A revolutionary and a constitutionalist, and thus intensely interested in the theoretical bases of limited government, Wilson believed that moral-sense theory grounded a consensus on justice that a people could appeal to in resisting tyranny and establishing their own, new constitutional order.
To this point, Wilson seems a particularly learned and systematic instance of a widespread intellectual style in the early United States: commercial republicanism, which borrowed from the Scots the idea that commercial society expressed the natural sentiments of “self-interest properly understood” and created a limited but real form of solidarity, and from the republican tradition of revolution and limited government an idea of the American political enterprise. Neither of these inheritances necessarily implies a keen interest in the natural world. The Scottish tradition, especially, marked a sharp turn away from understanding people in light of their place in nature and toward moral and social theory grounded entirely in human nature, the study of people as social and sentimental beings.
In the United States, though, even so Scottish a figure as Wilson made nature an important part of his argument. The development of the continent was so central to the American project that there was no ignoring it, and, indeed, it lent imaginative as well as practical help to the republican attitude. Wilson enlisted nature as an enthusiastic participant, achieving its progressive and intended form through the same development that perfected human nature and political society. For both, development turned the inward potential into the realized reality. Drawing a single line from cosmic order to the moral sense, Wilson argued, “Order, proportion, and fitness pervade the universe. Around us, we see, within us, we feel, above us, we admire, a rule from which a deviation can not, or should not, or will not be made.” Order, proportion, and fitness were aesthetic and moral qualities all at once, and, Wilson contended in a discussion of beauty, their aesthetic and moral properties were essentially linked. Thus, for instance, admiration of feminine beauty was, in reality, a response to the female virtues that it bespoke, for “complexion and shape will not supply the place of the higher orders of beauty.” Aesthetic response was thus an exercise of the moral sense, spontaneously admiring virtue. So, for Wilson, moral development inspired “in every beholder possessed of sensibility and taste, an effect far more pleasing, and far more lasting, than can be produced by the prettiest piece of uninformed nature.” Wilson’s American landscape was fertile because free people worked it. The land was beautiful because fertility came from order, proportion, and fitness, in the people’s use of it. These were the aesthetic qualities of a land’s fertility and a people’s freedom alike. The rebirth of Rome in North America was beautiful, for beauty was the eye’s tribute to the continent’s development, which was, inseparably, a project of both material and moral perfection.
What we see here is an American trajectory that is distinctive but not exceptional. Wilson was working very much within a broader North Atlantic conversation about morality, liberty, and progress. The North American continent, though, was a distinctive setting for those North Atlantic themes, and provided occasions for Americans to inflect them in local ways. In particular, American thought and public language maintained an important role for ideas about nature itself as a collaborator in the drama of continental clearing and nation-building.
Another telling example comes from James Kent, another of the most important jurists of the early republic, somewhat younger than Wilson and also more conservative. (Kent was a late supporter of property requirements for voting, while Wilson’s moral-sense optimism encouraged him to early support for universal male suffrage.) Kent was New York’s chancellor, lecturer in law at Columbia, and author of the influential Commentaries on American Law. Kent took up the topic of “the foundation of title to land” in the United States a short time after Chief Justice John Marshall had addressed the same issue in Johnson v. M’Intosh, a case holding that Native American land claims enjoyed only qualified recognition under United States law, and that the federal government (and only the federal government) could wipe out those claims and transfer the land to white settlers. In his opinion, Marshall explicitly sidestepped issues of “abstract justice,” such as the claim that farmers enjoyed a natural right to expropriate the lands of nomadic hunters. Instead, he reasoned from the positive law, as manifest in the customs of Europe’s colonial powers and the early United States, with some emphasis on the reliance interest of Americans who had settled the continent deep into the Midwest.
After recounting the essentials of Marshall’s reasoning, Kent stepped squarely into the issue that the Court had avoided, arguing that “abstract justice,” or natural law, did in fact support European expropriation. Kent first argued that the continent was in effect legally empty, devoid of any claims that a mature legal system like that of the United States had to respect. Agreeing with Locke that property rights arose from developing the land, Kent contended that “[e]rratic tribes” of “hunters” could not acquire lasting title because their transient occupation gave them only “the loose and frail, if not absurd title of wandering savages.” Moreover, Native Americans had not just failed to establish property rights: by not joining those Locke had called the industrious and rational, they had failed in their basic human duties. According to Kent, this “immense continent” was “evidently designed by Providence to be subdued and cultivated, and to become the residence of civilized nations.” Kent embraced “the true principles of natural law” expounded by Emmerich de Vattel, who had “observed, that the cultivation of the soil was an obligation imposed by nature upon mankind.” The continent might not be literally empty, but it was devoid of its normative use, which was imparted by God and discernible by natural reason: to be fruitful and support extensive settlement. Native American occupation not only failed to establish property rights, but also violated the duty to cultivate the land. For Indians to resist settlement would be “usurp more territory than they can subdue,” an act of unjust exclusion.
Although this theory had roots in the thought of Hugo Grotius and John Locke, the theorists of American settlement were not in the grip of a monolithic idea. Rather, they were wielding one strand of a legal tradition to create a specific legal and political culture, one that helped to justify a settler-driven “empire of liberty” that aimed to extend its population and political principles across the continent. The natural-law idea that the North America was legally empty and so there for the taking was much less influential in England and colonial North America than in the Revolutionary period and the early United States, when westward settlement became a national preoccupation. Both William Blackstone and Adam Smith, for instance, saw American expropriation as opportunistic and unjust. In the young United States, though, as legal theory increasingly embraced the idea of a natural-law claim to the continent, both popular and elite discussion more and more portrayed Native American land use as vagrant and irregular. This description, too, was a change from earlier recognition that many indigenous peoples did cultivate and permanently occupy their lands. It took interpretive effort to recast North America as an empty land, and that effort was both theoretical and descriptive.
This view of the continent was not monolithic even in its heyday: some colonists and citizens of the early republic defended Native American claims to ownership (sometimes in defense of their own putative purchases from indigenous occupants), and the federal government’s practice was to take title to Indian land through the form of voluntary transactions, not by the Vattelian natural-rights claim that Kent endorsed. The doctrine of Johnson v. M’Intosh was a hybrid, assigning Native Americans a usufructuary right to occupy and use their traditional lands, which fell well short of ownership. Nonetheless, such halfway positions were routinely hedged around with assertions that Native American land use amounted to profligate waste of a continent. There was widespread and basic agreement with the thrust of John Quincy Adams’s rhetorical question:
Shall the lordly savage … forbid the wilderness to blossom like a rose? Shall he forbid the oaks of the forest to fall before the axe of industry, and to rise again, transformed into the habitations of ease and elegance? Shall he doom an immense region of the world to perpetual desolation … [and] the fields and the valleys which a beneficent God has formed to teem with the life of innumerable multitudes, be condemned to everlasting barrenness?
The continent belonged to those who could make it bloom. The justification for their claim was multifarious, but never far from its heart was an idea about nature itself: that it was made to collaborate in human progress, as we were made to develop it for our needs.
[A Trajectory of pre-Revolutionary American writings]
There seems to have been no time when European settlers in North America were not looking to the new continent for moral lessons as well as practical benefit. The canonical Puritan response to New England has come to be Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford’s description of the new land as “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” suggesting a people surrounded by violent chaos whose elements they could hardly see clearly enough to differentiate. A fuller and, in many ways, a more recognizable picture emerges in the journals of John Winthrop, long-serving governor of the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony. The nature that Winthrop describes is always available for moralized interpretation. For instance, he reports, on July 8 of 1632,
a great combat between a mouse and a snake, and after a long fight, the mouse prevailed and killed the snake: the Pastor of Boston Mr. Wilsson a very sincere holy man hearing of it, gave this interpretation, that, the snake was the devil, the mouse was a poor contemptible people which God had brought hither, which should overcome Satan and dispossess him of his kingdom. Upon the same occasion he told the governor that before he was resolved to come into this country, he dreamed he was here, and that he saw a church arise out of the earth, which grew up and became a marvelous goodly church.
It was, then, a world of signs, in which there was no reason to assume that a mouse wad just a mouse, and where the struggle with which the natural world is rife calls to mind the spiritual struggle that was the ultimate concern of human life as they understood it. Similarly, Winthrop frequently encounters with nature’s uncontrollable forces, especially the sea, as governed by “God’s special providence,” a specific and intentional divine act through natural phenomena. Special providence carried shipwrecked sailors through dangerous rocks in the winter of 1630-31, though it not save them from their legs’ freezing in the water, from which they had to be cut out. When some servants of one Moody of Roxbury drowned while gathering oysters, “it was an evident judgment of God upon them, for they were wicked persons,” and one, in particular, had recently declared that he would rather swelter in hell than serve his master.
Nature frequently, even ordinarily expressed God’s wishes and judgments. Thus in 1727, when an exceptionally hot summer was followed by an earthquake that Cotton Mather described as “a horrid rumbling like the sound of many coaches together, driving on the paved stones with a most awful trembling of the earth,” it was entirely natural for Thomas Prince, the Harvard-educated minister of Boston’s Old South Church, to remind his parishioners,
With God is most terrible majesty; and when he has a mind to show it, he can easily and in a moment do it in such an astonishing manner as to affright the hardiest creature. He can put all nature, even the great and inanimate parts of the world into such a commotion, as to make us see in a most sensible manner, the terrifying actings of his powerful presence, and excite the highest and most awful reverence of him. He can make the heavy and dull earth to tremble, as if it felt the force of those awakened passions that should rise in our minds at the appearance of God, and as if it were moved with the fear of its present destruction. The everlasting mountains are scattered, and the perpetual hills bow down before him.
The seeming permanence of the earth, its apparent stability, was always and everywhere subject to God’s sudden action, when even “everlasting” landscapes were suddenly revealed as transient. This violence was a type, an emblem, of the fear and reverence that should constantly disrupt complacency, pride, any sense of personal security. Our transience was nearer and more palpable than the mountains’, our vulnerability more complete. Prince drew out this lesson from the earthquake:
Let us then … bear in our minds a lively sense of our continual danger. Let our flesh still tremble for fear of God; and let us be ever afraid of His judgments. Let us stand in the greatest awe of this most glorious being, and not sin against him. He is always present, and same holy, mighty, and terrible, as he appears in the most hideous earthquake….
It hardly needs saying that this is the antithesis of disenchantment, and precisely the mood that Epicureans like Hobbes and Montaigne hoped to drive out of the world – the sense of living forever under judgment, made tangible and violent in the action of a natural world whose physical threats were also affronts to any psychic security in the human estate.
That is not to say that ordinary New Englanders lived in a stereotypically magical world, one so full of meaning and judgment as to nullify regularity and make practical action futile. That stereotype rests on quite a false contrast between an enchanted apprehension of the natural world, on the one hand, and practicality on the other. Quite apart from Max Weber (uncharacteristically) simplistic description of magic as a primitive attempt at scientific control of nature, it is simply true that, until very recently, the natural world pressed so pervasively on human activity that an intense practical concern with it was necessary to survival. John Winthrop’s journals are full of reports on the patterns of tides, winds, and weather, intense concerns for coastal colonists in a marginal climate. A journey up a local river was more likely to inspire reflections on access to fur markets than efforts to divine God’s message from the weather, and a season when worms rather archetypally beset the colonists’ corn draws no religious interpretation from Winthrop. His comments on wolves’ slaughter of calves are notably matter-of-fact – and the regularity of these attacks is a reminder of how fragile the conceit of human sovereignty over the rest of Creation must have seemed.
What comes through above all in Winthrop’s journals is a vivid sense of the discipline required of a people who believed themselves besieged simultaneously by physical nature, whose onslaughts they often took stoically (when a 15-year-old boy had his brains dashed by a tree he was felling in mid-winter, his father responded with “prayer, and much patience and honor”), and by sin, which frequently appeared through sensual irruptions. A snake figured the devil, and a prominent settler who had neighbors in to drink and ended up in bed with someone else’s wife had to be resettled elsewhere. Discipline was more severe for the less prominent. On June 14 of 1631, a servant was whipped, lost his ears, and was then executed for “foul scandalous invective against our churches and government.” The pious pressed the same disciplinary scrutiny against themselves: Winthrop reported in late winter of 1634 on a young man who became consumed by awareness of his sinfulness – manifested in blasphemous thoughts that he could not control, whose content Winthrop did not record – and mourned and languished for months, disconsolate, before finding relief in a renewal of faith. The outbreak of sin – with its promise of providential punishment – could come anywhere, at any time, in a settlement besieged from outside and menaced by blasphemy and disloyalty within, in the lower orders of the community or the sudden stumbling of an individual soul.
Much of this was general to the pious Protestantism of the North Atlantic, but the American setting presented a special threat: an alliance between the forces of the wilderness outside the community and of sin inside. Winthrop reported, without much elaboration, that Thomas Morton, a settler under the Plymouth Colony’s jurisdiction but not a puritan, was imprisoned until he could be returned to England, and his house burnt down. He had run an alehouse that catered to Indians and, it was alleged, set up a maypole. William Bradford added much more texture to this hint of paganism (which, for the puritans, was never far beneath the surface of the rural Anglicanism in which Morton had been raised). He wrote,
Morton became lord of misrule, and maintained (as it were) a school of Atheism…. They also set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it for many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies, rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived and celebrated the feasts of the Roman goddess Flora or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchinalians.
Morton’s conduct was, in today’s cliché, a perfect storm of forces antithetical to the discipline of the puritan settlement. Bradford and Winthrop agreed that he had armed the Indians with guns, an equalizing act of commerce that threatened serious consequences for the settlers. Bradford also complained that his festivals at the place he called Merry-Mount, “as if this jollity would have lasted ever,” would leave settlers throughout the region able to “keep no servants, for Morton would entertain any, how vile soever, and all the scum of the country, or any discontents, would flock to him from all places.” The especially severe discipline that the colony visited on its servants could collapse, Bradford feared, if rebellious laborers could form their own community, and “if this nest was not broken … they should stand in more fear of their lives and goods … from this wicked and debased crew, than from the savages themselves.” Thoroughly entwined with the threats of native attacks and social insurrection was the spiritual rebellion of a revived paganism, a “school of atheism” and ritualized sexual license, conducted with heathens and, according to Bradford, in the spirit of the most carnal and chaotic aspects of classical paganism. When they burnt Morton’s house, the colony’s governors treated his expulsion as something like a scourge of the “nest,” which they re-named Mount Dagon, after a biblical god of the Philistines, whose temple Samson destroyed as his last act, and whose image (in a different temple) was overthrown and dismembered by exposure to the Ark of Jehovah. This land itself, full of Bradford’s “wild beasts and wild men,” threatened to align itself with the forces most hostile to puritan order. The rechristening of Merry-Mount makes a striking contrast with medieval monks’ clearing the deep forests for monasteries, re-enacting Creation by a hallowing destruction. Instead, Mount Dagon stood as a reminder of the continuing struggle between the discipline of the colonies and the wild lands outside, whose forces could align themselves with the impulses to misrule within.
Whatever the facts of his conduct at Merry-Mount, Thomas Morton seems to have been most of all a set-piece for some colonists’ fear that the wild land they had entered would sustain a “lord of misrule” and revival of paganism. His self-exculpating and self-promoting New English Canaan, written after his return to England, denies selling liquor to the Indians (though he acknowledged that a trader could do well in that market), a claim one may doubt; but there is no reason to doubt his commitment to the widely shared project of making the new continent a fruitful garden. Set between an anthropology of native Americans (ranging from wild claims that their languages derive from Latin and Greek with an insightful account of the ecological effects of their practice of burning undergrowth, and generally stressing their goodwill and capacity for civilization) and a Falstaff-like account of his expulsion from Merry-Mount (in which he belittled his “separatist” tormentors as superstitious and trivial clowns, “Limbos” led by the hapless and self-righteous “Captain Shrimp”), the heart of the book is a paean to the commercial promise of the continent. Every species is canvassed for its worth as a “commodity” and many receive a speculative cash-value. In an epigraphic poem, Morton described his proposal for more extensive colonization and development as a chance for “art and industry” to call forth the wealth of nature, which waited “Like a fair virgin, longing to be sped/And meet her lover in a nuptial bed … being most fortunate/When most enjoyed: so would our Canaan [North America] be/If well employed by art and industry/Whose offspring now/shows that her fruitful womb/Not being enjoyed, is like a glorious tomb/Admired things producing which there die/And lie fast bound in dark obscurity.” The language is the lusty imagery of the Renaissance, hostile in spirit to Bradford and Winthrop, but the call to complete the natural world by settlement and development places Morton squarely among John Locke’s “industrious and rational.” It should not be surprising that even such a subversive figure fell into that camp: it was the universal camp.
Jonathan Edwards, the towering figure of the Great Awakening, the religious revival that swept the colonies in the second third of the eighteenth century, was a half-generation younger than Thomas Prince of the Old South Church and the Earthquake Sermon, though he died five months earlier to the day, on March 22, 1758. Edwards saw in the patterns of nature an instructive, if pale, reflection of the spiritual meaning God had infused into all existence. Edwards was committed the doctrine of predestination, that some were saved and the rest not and that salvation lay entirely outside human will or action. Nonetheless, his vision of the disposition of the will was anything but passive. He recommended “a spirit of consent to being,” and wrote that “spiritual beauty” resided in love for all that is, “consent and union with being in general.” Benevolence to mankind was essential to this “propensity of heart” – a point where Edwards agreed with the humanitarians of the Enlightenement – but its truth and authority lay in its flowing from “consent to being” and thus “relation to God, in the creature beloved.” The harmony or fitness among things that this attitude implied made it an aesthetic as well as a moral principle, and the “beauty” that Edwards identified in moral relations had analogy in the physical world, wherever one found “a mutual consent and agreement of different things … regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony.” Edwards’ examples ranged from geometry and architecture to music living nature, and he agreed with Francis Hutcheson that “the more there are of different mutually agreeing things, the greater is the beauty.” Thus “in the mutual correspondences of a beautiful plant” or the physical laws of the universe, the human mind was adapted to perceived beauty because “therein is some image of the consent of mind, of the different members of a society or system of intelligent beings, sweetly united in a benevolent agreement of heart.” The universe was thus a kind of sermon, and each thing within it, properly viewed, a fragment of its text.
Not all of nature’s lessons resolved immediately into perfect consent and universal love. The sermon contained many specific bans and exhortations. As Edwards wrote, “it pleases God to observe analogy in his works … and especially to establish inferior things with analogy to superior.” Thus, though plants and animals ranked below humans in Creation, they might present parables that showed us how to live. [Examples from Edwards’ writing.]
Edwards’ teaching about nature was consistent with the use of nature in the poems of his junior and successor in Princeton’s presidency, Samuel Davies, who died at 37, a few years into his presidency. Davies’ poems, very early examples of intentionally aesthetic use of nature in American writing, are thoroughly didactic in the analogical manner that Edwards found so pleasing to God. Flowers, with their brief beauty, are lessons for youth in the swift coming of age and death. The seasons conspire to remind us that everything earthly passes, and what brings us joy down here will soon be cold and wasted. Nature bespeaks God’s design and authority, and reproaches any “wretch that dare refuse to love” its creator. It is appropriate to appreciate, even delight in the living world, but not for itself; rather, nature is admirable because it points to its author.
[Do we need to include a few fragments?]
Davies was no otherworldly metaphysician: active in Virginia politics and a great advocate of religious toleration, he is said to have taught the revolutionary rhetorician Patrick Henry what an orator should be. Compare the didactic, heaven-indicating “nature” of his poems, though, with the role the natural world fills in the poetry of Philip Freneau, another man of affairs, the “Poet of the American Revolution,” who entered Princeton when James Madison was a student, in what would have been the tenth year of Davies’ university presidency, had he lived. (The older poet, who died very young, would not yet have been fifty.) Freneau, an adamant republican, served on a revolutionary privateer and as a Jeffersonian newspaper editor, and never tired of shouting down the aristocracies and tyrannies of old Europe. He was also the first American Romantic poet, and the gap in environmental imagination that separates him from Davies and Edwards, let alone Edwards’ puritan predecessors, was profound. In another sense, though, Freneau only found a new and more fitting idiom for a national project that was turning decisively to continental conquest and settlement.