John Leacock (1729-1802)
Contributing Editor: Carla Mulford
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Although the writings of John Leacock seem to have been as popular as those of, say, Francis Hopkinson, and although parts of Leacock's biblical parodic satire The First Book of the American Chronicles of the Times were as widely reprinted in newspapers as the Federalist Papers, they have largely been lost to American literary historians. Their loss from American literary history probably results from the efforts of nineteenth-century historians to find continuity in the very discontinuous early American culture. If the founding American ideology was taken by our nineteenth-century historians (like the New Englander Moses Coit Tyler) to be a distinctively Puritan ideology, then those historians sought to create an American past--amid the instability of late nineteenth-century American society--that was coherent and continuously Puritan. Indeed, except for the writings of Benjamin Franklin (which found their own odd historical-interpretive path), the writings from the Middle Atlantic States and especially Philadelphia--that is, the largest trade and industrial area for the fifty mid-century years of the eighteenth century--along with writings from the South were for the most part noticed for their "quaintness" only, if noticed at all.
Other reasons, too, might be adduced for the loss to American literary history of the genre--anthologized here for the first time--of biblical parodic satire, despite its popularity in the colonies. Its loss probably results in large measure from the parodic form itself, which brought a possibility for double-voicing that could direct satire not only at England but at other colonies. Nineteenth-century literary historians tended not to discuss the inter-colonial contention rife during the Federal period, and they tended to blur the problems texts like Leacock's satire--and even the Federalist Papers --addressed.
Perhaps, too, readers in the past felt uncomfortable with biblical imitation that was not fully and clearly reverential toward the Bible. In addition, the fact that The First Book of the American Chronicles of the Times imitated (or parodied) the Bible could have caused dislike among "romantic" readers, who argued that parody was the enemy of inspirational, original (romantic) creations. Its parodic form and its political intent no doubt contributed to the neglect in the American literary past of the American Chronicles, one of the most humorous pieces of early American literature.
The selections here from Leacock's biblical parodic satire and from his play allude to the Puritan self-justification in terms of a necessary indigenous right to have riches and freedom, a right provided both by God (given as a New Canaan) and by the Indians (given as a representative, native republicanism). Precisely because of the form of the text as biblical parodic satire, The First Book of the American Chronicles of the Times at once celebrates and calls into question the Puritan sense of a hegemonic destiny. This is not to say that the satire is anti-"American." The satire is clearly anti-British in support of the American cause of freedom. But the satire questions, as well, the American attitude about military glory, which seems (within the context of this complicated satire) not far different from British (and especially Puritan, as represented by Oliver Cromwell) military vainglory.
Leacock's writings reproduced here would fit well in a syllabus that calls for students to read and discuss writings and issues of Native Americans, Puritans, and/or Philadelphians and to treat questions of genre in early American literature.
For further discussion of John Leacock and his writings, see "John Leacock" in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 31, American Colonial Writers, 1735-1781, edited by Emory Elliott (Detroit: Gale, for Bruccoli-Clark, 1984) and in Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976), in addition to the following titles:
Dallett, Francis James, Jr. "John Leacock and The Fall of British Tyranny." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 78 (1954): 456-75.
Mulford, Carla. John Leacock's The First Book of the American Chronicles of the Times, 1774-1775. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.
Mulford [Micklus]. "John Leacock's A New Song, On the Repeal of the Stamp Act." Early American Literature 15 (1980): 188-93.
--. The Fall of British Tyranny in Trumpets Sounding: Propaganda Plays of the American Revolution, edited by Norman O. Philbrick. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1976.