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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 5: Colonial Society on the Eve of Revolution, 1700 - 1775


Jonathan Edwards (1703 - 1758)

Edwards was the great preacher, revivalist, theologian, and philosopher of eighteenth-century New England. Even as a child he showed personal piety and intellectual brilliance: at age seven he began leading other children into the woods for prayer, and by age fourteen he was reading John Locke and Isaac Newton.

Despite his later learned writings on subjects like the nature of the mind and its relation to the natural world, he remained a parish pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1734, his intense preaching, first considered old-fashioned, began producing emotional conversions that soon numbered thirty a week. His fame spread throughout the colonies. By 1741 he became concerned about the excesses of the Great Awakening, especially as conducted by uneducated revivalists, but he still defended it strongly.

Tall, slender, with piercing eyes and a soft but perfectly modulated voice, Edwards rose daily at 4:00 A.M. and devoted thirteen hours to study. His later years were absorbed by controversies with parishioners who objected to his strong moral demands on them. In 1750 a majority voted to dismiss him, and he was left jobless and in debt. In 1757 he was appointed president of Princeton University but died of a smallpox inoculation before taking office.

Quote: All will allow that true virtue or holiness has its seat chiefly in the heart, rather than in the head: it therefore follows.that it consists chiefly in holy affections.Now if such things are enthusiasm, and the fruits of a distempered brain, let my brain be evermore possessed of that happy distemper! If this be distraction, I pray God that the world of mankind may be all seized with this benign, meek, beneficent, beatifical, glorious distraction! (1742)

REFERENCE: J.E. Smith, Jonathan Edwards: Puritan, Preacher, Philosopher (1992).


Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790)

Franklin, the most famous American of the eighteenth century and a great cultural hero in Europe as well as in his own country, was born to a Boston soapmaker. In 1718 he became a printers apprentice under his brother James. At age seventeen he moved to Philadelphia, which became his permanent home.

Once Franklin had made a substantial fortune from Poor Richards Almanack and other publishing business ventures, he concentrated on science, philosophy, and politics. Although largely self-taught (he learned five languages on his own), he was immensely knowledgeable in many areas. Besides electricity, he studied meteorology, hydrology (water), geology and demographics (population).

While serving as a colonial agent in England in the 1760s, he considered permanently moving to that country, and in America he was suspected of favoring the Stamp Act until he testified against it in Parliament. When he served as minister to France during the Revolution, his portrait was put in shop windows and on medals, rings, watches, snuffboxes, and bracelets. His charm and simple democratic manners endeared him to everyone, especially aristocratic French ladies. Practical, skeptical, cool-minded, insatiably curious, sexually passionate, uninhibited, plainspoken, and above all humorous, Franklin was at ease with all kinds and levels of people, from kings to tavern maids.

Quote: It was wise counsel given to a young man, Pitch upon that course of life which is most excellent, and custom will make it the most delightful. But many pitch on no course of life at all, nor form any scheme of living, by which to attain any valuable end; but wander perpetually from one thing to another. (From Poor Richard, 1749)

REFERENCE: H.W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000).


Charles W. Peale (1741 - 1827)

Peale was one of the best-known American painters of the eighteenth century and one of the few to make his career in the United States rather than Europe. Originally apprenticed as a saddler, he was forced out of that trade because he joined the Sons of Liberty and most of his customers were Loyalists. He then became interested in art and studied under John Singleton Copley in Boston and Benjamin West in London. Besides art, he was a prominent museum curator, essayist, civic leader, silversmith, and landscape gardener. Because of his diverse talents, he was sometimes called the American Leonardo da Vinci.

Serving as an army captain during the Revolution, he executed numerous portraits of his fellow officers. He painted Washington from life seven times and made more than fifty other portraits of him as general and president. He usually portrayed Washington more realistically and less heroically than other painters, showing his high cheekbones, sloping shoulders, and long arms and legs. Yet his portraits were very popular with Washington and others.

Quote: A good painter of either portrait or history must be well acquainted with the Grecian or Roman statues, to be able to draw them at pleasure by memory. . . . these are more than I shall ever have time or opportunity to know. (1772)

REFERENCE: Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (1969).


Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753 - 1784)

Wheatley, the gifted black poet who published admired verse in late-eighteenth-century America and England, was brought as a slave from Africa to Boston in 1761, when she was about eight years old, and bought by John Wheatley, a tailor. She was made Mrs. Wheatleys personal servant but quickly impressed her master with her remarkable intelligence, which he cultivated.

She began writing poems at age thirteen; the first is called On Being Brought from Africa to America. Her first published poem (on George Whitefields death) was composed at age seventeen, and she soon gained renown in Boston and then elsewhere. Her masters daughter took her to England in 1773, where she was introduced to many literary people.

Four years after her return to America in 1774, she contracted a disastrous marriage to John Peters, a black baker. He apparently treated her badly, and she wrote no more poems. She bore three children, two of whom died before her own death in 1784.

Quote: On Being Brought from Africa to America

Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That theres a God, that theres a savior, too;

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

Their color is a diabolic lie.

Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain

May be refined and join the angelic train.

(1766)

REFERENCE: Julian D. Mason, Jr., The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (1966).



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