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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

In the America of 1784

By John Bach McMaster (1852–1932)

[Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1852. Died in Darien, Conn., 1932. From A History of the People of the United States.—Vol. I. 1883.]

NOT less important than the school-master, in the opinion of his townsmen, was the doctor. With the exception of the minister and the judge, he was the most important personage in the district. His professional education would now be thought insufficient to admit him to practice; for there were then but two medical schools in the country, nor were they, by reason of the expense and dangers of travelling, by any means well attended. In general, the medical education of a doctor was such as he could pick up while serving an apprenticeship to some noted practitioner in Boston or New York, during which he combined the duties of a student with many of the menial offices of a servant. He ground the powders, mixed the pills, rode with the doctor on his rounds, held the basin when the patient was bled, helped to adjust plasters, to sew wounds, and ran with vials of medicine from one end of the town to the other. In the moments snatched from duties such as these he swept out the office, cleaned the bottles and jars, wired skeletons, tended the night-bell, and, when a feast was given, stood in the hall to announce the guests.

It was a white day with such a young man when he enjoyed the rare good fortune of dissecting a half-putrid arm, or examining a human heart and lungs. So great, indeed, was the difficulty of procuring anatomical subjects, that even at the medical school which had just been started at Harvard College, a single body was made to do duty for a whole year’s course of lectures. It was only by filching from graveyards or begging the dead bodies of criminals from the Governor that subjects could be obtained.

Under such circumstances, the doctor’s knowledge was derived from personal experience rather than from books, and the amount so obtained bore a direct relation to the sharpness of his powers of observation and the strength of his memory. If he were gifted with a keen observation, a logical mind, and a retentive memory, such a system of education was of the utmost value. For in medicine, as in mechanics, as in engineering, as in every science, in short, where experience find practical skill are of the highest importance, a practical education is most essential. The surgeon who has studied anatomy from a book without ever having dissected a human body, the physician who learns the names and symptoms of diseases from a work on pathology, and the remedies from the materia medica, without ever having seen the maladies in active operation and the remedies actually applied, is in a fair way to kill far more patients than he will ever cure. But the value of knowledge obtainable from books alone is on that account not the less useful, and by no means to be despised. The student who has read much in his profession is in possession of the results of many centuries of experience derived from the labors of many thousands of men. He is saved from innumerable blunders. He is enabled to begin his career with a knowledge of things which, if left to his own experience to find out, would cost him years of patient waiting and careful observation. The advantages of such a system of study were, however, but sparingly enjoyed by the medical students of the last century, when but few physicians boasted a medical library of fifty volumes.

His apprenticeship ended, the half-educated lad returned to his native town to assume the practice and to follow in the footsteps of his father. There as years went by he grew in popularity and wealth. His genial face, his engaging manners, his hearty laugh, the twinkle with which he inquired of the blacksmith when the next boy was expected, the sincerity with which he asked after the health of the carpenter’s daughter, the interest he took in the family of the poorest laborer, the good-nature with which he stopped to chat with the farm-hands about the prospect of the corn crop and the turnip crop, made him the favorite of the county for miles around. When he rode out he knew the names and personal history of the occupants of every house he passed. The farmers’ lads pulled off their hats, and the girls dropped courtesies to him. Sunshine and rain, daylight and darkness, were alike to him. He would ride ten miles on the darkest night, over the worst of roads, in a pelting storm, to administer a dose of calomel to an old woman, or to attend a child in a fit. He was present at every birth; he attended every burial; he sat with the minister at every death-bed, and put his name with the lawyer to every will.

But a few of the simplest drugs were then to be found stowed away on the shelves of the village store, among heaps of shoes, Rohan hats, balls of twine, packages of seed, and flitches of bacon. The physician was, therefore, compelled to combine the duties both of the doctor and the apothecary. He pounded his own drugs, made his own tinctures, prepared his own infusions, and put up his own prescriptions. His saddle-bag was the only drug-store within forty miles, and there, beside his horn balances and his china mortar, were medicines now gone quite out of fashion, or at most but rarely used. Homoeopathy, with its tasteless mixtures and diminutive doses, was unknown, and it is not too much to say that more medicine was then taken every year by the well than is now taken in the same space of time by the sick. Each spring the blood must be purified, the bowels must be purged, the kidneys must be excited, the bile must be moved, and large doses of senna and manna, and loathsome concoctions of rhubarb and molasses, were taken daily. In a thousand ways the practice of medicine has changed since that day, and changed for the better. Remedies now in the medicine-box of every farmer were then utterly unknown. Water was denied the patient tormented with fever, and in its stead he was given small quantities of clam-juice. Mercurial compounds were taken till the lips turned blue and the gums fell away from the teeth. The damsel who fainted was bled profusely. Cupping and leeching were freely prescribed. The alkaloid quinia was unknown till 1820. The only cure for malarial diseases was powdered cinchona bark; but the amount required to restore the patient was so great, and the supply so small, that the remedy was all but useless. Vaccination was not made known by Jenner till 1798. Inoculation was still held by many to be attended by divine punishment. Small-pox was almost as prevalent as pneumonia now is. The discovery of anæsthesia by the inhalation of ether or chloroform was not given to the world by Morton till 1846. Not one of the many remedies which assuage pain, which destroy disease, which hold in check the most loathsome maladies and the most violent epidemics, was in use. Every few years during the dog-days the yellow fever raged with more violence in the Northern cities than it has overdone in this generation in the cities of the far South. Whole streets were depopulated. Every night the dead-cart shot its scores of corpses into the pits of the Potters’ Field. Better surgery is now generously given to every laborer injured by the fall of a scaffold than could then have been purchased at any price.

High as the doctors stood in the good graces of their fellow-men, the ministers formed a yet more respected class of New England society. In no other section of the country had religion so firm a hold on the affections of the people. Nowhere else were men so truly devout, and the minister held in such high esteem. It had, indeed, from the days of the founders of the colony been the fashion among New Englanders to look to the pastor with a profound reverence, not unmingled with awe. He was not to them as other men were. He was the just man made perfect; the oracle of divine will; the sure guide to truth. The heedless one who absented himself from the preaching on a Sabbath was hunted up by the tithing-man, was admonished severely, and, if he still persisted in his evil ways, was fined, exposed in the stocks, or imprisoned in the cage. To sit patiently on the rough board seats while the preacher turned the hour-glass for the third time, and, with his voice husky from shouting, and the sweat pouring in streams down his face, went on for an hour more, was a delectable privilege. In such a community the authority of the reverend man was almost supreme. To speak disrespectfully concerning him, to jeer at his sermons, or to laugh at his odd ways, was sure to bring down on the offender a heavy fine. His advice was often sought on matters of state, nor did he hesitate to give, unasked, his opinion on what he considered the arbitrary acts of the high functionaries of the province. In the years immediately preceding the war the power of the minister in matters of government and politics had been greatly impaired by the rise of that class of laymen in the foremost rank of which stood Otis and Hancock and Samuel Adams. Yet his spiritual influence was as great as ever. He was still a member of the most learned and respected class in a community by no means ignorant. He was a divine, and came of a family of divines. Not a few of the preachers who witnessed the Revolution could trace descent through an unbroken line of ministers, stretching back from son to father for three generations, to some canting, psalm-singing Puritan who bore arms with distinction on the great day at Naseby, or had prayed at the head of Oliver’s troops, and had, at the restoration, when the old soldiers of the Protector were turning their swords into reaping-hooks and their pikes into pruning-knives, come over to New England to seek that liberty of worship not to be found at home. Such a man had usually received a learned education at Harvard or at Yale, and would, in these days, be thought a scholar of high attainments….

In the election sermon which he delivered on the return of every election-day, he taught a very different lesson, exerted his eloquence to set forth the equality of all men and the beauties of a pure democracy, and taxed his learning to defend his politics with passages from scripture and quotations from the writers of Greece.

Hatred of Kings and Princes had, indeed, always been a marked characteristic of his sect, and in the pre-revolutionary days he was among the most eager in the patriot cause. It cannot be denied that this show of patriotism was, in most cases, the result of personal interest rather than of a deeply rooted conviction of the necessity of resisting the oppression of England. If there was one sect of Christians which he detested above another, that sect was the Episcopalian. He firmly believed that the stupid King, who cared as little for the Church of England as for the Church of Scotland, was fully determined to make Episcopacy the established religion of the colonies. He was sure that His Majesty had even matured a plan for the establishment of the Church, and that, before many months had gone by, laws as odious as the Conventicle Act and the Five-Mile Act would be in full operation; that hundreds of dissenting divines would be ejected from their churches, stripped of their livings, and sent to starve among the Indians on the frontier. While, therefore, the rectors of Virginia and the Carolinas were ranging themselves on the Tory side, the ministers of the eastern colonies were all active on the side of the Whigs….

In truth, of the writers who, up to the peace, and for many years after, put forth treatises, arguments, and expositions on metaphysical themes, scarcely one can be named who was not a native of New England, and a pastor of a New England church. Each minister, therefore, felt in duty bound to discuss his text in a philosophical way, and, however crude his attempt, the reasons he advanced, the analogies he drew, the hints and suggestions he threw out, furnished each week many new topics for an evening’s talk. And such topics were needed, for of news the dearth was great. Almost every means of collecting and distributing it familiar to this generation was unknown to our great-grandfathers. There were, indeed, newspapers. Forty-three had come safely through the long revolutionary struggle to publish the joyful tidings of peace. But, with a few exceptions, all were printed in the large towns, and news which depended on them for circulation was in much danger of never going fifty miles from the editor’s door.

An interchange of papers did go on among the printers; and some copies of the “Spy” and the “Columbian Centinel” found their way to subscribers at New York. But the papers were not received by the post-office, and it was only by rewarding the post-riders that a place was made for a dozen copies in the portmanteaus containing the letters. Even then, on reaching New York, they were almost a week old, and had they been carried on to Charleston would have entered that city twenty days after the date of publication. Had the time been less it would have mattered little, for the news to be derived from them was usually of small value, and likely to convey only the most general information. Even the Connecticut “Courant,” the Boston “Gazette,” and the Pennsylvania “Packet,” which seem to have been the best among them, were poor and mean-looking, and printed on paper such as would now be thought too bad for hand-bills and ballads. Few came out oftener than thrice in a week, or numbered more than four small pages. The amount of reading-matter which the whole forty-three contained each week would not be sufficient to fill ten pages of ten daily issues of the New York “Herald.” Nothing in the nature of an editorial page existed. What is now known as a leading article rarely appeared, and its place was supplied by appeals from the editor, sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, to his delinquent subscribers, begging them to pay their bills, if not in money, in quarters of wheat, in pounds of cheese, or the flesh of hogs. The rest of the paper was filled up with advertisements for runaway slaves or stray horses, with scraps taken from other papers, with letters written from distant places to friends of the editor, a summary of the news brought by the last packet from Lisbon or London, a proclamation by Congress, a note to the editor posting some enemy as a coward in the most abusive and scurrilous language, a long notice setting forth that a new assortment of calamancoes and durants, colored tammies, shalloons, and rattinels were offered for sale at the shop of a leading merchant, and, now and then, a proposal for the reprinting of an old book. When there was a scarcity of intelligence, when no ships had come in from the whale-fisheries, when no strictures were to be passed on the proceedings of Congress, when the mails had been kept back by the rains, when the editor was tired of reviling the Society of the Cincinnati, when nothing further was to be said against the refugees, when no election was to be held, when no distinguished strangers had come to town, when no man of note had been buried, and when, consequently, there was great difficulty in filling the four pages, odes, ballads, and bits of poetry made their appearance in the poet’s corner. Now and then a paper of enterprise and spirit undertook to enlighten its readers and to fill its columns by the publication in instalments of works of considerable length and high literary merit. Robertson’s “History of America” was reprinted in the “Weekly Advertiser” of Boston, and ran through more than one hundred and fifty numbers. A “History of the American Revolution” came out in the “Spy.” “Cook’s Voyages” were published in the Pennsylvania “Packet,” while other papers of lesser note found room among essays and lampoons, epigrams, anecdotes, coarse “bon-mots,” and town resolutions to discourage extravagance, for short treatises on geography and morals. But everything which now gives to the daily paper its peculiar value, and passes under the general name of news, was wanting.