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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

The Effects of the Earthquake

By John Winthrop (1714–1779)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1714. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1779. A Lecture on Earthquakes. Read at Harvard, 1755.]

IMAGINE, then, the earth trembling with a huge thundering noise, or heaving and swelling like a rolling sea:—now gaping in chasms of various sizes, and then immediately closing again; either swallowing up the unhappy persons who chanced to be over them, or crushing them to death by the middle:—from some, spouting up prodigious quantities of water to a vast height, or belching out hot, offensive and suffocating exhalations; while others are streaming with torrents of melted minerals. Some houses moving out of their places; others cracking and tumbling into heaps of rubbish; and others again, not barely by whole streets, but by whole cities at a time, sinking downright to a great depth in the earth, or under water. On the shore, the sea roaring and rising in billows; or else retiring to a great distance from the land, and then violently returning like a flood to overwhelm it; vessels driven from their anchors; some overset and lost, others thrown up on the land. In one place, vast rocks flung down from mountains, and choking up rivers, which, being then forced to find themselves new channels, sweep away such trees, houses, etc., as had escaped the fury of the shock; in another, mountains themselves sinking in a moment, and their places possessed by pools of water. Some people running about, pale with fear, trembling for the event, and ignorant whither to fly for shelter; others thrown with violence down on the ground, not being able to keep on their feet; and others shrieking or groaning in the agonies of death—even the brute creation manifesting all the signs of consternation and astonishment.

Imagine these things to yourselves, and you will then have a view, though but an imperfect one, of some of those images of horror and desolation, which accompany the more violent earthquakes….

Though these explosions, and consequent concussions of the earth, have indeed occasioned most terrible desolations, and in this light may justly be regarded as the tokens of an incensed Deity, yet it can by no means be concluded from hence, that they are not of real and standing advantage to the globe in general. Multitudes, it is true, have at different times suffered by them; multitudes have been destroyed by them; but much greater multitudes may have every day been benefited by them.

The all-wise Creator could not but foresee all the effects of all the powers he implanted in matter; and, as we find in innumerable instances (and the more we know of his works, the more such instances we discover) that He has established such laws for the government of the world, as tend to promote the good of the whole, we may reasonably presume that He has done it in this case as well as others. To me, at least, the argument on this side the question, drawn from the general analogy of nature, appears to have more force, than any that I have seen offered on the other. For there is nothing, however useful, however necessary, but what is capable of producing, and in fact has produced, damage, in single instances. It were endless to particularize here; I shall therefore only mention one or two things by way of specimen.

The power of gravity—a power of such indispensable importance, that without it the system of nature could not subsist a moment,—has yet proved the destruction of multitudes. The wind, so necessary for the purposes of navigation, as well as to purge the air, which would otherwise stagnate and putrefy—how often has it risen to such a pitch, as to overthrow houses, and wreck vessels, by which means thousands have perished!

Even thunder and lightning, which, next to earthquakes, are the most terrible phenomena of nature, are yet universally allowed to be necessary to free the atmosphere from a certain unwholesome sultriness which often infects it. Other instances of the like sort I leave to your own reflections: and would rather observe, that the world is governed by general laws; and general laws must, from the nature of them, be liable sometimes to do hurt.

However, laws of this sort are sufficiently vindicated, not only as wise, but as good, if upon the whole they produce a maximum of good (to borrow an expression from the mathematicians); and this, it is in the highest degree probable, all the laws of nature do. It may be added, that as in the animal body, the evacuations, which are of absolute necessity to maintain life and health, do yet sometimes run to such extremes as to prove mortal; so in like manner, these explosions of subterraneous vapor, whose effects have sometimes been so fatal, may, notwithstanding this, be highly conducive, and even indispensably necessary, to the good of this globe in general. The explosions themselves, as well as the laws in consequence of which they are produced, may be necessary on various accounts; and particularly to the carrying on the more secret and noble works of nature within the entrails of the earth. Let me dilate a little on this matter.

By the incessant action of gravity and other attractive powers, and by the perpetual consumption of fluids, the earth becomes continually more and more hard, compact, and dense. Now an openness or looseness of contexture, to a certain degree, in the earth, is necessary to carry on the operations of nature within it. So that on the supposition that mineral, metalline, and other subterraneous bodies grow within the earth, it should seem that the earth must become gradually less and less fit for the production of them. Since, then, the direct, immediate, and most general effect of earthquakes is, by shaking, to loosen and disunite the parts of the earth, and to open its pores, it seems agreeable to reason to infer, that this is the end primarily aimed at in these concussions.

But you will take notice, that I speak here only of physical or natural ends. For, though I make no doubt that the laws of nature were established, and that the operations of nature are conducted with a view, ultimately, to moral purposes; and that there is the most perfect coincidence, at all times, between God’s government of the natural and of the moral world; yet it would be improper for me to enter into these disquisitions at this time, since my province limits me to consider this subject only in the relation which it bears to natural philosophy. It is in the physical sense alone that I say the disjoining the parts of the earth, and opening its pores, may be the end primarily aimed at in earthquakes, as such mutations in the earth may from time to time become necessary to the production of subterraneous bodies; and perhaps this end could not be effectually answered by less forcible methods. This point may receive some light, if not proof, from the operations of agriculture. We find it necessary, by ploughing, digging, etc., to break the clods of the ground, to comminute and even pulverize it, in order to fit it for the purposes of vegetation; and we find it necessary to renew these labors every year.

Now, the use and tendency of these artificial operations may bear some analogy to those of the greater operations of nature, which we are speaking of. And, indeed, it is not in the least degree improbable, that such a loosening of the parts of the earth may promote even the growth of vegetables on its surface, as well as of minerals in its bowels; it being now well known, that all vegetables, the smaller as well as the larger, shoot some fibres of their roots to vastly greater depths, than those to which any of our instruments of tillage ever penetrate. This, it is likely, may be one reason of the wonderful fertility, for which Ætna and Vesuvio have been so generally and so highly celebrated. Again: it may be necessary now and then, to have such subterraneous vapors, as are generated by fermentation, discharged up into the air; as their continuance below, in the caverns of the earth, might be an impediment to those important processes which are there carrying on. But those very vapors, which might obstruct some sorts of natural processes while below the surface of the earth, may as much advance others when above it. We know that in many cases of the fermentation of bodies, especially of such dense ones as salts and minerals, air is plentifully absorbed; and that in many others it is as plentifully generated: so that great part of the exhalations thrown out by earthquakes may be true, permanent air, and designed to recruit what has been absorbed by bodies here on the surface.

And perhaps the grounds on which the great Newton founded his “suspicion, that the finest, the most subtile, and most spirituous parts of our air, and those which are most necessary to maintain the life of all things, come chiefly from the comets,” may equally support another suspicion, that some such particles of air may be derived also from subterraneous eruptions. For among the almost infinite variety of particles which are thrown out of the earth in these eruptions, it is most likely that, if some are noxious, others will be salutary. It may also be necessary from time to time to have the subterraneous streams diverted from their former courses into new ones: partly, that different places in the lower regions may be watered by them; and partly, that the waters themselves, by passing through different beds or channels, may alter their properties, and convey new tinctures to different places.