The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. The Beginnings of Verse, 1610–1808

§ 15. John Trumbull

American political satire began with the Stamp Act. The Times (1765) by the Rev. Benjamin Church of Boston, which vigorously defends the colonists, imitates Churchill, who for four years had been famous in England as the most relentless satirist of the day, and is doubly interesting in that its author later changed his attitude and was expelled from Boston as a traitor. The Boston Port Bill evoked from John Trumbull an Elegy on the Times (1775), which uses the elegiac quartrains of Gray for satiric invective; but far more important is the same author’s McFingal, the most effective satire of its time. Trumbull was born in what is now Watertown, Connecticut, in 1750, and graduated from Yale in 1767 in the same class with Timothy Dwight. In 1772 he published his Progress of Dullness, a satire in Hudibrastic verse on the current educational system and the ignorance of the clergy which is still interesting. After studying law in the office of John Adams in Boston, he returned to New Haven to practise, and in 1776 published the first two cantos of McFingal. In 1781 he published the third and fourth cantos, and in the same year removed to Hartford, where he became associated with the Hartford Wits and joined in writing The Anarchiad. After serving as State’s attorney, he became a judge of the Superior Court of Connecticut, and finally judge of the Supreme Court of Errors, a position which he held until 1819. For some years he was the treasurer of Yale, from which he received the degree of LL.D. in 1818. He removed to Detroit in 1825, and died there in 1831.

McFingal, Trumbull’s chief work, is a political satire in favour of the whigs. As much the guide as the child of public sentiment, the piece had thirty editions. It is a burlesque epic in 3800 lines of Hudibrastic verse in four cantos, which parodies epic speeches in council, heroic encounters, and prophecy. At a town meeting held in a New England village to discuss the question of rebellion against the mother country, the whigs, led by the impassioned Honorius, and the tories, headed by Squire McFingal, an officeholder under the Crown, engage in furious argument. The whigs are finally victorious in speech and also in the battle which terminates the discussion. Under threats, McFingal’s tory constable recants, but the obdurate Squire is tarred and feathered and glued to the liberty pole, where he is left to meditate his misdeeds. Escaping in the night, he convenes a meeting of fellow tories in the cellar, and relates to them the vision which he has gained through his gift of second sight, and which prophesies final victory for the whigs. The meeting breaks up at the approach of the whigs and McFingal deserts his followers and escapes to the British. The verse runs swiftly, with considerable comic force, and contains epigrammatic couplets that might have come from Hudibras:

  • No man e’er felt the halter draw,
  • With good opinion of the law,
  • and
  • But optics sharp it needs, I ween,
  • To see what is not to be seen.
  • The burlesque contrasts, the absurd figures of speech, the farfetched allusions, are learned from Butler; and the verse, with its frequent elisions, its feminine rhymes, and its homely diction, is more nearly that of Hudibras than of any other satire. Churchill is responsible for such serious passages in the speeches as
  • For ages blest thus Britain rose
  • The terror of encircling foes;
  • Her heroes ruled the bloody plain;
  • Her conq’ring standard aw’d the main,
  • as also for the use of personifications and of the terrible:
  • Around all stained with rebel blood,
  • Like Milton’s lazar house it stood,
  • Where grim Despair attended nurse,
  • And Death was gov’rnor of the house.
  • For all its indebtednesses McFingal remains the most entertaining satire in our early literature, and the only surviving poem by any member of the Hartford group.