Richard Henry Dana Sr.’s career followed a trajectory from romantic ardor, to disillusionment, to an embrace of traditionalism and social order. His life demonstrates that New England bore a rich Tory counter tradition of law and letters, not a monoculture of Whig and Republican industrialists, social reformers, and transcendentalist dreamers.

Lucretia Mott listened with horror. In early December 1849, the Romantic essayist, poet, and lecturer Richard Henry Dana, Sr. told Philadelphians in a public lecture that the nascent women’s suffrage movement threatened to upset traditional social and family order. His talk entitled “Women and Her Influence on Society,” was offered as one of seven in a series on Shakespeare, but Dana took the opportunity to use the Bard’s plays as a broader critical commentary on antebellum American life. Mott responded two weeks later with her own lecture refuting Dana and confirmed her reputation as one of century’s premier advocates for women’s rights. Dana, however, faded into obscurity. His lectures, though a popular attraction for twenty years, never appeared in print and his stature as a literary and social commentator eclipsed by that of his more illustrious son, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., the abolitionist and author of Two Years Before the Mast. A confirmed Tory in a revolutionary time, his death in 1879 barely registered in the newspapers.

While not the artistic equal of Coleridge or Wordsworth, Dana Sr.’s career followed a similar trajectory from romantic ardor to disillusionment to an embrace of traditionalism and social order. Through all his phases, however, he exhibited an abiding admiration of Edmund Burke and the “permanent things” under threat from the Industrial Revolution and the leveling instinct of Jacksonian democracy. Few antebellum observers cast as many doubts on the basic assumptions of American politics and society as Dana, at times enraging his audience. His life demonstrates that New England bore a rich Tory counter tradition of law and letters, not a monoculture of Whig and Republican industrialists, social reformers, and transcendentalist dreamers. Dana’s life reveals a lost world beyond Emerson and Thoreau.

Distinguished ancestries bring terrible burdens and, in his own mind, Richard Henry Dana, Sr. fell short. The Danas (and on his mother’s side, the Ellerys) had lived in New England since the seventeenth century, climbing their way up the social and political ladder to be merchants, lawyers, and by the Revolution prominent supporters of the Patriot cause. His father, the Boston judge Francis Dana, claimed membership in the illusive High Federalist “Essex Junto,” who violently opposed the Jeffersonians and flirted with secession. Into this world of wealth, law, and politics, Dana was born on November 15, 1787, roughly three months before Massachusetts ratified the US Constitution. Family life brought few pleasures, as his taskmaster father busied himself with his career and the younger Dana felt dwarfed by his father’s greatness. “I can never think of his exalted character without a sense of my own littleness,” he admitted.[1] In this atmosphere, Dana grew into an introverted and insecure young man with a “diffident, shy, and sensitive personality,” filled with “self-distrust and over-criticism of himself.”[2] To escape, he spent much of his youth in Rhode Island with his grandfather, a far happier place for Dana where he indulged his passion for literature.

Dana entered Harvard in 1804 but wilted under the College’s intellectual atmosphere. Prim, Unitarian, rationalistic, and armed with a faith that science and reason could answer all questions, Harvard remained stuck in Enlightenment amber more akin to the Eighteenth Century than the emerging Romantic Nineteenth. The College ethos repelled him. “[T]he atmosphere about me was the spirit of Locke,” he later remembered, “an atmosphere which I could not breathe in – so rare, so cold.”[3] Embracing romantic passions, the normally staid Dana participated in the infamous “Rotten Cabbage Rebellion” – where students revolted against the poor quality of food served at Harvard – and was promptly expelled in 1807. Only years later in 1866, when Dana was seventy-nine years old, did the College award him the degree denied him decades earlier.[4]

The years between expulsion and the early 1820s were particularly difficult for Dana. His brother Francis lost the family fortune in reckless investments and fled to Russia to avoid potential prosecution. Dana’s father liquidated all family assets to cover losses, including the family’s Boston mansion. The embarrassment to the family was terrible. For the remainder of his life Dana despised debt and “new wealth,” burdened with the memory of the respectable Dana family’s dispossession. Without funds, Dana reluctantly followed his father into a legal career, eventually studying with the Southern Federalist Robert Goodloe Harper in Baltimore. He opened a practice in Massachusetts, but won few clients, and also dabbled in local politics. In 1814, the city of Cambridge invited him to deliver a July 4th oration and Dana shocked listeners by questioning the prudence of the American Revolution and calls for equality and democracy in its wake. This would not be the last time Dana’s politics jolted audiences. Dana also fell in love with a teacher named Ruth Charlotte Smith. His elderly father opposed the match because of Smith’s lower class than the Danas, but when he died in 1813 Dana married her anyway.[5]

Dana hated the law and abandoned his practice in 1819. Free from his father’s expectations, he finally entered a career he loved, that of writer and critic, and became assistant editor of the fledgling North American Review. Dana had never been happier but almost immediately faced trouble. The Review, wrote Van Wyck Brooks, “had all the dry simplicity, the hard strength, the timid correctness and those other traits that Goethe said so naturally belonged to the early period of every art. It was like the old New England furniture, re-expressed in words.”[6] Conservative, proper, and Harvard-centric, it disliked emerging Romanticism and leaned backward to 18th century literature, embracing poets like Alexander Pope. Dana, however, eagerly embraced the new Romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and encouraged development of an American Romanticism. His Review essays “preached High Romantic doctrine” and regretted how the pursuit of riches, the idealization of the businessman, and the spread of egalitarian democracy inhibited creation of an indigenous American literature.[7] His advocacy did not go unnoticed or unpunished. When the editorship of the Review opened up, the job went to Edward Everett instead of Dana. The journal’s patrons “distrusted solitary, brooding, and unreliable characters like Dana” and erred toward the safer ground of men like Everett.[8] “Dana never forgave them and believed, with good reason, that they did what they could to prevent his work from receiving a fair hearing,” his biographer Doreen M. Hunter wrote.[9] In protest, he resigned from the Review.

Free from their disapproval, Dana tried his hand at starting his own literary journal called the Idle Man. Published in New York, he contributed a series of his own short stories. His tales reflected the tragedy of his private life and a growing awareness of the pitfalls of romantic passion. In 1822, his wife Ruth died of tuberculosis, as did his infant daughter. Dana’s son, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., recalled that his father was driven to the edge of madness with grief. His health also suffered, as psychological distress triggered bodily pain, and his writings followed his mood.[10] His Idle Man stories went from uplifting to dark, especially the gothic horror tale “Paul Felton,” where the protagonist progressively descends into psychopathic insanity, violence, and murder. These short stories not only marked Dana as an early Gothic writer – two decades before Poe and Hawthorne – but signaled his growing doubts about the romantic mind.[11] The Romantic could create works of beauty, imagination, and grandeur. Led by subjective individualism, he also held the potential for psychosis, madness, and nihilism. Dana “could not accept a worldview that placed fatally flawed humankind at the center of the meaning-making process,” Hunter observed. “He discerned few literary possibilities in the workings of the unconscious mind. The hidden processes of the mind, which for many romanticists was a rich source of symbolism, now seemed to Dana haunted by the demons of untamed passion.”[12] Dana and the Idle Man ran out of money in 1822 and ceased publication. Impoverished, he published a book of poetry in 1827, gaining some renown for “The Buccaneer,” the bloody tale of the New England pirate Matthew Lee. The poem, like “Paul Felton,” showed Dana’s continuing discomfort with the unrestrained romantic mind and “the dark side of the New England imagination, the repressed violence and guilt that made Dana see the inner life as something fearsome.”[13] By the 1830s, while a young Emerson lionized individualism, the older Dana increasingly preached order and community.[14]

Beyond literature, he also dueled with Boston Unitarians in a series of theological disputes into the 1830s. The battles were a combination of genuine belief and hard feelings. Dana converted from his family’s loose New England Congregationalism to orthodox Calvinism in 1826, after hearing a fire and brimstone sermon from Lyman Beecher. The newly devout Dana “smoldered with indignation about the influence that a small Unitarian elite exerted over cultural affairs” and after his conversion made war on them.[15] He accused the Unitarians of cobbling together bits of scripture, philosophy, and literature and constructing a religion out of it. The resulting pride in their work made Unitarians think they were God. “The man becomes a pleased and constant worshipper; and well he may, for his God is the issue of his own brain, and from out of himself he worships himself.”[16] For Dana, Unitarians were “practical materialists” lacking sincere spirituality.[17] He even composed a poem to roast Unitarianism called “Factitious Life,” which mocked proper Bostonians’ refusal to speak of sin:

“With etiquette for virtue, heart subdued,

The right betraying, lest you be rude,

Excusing wrong, lest you be thought precise,

In morals easy, and in manners nice.”[18]

He eventually moved on from Calvinism, which he believed too prudish and ascetic, and entered the Episcopal Church in 1843. Dana was one of the founders of Boston’s Church of the Advent, an Anglo-Catholic parish built during the heyday of the Oxford Movement, and which by the 1890s (long after Dana’s death) became the best known traditionalist neo-Jacobite parish the country, bragging the art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram as parishioners. The Episcopal Church, with its rituals, aesthetic beauty, and conservative politics, fit Dana perfectly.[19]

Money troubles continued to bedevil him by the 1830s, particularly when his sons began attending college. For a short time, he taught a literature class to wealthy Boston girls, but did not enjoy it.[20] He also delivered public orations, the most noteworthy being his July 4th, 1834 address in Salem, Massachusetts entitled “Law as Suited to Man.” Revisiting his 1814 experience and doubling down, he used the platform to condemn democracy and equality – this in the heyday of Andrew Jackson – and proposed that America needed monarchy instead. “There probably was not a speaker in the entire country that day who was so willing to challenge America’s most cherished beliefs,” Dana’s biographer wrote. “There is something typical, even bleakly inspiring, about Dana’s determination to speak of the dangers of equality before an audience gathered to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”[21] The abolitionist Edmund Quincy recalled, “He at least deserved the credit of having selected a new topic on a day when all the old ones had been worn to rags. His audience were aghast, and there was some talk of tar and feathers or of riding him out of town upon a rail, but on the whole they concluded to leave him to the stings of his own conscience.”[22] Both this address and an earlier one entitled “The Past and the Present” were reworked and published separately.[23]

Beginning in late 1838, Dana finally found steady income by offering a series of public lectures on Shakespeare, the first delivered in Providence, Rhode Island for the princely sum of $521 ($12,000 in today’s money). They were immensely popular, winning fans, like a young Emily Dickinson, and detractors, like the aforementioned Lucretia Mott. The normally private Dana enjoyed the experience and attention, after years of failed hopes. His grandson believed they were “the great work of Dana,” exceeding the legacy of his poetry and prose.  The lectures not only made Dana something of a celebrity, they also influenced interpretations of Shakespeare in the antebellum era. “Dana’s lectures were the first instance of romantic Shakespearean criticism in America,” Hunter noted. He used Shakespeare’s plays as a pretext to address contemporary American issues. In an era of Manifest Destiny, national expansion, and the exaltation of American democratic ideals, Dana preached the opposite. “His Shakespeare was embroiled in a critique of American society, with its false idols of equality and democracy that led to materialism, greed and conformity,” a Dickinson biographer related. The lectures continued annually in every major American city until 1851, when Dana retired from public life, and earned him a total of $4611 (about $145,000 in today’s money). Yet, when a publisher asked in 1847 that they be printed, Dana refused, either afraid they would hurt future lecture income or because they were becoming dated. They remain unprinted in any collection to this day.

Out of the public eye, Dana wintered at his Boston home and summered at his Manchester-by-the-Sea “cottage.” His son helped him purchase the summer cottage on Boston’s North Shore in 1845 and it became the nature-loving Dana’s favorite resting spot. “There, at his Manchester home, he loved to stay late into autumn and wander about the woods, walk back and forth on the beach in sunshine or storm, and at night look out upon the moonlit waters and distant lighthouses,” his grandson remembered. In his dotage, he became a grand old man of American letters, an author and speaker of reputation who never fully capitalized on his talents. James Russell Lowell, in his 1848 satirical poem A Fable for the Critics, observed of Dana:

            That he once was the Idle Man none will deplore.

            But I fear he will never be any thing more;

            The ocean of song heaves and glitters before him,

            The depth and the vastness and longing sweep o’er him,

            He knows every breaker and shoal on the chart,

            He has the Coast Pilot and so on by heart,

            Yet he spends his whole life, like the man in the fable,

            In learning to swim on his library-table.[24]

His son Richard Henry Dana, Jr., however, the abolitionist and outspoken lawyer and writer, became the public man his father never could. Yet Dana encouraged his son to do what he was temperamentally unable to do – go on adventures in the world – and helped him edit his popular travelogue, Two Years before the Mast.

Boston’s “ancient Nestor,” as Brooks described him, died at the age of ninety-one in February 1879. Although better remembered for his literary works, Dana’s lesser known social and political commentaries have left a more lasting contribution. In his lectures and essays, Dana mounted a frontal assault on Jeffersonian and Jacksonian civic life, attacking popular interpretations of the American Revolution, the inadequacies of liberty, equality, and democracy, the growing materialism of Americans, the lack of a healthy hierarchical society, the impropriety of universal public education, and the dangerous absence of poetry and literature to balance the grasping economic life of the Republic. More gloomy and pointed than Tocqueville – and following closely the political and social ideas of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Church and State, which he deeply admired – Dana diagnosed national illnesses, but remained uncertain of recovery.[25]

For Richard Henry Dana, Sr., America began badly. The American Revolution, full of soaring ideals, proposed to alter human nature, liberate man from oppression and slavery, and launch a new era of freedom, equality, and republican government. The Declaration of Independence became an international sensation and model for European revolutionaries hoping to unseat despotic monarchies on the Continent. American revolutionary exploits were “to work [a] universal change in the condition and character of man; that it was to spread its light over the nations which we supposed were sitting in the gloom of slavery, ignorance, and crime; and that they were to come forth the renovated beings of freedom, wisdom and virtue,” he told a Fourth of July audience in 1814.[26]  Revolutionary enthusiasts failed to realize, however, that the Revolution was not a radical revolt against monarchy and inherited British traditions. Britain was a constitutional monarchy at the time of the Revolution, but this did not indicate an inherent deficiency in monarchy or particular virtue in democracy. “If, then, the government to which we were opposed was of the monarchical form, we must be upon our guard as to our prejudices against that form, and cautious as to our partiality for its opposite … [O]ur war of the Revolution was not a conflict about a difference of constitution, but a war growing out of what we held to be a violation of a certain constitution.”[27] There was nothing radical or transformative about the American Revolution and the political and social reality of the West had not substantially shifted, inspired by the American example. “The physical and moral world have undergone no change – notwithstanding the American Revolution, Arabia still has its deserts, and mankind their sins. Human nature has not yet reached that stage of perfectibility in which laws are but useless entanglements, and the power of government but a cumbrous restraint upon virtue.”[28]

In fact, turning those hopes upside down, the Revolution unleashed new destructive utopian philosophies of “equality, perfectibility, and absolute liberty in man” that sought to upend human nature itself, Dana complained – that mankind was naturally good and benevolent, that therefore law, government, and restraint were unnecessary, and that present day political institutions needed reconstruction.[29] “The learned theorist” and “vain and bustling projectors” – similar to Edmund Burke’s “economists and sophisters” – aggressively propagandized these philosophies in the Revolution’s wake.[30] “The dissolution of governments, dear to a people, as well from their intrinsic merit, as from long rooted prejudices, was looked upon with the curious, unmoved intentness of a chemist in an analyzing process.”[31] The chief culprit in peddling these radical political theories was Thomas Jefferson, Dana’s bête noire. “[T]hey speedily grew into the favor and adoption of a certain great man, who has an instinctive yearning for everything prodigious – a man who has cared and thought more about the mammoth, than about a fellow-being; for the very philosophical reason that he is a great deal bigger of the two.”[32] Momentarily, at least, Jefferson and the theorists lost the public ear and were regarded as outliers, “the darling offspring of a set of men, of whom the world knew little, and cared less.”[33] Their isolation ended quickly when a political party system emerged in the 1790s.

The writing of the Philadelphia Constitution ignited a renewed interest in Jeffersonian ideas, all for ill Dana explained. Told they were the equal of anyone, every farmhand, merchant sailor, scheming lawyer, and aspiring country politician developed constitutional theories of their own. Proud and independent Americans devolved into “a people made vain by success” and, led by “thoughtless presumption,” believed themselves the counterparts of Madison and Hamilton.[34] “Constitution-mongers came forth, thick and clamorous, as reptiles after a rain … At the corner of every street, plans of government were brought forward, and discussed, with all the vehemence that pride of opinion could give them.”[35] Failing at molding a constitution to their liking, the Jeffersonians went into opposition against George Washington’s Administration, thus inaugurating “the Spirit of Faction” and a political party system.[36]

Meanwhile, the French Revolution exploded in the 1790s, based on similar philosophies as those of Jefferson, and gave example of its ample corruption and violence. “The Revolution had commenced … having for its object the total subversion of the moral principles of man, and the long-established order of the social state.”[37] Social rank and inequalities were abolished and the general will eclipsed familial and community loyalty. Dana sarcastically observed in Burkean tones:

Old governments were to be overturned; those long rooted prejudices which strengthen a constitution, not by compulsive laws, but by fast and wonted attachments, were to be broken up; [a] universal democracy was to enlighten an abject and gloomy world with its blissful reign, and man, and woman too, were to be held together by the only bond worthy of improved reason, the great and general bond of philanthropy.[38]

Ignoring the gore and fanaticism, Jeffersonian theorists took inspiration from the French example and their “visionary schemes, so early projected in our country, were fast growing into favor.”[39] President Washington and the Federalists, the “party of the intelligent and thoughtful,” held off the storm for a time, but in 1800 the “wild theorists” took over.[40]

This essay is the first in a two-part series.

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[1] Robert A. Ferguson. Law and Letters in American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 244.

[2] Doreen M. Hunter. Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987), 3; Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe. The Later Years of the Saturday Club, 1870-1920 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927), 42.

[3] Hunter, Dana, 4.

[4] Howe, Saturday Club, 39.

[5] Hunter, Dana, 13-16.

[6] Van Wyck Brooks. The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 (Boston: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1936), 113.

[7] Brooks, Flowering, p. 114-115; Hunter, Dana, 28-29.

[8] Hunter, Dana, 39-41.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 56.

[11] Ferguson, Law and Letters, 249.

[12] Hunter, Dana, 62.

[13] The Cambridge History of American Literature: Volume Four, Nineteenth Century Poetry, 1800-1910. Ed. Sacvan Bircovitch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 62.

[14] Ferguson, Law and Letters, 251-252.

[15] Hunter, Dana, 80-81.

[16] Ibid, 85.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 86-87.

[19] Ibid, 92-93, 95-96.

[20] Ibid, 102.

[21] Ibid, 108-109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “The Past and Present” appeared in the American Quarterly Observer in 1833, while “Law as Suited to Man” was printed in the Biblical Repository and Quarterly Observer in 1835. Both were reprinted in Dana’s collected works in 1850.

[24] James Russell Lowell, A Fable for Critics (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1848), 45.

[25] “Richard Henry Dana,” Scribner’s Magazine, v. 18 (New York: Scribner and Company, 1879), 110.

[26] Richard Henry Dana, Sr. Oration Delivered before the Washington Benevolent Society at Cambridge, July 4, 1814 (Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1814), 3.

[27] Richard Henry Dana, Sr., “Law as Suited to Man,” Poems and Prose Writings, Volume II (New York, Baker and Scribner, 1849), 52-53.

[28] Dana, Oration, 3.

[29] Ibid, 4.

[30] Ibid, 5-6.

[31] Ibid, 6.

[32] Ibid, 7.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, 9-10.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 13.

[37] Ibid, 14.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid, 15.

[40] Ibid, 16.

The featured image is of American lawyer/writer/critic Richard Henry Dana, Sr., from The Poets and Poetry of America by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, 16th edition. Published by Parry and McMillan, 1855. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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