1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Benjamin Church

Samuel Kettell, in Specimens of American Poetry (1829) 1:145-48.



DR. BENJAMIN CHURCH was born in Boston, in 1739, and studied at Harvard College, where he was graduated in 1754. He chose the profession of medicine, which he exercised for many years in his native town, and rose to great eminence as a physician. He appears to have cultivated literary studies with considerable attention, and was the most distinguished among his contemporaries in Boston as a poet. A great number of prose writings also from his pen, upon subjects relating to politics, philology and the like, as well as of a lighter description, attest the versatility of his talent, and the extent of his acquirements. These casual performances are extant for the most part only in newspapers, and other periodical works, and we know of but one of his effusions either in prose or verse, which has occupied a more imposing or durable shape than that of a pamphlet.

Although the general estimation in which his abilities were held, and his own decided taste for letters, might be supposed to have inclined him to strive for eminence as a literary man, yet it does not appear that his labors were directed to this point with any powerful endeavor. His poetical effusions were indebted for their origin on most occasions, to occurrences of local and temporary interest, and never appear to have been put forth in anticipation of the reward of public applause. They were all, we believe, published anonymously.

Dr Church had a high reputation as a poet and political writer previous to the revolution, but his treachery in deserting the American cause has contributed to throw a shade over his talents, and few have since thought of him as a man of science and letters, but only as the recreant to the cause of freedom and his country. His writings, therefore, have fallen into neglect, although his most spirited performance was executed before his political backslidings, and breathes a purely patriotic feeling.

At the commencement of the revolutionary troubles, Church was a staunch whig. His poem upon the Times, as just observed, is perfectly in accordance with the popular feeling at that period. His oration upon the massacre of the fifth of March, is distinguished for its patriotic sentiments, as well as elegance of style. His political essays, no less than his conversation, were in the same strain, and this unreserved devotion to the cause of his country, with his known talents, made him one of the leading politicians of the popular party. He was chosen a member of the Massachusetts Legislature, and on the beginning of the hostilities, received the appointment of physician general of the American army. Although he was known to have kept up a strict intimacy with some of the British officers before this period, yet the reasons he assigned for this, by stating it to be done with a view of obtaining their secrets, removed all suspicion of his insincerity, and at the time of the battle of Lexington, he was one of the committee of safety. But with all this seeming attachment to the American cause, Church was partial to the British interest, and while openly professing the strongest zeal for the popular patriotic measures, he was laboring in secret against them. The patriotic songs current among the people were parodied by him in favor of the British. The political essays which he wrote on the popular side received answers from the same pen in a tory print. In 1775, shortly after the battle of Lexington, he visited the enemy in Boston upon pretence of an errand after medicines for the use of the army; according to the account he gave of his journey after his return, he was made prisoner by the British on entering the town, and carried before General Gage, where he underwent an examination, but it came to be known afterwards, that he visited the British general's house voluntarily, and held a long conference with him.

In October of the same year, his dealings with the enemy were discovered. A letter was intercepted, written in cipher by him to a British officer in Boston, and containing statements of the force of the American army, the designs of the government, the prevailing opinions of the people, conjectures on their ability to resist the British arms, and other varieties of the like intelligence. Church was arrested by order of Washington, and confined till the meeting of the General Court, of which he was then a member. On his examination he did not deny the letter, but endeavored to defend himself by asserting that he gave the information contained therein to the enemy, with a view to impress them with a high opinion of the strength of the Americans, in order that the meditated attack might be delayed till the continental army was stronger. The mode by which this intelligence was transmitted, he had adopted as a means of obtaining knowledge of the British, and he had on several former occasions, he averred, succeeded in thus getting possession of much important information which he has improved to the advantage of the Americans.

This explanation did not avail him, any more than the ardent and unreserved professions of attachment to the cause of the country, which he did not spare during his defence. The House of Representatives declared him guilty of holding a traitorous correspondence with the enemy, and deprived him of his seat. A court of inquiry at Cambridge, consisting of the officers of the army, passed the same judgment of him, and referred the question of his punishment to Congress. A resolve of that body sentence him to close confinement, and he was imprisoned some months in a jail in Connecticut, but his health suffering in this state, he was allowed occasional enlargement, and finally set at liberty. He went to Newport in Rhode Island, where he embarked in 1776 for the West Indies. The vessel in which he sailed was never heard from.