Just after the American Revolution, Hartford had grown from the 100 people who came with Thomas Hooker in 1636 to a thriving community of about 4,000.
The city was essentially a port. The tallest hill had been dug away for fill on the riverfront, a large wharf dominated it, 20 warehouses stood nearby and ships engaged in the cattle and preserved-beef trade with the West Indies and Europe. Inns and barrelmakers' shops had sprung up, as had the more sophisticated European invention for the consumption of a new stimulant: the coffeehouse.
As in London, which was, after all, the national capital in those days, educated men met in these coffeehouses to smoke, imbibe java and discuss literature and politics. One group in Hartford grew to national fame. They are almost entirely unread today - some would say deservedly.
First known as the Wicked Wits, then the Hartford Wits and sometimes the Connecticut Wits (because some of their number only came to Hartford as visitors), they had been students together at Yale. They found themselves on the same side in many issues, particularly the rights of New England merchants, who protested the taxes being imposed by Parliament. The term "wit" in the 18th century meant sort of funny, but in a mean way, tinged with intellect.
John Trumbull had won prominence during the Revolution by writing "M'Fingal," a long epic poem satirizing the Tories, Americans who remained loyal to Britain. He had prominent relatives in Connecticut, with confusingly similar names: John Trumbull the painter, and Jonathan Trumbull the governor. Squire M'Fingal (M' was another way of writing Mc) was presented as attending a town meeting and engaging in long and witty debate with the revolutionaries. The debate roils through dozens of pages and ends with his being tarred and feathered by the Sons of Liberty.
nd now the feather-bag display'd
Is waved in triumph o'er his head,
And spreads him o'er with feathers missive,
And down upon the tar adhesive."
In the poem's most famous two lines, the "halter" is the hangman's noose:
"No man e'er felt the halter draw
With good opinion of the law."
The book was wildly popular and ran through 30 editions. Trumbull was a lawyer who worked for a time as a clerk in John Adams' office in Boston. He came to Hartford in 1781.
Dr. Lemuel Hopkins ("Epitaph on a Patient Killed by a Cancer Quack") and Richard Alsop arrived shortly afterward. Col. David Humphreys, who had been an aide to George Washington, was a visitor. Joel Barlow came to town to publish a newspaper, which flopped. Timothy Dwight and his brother Theodore also visited.
"During the few years that they were there together, a club holding weekly meetings for social and literary communion, they represented a concentration of talent as had not hitherto existed in any American town," wrote Yale scholar Henry A. Beers in 1886.
It was a time when Federalists and Jeffersonian Democrats were feuding over the shape the new nation should take - strong central government or decentralized Utopia. And the Hartford Wits, like most of New England, were firmly on the Federalist side. They saw bad news in Shay's Rebellion by farmers in nearby Massachusetts, and in the currency squabbles of the new states. In 1786, they began publishing what purported to be sections of a prophetic epic found in the newly explored Indian mounds of Ohio, "The Anarchiad."
It was written by Trumbull, Barlow, Humphries and Hopkins and ran as a series in the New Haven Gazette, the last installment coming just before the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. (Other of this group's writings, such as "Guillotina" and "The Political Green-House," were published in the virulently Federalist Courant, which President Jefferson sued for libel.)
hat countless imps shall throng the new-born States!
See, from the shades, on tiny pinions swell
Hartford Wits -- Or Were They?
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