About Biographies of Governor Jonathan Belcher
True Merit Such as His Should
Be Remembered Because of the Positive Influence He Had on Others, According to
People Who Actually Knew Him (Their Assessments of His Character Were Overall
"[T]o pass over in silence, true merit, when rendered conspicuous by the honors and dignities of this world, would be injurious to the living, as such characters, when set in a fair light, attract the esteem and engage the imitation of others."
---- President Aaron
Princeton College, speaking of Governor Jonathan Belcher, 1757
The Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: A Time of Accuracy
Biographies written about Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757) in the Colonial and Revolutionary time periods--during or close to his own lifetime--were overall positive. The first biography written about him was by a person who actually knew him, Aaron Burr, Sr. (1715/16-1757), President of Princeton College. (See the First Biography of Jonathan Belcher.) Two years before, in 1755, Governor Belcher was discussed in a standard history of the Colonial period (it was reprinted in 1760): William Douglass, A Summary, Historical and Political, of the First Planting, Progressive Improvements and Present State of the British Settlements in North America...
Even after the American Revolution, the following biography, published during the era of the Young Republic (1809), described Governor Belcher in positive and affectionate terms: William Allen, An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary... (Cambridge, MA: William Hilliard, 1809). A history written during the post-Revolutionary era (the generation of the Young Republic), A Compendious History of New England... (1808 edition), by geographer Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826), had good things to say about Governor Belcher. The post-Revolutionary generation apparently realized that Jonathan Belcher had been an American like themselves, and with America had rested his ultimate sympathies.
Incidentally, Jedidiah Morse was the father of Samuel Morse (1791-1872), inventor of the telegraph, and Jedidiah was a religious and political conservative who resisted advances in Enlightenment skepticism.
The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: Time of Skepticism
Jonathan Belcher often spoke
out against Enlightenment skepticism. It is no surprise that as skepticism
gradually gained a foothold in the late 1860's-90's and at the turn of the
twentieth century, liberals began to write in a more skeptical vein about
Christians, and socialists began to verbally attack economic and social
conservatives. Books and articles written about Governor Belcher during this
time period fell into at least one of those two camps. Because of their
preconceived bias, they do not accurately portray the governor's beliefs and
actions. However, a scholarly historical work published in 1999 by Cornell
University Press predicts that
future studies about Governor Belcher will positively take into account his
religious and social beliefs. This work presents the best description of
Jonathan Belcher to date published by an academic press.
The Twenty-first Century: Back to the Future
that take into account Governor Belcher's religious and social beliefs are
Belcher and Jonathan
Belcher: Christian Governor. They view Jonathan Belcher in a Christian
light, as did the First Biography of Jonathan Belcher,
which was written by one of his contemporaries.
Quotes about Governor Belcher
from Early American Biographies and Histories
[The following is from William Douglass, A
Summary, Historical and Political, of the First Planting, Progressive
Improvements, and Present State of the British Settlements in North America...
(first printed, 1755; reprint, London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1760), Vol. 1, p.
"Jonathan Belcher, Esq;
a native of New England, of a good clear paternal estate, and consequently of a
true natural interest in the country [New England]...."
[The following is from Jedidiah Morse, D.D.
and Rev. Elijah Parish, A.M. of Boston, New England, A Compendious History
of New England... (London, 1808 edition), pp. 178-179]:
"In August, 1730, Mr. Belcher was received with great joy [in his governments of Massachusetts and New Hampshire]..."
governorship,] Mr. Belcher repaired to court, demonstrated his own integrity and
the baseness of his enemies, was appointed governor of New Jersey, passed a
quiet life, and his memory has been treated with merited respect."
[The following is from William Allen, An
American Biographical and Historical Dictionary... (Cambridge, [MA]:
William Hilliard, 1809), pp. 52-54]:
[About Jonathan Belcher]:
"While a member of this institution [Harvard College] his open and pleasant conversation, joined with his manly and generous conduct, conciliated the esteem of all his acquaintance."
"During an absence of six years from his native country he was preserved from those follies, into which inexperienced youth are frequently drawn, and he even maintained a constant regard to that holy religion of which he had early made a profession. He was everywhere treated with the greatest respect. The acquaintance which he formed with the Princess Sophia and her son, afterwards King George II, laid the foundation of his future honors. After his return from his travels he lived in Boston in the character of a merchant with great reputation. He was chosen a member of the council, and the general assembly sent him as an agent of the province to the British court in the year 1729."
"After the death of Governor Burnet, he was appointed by His Majesty to the government of Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1730."
"He had been one of the principal merchants of New England, but he quitted his business on his accession to the chair of the first magistrate [the governorship]. Having a high sense of the dignity of his commission, he was determined to support it even at the expense of his private fortune."
"Frank and sincere,..."
"He also assumed some authority which had not been exercised before [on behalf of the Americans], though he did not exceed his commission [from the king]."
"In this province [New Jersey] his memory has been held in deserved respect.
When he first arrived in this province, he found it in the utmost confusion by tumults and riotous disorders, which had for some time prevailed. This circumstance, joined to the unhappy controversy between the two branches of the legislature, rendered the first part of his administration peculiarly difficult, but by his firm and prudent measures, he surmounted the difficulties of his situation. He steadily pursued the interest of the province, endeavoring to distinguish and promote men of worth without partiality. *** Even under the growing infirmities of age he applied himself with his accustomed assiduity and diligence to the high duties of his office."
"Governor Belcher possessed uncommon gracefulness of person and dignity of deportment. He obeyed the royal instructions on the one hand and exhibited a real regard to the liberties and happiness of the people on the other. He was distinguished by his unshaken integrity, by his zeal for justice, and care to have it equally distributed. Neither the claims of interest, nor the solicitations of friends could move him from what appeared to be his duty. He seems to have possessed, in addition to his other accomplishments, that piety, whose luster is eternal. His religion was not a mere formal thing, which he received from tradition, or professed in conformity to the custom of his country in which he lived; it was real and genuine, for it impressed his heart, and governed his life. He had such views of the majesty and holiness of God, of the strictness and purity of the divine law, and of his own unworthiness and iniquity, as made him disclaim all dependence on his own righteousness, and led him to place his whole hope for salvation on the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ, who appeared to him an all sufficient and glorious Savior. He expressed the humblest sense of his own character and the most exalted views of the rich, free, and glorious grace, offered in the gospel to sinners. His faith worked by love, and produced the genuine fruits of obedience. It exhibited itself in a life of piety and devotion, of meekness and humility, of justice, truth, and benevolence. He searched the holy scriptures with the greatest diligence and delight. In his family he maintained the worship of God, himself reading the volume of truth, and addressing in prayer the Majesty of heaven and of earth as long as his health and strength would possibly admit. In the hours of retirement he held intercourse with heaven [i.e., prayer], carefully redeeming time from the business of this world to attend to the more important concerns of another. Though there was nothing ostentatious in his religion, yet he was not ashamed to avow his attachment to the gospel of Christ, even when he exposed himself to ridicule and censure. When the reverend Mr. [George] Whitefield was at Boston in the year 1740, he treated that eloquent itinerant with the greatest respect. He even followed him as far as Worcester, and requested him to continue his faithful instructions and pungent addresses to the conscience, desiring him to spare neither ministers nor rulers. He was indeed deeply interested in the progress of holiness and religion."
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