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  • "Proper Subjects for Public Inquiry":The First Unitarian Controversy and the Transformation of Federalist Print Culture
  • Neil Brody Miller (bio)

In November 1804, a pseudonymous group of writers addressed the readers of the Columbian Centinel and Massachusetts Federalist regarding the solicitation of public funds for a proposed chair in natural philosophy at Harvard College. While "Several Subscribers" lauded the plan as a "useful design," they also charged the solicitors with failing to provide readers with all the information needed to form a sound opinion of the project. "Without a clear public understanding of this business in all its parts," warned the authors, an otherwise sound proposal "will be in danger of being defeated."

The novelty of publicly criticizing Harvard College, a quasi-private institution, was not lost on these writers. While the political unrest of the 1790s and early 1800s significantly broadened New England's print culture, Boston's High Federalists remained wedded to what John L. Brooke describes as a deferential, "classical public sphere" in which controversy was abhorred and consensus presupposed ("Ancient Lodges" 277–78, 283, 296–97). The press in general was held in low esteem as a forum unfit for high-minded civil discourse.1 Accordingly, "Several Subscribers" self-consciously addressed the Harvard solicitors in the conservative High Federalist idiom of deferential public speech. "[T]he original and important design of a Newspaper," "Several Subscribers" asserted, "is best answered by discussing important things, and general concerns, with decency and candor." "Happy is that people, who dwell in a country like ours," they continued, "where, in the bosom of liberty, the Citizen or Subject can safely discuss in a public and impartial paper, any topic interesting to his country, whether it be its commerce, its government, its science, or even its religion, provided the discussion be conducted with strict decorum, perfect fairness, and undeviating rectitude."

Published in the next issue of the Centinel, the solicitors' response left [End Page 101] little doubt that they dismissed outright any questioning of their cultural authority. An outline of the proposal had been printed, and as the Harvard committee soliciting subscriptions was not "conscious of any concealment or misrepresentation," the anonymous writer rejected "the necessity . . . of bringing the subject, at present, before the Public" (Anon., 24 November 1804).

This brief, seemingly unremarkable exchange marks a critical moment in the transformation of New England's print culture and of the public Christianity of New England's Congregational clergy. Deference aside, the "Several Subscribers" charge to the Harvard solicitors to "lay the whole of their design before the public," sounded a novel, discordant note within New England Federalism. Nor were "Several Subscribers" alone in voicing their discontent. As the writers undoubtedly were aware, citizens of Massachusetts had been engaged for the past two months in another controversy involving Harvard College. Since September 1804, writers in the Columbian Centinel had grown increasingly critical of the Harvard Corporation for having failed to elect a new Hollis Professor of Divinity following the death in August 1803 of the Rev. Dr. David Tappan. Uncertain whether the year-long delay in naming Tappan's successor fully justified publicizing their concerns, these pseudonymous authors self-consciously articulated a critical, interrogatory role for the press while remaining formally within the normative bounds of High Federalist public discourse.

Overshadowed by the later stages of what has become known as the first Unitarian Controversy, the Centinel letters of 1804 offer tantalizing clues to the existence of a contest within Federalist print culture to define and to determine the course of New England's post-Revolutionary public sphere. In the resulting controversy Boston's Liberal or Unitarian ministers and evangelical, moderate Calvinists sought to advance radically dissimilar "cultural projects."2 Alarmed over Jeffersonian successes and fearful of the growing movement for religious disestablishment, High Federalists and the Liberal ministers with whom they were allied constructed a network of exclusive private societies and cultural institutions to offset their declining social and political authority. Through such means, High Federalists sought to retain the privileged access to the public sphere they had traditionally enjoyed as New England's "speaking aristocracy." From their early success in maintaining control of Harvard College, through the founding of the Boston...


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