The Oratorical Poetic of Timothy Dwight
Timothy Dwight, always first a minister, came to national prominence twice during his lifetime: Late in the eighteenth century he was known as a self-consciously American poet, and early in the nineteenth he was known as the influential and innovative president of Yale. Bringing to both roles the single purpose of establishing in the new United States his vision of a regenerate nation, Dwight was persistently a Calvinist committed to the concept of a republic. "The primary mean[s] of originating and establishing public happiness, in free communities," he insisted, "is . . . the formation of a good personal character in their citizens." And by "good personal character" he meant "Virtue . . . in that enlarged and evangelical sense, which embraces piety to God, Goodwill to mankind, and the effectual Government of ourselves" ( 1795, 12-13). Those words, preached in his first year as president of Yale, are from The True Means of Establishing Public Happiness, his widely circulated sermon that articulates his concept of American community. Asserting the proposition that "as Public Happiness depends, in this country, at least, on the personal character of its inhabitants . . ., so the promotion of Public Happiness must, in a great measure, rest on personal exertions" (34- 35), Dwight described those exertions in explicitly evangelical terms as "the whole energy of the Deity; of every perfect being [that] may become the whole energy of man." Such "Virtue," he maintained, "of necessity aims at the happiness of Society" (15).
For Dwight, then, public happiness results from individual citizenship that enacts a regenerate sort of virtue that must come of God's grace. And he directed his work at Yale during the first two decades of the nineteenth century toward preparing young men of New England