John Frost as Historian

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John Frost, a Philadelphia school teacher turned writer [Image 8: Portrait of Frost], was born in Kennebunk, Maine, in 1800 and educated at Bowdoin and Harvard. He spent the majority of his early career as a teacher and a principal. When not engaged in the training of minds, Frost pursued his substantial literary ambitions, aspirations that did not always endear him to those of his students who were made to act as “assistants” in his various projects. Accusing Frost of manipulating their children for personal gain, several wealthy parents withdrew their financial support from his school, and he was forced to resign. Frost’s passion for teaching proved “incongruous” with his love of literature, and “literature triumphed.”[13] In the years following his resignation from teaching, John Frost produced hundreds of books for the popular market, including a novel in 1841, Enoch Crosby: or, the Spy Unmasked: A Tale of the American Revolution, as well as travel accounts, captivity narratives, ancient histories, and broad and ambitious compendia with titles such as The Wonders of History, “comprising remarkable battles, sieges, feats of arms, and instances of courage, ability and magnanimity, occurring in the annals of the world, from the earliest ages to the present.” [Image 9: Frontispiece to Wonders of History]

Part of Frost’s incredible productivity was motivated by necessity. Frost was often “in severe bodily pain,” and he spent a good deal of money and time trying to repair physically. He was also the father of ten children, and although a number of them did not survive to maturity, Frost was saddled with financial concerns throughout his career. “Weighed down in his last years by business perplexities and troubles,” he was accused by many of producing “potboilers” in order to generate quick profits.[14]

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As a historian, Frost attempted to overcome the lack of historical material with which to work by advancing an agenda of unabashed nationalism. His expressed goal was to provide a unified vision of the American past as a technique for inspiring readers to act in responsibly “American” ways. Because Americans exercised freedom of choice in nearly all things, he argued, they were receptive to liberty’s promise as revealed by the hand of destiny. His mission, therefore, was “to furnish, within a reasonable compass, a complete history of the United States, suited to the purposes of the general reader.”[15]

This intellectual pursuit was to be accomplished through a “plain and intelligible story” emphasizing the harmony and unity of the American experience. The challenge, both literary and intellectual, he understood, was to develop “a compact and clear” narrative that would emphasize the “singleness” of a unique “national consciousness” while giving recognition to the diversity of the country. An avowed Federalist, this was not always easy for him, especially when it came to evaluating Jeffersonian initiatives objectively. The threat of slavery, with its inherent disregard for the liberty of some, presented another serious challenge to Frost’s vision of unity. Yet Frost deflected the most divisive aspects of the slave question by universalizing the experience of slavery, reminding readers that “slavery was not confined to the natives of Africa and their descendants,” but extended to indentured servitude, the mistreatment of Native Americans, and the abuse of foreign workers. Even in their lapses from liberty, Americans remained unified in attitude and behavior in Frost’s integrated history.[16]

[13] John Langdon Sibley, Collectanea Biographica Harvardiana Collected During the Preparation of the Last Twelve Triennial Catalogues of Harvard University, 1842-1875), vol. 2, n. p.
[14] Ibid. See also “John Frost, 1822, A. M., 1825,” Class Publications and Records,” HUG 300 and HUD 222.00, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[15] Frost, Pictorial History, 2:239.
[16] Ibid., 1:104.