George Willis Cooke, “William Batchelder Greene”

“WILLIAM BATCHELDER GREENE” from George Willis Cooke’s Historical and Biographical Introduction to the Rowfant Club reprint of The Dial (Cleveland, 1902)

[NOTE: There is considerable disagreement among sources about the particulars of Greene’s literary output. Titles and dates in this account may be unreliable. In particular, poetry volumes attributed to Greene, such as “Imogen,” may be the work of his son, also William Batchelder Greene.

In the third number of the second volume of “The Dial” was printed an article on “First Principles” by William Batchelder Greene, then minister of the Unitarian church at Brookfield, Mass. This was his only contribution to “The Dial,” but his life was of such interest, and so fully illustrates some of the tendencies of the time, that it may be told with some detail. James Freeman Clarke described him as “the author of various profound metaphysical, theological, and politico-economical works” and Col. T. W. Higginson mentions him as being “strikingly handsome and mercilessly opinionated.” Mrs. Ednah D. Cheney says he was a “master of logic, and almost rivaled Socrates in winding an adversary up into a complete snarl.” [see text at end of post]

Greene was born in Haverhill, Mass., April 4, 1819. His father was Nathaniel Greene, who edited newspapers in Concord and Portsmouth, N. H., and Haverhill, Mass., and in 1821 established the “Boston Statesman,” the leading Democratic newspaper of the State for many years. He was post-master of Boston from 1829 to 1840 and from 1845 to 1849. In the latter year he went to Paris, where he was engaged in literary work to 1861, after which time be lived in Boston until his death, November 29, 1877. He wrote much for the periodicals of the day, mostly under the name of “Boscawen.” He translated G. Sporzosi’s “History of Italy,” 1836; “Tales from the German,” 1837; “Tales from the German, Italian, and French,” 1843; and published “Improvisations” in 1852. Young Greene entered the West Point Military Academy, July 1, 1835, and continued his studies there until November 15, 1837, when he resigned without graduation, on account of ill-health. He was in the Florida war, being commissioned second lieutenant in the Seventh U. S. Infantry, July 18, 1839, and resigned November 20, 1841.

”He told me himself,” writes Elizabeth P. Peabody in her ”Reminiscences of Dr. Channing,” that he had been commissioned at nineteen years of age and sent to the Florida war; and he had just been permitted to resign, because the surgeon of the army had pronounced him ill, with even small chance to get home to die. I learned later that he had graduated at West Point with high honors, was a profound mathematician, a keen student of the science of war and reader of military biography, especially of that of Napoleon Bonaparte. Otherwise he had little literary culture, his reading having been largely Lord Byron’s and Shelley’s poetry. ‘Queen Mab,’ he said, had been his gospel; and his theology also was Shelley’s,–namely, that God is merely a complex of the laws of Nature. But his life in Florida had brought him to deeper truth. He was lieutenant to the celebrated Captain Bonneville, whose Indian imperturbability of temperament, iron will, and despotic habits made an immense impression on his imagination, and commanded his admiration. Captain Bonneville soon left him in command of a regiment of desperadoes (who were, however, condignly ignorant), and had counseled him to keep himself entirely aloof from their familiarity, in order to preserve the prestige of his authority. In the long intervals between short periods of intense military activity, he was alone in his tent with only his books and thoughts, and was knowing to gigantic crimes being perpetrated by the State government of Florida, which wholly misled and hoodwinked the distant central government. In one of his meditations on Captain Bonneville’s and his own power over his men, he said to himself: ‘These brutal men are governed, not by, the complex of my thoughts, nor by the complex of the laws of Nature, of which they know nothing, but by me,–a self-determining force, a free spirit, a person.’ And at once it flashed like lightning upon him, ‘And God is behind the complex of the laws of Nature,–a self-acting, free, supreme, infinite Person, to whom all finite persons are responsible.’ He started from his seat, seized ‘Queen Mab,’ and flung it from the door of his tent into the far distance; and then rushed to his valise and took out the Bible that his mother had put into it when he left home, and for the first time opened it. He could not believe that it was by blind chance his eye fell on the words from Isaiah quoted by Christ in the synagogue of Nazareth on the day he commenced his ministry: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ As he read these words he thought he heard a roar of artillery, and sprang to the door of his tent–to find that the roar was within his own soul! He then told of his reading the New Testament, and his study of the action of Jesus, and of the apostles after the Spirit had brought to their minds and interpreted to them the words of Jesus. Soon the desire arose in his own mind to leave the sphere of unhallowed activity in which he found himself, and to become a minister of Christ. So he prayed that God would take him out of his present bonds, for he could not himself break the oath of the soldier. ‘And God has answered my prayer,’ said he, ‘and delivered me by means of this malarial fever, which incapacitates me as a soldier. I have not died, as the surgeon predicted I should; and already I have begun my theological studies in a private and desultory way, by studying out the history of the dogmas of the Christian Church, beginning with the Trinity.'”

It may be that this account is somewhat highly colored, but it gives the essential facts. After leaving Florida, Greene was for a short time at Brook Farm, and then he entered the Baptist Theological School at Newton. His studies led him to question some of the beliefs of the denomination with which he was connected, and especially that of the Trinity. He entered the Harvard Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1845, was ordained at Brookfield November 5 of the same year, and continued there until April 1, 1851. He then withdrew from the profession with which he had been connected, and devoted the rest of his life to reforms and to literary occupations. He married a daughter of Robert G. Shaw, a merchant prince of Boston, and a sister of Quincy Shaw.

Greene was a vigorous thinker and writer, much given to controversy, keenly logical, and with a love for metaphysical reasoning. During the period of his ministry he published a number of pamphlets, all of them controversial in their nature. The first of these was on the “Doctrine of Life,” and appeared in 1843. It was an expansion of his article in “The Dial,” and presented the same ideas in a somewhat different form, as a result of changes of opinion. It was rather conservative, with a leaning towards transcendentalism. In 1847 and the following year he published pamphlets on the Trinity and Incarnation, and also a refutation of Jonathan Edwards’ theories in regard to freedom of the will. In these works he presented himself as distinctly a Unitarian, but with a marked love for independence and for criticism. In 1849 he sent out a pamphlet on “Transcendentalism,” dedicated to Emerson. His definitions would not have been acceptable to the leaders of that school, and they indicate that he was far from being. committed to the acceptance of its main positions. “Transcendentalism,” he wrote, “is that form of philosophy which sinks God and Nature in man.” Again: “A transcendentalist never reasons; he describes what he sees from his own point of view. So the word ‘transcendentalist’ relates not to a system of doctrines, but to a point of view; from which, nevertheless, a system of doctrines may be visible. This explains to us why so many, notwithstanding their desire, have been unable to read the writings of the new school. They have tried to find a system of doctrines when they ought to have looked for a point of view.” “Transcendentalism affirms,” he continues, “that the soul creates all things–man, the universe, all forms, all changes, and that this wonderful power is possessed by each individual soul.” Then Greene begins to make his logic bear upon the metaphysical habits of the transcendentalists, and he shows to what they are brought by their own premises, to conclusions not acceptable to any of them. He goes on to say: “The man, therefore, who has attained to right knowledge is aware that there is no such thing as an individual soul. There is but one soul, which is the Over Soul, and this one soul is the animating principle of all bodies. When I am thoughtless, and immersed in things which are seen, I mistake the person who is writing this notice for myself; but when I am wise this illusion vanishes like the mists of the morning, and then I know that what I thought to be myself was only one of my manifestations, only a mode of my existence. It is I who bask in the day, grow in the tree, and murmur in the passing brook. Think not, my brother, that thou art diverse and alien from myself; it is only while we dwell in the outward appearance that we are two; when we consider the depths of our being, we are found to be the same, for the same self, the same vital principle animates us both (we speak as a transcendentalist). I create the universe, and thou, also, my brother, created the same; for we create not two universes, but one, for we two have but one soul: there is but one creative energy, which is above, and under, and through all.” Then he discusses the several types of transcendentalism, as seen in India and in such men as Boehme. In conclusion, he states his own position “as Spiritual life in Christ by making him, his truth, his doctrine, our nourishment, even as we sustain our natural lives by partaking of natural food.” In a fourth edition of the pamphlet, published in 1871, Greene more clearly defines his own position, when he says: A little thought will convince the reader that the theory that the soul builds the body is as plausible and as probable as the other doctrine, that the body builds the soul. In short, subjective-idealism is just as true as materialism; and, we may add, just as false. As is evident, if we start with man alone, our reasoning will leave us, at the end, in transcendentalism (subjective-idealism); and if we take our departure in nature alone, we end, of necessity, in materialism; both partial, exclusive, and inadequate systems. The fact is, the body builds the soul, and the soul builds the body; but (we will permit ourselves to add) it is God who builds both.” His metaphysical studies found expression in a volume published by Greene in Boston during the ear 1849, which he called “Remarks on the Science of History,” followed by an “A Priori Autobiography.” This work show ed a decided mystical tendency, and was an attempt to interpret history in the light of individual spiritual experiences. In the form of the personal experiences and ideas of a man living at each of the great epochs of human history he summed up the psychological and spiritual growth of the race in civilization. His metaphysics did not desert Greene when he became a student of economics, as may be seen in three or four works he published on banking and finances. His first book of this kind was published in Brookfield, in 1850, on “Mutual Banking,” and was a discussion of the nature of money, banking, and usury. He seems to have been largely influenced in his theories by the French socialists or mutualists, and he was especially influenced by Proudhon. Its practical purpose was to secure from the Massachusetts legislature a law permitting the inhabitants of towns or a group of towns to do their own banking, and to issue money in the form of promissory notes, secured by the farms of the shareholders. He was able to induce the inhabitants of Brookfield, Ware, Warren, and adjoining towns to petition the General Court, in 1850 and 1851, for a law permitting the establishing of such a mutual banking system as he proposed. He printed a series of letters in the “Worcester Palladium ” advocating his scheme, and these were published in a pamphlet under the title of “Equality.” In this pamphlet he said that banks created inequality between citizens, and that Massachusetts had become essentially socialistic in its control of the property of its citizens, or, more properly, plutocratic. The substance of these pamphlets, with additions, appeared in a volume published in Boston in 1857, with the title: “The Radical Deficiency of the Existing Circulating Medium and the Advantages of a Mutual Currency.” Greene’s political activities led to his being made a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1803, but he was not able to secure recognition for any of his special theories.

After 1853, Greene lived in Paris for several years, and returned at the opening of the Civil War. He was appointed the Colonel of the Fourteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, July 5, 1861. This regiment became the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery on the first day of January, 1862. He had control of the Long Bridge that led from Washington into Virginia, and of Fort Runion and Fort Albany, that protected this bridge and the aqueduct that supplied the city with water. In the “Diary and Correspondence” of James Freeman Clarke is an interesting account of his visit to this command, in November, 1861. Subsequently Greene had command of an artillery brigade. In the autumn of 1862 he came into conflict with General J. S. Wadsworth, Military Governor of the District of Columbia, and John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts, who interfered with his command, as he claimed. In his letter of resignation he also said that Major Andrew Washburn of his regiment had been court-martialled by inferior officers as the result of such interference on the part of Wadsworth and Andrew. His resignation took effect October 11, 1869. After this he acted as a volunteer aid to General Butler in the campaign before Petersburg, and also at Bermuda Hundred.

Greene then took up his residence in Boston and its neighborhood for n number of years. In 1861 he published a large pamphlet on ” Consciousness as Revealing the Existence of God, Man, and Nature.” This was followed, in 1866, by a translation of  “Job,” with notes, intended to give a fresh interpretation of this Oriental poem. In 1868 appeared a pamphlet on ” The Sovereignty of the People,” a defence of the rights of the people as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights of the several State constitutions. “The legal peoples,” he said, “and not Congress, are the true sovereign. It is the freedom of speech and of the press, the enjoyment of liberty and property, and the pursuit of happiness, which is to be ranked as of the natural right, and which is guaranteed as such by the State constitutions. If the legal peoples govern the governments, public opinion governs the legal peoples; and public opinion is formed by women and non-voters as well as by men and voters.” In the same year he appeared as an advocate of paper money, but as guaranteed by land-values.

In 1870 Greene published “Explanations of the Theory of the Calculus,” and he wrote other pamphlets on mathematical subjects, his ability in this direction being very considerable. His skill in logic appears in a pamphlet on “The Facts of Consciousness and the Philosophy of Mr. Herbert Spencer.” This is a sharp criticism of Spencer’s position, and of his failure to base his philosophy on the facts of consciousness, as Greene claims. His own point of view is thus stated: “It is the life of the soul, and that life only, which is immediately perceived in consciousness. What is the life of the soul? Observation in consciousness teaches us that it is a life of intelligence; that it consists mainly in immediate knowing; for if we feel or will, we know that we feel, and know that we will. More careful and somewhat painful observation teaches us that there is not only a life of the soul, but also something that is alive, –a knower. This knower perceives itself as subject, never as object, and as an intelligence; and this immediate perception or intuition of active and spontaneous intelligence is the only adequate knowledge the soul has of intelligence. If the soul attribute intelligence to other beings, it does so by induction only, and in the light of its intuitive notion of intelligence. The soul also perceives itself as one in the strictest sense of the word ‘unity’. It has also intuitions of ideality and diversity. We might continue this enumeration through a detailed list of a thousand and one other intuitions, all of them unscientific in the sense that they are above science, and conditions without which science would be impossible. Such is the genesis of first truths.”

Among other subjects on which Greene wrote were: “The Blazing Star,” with an appendix treating of the “Jewish Kabbala;” a reply to Dr. E. H. Clarke on ” Sex in Education;” and a letter to the Minister of King’s Chapel on the condition of the working-people of Boston. He published “Imogen and Other Poems,” 1871; and “Cloud-Rifts at Twilight,” 1878. “Imogen” is a well written tale in verse, with considerable lyric power. Greene was not a poet, but he had a considerable facility in the production of verses. In 1875 he brought together, under the title of ”Socialistic, Communistic, Mutualistic, and Financial Fragments,” about a dozen of his essays that had previously appeared in pamphlet form. These related wholly to one phase or another of his social theories, including his system of mutual banking, free-love and marriage, and the status of the working classes. The volume concludes with an address of the Boston section (French-speaking) of “The Working-People’s International Association,” written by Greene, revised by the officers of that organization, and read to the New England Labor Reform League, at its session for 1873. He was the vice-president and chairman of the executive committee of the Labor Reform League, and he seems to have been active in the International. While he thus associated himself with the socialists, he appears to have been inclined to accept the theories of the anarchists as then represented in this country by E. H. Heywood, editor of “The Word,” published at Princeton, Mass., and vigorously devoted to anarchism. To that journal he was a contributor, though he did not accept all the theories it represented. To the furtherance of the interests of working-men he gave much attention and enthusiasm, largely identifying himself with their propaganda His theories in this direction appear in his International address, wherein he says: `’ The working-man ought to have the whole of his fair earnings; but he cannot have this whole if other parties are paid the triple or the quadruple of what they respectively earn. . . . What is required at the present time is not so much equality before the laws as equal laws: that is to say, laws that do not themselves bring forth and perpetuate inequality.”

Greene was well known to most of the transcendentalists, though his extreme views were not acceptable to many of them. In November, 1841, Margaret Fuller wrote to Emerson: “How did you like the military-spiritual-heroic-vivacious phoenix of the day?” This was a very good description of Greene, for he was zealous, eccentric, arbitrary, and mystical, and very entertaining in conversation. He was one of the four persons who addressed the Town and Country Club during the brief period of its existence; and he frequently attended other gatherings of the transcendentalists. At one of Alcott’s conversations the subject was the “Angelic and Demonic Man,” a favorite topic with him. He described the angelic man as blond, of nervous temperament, with blue eyes, contemplative, intuitive; in fact, gave a very good description of himself. Then he described the demonic man as being strong, with dark eyes and hair, with great energy and will power, his eyes full of fire. This portrait was a very good one of Greene, who sat directly in front of the speaker. The company present saw the application being made, and waited eagerly for the outcome of the encounter sure to result. Alcott went on: “The demonic man is logical, loves disputation and argument, he smokes,” etc. Then Greene asked: “But has not the demonic man his value?” “Oh, yes,” was the reply, “the demonic man is good in his place, very good,–he is good to build railroads; but I do not like to see him in pulpits, begging Mr. Greene’s pardon.” Then Greene began to ask questions, which Alcott answered calmly and smilingly. But these questions were subtly logical and calculated to wind the speaker up until he confessed to absurdities and was evidently defeated. The combat went on, and with a growing interest on the part of the audience. Just as Greene had brought his victim to a reductio ad absurdum Alcott soared away into one of the most eloquent of his flights of impressive speech, leaving Greene and his logical apparatus quite out of sight. When Louisa Alcott was asked what good angel saved her father from the merciless defeat Greene had prepared for him, she replied: ” Oh, he knew well enough what he was about.”

Greene spent the last years of his life in England, and he died at Weston-super-Mare, May 30, 1878. He showed forth, as perhaps no one else did, the individualistic tendencies of transcendentalism. He was opinionated, dogmatic, and combative. These characteristics were well described by one of his friends: “Those who knew Mr.. Greene intimately could not but wonder at the fatality which prevented him from making that mark on the public mind which he made on all the individual minds that came within the sphere of his influence. In personal intercourse he was delightful, stimulating the thinking powers of his companions, while often astounding them by his paradoxes. He became intellectually a come-outer of the most resolute kind. He affronted all accredited notions and conventional standards in a way that amazed even radicals. In his laughing, imperious fashion he told Theodore Parker, at a time when Parker was the horror of all New England orthodoxy in religion and cautiousness in politics, that be regretted to find him such a rotten conservative; and Garrison and Phillips he spoke of as brave and earnest sentimentalists, but men who had small logical faculty to perceive the necessary results of their own propositions regarding the rights of man, and of no account as thinkers.

“In truth, Mr. Greene was the most inexorable of logicians, and had the audacity and intrepidity to accept all the consequences of any theory he adopted. He was one of the most original of American metaphysicians. He had studied the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, and had delved down to the central idea of each of these masters in philosophy.

“His wit, humor, geniality, the essential sweetness underlying his argumentative habit, his grand indifference to everything which interfered with or assumed to check his independence, the cordiality of soul which ran through all his blunt contradictions of some of my most cherished ideals, and his friendly interest in everything I was employed upon for the moment, are things I shall never forget. I never met him without a renewed wonder at the increased amount of his generalized knowledge, and at the reach and depth of his philosophical thinking. By the character of his mind he could never be a conformist. His individuality became more and more aggressive and untamable as he grew older. He was intended for a great man, but some subtle element in his nature prevented him from realizing the distinction to which his powers evidently pointed.”



From Edna Dow Cheney, “Reminiscences of Mr. Alcott’s Conversations,” The Open Court 2 no. 23 (August 2, 1888): 1133.

But [Bronson Alcott’s] most remarkable passage of arms that I remember was with the late Col. Greene. Col. Greene was a master of the art of logic and almost rivaled Socrates in his skill in winding an adversary up into -a complete snarl. Of course, he was quite antipathetic to Mr. Alcott. On one occasion, Mr. Alcott described the demonic man and it was point for point a portrait of Mr. Greene, then Reverend and not Colonel, who sat directly before him. “The demonic man is strong, he has dark hair and eyes, his eye is full of fire, he has great energy, strong will. He is logical, and loves disputation and argument. The demonic man smokes, etc.” The company silently made the application, but Mr. Greene said, “But has not the demonic man his value?” “ Oh, yes!” said Mr. Alcott, “ the demonic man is good in his place, very good, he is good to build railroads, but I do not quite like to see him in pulpits, begging Mr. Greene’s pardon.”

Mr. Greene took the thrust very pleasantly but sharpened his weapons for a retort. On the first convenient occasion he had a string of questions arranged so artfully that while beginning very simply, they would inevitably lead to a reductio ad absurdum, if Mr. Alcott answered them frankly, according to his theory. Mr. Alcott replied with a simple affirmative or negative as Mr. Greene had planned, until the company began to perceive his intention, and that if the next question were answered as it must be, Mr. Alcott would be driven to the wall. The question was put, but instead of the simple answer, Mr. Alcott began to talk, and that most delightfully. He soared higher and higher, as if he had taken the wings of the morning, and brought us all the glories of heaven. I believe none of us could tell what he said, but we listened in rapture. Mr. Greene sat with one finger crossed upon another waiting for a pause to put in his question, but the time never came, his opponent was borne away in a cloud far out of sight.

I always queried whether this was intentional, or whether his good angel carried him away, but. Louisa said, “O, he knew well enough what he was about.”


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