Jeremy Belknap (1744–1798) was an Amreican clergyman and historian. He is most recalled today for his "History of New Hampshire", published in three volumes between 1784 and 1792. This work is viewed by some as the first modern history, embodying a new rigor in research, annotation, and reporting.
Jeremy was born in Boston, Massachusetts on June 4, 1744, the son of a tanner. He was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard University, where he graduated in 1762. He became a school master, serving in sevearl posts, but he also devoted himself to the study of theology. In 1767 he began his ministry in Dover, New Hampshire, where he would spend twenty years at the Congregational Church. He also married that year, and acquired a house in Dover.
After the Battle of Lexington in 1775 some units of the Dover militia were called out to support the Siege of Boston. Belknap accompanied them, and remained through the next winter as chaplain to the New Hampshire troops involved with the siege.
History of New Hampshire
Besides attending to his growing congregation, Belknap served as a secretary to the convention of New Hampshire ministers from 1769 until 1787. This position required travel throughout the state, and he used it as a chance to begin accumulating notes on the history of New Hampshire. In 1772 he began to write his history. In 1784 he published the first volume of the "History of New Hampshire", but it would take until 1792 to complete the work. The work was not successful at first, but its reputation grew over the years until, after his death, Alexis de Tocqueville named him as America's best native historian.
The History represented a new approach in its field. Besides just narrating events, he added two innovations. He tried to clearly separate facts from analysis and opinion, and he provided many annotations to show the source and location of records that he had inspected.
Besides his History, Belknap began work on an American biographical dictionary in 1779. This effort caused him to begin corresponding with many of the leading men of letters, politics, and religion throughout the colonies. He would eventually publish his "American Biographies" in two volumes in 1794 and 1798. In the meantime, his efforts brought him to the attention of these intellectual leaders across the country.
Belknap was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1784. Then in 1786 he was nominated to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This latter association also resulted in an offer to return to Boston.
Belknap accepted a new position in 1787, when he moved back to Boston to become pastor of the Federal Street Church. He would serve there until his death. He remained active in research, writing, and promoting American history as a field.
He continued his quest into history, seeking ways to report and preserve historic sources. On January 24, 1791 he invited nine friends with similar interests to meet at his home. They agreed to help build a repository for these records. The meeting resulted in the Massachusetts Historical Society, which was the first Historical Society and served as a prototype for many later ones. They also pledged to contribue family papers. John Elliot even added Governor Thomas Hutchinson's manuscript for the History of Massachusetts Bay, which his father Andrew Eliot had saved during the revolution when a mob looted the governor's home.
In 1792 Belknap published his "An Historical Account of those persons who have been distinguished in America", which was the first of a distinguished line of Dictionaries of American Biography. That same year h became one of the overseers of Harvard University.
Jeremy died in Boston on June 20, 1798 and was buried at The Granary Burial Ground. His remains were later re-interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetary in Cambridge, Massachusetts.