The First Founders: The Puritans

Has it taken this long to get a post up here about the Puritans?

These people are my special field in American history. I find them fascinating, and the more I study the more I realize they are particularly responsible for the founding of the United States as a representative democracy.

This point of view has had its ups and downs. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Puritans were mistakenly venerated as democratic people who inevitably created a democratic nation. Since midcentury, this view has been abandoned, and scholars have done a 180 to say the Puritans were freaks who had nothing to do with democracy in America, other than representing the polar opposite of freedom and democracy.

My own research on the Puritans began as I studied the history of the original church in my New England town. I am not a native New Englander, and I didn’t have much interest in the Puritans. But as I studied the history of this church (going back to the 1630s), I became engrossed. Since then, I have devoted my personal research to the Puritans as a whole.

I don’t want to give away my whole paper before I present it, but the kernel of my thesis is that the Puritan reliance on and promotion of lay authority within a context of progress toward salvation was crucial to the development of political culture in New England. The laity had power only within a clearly laid-out system, for specific purposes; it was managed by ministers and could be legitimately wielded only to achieve its specific aims. Sounds like the power of the people within a democracy.

This religious structure carried over to the Puritan legal structure, with elected magistrates and members of the General Court chosen to fulfill the aims of a Puritan polity. When this was hobbled by the revocation of the original charter, and New England became a royal colony under English control, the average New Englander developed a strong loyalty to her Puritan identity as a way of maintaining independence while under English control.

Puritanism was a vital if embattled force in New England through the 1760s, when men like John Adams turned their energies to politics and away from religion because of the infighting going on in the Puritan church.  But even though they chose law over the pulpit, the leaders of our Revolution applied the same logic and purpose of the Puritans to the formation of our democracy.

Well, that’s my thumbnail. Jump in!

2 thoughts on “The First Founders: The Puritans

  1. Hello John! The thing about the Puritans is that they believed that government was the way to get things done. In Elizabethan England, they joined Parliament and tried to work through government to reform not just religion, but the state. Puritans wanted to do away with poverty and create an economy where everyone could contribute and benefit. They were unsuccessful in England. But in New England, where they were able to create a Puritan polity, they gloried in their elected magistracy and General Court, and elected members who would further that political and social reformation.

    So rule in New England was automatically rule of the godly, but the government was not a tool to further religion. There was a separation of church and state in that way. Ministers did not serve as politicians (barring some exceptions in the 1670s),and the state had no control at all over what individual churches/congregations did.

    The Puritans also believed in the power of intellectual debate (“argument,” as they called it) to come to agreement on issues. They never stopped assessing and reassessing who they were and what they wanted and how to get it. And they were extremely flexible about compromise and changing course. That certainly is a trait handed down to the Founding generation.


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