Happy New Year 2009!

I wish I had something historical to say about this, like “the Puritans didn’t celebrate New Year” or “during the Civil War there was a New Year truce,” but I have nothing, so this post will be unusually about the present day.

Oh; well, I can mention the fact that March 1 was New Year’s Day for the Puritans, because Protestant countries did not want to accept the January 1 New Year that the pope reinstituted in 1582, him being Catholic and all. But mostly, I wish everyone well in 2009, a year sure to feature much Puritan-like difficulty, resolution, and joy.

Holiday Inn–never okay!

The New York Times has been running an end-of-year appreciation of classic holiday movies. Today, A. O. Scott actually appreciated the Bing Crosby movie “Holiday Inn.”

I have already expressed my view of this movie in this blog. Its (horribly) extended blackface song sequence, with whites singing in “Negro dialect” about “Fadder Abraham” is unconscionable, sickening, and impossible to excuse or rationalize. A. O. Scott does both.

The problem with this terrible racist scene, for Scott, is that it  “dates” the film “somewhat”, and makes it “unpalatable” for “current sensibilities.” But “it’s important to remember that this movie is more than 65 years old.” Problem solved! My current sensibility is satisfied now.

Racism is never excusable because there was simply never a time in history when people did not know racism was used to hurt and oppress others. And frankly, to excuse a movie playing when people I know were alive for being from some ancient, distant time (65 years ago) is beyond lame. There is no place for accepting and softening crap like this in the United States of America at any time, but perhaps especially now.

So this “pure, confectionary diversion” may work for you if you’re not black and you don’t have a current sensibility; otherwise, skip it.

Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathy

I just finished my Delbanco book and it strikes me that most historians who write about the Puritans just don’t like them, deep down inside, and this colors their history.

Of course, it’s not as if liking a group makes your history better than disliking a group. Ideally, you try to be as objective as possible.

But that objectivity is hard to come by when you’re reading about the Puritans. A schadenfreude creeps in and eventually sets the overall tone fast in a kind of head-shaking ruing of the Puritans and their crazy ways. Almost any book you read about the Massachusetts Bay Colony gives you the feeling that it was an immediate failure, that the moment those people set foot on shore in America they started betraying their own values. Blame is laid at the door of their religion, inevitably; a religion that crazy was just bound to fail.

It’s funny, because MBC was very successful. It established dominance over all New England, Boston was the major American port for decades, and overpopulation was almost immediately a problem. The MBC Puritans finally codified their religion in writing (the New England Way), something that had eluded or been deemed impossible by English Puritans, they settled two strong challenges to their Way (Antinomianism and the Halfway Covenant), created a representative legislature and judiciary, and wrote down a code of civil law (something the English Parliament tried to force the king to do to no avail).

But in most religious histories of the Puritans of the MBC, they are portrayed as psychologically tortured, religiously intolerant, crippled by self-doubt, paralyzed by uncertainty and fear of eternal punishment. You’d never know this was the place that invented flip, the fun rum drink with sizzling cream.

Meanwhile, the other crazy zealots in America, the Quakers, come off as lovely and wonderful, and full of success, when in fact their single colony immediately and completely betrayed its founder’s principles as soon as he died, and the Quaker faith henceforth had nothing to do with the government of Pennsylvania.

Because the later, 18th and especially 19th century Quakers were antislavery pacifists, we like them. We’re in sympathy with them. We ignore that fact that in the 17th century, they were as unpleasant and dictatorial about religion as any Puritan might be. I am greatly indebted to Tom Van Dyke at American Creation for this description of 17th-century Quakers in America:

[Roger] Williams spent much of his final decades in protracted debates with Quaker missionaries and refugees to Rhode Island, and what caused him to be so exasperated with his Quaker opponents was primarily their violation of [the] aspect of civility, the need to conduct public conversation respectfully. …Williams was taken aback by his Quaker opponents’ boisterous behavior and abandonment of common courtesy during the debates. He vehemently objected to their habit of interrupting his arguments, shouting him down, attempting to humiliate him personally with name-calling and ridicule, misrepresenting his convictions, and displaying a noted lack of truthfulness in their own arguments. …[To Williams] this behavior was not, as the Quakers insisted, an acceptable exercise of free conscience. Instead it was a moral violation of the basic requirements of civility, a signal of deep disrespect and a transgression of the procedural rules for public deliberation that Williams held with the highest esteem, so much so that he was willing to entertain the possibility that violators of civility like the Quakers should be subject to legal restrictions.

If you could get Roger Williams so far on your bad side that he was willing to restrict your liberties, you know you’re pretty extreme.

So while of course you can never completely erase your own biases when studying anything, including history, we need to at least be upfront about them. If only Puritan historians would just include a Foreword saying, “Look, I hate these people, but they’re an important part of American history, so we need to study them, but frankly I’m glad they got what they deserved in the long run–oblivion.”

My foreword would be different…  as you can guess!

(For more on the battle between Puritans and Quakers, see The Puritans and Freedom of Religion.)

The Puritans and their ridiculous beliefs… in 1776

I’m reading The Puritan Ordeal by Andrew Delbanco, and while the book is focused on the Puritan religious beliefs in the 17th century, one can’t help reading it as a treatise on American political beliefs in the 18th century.

–The Puritans “impute all faults and corruptions, wherewith the world aboundeth, unto the kind of ecclesiastical government established.” And in 1776, all faults and corruptions would be imputed to the kind of political government established.

–“[The Puritans] had a deep desire to believe in human moral capability. …Virtue, like a muscle or a limb, required continual strengthening through exercise.” Just as the Founders believed in the ability of humans to improve themselves and their condition, and believed fervently in the need for regular exercise of democratic virtue.

–“[Some contemporaries of the Puritans felt] they were fanatics who held out the fantastic promise of renovating human nature by effecting institutional change [within the church].” In 1776, it was institutional change in government that offered the ridiculous promise of utterly changing mankind.

In short, the Puritan conviction that the right religious practice could perfect the human soul, end poverty, curtail crime, alter human nature, and change the course of human history, putting it on a teleological path to utopian paradise on Earth, is almost indistinguishable from what the Founding generation believed the right form of government, in this case representative democracy, could do.

It is natural for us today to feel the Puritan reliance on religion was personal and uninformed, while we honor the Founders’ identical beliefs because the Founders transferred the process of perfecting humankind from religion to politics.

But Puritan religion was political, in the sense that the original New England Puritans developed their own social and political structures based on their religion. The small town, unified around one church, representing its people at regular intervals in town meeting, which was adopted across the nation over the course of centuries is the legacy of the Puritans. The New England Puritans also created a chief legislature in Boston (the General Court), to which towns elected representatives.

This social and political structure reflected the Puritan religious belief in the independence of the individual, and the right of people to associate and represent themselves freely, which had been denied them in England.

It is no great leap to see that these religious beliefs in New England morphed slowly into political ones. It’s a quick and easy step to go from Puritan fervor for a religion that upholds individual liberty and self-representation to Founding fervor for a form of government that does the same.

Everything that can be said slightingly about the Puritans’ wacky religious beliefs, then, can be said admiringly about the Founders’ inspiring political beliefs. You just become fully aware of how the lens of religion affects your opinion. Primed to dislike people who were religious fanatics, and who have gained a reputation for intolerance and violence, we find the Puritans’ beliefs that the religious practice they invented could change the very nature of humans to be ridiculous, typical of religious zealots. Primed to admire people who founded this nation and introduced representative democracy to the modern world, we find the Founders’ beliefs that the political system they invented could change the very nature of humans to be thrilling, and self-evident.

I have to believe that thousands of New Englanders living in the Founding period, who came from Puritan stock, inherited their ancestors’ passion for perfectablility, expressing it through politics rather than religion. As we know from our own experience, politics can be a powerful religion.