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.

Nothing to fear but fearful politicians

I was watching a little of the PBS documentary on FDR last night and by chance I saw the part where they talked about his 1936 re-election campaign. In a speech Roosevelt took on what he called “big money,” the businesses that were not only keeping workers on starvation wages but, according to Roosevelt, trying to take over the government.

“No business which depends for existence by paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country,” he said; “big business and big money are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

“I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match; I would like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”

It is sadly difficult to think of a politician who would make that speech today. Politicians today seem much more timid, very frightened of angering anyone who has any power. Having the commitment to our founding principles to acknowledge and to welcome the hatred of those who want to alter–or simply ignore–our Constitution for their own profit is rare today.

Today, on the contrary, we are often told that big money/big business is critically important to the growth and maintenance of democracy, and must be allowed to do whatever it wants. FDR had an answer to that, too:

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”

FDR’s words are a reminder of how rarely you ever hear a major politician today 1) stating that the defense of our Constitution is her main priority; and 2) that s/he will cling to our founding principles no matter what opposition s/he faces; because 3) anyone who opposes our founding principles is no American, and therefore 4) those who oppose her/him can stuff it.

Actually, you will hear fringe nuts make these statements, but I’m talking about mainstream politicians.

Let’s remember FDR as our current presidential election campaigning goes on, and cast a vote for the person who comes closest to his courage and guts.

The Dominion of New England; or, the Puritan Revolution

Many claims and counter-claims are made about whether the Puritans of New England can be considered to have dug the foundation for democracy in British America. The more I study it, the more I believe it is true. Let’s look at one important instance, the battle against the Dominion of New England, 1686-1689.

James II became king of England in 1685. James posed a threat to the country, in the eyes of his Protestant subjects, because he was Catholic. People feared he would try to return the kingdom to Catholicism, but James’ first move was not against England but Massachusetts. The Puritans in New England were just as vocal and militant about their designs for an improved England from the distant shores of America as they had been in the heart of London. And, more immediately, they had just sent Increase Mather as their representative to Parliament to try to fend off a new, royal charter that would give the king more power over them. James decided to rid himself of a burr in his saddle.

In 1686 he created the Dominion of New England. Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey made up the new domain. Edmund Andros, formerly governor of New York, was appointed by the king to run the Dominion with the help of a council—also appointed by the king. Andros took to his new role, exerting his power dictatorially.

The impact on Puritan colonists was fundamental:

—The popularly elected assemblies were dismissed.

—Puritan judges and military officers were replaced by Anglicans.
Puritan clergy could no longer be paid by taxes.

—Land titles issued by Puritan governments before 1686 had to be reissued. Not only did Puritan colonists have to pay new title fees, they would also have to pay quitrents, an annual land tax.

—A new court was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts. It had no jury. In 1686 the court found at least six merchant ships guilty of violating the Acts and seized the ships. Merchants started avoiding the port of Boston, depressing the new England economy.


The list sounds very familiar to any student of the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774.

Puritan citizens of the colonies formerly known as New England were angry and despairing. They had little power to represent themselves to Parliament, and no hope of subverting the Dominion. Little did they know that the young, healthy new king who had enslaved them would soon be overthrown.

James had made his desire to return the country to Catholicism more and more open; thus, when his queen gave birth to a son and potential Catholic heir in 1688, his government didn’t wait for James to act. It invited Protestant Holland’s leader William of Orange to invade England and force James off the throne. William was conveniently married to Mary Stuart, James’ own daughter.

The plan worked. William was welcomed in London, and James II fled to France.

When the Puritans in the Dominion first heard about this Glorious Revolution in 1689, there was a moment of suspense. It was impossible to know if James was really permanently overthrown, and the long wait for news from England was agonizing. Once the good news came, Puritans from Maine to Connecticut rose up against Governor Andros’ officials, who were arrested and imprisoned. Massachusetts, Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut restored their original governments, complete with elected assemblies.

In New York City, rebels led by Jacob Leisler took over the colony. Leisler became governor.

The Puritans celebrated their successful rebellion. The colonies of New England remained royal colonies, rather than privately owned colonies, but they had preserved their independence. Their lawmakers were popularly elected. Their courts were local. Their laws were valid. And it was specifically to maintain those vital components of representative government that the Puritans fought.

Thus I think we can look back to the overthrow of the Dominion as a valid instance of Puritan Americans putting their independent and representative government ahead of all other considerations, and the events of 1689 were indeed fresh in the memories of men and women—grandchildren of rebels—who fought the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, born in 1705, just 16 years after the Dominion was overthrown, would have heard the stories from people who took part in the rebellion. And thousands of New Englanders must have had their ancestors in mind when they agreed in 1776 that a government which does not have the consent of the people is legitimately overthrown.

The original truth v. myth

There’s a great opinion piece in the Times today about the state of the nation. You can read it for yourselves; the takeaway is that the president we need today is the president who can tell us that we’re not doing very well, that we are not living up to our founding principles, and that our current way of life is unsustainable.

Of course, that’s the president we always need.

We need that person to not only tell us how we are failing, but to offer a viable, principled plan for improvement that s/he will push through a reluctant Congress and withstand withering criticism for supporting.

I’ve carped in other posts about politicians’ inability or unwillingness to brook any criticism from “the people” (usually a few people pretending to speak for all people). Politicians should be leaders, taking on the tough job of forcing Americans to do the right thing. But they seem more and more to be followers, hoping the people will tell them what to do.

And there’s the even-worse-case scenario, in which major politicians, like the president, trample our founding principles to further their own personal goals.

The truth about America is that we are great when we live up to our founding principles of representative democracy focused on promoting and protecting natural rights. When we don’t do that, we are awful, because we were founded with a very idealistic mission, and so we fall from a great height when we let that down.

The myth about America is that whatever we do, we are living up to those principles, that it just naturally happens and that we are good no matter what we do because we are America. Representative democracy goes against human nature. Every generation, we have to re-learn the principles of justice and democracy we are founded on, and re-dedicate ourselves to fulfilling them. These principles can’t really be inherited. They have always to be adopted, over and over.

Our job as Americans right now is to do what our politicans won’t: demand that we adhere to our founding principles. We have to take the lead.

The real allure of the Founders

Everyone is loving the John Adams special on HBO, and with good reason. It’s well done, and gives a real sense of who Adams was. But does it really spell out why he was great?

I was reviewing a study of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the section where De Tocqueville talks about lawyers. To his mind, they are the linchpin of American democracy because lawyers combine a love and knowledge of democracy with a strong desire for stability and order.

Sounds like Adams, doesn’t it? What made him, and the other Founders, great was that they took their zeal for liberty and democracy and created a workable, stable framework for it to exist and thrive in. They knew that zeal alone resulted in anarchy. They had to combine passion with stability, and they did so with unprecendented success.

So when we see Adams fearing the mobs of Boston, or defending the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, or hammering out what seem like minor policy issues in the Continental Congress, what we see is Adams’ understanding that all that passion in the mob or the Congress has to find an orderly, sensible expression in government. Without government, passion is anarchy. Without good government, passion is killed.

Rather than seeing Adams’ focus on rules as pedantic or evidence of lovable curmudgeonliness, then, we should recognize it as the genius of democracy that De Tocqueville was wise enough to see.

We would be equally wise today to vote for politicians like Adams, who understand and love democracy and our founding principles, and combine that love with a desire to create stable, fair laws for our nation. At a time when politicians seem to rely more and more on stirring up the voters’ passions–usually about topics that have little to do with government–we need to step up and remind those who seek office that their job is to promote our democracy by creating laws that back our founding principles. If we were all passionate about that, we would be in a very good place.

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!

Truth v. Myth: Slavery in our democracy

Myth: Americans didn’t care about slavery, turning an indifferent eye to the sufferings of enslaved people.

Supporting myth:  We enslaved people.

“Proof” of myth: How could slavery go on for so long if people didn’t accept it?


How in the world did slavery exist in our representative democracy?


The minority of whites in America who enslaved people had a long tradition of looking out for their Lockeian possessions of property and labor. Virginia’s elected colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses, fought the colony’s royal governors constantly, rejecting taxes and other encroachments by the crown on Virginia’s independence—and wealth.


So these slaveholders really cared about liberty. No wonder Virginia spawned so many revolutionaries. But how could these men care so much about liberty and still hold slaves? The answer, as Edmund Morgan makes clear in his invaluable book American Slavery, American Freedom, is in a letter from Englishman Sir Augustus John Foster, who visited antebellum Virginia and said, “The Virginians can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves…” (p. 380)


Why is this quote the answer to the riddle? Because it mentions mobs.


The men and women who ascribed to Locke’s ideas about natural rights applied those rights only to themselves and “their kind”: the wealthy and well-educated. Just as most people do today, Enlightenment thinkers believed that poor people were so crass and animalistic, so driven by the survival instinct, that they were completely unable to appreciate ideals. There was no educating a really poor person. The poor were really barely human.


Now when you have this dangerous, large group of uneducated, uneducatable poor people, who outnumber the educated 100,000 to 1, you have to make sure those dangerous poor uneducated people don’t rise up and ruin the status quo. Think about it: if the poor are unable to understand ideas and concepts, then the poor will never understand democracy or natural rights. They can never self-govern like they’re supposed to in a democracy. A democracy requires all of its citizens to be active, informed, self-disciplining (that is, willing to obey the law), and educated (you have to be able to read and write). Since there was “no way” to bring the poor to that level, the poor were nothing but dangerous to democracy. They will instead remain violent, anarchic, and destructive. And they will continue to constitute 98% of the population. 



So you can’t include those people in democracy; all you can do is contain them. Neutralize their threat. What better way than to enslave them? And indeed, plans for enslaving poor whites were proposed in England in the 1700s.


In America, that slavery was not hypothetical. Black Americans were actually enslaved. Slaveholders saw this as a break for democracy. If enslaved, black Americans could not threaten the new republic with their ignorance, violence, and blackness. They were contained.


So we go back to Foster’s statement and it makes sense: “The Virginians can profess an unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves…” That is, because the masses, which are Negro in this case, are enslaved, they cannot become mobs destroying society and government. The free whites of Virginia are free to embrace democracy and liberty for themselves and their nation because those dangerous poor people are safely contained.


Thus we get some Founders who did not see that enslaving black Americans was inconsistent with liberty and justice for all. In fact, in their minds it was crucial to it. Picture a vast machine toiling underground, and a small wagon moving above ground. All that underground toil was required to move the wagon.


This is the horrible idea that people were at last starting to doubt in the revolutionary period. The British, after all, had said Americans were a rabble, not really citizens, and clearly unable to govern themselves. The British had been wrong. Now Americans were saying black people were a rabble, not really citizens, unable to govern themselves. Might not the Americans be wrong?


Those who felt the Americans were wrong ended their enslavement of black Americans. Those who felt the Americans were not wrong pointed out that they, white Americans, were charged with a beyond-precious responsibility: introducing democracy to the human race. They should be very cautious about offering citizenship in that democracy to people who were “incapable of defending it and might become a means of destroying it. If the poor were already enslaved, would it not be wise to keep them so?” (p. 385) What was worse: enslaving 200,000 people in Virginia, or setting them loose on the nation, to beg in the streets and join mobs and become henchmen for or dupes of unscrupulous politicians who would use their mob power to seize control of the government and revert it to dictatorship?


Think about it, said the pro-slavery skeptics. Most black Americans are uneducated, desperate, and friendless. The first white person who gives them a buck and a drink will win their undying loyalty. And if that white person asks them to loot a store or raze the postmaster’s office or kill the governor, what black person wouldn’t want to wreak some revenge on the whites who enslaved him? Black people have a chip on their shoulder, said the skeptics. Set them loose with no skills and hearts full of anger, and you’re not going to like what you see.


We’d love to end slavery, they said. We see that it’s not consistent with democracy’s principles. But it’s just too late to undo slavery’s ill effects, so you have to choose: the problems slavery causes (a sometimes guilty conscience), or the problems ending slavery will cause (rioting, rape, murder, fire, dictatorship). Which will you choose?


These were repellent yet powerful arguments during the revolutionary and founding period. Like democracy itself, ending slavery was for many whites a radical experiment whose outcome no one knew for sure.


So how could slavery exist in our democracy? With difficulty. Even as many Americans (increasingly located in the southern states) argued that it was crucial to democracy, more and more Americans were coming to realize, often uncomfortably, that slavery was a slap in the face to democracy. The argument would not end, the nation would not rest easy about slavery—ever. It would not be long—the span of one long life—before the compromises with slavery in the 1787 constitution tore the union’s political system apart, and culminated in civil war.



Myth: Americans didn’t care about slavery, turning an indifferent eye to the sufferings of enslaved people.

Truth:  There was never a time in the life of the United States when slavery was not a tough issue.

Damage done when we believe in a myth: Believing this myth makes us think we will never end racism and prejudice, because America has always callously embraced both; that Americans just don’t care about equality, and it’s impossible to get justice in America. But if we believe this, we’re just giving ourselves permission to be prejudiced and racist. It’s permission to be inactively angry, to say that criticizing the U.S. as hopelessly hypocritical is actually an action. But it’s not. Cynicism is lazy, and if you see racism and prejudice, you have to fight it, not say “Oh, that’s just how America is.” Because it isn’t now, and it wasn’t then. That’s not the American way.

The Constitution: harder than it looks

We kind of hate the Constitution today. We wish it wasn’t so elastic. It allows for so many interpretations; we wish it would just tell us what to do. But of course the only reason it’s a viable document is that it doesn’t tell us what to do.  It gives us a framework of justice to apply to specific instances, and it’s not the document’s fault if we sometimes use its safe space for evil. That’s our fault. We make that choice.


“We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of this liberty to ourselves, and to our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution, of the United States of America.”

Most of us are familiar with this long sentence. Perhaps you, like me,  learned it on Schoolhouse Rock, and prefer to sing it. But by now, you may see the revolutionary principles and ground-breaking ideals in it more clearly.


After years of trying not to have a real centralized government, and years of trying to put state interests below national interests while keeping individual interests above national and state interests, we get this line. We, the people (not the states) of America, realize that if we want to make this experiment work, and if we want to experience the best government ever attempted in human history, we have to create and honor a binding legal document that establishes a unified, federal government.


The year is 1787. The Articles of Confederation have been in place for 10 years. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783, so we have been an independent nation for just four years. All in all, Americans have been in turmoil for 12 years. This is the point at which most new governments fall apart and the descent into civil war and terror begins. But we fulfilled the principles of our revolution, and peacefully assembled delegates to work together to write a new Constitution.


Even that majority of Americans who did not want a powerful central government were persuaded that it was necessary to keep the states from dissolving the union. They sent delegates to Philadelphia to figure out how to create a government strong enough to protect its people, but bound enough by principles of natural rights not to turn to tyranny.


These delegates were not the famous men who signed the Declaration. Adams was not there; Jefferson was not there. The delegates were mostly unknowns; lawyers, farmers, businessmen. They were not professional politicians. But they were those well-read, revolutionary Americans the rest of the world marveled at. Those men produced a great document because they put themselves second to the ideal of America. They had their moment of absolute power and used it to enshrine natural rights.


We all remember learning about the debates over how to make sure big and small states were equally represented in Congress, the federal government. We feel bored, again because we know how it ended, and the solution is so obvious, it just seems stupid to waste time reading about how they took so long to figure it out.


But the point of those debates about representation is not what ideas were tossed around, and which idea finally won out. It’s that the debates happened at all. We’ve already established that most revolutionary governments quickly implode. Here, faced with a real problem, with no clear answer (despite all our hindsight insisting it was clear), delegates to the convention insisted on figuring out what the best solution was,  on coming up with a solution that really lived up to the principles of the revolution. Instead of saying “We can’t fix this; there’s no solution that everyone will agree on”, and getting out their guns and starting a civil war, these delegates put themselves through hours of philosophical debate in a stiflingly hot room until they fulfilled the trust put in them.


The Founders didn’t “know” that the average American had to consent to this government for it to work; they decided that the average American had to do so, and they subordinated themselves to that purpose. And so they created, as delegate Peirce Butler said, “not the best government they could devise, but the best the people would receive.”


The Articles of Confederation: Not Totally Lame!

The problem the Founders grappled with when writing the Articles of Confederation was how to create a workable government without authorizing a tyranny. How do you keep life, liberty, and happiness for all while subjecting all to a central authority which must make general laws?


We’re so used to hearing about this struggle that it bores us, because we know the problem was eventually solved by the Constitution. It’s like knowing how a book ends before you read it. There’s no suspense for us. No tension. Plus, with hindsight, the solutions the Constitution came up with seem so obvious. But think about it. Usually  new governments struggle not with how to make everyone happy, but with individuals fighting for power. Each revolutionary leader is fighting to establish his faction, to grab power. The people are just a labor source, mob power, or cannon fodder.


But in America, the argument, struggle, and problem was not how to get power but how to give it away. How to have a workable government that didn’t trample people’s natural rights. The Founders would not take the easy way out and just give someone power to tell the people what to do. They wouldn’t even allow an executive branch to be created, because they were afraid if power was represented by the body of one person, he would become a dictator not only from his own greed, but because the people themselves would gladly give up their rights to a powerful leader. The Founders resisted the urge to fall back on the familiar.


And all this in a time of war. The Revolution was not going well in 1777, when the Articles of Confederation were written. If ever there was a time when people might be forgiven for assigning power to one person who could unify and lead them, it was then. But even in this time of ultimate crisis, when the federal government was broke and could not pay Washington or his army, the men who were dying for the independence of America, the Founders would not institute unfair taxes, would not assign an executive, would not give up on trying to establish a fair government, would not give up on the ideals of revolution. War is usually the ultimate excuse for abuse of power, or failure to live up to high ideals. Not for the Founders.


And, when the Founders finally had the Articles of Confederation, and saw that they just didn’t create the best government for the people, they came back and went through the whole agonizing process again, and wrote a new set of rules—the Constitution. That’s dedication. That’s inspiration. That’s stamina.


So instead of seeing a string of half-assed failures leading up to the Constitution, we should see a gritty resolve to make the dream a reality that no amount of hardship could weaken.