When did “Puritan New England” die out?

Posted on January 3, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , |

It’s always interesting to me how long a lifespan people assign to “Puritan New England”. Of course, there are two kinds of “Puritan” being described: the days of the Puritan colonies and a set of behaviors that people who were not Puritans describe as “puritanism”. People tend to describe New England society as Puritan from 1620 to about 1950—a much longer span than is warranted by fact. The real lifespan of Puritan New England is 1630 to about 1720.

We say 1630 because the Pilgrims who arrived in North America in 1620 were not Puritans (see here for more on that); it was the group who arrived in 1630 who began Puritan colonization. The colonies founded by these Puritans were based on the religious practice of Congregationalism, and this meant three things that are the main characteristics of Puritan New England: 1) the colonies thrived on and required religious homogeneity; 2) a proto-democratic political system was necessary to protect the unique society created in America; and thus 3) the colonists devoted themselves to evading direct rule from England in order to maintain that political system. For as long as these three characteristics were unchallenged, Puritan New England existed.

How long was that? Not very long. The aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-6) brought political discord between the Puritan colonies, which brought on direct rule from England, first in the form of the Dominion of New England (1686-9), during which time the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were restructured into one mega-colony (along with New York and East and West Jersey). It’s important that during the Dominion the Puritans were enraged not just by the promotion of Anglicanism over Congregationalism but also by the destruction of the Puritan legal and political system: legislatures were no longer popularly elected, land titles were revoked, and a royal court with no jury was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts.

The Dominion was overthrown after the death of King James II, but English direct rule did not end. The Puritans who had overthrown the Dominion immediately pledged their loyalty to the new king and queen, William and Mary, and William opened the Puritan colonies to outsiders. Non-Puritans began settling in New England in large numbers, and their religious practices were protected. By 1691, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter was overthrown and it became a royal colony with a royally appointed governer, true Congregationalism was rapidly becoming a blast from the past. Its dominance was certainly at an end, as it became simply one religion amongst many others.

Of course, it took decades to completely unseat the old religious ways. But an important shift was occurring after 1689: all of the fervor originally associated primarily with religion in Puritan New England was being gradually but steadily transferred to politics. Note that the Dominion and the charter revocation dealt a fatal blow to pure Congregational practice but strengthened the old Puritan political dogma. What the people of New England held on to was proto-democracy: a popularly elected legislature, juries made up of local citizens, and the right of towns to hold their political town meetings. As the old religion which had originally demanded these political protections faded away, the politics  themselves became a religion for New Englanders.

So by roughly 1720-30 the shift was fairly complete. New England was no longer Puritan, it was polyglot with a Puritan past and a powerful Puritan legacy that newcomers and non-Puritans were very aware of. Politics was the new religion, and New England would lead the way into the age of Revolution.

The echoes of the old way, the true Puritan New England that only existed from 1630-1686, were heard long after the fact, of course, and it may be the very brevity of the actual Puritan moment that made it so powerful an image for later writers, religious leaders, politicians, and historians. But any reference to “Puritan New England” after 1730 at the latest, and 1720 more likely, is mostly inaccurate.

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What caused the Revolutionary War?

Posted on May 4, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America | Tags: , , , , |

I’ve been thinking about this question outside the context of New England, looking at the whole of the 13 American colonies (and even the British Caribbean) to figure out what led to revolution in the 18th century.

It’s easy to see how the Puritan New England colonies almost instantly developed a sense of their own nationhood, separate from England. Their religion and civil society were radically different from the ones in place in England. But what about the royal colonies of the Chesapeake, the Middle Colonies, and the South? What spurred them on when their religion was Church of England and their politics were, for the most part, in line with English demands?

I think it must come down to the important coincidence of the English Civil War breaking out just as most of the American colonies got started. Just 35 years after the founding of Virginia, the first North American colony, the English government devolved into civil war, which had many more immediate and long-term consequences for the colonies than we realize. Royalist and Parliamentary factions each turned to the colonies for support, trying to win the loyalty—and trade—of transplanted English people. Then, as Parliament consolidated its victory, it felt it had to build up a massive navy to protect its colonies from takeover by other nations looking to take advantage of the fledgling and conflicted English government. The massive navy led to many developments: increased English governmental meddling with/control over American trade, particularly in the Caribbean; war with the Dutch, which impacted not only trade (Holland being the largest trade partner of most colonies) but the Middle Colonies settled near Dutch holdings; and the new threat that colonies which did not hew to the political and religious dictates sent out from London would be blockaded and invaded by the English navy.

New England, supposed by the Puritan Parliament to be a natural ally, was exempted from the close scrutiny and interference with trade that the other royalist colonies experienced. But New England was cruelly disappointed by the new government, which came to support a religious toleration that was anathema to the American Puritans. New England offered no support to the new government, and its sense of being separate and even at odds with England itself grew even stronger.

Inside the colonies, there was conflict between groups supporting Parliament and those supporting the king. Even worse, men who had no real loyalty to either side used the opportunity to cause trouble. In Maryland, supposed devotion to the Puritan Parliament was the cover for ruining the religiously tolerant society created there by Catholics and Protestants, as Catholics were driven out.

By the time the Stuart line was restored in 1660, the American colonies had experienced almost 20 years of conflict with England. Moreover, those who had been born in England and gone to America felt that the country they had left behind, the king to which they pledged allegiance, the religion they had grown up in, were all gone. England was no longer home as it had been before, no longer the place they felt most comfortable, the place they wanted to re-create in the New World. England became a foreign land, run by people they did not know, embracing religions they did not like, and preventing the profitable trade they had come to depend on.

By the time James II imposed the Dominion of New England in 1686, it seemed like only the last in a series of provoking actions by a mostly alien government in London. When William and Mary were enthroned in 1689, the colonies all looked forward to improving relations with England, which in itself is telling: they saw England and its government almost as a foreign nation they had to establish diplomatic relations with. While William and Mary were popular throughout the colonies, the sense of division was impossible to fully overcome. Even while the colonies felt tied to England, and demanded their rights as English people, they felt they were not really part of England. And the English government felt the same way. A tie had been broken between them during the Civil War. The Americans were really the English-descended people of another nation by the mid-18th century, and as such would never be afforded full rights as English people by England.

If England had not gone through Civil War, I think things might have been very different. There would have been no reason for all but the Puritan colonies to feel alienated from England, or to feel that England itself as they knew and accepted it had ceased to exist. It was an unfortunate coincidence for England that its internal war had to happen just as its colonies were launching, severing the ties of home almost the moment they were stretched across the sea.

Continue the story—see how the French and Indian War triggered the Revolution.

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The 1692 witch scare: why Salem?

Posted on March 18, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem witch scare of 1692. Here we take a look at Salem before the scare to see what was happening, and why Salem ended up as the site of this tragedy.

Salem was not just any old town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Salem was the site of first settlement for the New England Puritans. When John Winthrop and his famous band of Puritan settlers arrived in 1630, they first sheltered in Salem before heading south to found Boston. (Remember, as we show in Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?, those people who landed in 1620 were not Puritans but Separatists.) A small group of unfunded Puritans had left England in 1626 and founded Salem. Therefore it was the first Puritan settlement in New England, and as such had planted the first Reformed Anglican (Congregational) church in the New World.

So Salem had clout. It was literally the mother of all Puritan churches in the New World, and its community was very proud of its standing. The church in Boston became very powerful, but the Salem congregation was always a kind of Queen Mother to it, and the advice of Salem’s ministers and congregation was always important to Boston.

Salem was always a frontier town. It was closer to southern Maine than to Boston, and southern Maine was a battleground from the 1630s on between France, ever-encroaching southward from Canada, and the English settlers in MBC and Plymouth. The English created settlements and trading posts in this area, notably Agawam, as buffer zones against French expansion. The French, who had a good track record of keeping their hands off (Native) American land in Canada, were easily able to enlist Abenakis, Acadias, and Penobscots to fight the English settlers, who clearly needed and took lots of land in New England. So while the French built forts in the north from which to sweep down into New England, their Native American allies (particularly the Abenakis) would raid English settlements in southern Maine and northern MBC, armed with French weapons and given sanctuary in French-controlled land.

Trouble for Salem, with the French, Native Americans, and England itself, began in 1686, just six years before the witch scare. In that year, King James II of England established the Dominion of New England (read more about that here), which took away MBC’s political independence, its self-rule, and its religion. This grossly unfair and unpopular regime was overthrown by the New Englanders in 1689, when they got word that James II had been deposed in favor of William and Mary. But they were not able to get their independence back; MBC would remain a royal colony with a royal governor who was appointed by the king rather than elected by the legislature.

So just three years before the scare, Salem, along with all the MBC, has had its religion, land rights, and governance challenged and not fully restored. But worse was to come–the new king immediately brought his war with France to New England.

King William’s War (1689-97) was fought by English forces in Europe, but the violence came to New England. Because their home nations were at war, the French in Canada launched new attacks through their Native American allies on English settlements. Native American night raids on small Maine villages were terrifying and unsparing. The worst attack was on York, Maine on January 25, 1692; the first accusations of witchcraft in Salem came weeks later.

Salem, again, was close to Maine, and actually received many refugees from the violence, particularly children. Salem was on constant alert for Native American attack, and sent militia to defend Maine itself.  Salem’s neighboring towns of  Andover, Haverhill, Amesbury, Newbury, and Rowley (now Georgetown) were attacked.

In the midst of this external stress and tension,  Salem was also undergoing internal strife. Salem was made up of Salem Village, the original farming settlement, and Salem Town, a newer development of mostly merchants and business people.  The old Puritan law of “one village, one church” had been upheld in Salem long after it was clear that Salem Town was large enough, and its people far away enough, to have its own congregation. But this was not just any church splitting. This was, remember, the Mother Church of New England; Salem Village did not want to split its historic church and lose the esteem this gave them. There was resentment in the farming Village of the wealth of the merchant Town; all the Village had was its church, and did not want to lose it. Finally, however, it was forced to release Salem Town from its obligations to First Church in Salem, and in 1689, the same year MBC became a permanent royal colony, Salem’s historic church was split.

So we have in Salem, by 1692, very high tensions over Native American attack, royal governance, and internal economic and religious division. On the eve of the scare, Salem was just waiting for a spark to ignite an explosion of violence. In the next segment, we’ll talk about why witchcraft became that spark.

Next time: Did Puritans believe in witchcraft?

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The Dominion of New England; or, the Puritan Revolution

Posted on May 19, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , |

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.

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