Gifts of the Puritans

The "Preston-Foster House" of Ipswich, Massachusetts
Let America Be America Again

What contemporary Americans owe to the straight-laced settlers of New England

Robert Walter Weir's 'Embarkation of the Pilgrims' hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol

Robert Walter Weir’s ‘Embarkation of the Pilgrims’ hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol

Americans can learn a lot about themselves and their society by revisiting—but not by reverting to—their republic’s distinctive Puritan origins, which anticipated its present dilemmas and strengths far more acutely than is often acknowledged. Puritan premises and practices gestated and channeled some of the liberal-capitalist premises, practices, and paradoxes that are now embraced and reviled the world over. They shaped much of the American republic and, arguably, sustained it through the New Deal and through the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and Watergate confrontations. Puritan conceits and hypocrisies certainly seeded some of these messes, but Puritan principles and virtues clarified and rescued the republic from the very worst of them, as they had done in the Civil War.

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The Puritans were America’s first Very Serious People. Having decided that the Church of England was betraying the Protestant Reformation and falling back into popish, Roman Catholic ways, they fled official persecution to found biblically grounded communities “for the exercise of the Protestant religion, according to the light of their consciences, in the desarts of America,” as one of them, Cotton Mather, wrote later. The first band of about a hundred “Pilgrim” separatists fled Yorkshire to Holland in 1608 and then to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, on the Mayflower. In 1630, led by John Winthrop, a well-financed, somewhat less separatist group of about 1,000 people founded Boston, their “city upon a hill,” in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Puritans in England soon surprised their American brethren by beheading the autocratic King Charles I in 1649 and by founding a republic under the iron-fisted Oliver Cromwell. Its ignominious fall in 1660 and the restoration of an openly Catholic monarchy for a time only deepened Puritans’ isolation in New England. Some of them intensified their mission there, becoming both more sanctimonious and more prosperous. How they handled that deepening contradiction has marked the American republic and society. For example, in founding Harvard in 1636 and Yale in 1701, they gave rise to strains of intensive, elite leadership training that have continued right up through Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush. Like contemporary Americans, Puritans faced a world increasingly connected but flattened by commerce. Unlike some today, they believed very deeply in something better and stronger than markets. What, then, did they rely on? What were they about?… [follow the link below to continue reading the article]…

 

The full article is available on the web site of The Atlantic (12 Jul 2015). The original article, by John Sleeper, entitled “Our Puritan Heritage” is also available on the website of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (Issue #37, Summer 2015).

 

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