Saturday, September 15, 2007
Albion's Seed I: The Puritans 1620-1640
Though earlier groups tried to settle the Chesapeake several decades earlier (and failed, for reasons we'll see in the next post), the first group of English settlers to make a go of it were the Puritans, who came from East Anglia to settle up New England between 1620 and 1640.
From East Anglia to New England
The Puritans were middle-class Calvinist mercantilists in the Dutch Reformed model -- not surprisingly, since East Anglia looks directly across the Channel onto the Netherlands, and many of the Puritans had family and business ties there. Though they'd been comfortably settled in the region for generations, that all changed between 1630 and 1641, the "eleven years' tyranny" when Charles I tried to rule England without a Parliament. This led to economic and social chaos across England, which worsened in East Anglia when the Archbishop of Canterbury decided to deal with the upheaval by stepping up persecution of the region's Puritan heretics. During those 11 years alone, over 80,000 Puritans pulled up stakes and moved on. One-quarter of these eventually landed in the new Puritan colony of Massachusetts, safely beyond the reach of the Anglican menace.
Back home in East Anglia, they'd built tidy salt-box homes around green town commons. Everything about them -- their clothes, homes, and churches -- was unpretentious and practical, reflecting their Calvinist thrift and their love of simplicity and order. Their cuisine was the same stuff that gives English food a bad rep to this day: boiled everything, from mutton to cabbage to peas. (Peas porridge cold, nine days old was a common staple food. It's what's for breakfast.)
Happily, their new home on the rocky coasts of New England was very similar in terrain and climate to the one they'd left behind. They promptly re-created the same gabled villages, and set about their familiar trades: fishing, whaling, sailing, and trading. The Norfolk Whine became the Yankee twang; their peas porridge and stewed mutton turned into Boston baked beans and the New England boiled dinner; their simple, durable furniture is now a classic American style; and their plain-but-practical clothes are still sold today at Brooks Brothers and LL Bean. They may have left home; but, like the other three groups, they also brought a lot of it with them -- and we're all still living with it to this day.
Along with these enduring customs and folkways, though, they also brought very definite (and equally enduring) ideas of family, community, and the social contract. At the heart of these ideas was a strong focus on mutual obligation -- an order based on expectation that people would fulfill their designated roles within the family and community, and derive their identity from their relationships to the larger whole. It's been said that Protestant guilt is all about duty. For that, we can thank the Puritans.
Women, though not remotely equal, had an easier time of it in New England than elsewhere. They were considered partners in their husband's businesses, explicitly entitled to love and respect, and legally protected from spousal abuse. Marriages were contractual agreements entered into after long courtships, and women had a lot of freedom to negotiate their side of these arrangements -- a right that prefigured the region's early embrace of feminism.
Relationships between the generations were also viewed as a covenant in which children were expected to hold up and be worthy of the family name; parents were expected to manage the family's resources so a legacy could be left; and elders were attended to with utmost respect. Because of these tightly-defined social roles and expectations, the Puritans had the highest literacy rates, the lowest divorce rates, and the lowest rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth (which was virtually unheard of, due to the brutal social sanctions against it) in the New World. On the literacy and divorce fronts, those figures hold steady in New England to this day.
In the Puritan view, children were born wicked, and raising them meant breaking their will until they were able to sublimate their own desires to those of the family and community. Elders were viewed as cherished saints, entitled by their wisdom to govern. In another holdover from East Anglia (the most literate region of England at the time), education was prized as both a cultural as well as a religious advantage. Unusually for the time, inheritances were typically divided in ways that ensured every child, male and female, got something.
Through it all, Puritans held up a high level of cooperation, kindness, and harmony as their familial ideal. Fischer describes the results as "a complex web of mutual obligation between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants. The clarity of this contractual idea, the rigor of its enforcement and especially the urgency of its spiritual purpose, set the Puritans apart from other people -- even other Calvinists -- in the Western world."
For the Common Good
This idea of all relationships as contractual obligations extended into Puritan views of community and government, resulting in what Fischer calls "ordered liberty." Individuals could only have privileges. Rights belonged to institutions and governments -- and chief among them was the right of the institution to do what it must to maintain civil order and see to it that people met their responsibilities. While that attitude led to draconian excesses like witchburnings and shunnings, it also gave the Puritans a strong sense of obligation to take care of the weakest among them, and see to it that nobody went without.
The New England town meeting persists as a symbolic artifact of the unity with which Puritans tried to manage shared burdens. It's the physical expression of this idea that "freedom" rightly belongs to the entire community acting together. Individual liberties only exist in relationship to the duties and obligations people take on within the larger whole.
Economically and socially, the Puritans were as enamored of rank as any English of the era -- but they went well out of their way to eliminate English-style extremes of rich and poor. The distribution of property in East Anglia had been the most egalitarian in England, and they radically improved on this tradition by deliberately preventing both the highest and lowest classes of the English ranking system from taking hold in their colonies.
John Winthrop famously told would-be immigrants with titles leave them in England: there was no place for a separate aristocracy in his colony. Instead, the Puritans established a social hierarchy based on age and "usefulness" -- one in which each individual had to earn a place on his or her own merits. Even servants (called "help") were entitled to respect, and the lines between them and the higher orders were flexible and thin. (Fischer argues that African slavery wasn't economically viable, because the slaves proved exceptionally vulnerable to disease in New England's cold climate -- a historical truth that's since evolved into a convenient fiction explaining away the presence of African-Americans in many places since.) Puritan communities were willing to make investments in their poor (and kept intrusively close watch over them in return), because the whole community bore the costs and the shame when a household failed. To fund the common good, the Puritans taxed themselves more aggressively than any of the other groups -- another tradition that's carried on in New England to this day.
The sense of community obligation was so strong that it was over half a century before the Puritans even considered commissioning full-time law enforcement. However, those obligations were enforced by a level of institutional violence that's still the stuff of legend. Puritan judges were endlessly creative in their brutality, raising public torture and humiliation to a ritualized art form that later Americans, including the Founders, regarded as barbaric. And thus was order maintained -- with no sheriff required.
Fischer notes that New England writers and oraters used the word "liberty" in four different senses, each of which still colors our current understanding of the word.
The first sense was communal liberty, which applied only to institutions and never to individuals. It was always spoken of as "the liberty of Boston," or "the liberty of America" -- the freedom of communities to rule themselves. This definition reinforced the idea that the needs of individuals must be subordinated to the needs of institutions, which have a superior right to impose their will.
The second usage referred to an individual's "liberties," which were specific privileges granted to a person by virtue of their station in life. One had the "liberty" to fish in the town's creek (a right denied to others); gentlemen had the "liberty" to avoid being whipped as a punishment for most infractions (a sentence which was often inflicted on the lower ranks). In this context, "liberty" was a class distinction: one person's "liberty" always came at the price of another person's restraint.
The third notion was "soul liberty" -- the freedom of both individuals and communities to serve God according to their own consciences. In the earliest days, of course, this meant the freedom to do exactly what the Calvinist preachers told you to do, other circumstances be damned -- and also the liberty to vigorously persecute anyone who didn't agree with you. But in time, "soul liberty" evolved to the more modern freedom of individual conscience that allowed their descendants to embrace the widest possible vision of religious liberty.
The fourth Puritan ideal of liberty was reflected in the Massachusetts Poor Laws, enacted shortly after the colony was founded. Later, Roosevelt articulated them clearly as the Four Freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Under this definition, liberty meant the right to have one's basic needs met, and to live life with as much dignity as possible, regardless of one's means. A community that allowed people to starve on its watch was failing to hold up its end of the social contract -- and also failing in its duty to God.
The Puritan Legacy
As the country settled up, the Puritans' descendants tended to move out across the northern tier of the expanding country. Their footprint is particularly noticeable in the Pacific Northwest, where many New Englanders eventually migrated. The Puritan notion of "ordered liberty" still shapes the governing styles and social priorities of the coasts, large cities, and river valleys. (The inland areas are another story for another post.)
And Puritan ideals still crop up in our political conversations today, as well. When conservatives invoke "states' rights," the rights of capital, or the sovereign freedom of America to do as it likes, they are drawing on the Puritan concept of communal liberty -- the superior right of institutions against those of individuals. When economic royalists assert a greater right to do as they please -- helping themselves to what they want, and breaking laws that they think don't really apply to them -- they are exercising their "liberties" in the second sense, taking what the Puritans would have regarded as fair advantage of their well-earned (at least in their own minds) superior station.
And when either side charges the other with "political correctness," or "witchhunts," they're simply invoking those intrusive old Puritan judges who used the whip and the gallows to promote ideological conformity on behalf of "the common good."
But we liberals should be able to counter these preposterous claims, since we are the majority heirs to the Puritan legacy. When we assert our freedom of conscience in matters of religion or politics; the right to be heard in the public square; the need to flatten out the socioeconomic extremes in favor of the common good; or the essential dignity of the individual and our mutual responsibilities as a society, we're invoking the legacy of our Puritan ancestors, too.
It's ironic that New England and the areas its descendants pioneered are now America's liberal strongholds -- and, that those narrow-mined old prudes ended up spinning the warp threads on which much of American liberalism was eventually woven. But, given their enduring fondness for the common good, social harmony, sharing, and education, that slow shift may have been inevitable. The Puritans' cultural descendants are alive among us, and we hear their voices whenever anyone modestly and cogently reminds us that we exist within the context of the larger whole, and have obligations to each other that we cannot ignore if we are to survive.
Posted by Sara Robinson at 2:32 PM