Hidden History of the Puritans

Fenster writes:

Rogers Smith, in his paper “Beyond Tocqueville”, argues that America has a hidden history of illiberalism that has been papered over by the generally victorious pro-Enlightenment side.

Analysts of American politics since Tocqueville have seen the nation as a paradigmatic “liberal democratic” society, shaped most by the comparatively free and equal conditions and the Enlightenment ideals said to have prevailed at its founding. These accounts must be severely revised to recognize the inegalitarian ideologies and institutions of ascriptive hierarchy that defined the political status of racial and ethnic minorities and women through most of U.S. history.

Victors write the histories, and in so doing they can be expected to make their current ascendance inevitable, and, in turn, to do some narrative injustices to the losing side. Thus it is a bit jarring to see Marilynne Robinson, in the current New York Review of Books,  argue that what Smith would take to be the dominant, winning side has its own hidden history: a neglected Puritan New England.

Robinson argues that the Puritans are poorly understood, and that they are much more responsible than people think for America’s liberal–indeed “left”–sympathies–sympathies that she argues are present and powerful to this day.

Our public is far more liberal than our politics.

Let’s see how the argument is made.

She starts by suggesting that in the public mind the idea of the Puritans summons up for many Americans the idea of capitalism.

Recently, at a lunch with a group of graduate students, conversation turned to American colonial history, then to John Winthrop’s 1630 speech “A Modell of Christian Charity,” associated now with an image borrowed from Jesus, “a city on a hill.” This phrase has been grossly misinterpreted, both Winthrop’s use of it and Jesus’. In any case, the students pronounced the speech capitalist, with a certainty and unanimity that, quite frankly, is inappropriate to any historical subject, and would be, even if the students, or the teachers who gave them the word, could define “capitalist.”

I take her at her word on this, though I think the opinions of current graduate students in history departments of American universities may be somewhat of a thin reed on which to rest her opening argument.  I would not be surprised to find graduate students in history in current American universities with overly-politicized and incomplete historical views.

But then Robinson goes deep, examining the connections between Puritan thought and behavior and developments occurring at the same time in England.  Given the close bond between colonists and mother country in the pre-Revolutionary period such connections are important to probe.  And, here, too, Robinson argues that Cromwell and the forces he represented are also poorly understood, and in ways that parallel the misunderstandings of the Puritans in the colonies.

“Cromwell” is one of those words, like “Puritan,” like “liberal,” like “capitalist,” like “Jonathan Edwards,” that triggers intellectual lockdown. No one knows anything about Cromwell except that he is someone no one would want to know anything about. This reaction often has a peculiar moralistic cast, a moral contempt for the moral pretensions of Puritans, or liberals, or Jonathan Edwards. There is also a kind of moralism that is reflected in the mention of capitalism, which apparently has bought us off, the pact being that we resign ourselves and prosper, having lost or surrendered all our options.

This general condition of intellectual lockdown has had bad consequences in terms of historical understanding.

The first third of our national life is a virtual blank, or worse, historically speaking, on account of these aversions.

Robinson would ask us all to step back and consider the development of our national ideologies through a longer lens:

So here I propose what is to my knowledge a new theory of modern history. There were two contending concepts of right and value that developed over the long period from the Black Plague and the Peasants’ War in the fourteenth century to the wars of king and Parliament in the seventeenth century. One is based on property, especially property in land, and the other is based on the human person. This difference was central to our Civil War. There was nothing casual in the use of the phrase “this species of property” when Southerners protested about laws that prevented them from traveling with slaves into free states or risking the loss of them once there.

There is something of Albion’s Seed in her argument.  But rather than break English America down into four separate folkways (Puritan New England, Cavalier South, Quaker, Scots-Irish) Robinson focuses on the first two: New England and the South.  And just as she connects the value of the person to Puritan New England she connects the value of property to the South.

Using this lens she examines various aspects of colonial and English events in the period and finds in them a great deal more Christian charity than we might otherwise ascribe to stern and uncompromising Cromwellians and New England Puritans.  This aspect of her analysis seems persuasive to me.

She goes further however, looking to connect Christian charity to something we in the current era would recognize as liberalism, or even the Left.

Puritan interest in attempting a return to biblical standards of life in society was not a nostalgia for an imagined past, a desire to live ancient lives, but a will to reform society in keeping with the vastly more humane laws and teachings of both testaments. Scripture gave authority to a vision of equity and also grace as standards of social interaction by which Christendom had not chosen to abide.

She recognizes the word “left” has unfortunately taken on meanings from the French Revolution, meanings that need to be shed if she is to undertake her project.

“Left” has little to do with American thought, much to do with seating arrangements in the French revolutionary assembly. And we all know what followed the French Revolution.

And once the term has been properly cleansed she can make her argument in a straightforward way:

The idea of a good community, one whose members are happy in the fact of a general well-being, is not native to us, natural to us, possible for us—or so we are to believe. It is too far left.

There is a lot of interesting history in Robinson’s article.  History is always a kind of tangled mess, and Robinson untangles a lot of threads in neat fashion but does not overly straighten.  We are after all but crooked timber.

But didactic lessons are usually presented without too many tangles, the better to persuade.  And so her moral lesson–which she gets to by-and-by– is as unadorned at the white Congregational church where I was confirmed: let’s reclaim the lessons of love, community, charity and equity that our Puritan ancestors bequeathed to us.

Of course, I have reservations.  I always have reservations.

First,  if I had to choose between Robinson and Rogers Smith on narrative I would choose Smith.  On balance, the liberal side beat the illiberal.  The North, carried on to victory by enthusiasms very much in the Puritan tradition, beat the South (as Rod Dreher said of the Battle Hymn of the Republic “it’s a glorification of war composed by a Unitarian who gets off on the thought of all those Southern boys with their guts shot out.”)

To say the Puritans are misunderstood is one thing–everything in history is misunderstood in one fashion or another.  It is quite something else to say the legacy of the Puritans has somehow been smothered by events, or beaten by an opposition.

Robinson gets close to saying that the good guys lost and the bad guys won—witness the history students who see capitalism in Winthrop’s speech.  But what does that incident really tell us?  As I see it, it’s is far more likely that the students in question were out to bash capitalism rather than defend it, with such knee-jerk reacting a direct descendant of the Puritan values that Robinson argues have gone missing.

Indeed the more one looks around the more one sees our Puritan legacy everywhere.  In the neo-Puritanism decried by Maureen Dowd.  In the invade-the-world-invite-the-world gestalt of our political elites. In the white elites looking down on deplorables.  Times changed and the Puritan impulse –always at the table–changed with it.

That said, is there anything wrong with calling for a reconsideration of Puritan values in their original state?  Why not call for community, charity, compassion and the like?

As a New Englander who grew up in the shadow of the world Robinson describes I find that the old, undistilled ideas still pack a lot of punch.  But do they work?  Do they suit the times?  If not, can they be made to suit the times?

Recall the Winthrop sailed the ocean to found his city on a hill.  Why did he have to leave to make it work?

Give me a hill on which to place my city and I’ll give those Puritan values a go.  I am enough of a Puritan, a child of New England, to find that creed an attractive one.  But where is that hill?

Winthrop was able to hold on to the hilltop for quite some time:

(A)fter the great migration that followed the fall of the Commonwealth there was a long period without significant immigration. (New England) became a sort of grand-scale Pitcairn Island.

But all things must pass, and as the city came down from the hill to meet a new America containing multitudes Puritanism was destined to morph.

So find me that hill and let’s talk.  Meanwhile let us be suspicious of those who would pick up Winthrop all in one piece and drop it down onto current day America.

But that’s just what Robinson does:

We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity?

Where’s the city?  Where’s the hill?


Rogers Smith’s Beyond Tocqueville is paywalled as an academic paper.  Some cookie trails here.

I commented on Smith in connection with Jill Lepore’s call for a new Americanism here.  Many of my concerns with Lepore apply here as well.






About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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