Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Puritans and the Articles of Confederation

Puritan Massachusetts is often described as a theocracy, but it was really a direct democracy.

By now, in the 21st century, we equate democracy with liberalism; that is, we conflate direct democracy and liberal democracy. But they are very different: in a direct democracy, the people as individuals enter into a covenant to govern themselves directly, without representatives; in a liberal democracy, the people elect representatives to govern for them.

The U.S. today is a liberal democracy. But its roots are in the direct democracy of the Puritans.

Puritan religion did inform Puritan government, in that the direct democracy of churches was adopted for civil government. The congregation was the ruling body of the Puritan religion. They had rejected presbyterianism, in which a governing body makes policy for all churches and church attendees. Each congregation was its own discrete polity, and the people of each congregation handled all church business, from calling a minister to disciplining members to moving the church (as was common in early Massachusetts). As the towering Puritan minister Thomas Hooker put it, "Every man hath a right to meddle with the Congregation whereof he is a member."

And so every citizen had a right to meddle with the government of the colony. In the first two years of settlement, every adult male was made a freeman, and expected to attend General Court. As the population exploded, this was switched to a representative format, with freemen in each town electing two representatives. But non-reps showed up frequently at Court, and often protested laws made at the Court, and got their way. Each citizen felt a right to meddle.

This system frayed as the colony grew and the influx of non-Puritans ate away the sense of shared political purpose, and by the time a royal charter and government were imposed on Massachusetts in 1690, the people accepted purely representative government (liberal democracy).

But that urge to have each voice count was not easily abandoned. When the fledgling United States met in Congress to create a government in 1777, they created a direct democracy with the Articles of Confederation. As far as they could possibly do it, the Founders maintained direct democracy for the states, allowing their power to override that of the federal government. This system, despite its increasingly evident flaws, was maintained for 10 years until a sense of crisis led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Even at this convention, anti-Federalists were loath to take power from the people in the states, and predicted that reps meeting in far-away Washington would lose touch with their constituents, banishing the last chance for direct democracy. The Federalists took this up as a good thing, stating that a more disinterested government at the top would encourage healthy faction at the state level, allowing for fresh influxes of new ideas from time to time as the people in the factions elected new reps.

But that desire for direct democracy that leads Americans today to call for less government and to covenant themselves with the NRA or AARP or other political organizations has its roots in the Puritan right of each individual to meddle.


Brad Hart said...

You make an interesting comparison between direct and liberal democracy. Very interesting post.

I still have a problem, however, with labeling the Puritans as being primarily democratic. The fact that voting was restricted for so long makes me question their efforts to further any kind of democracy.

This is a very interesting comparison that you make by using the Articles of Confederation.

Fun post to read!

Jonathan said...


Just to get you thinking before I do a post in more detail that will ask you to address the following: I understand your argument re direct democracy and institutional separation of Church and State in Puritan Mass. But, I've read the Mass. 1641 Body of Liberties and, it seems to me, the content of such document is theocratic to its core. That such theocracy was "democratically vetted" reminds of of Western attempts to impose "democracy" in many Islamic nations where the politicians then democratically vote Sharia into law.

Lori Stokes said...

Hello Jonathan! I would not say the Body of LIberties is theocratic to its core; there are 98 laws laid out in it, and it isn't until number 58 that we see any mention of church (aside from the prologue). And then there are only four:

No 58 states that the civil authorities can make sure churches are following the established laws of church polity.
No. 59 states that no clergy member is immune from civil law.
No. 60 states that no church censure can remove a public official from office.
No. 61 says that no one can be forced to testify against someone in a civil rather than criminal case if his conscience forbids it.

That's it for the main body of the document, and it seems hardly theocratic. (Interestingly, there is a separate section on the rights of brute creatures, which forbids cruelty to animals.)

Now down at 95, there is a section called "A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches." These liberties are strictly church-related, they govern church polity only, and do not touch on or infringe civil polity. This is the Puritans establishing their brand of church organization and participation, not Puritans saying how church polity affects civil polity.

So I don't see theocracy in this. And that prologue I mentioned has uncanny resemblances to the prologue of the Declaration of Independence: it calls on the "free fruition of such liberties Immunities and priviledges as Humanitie, Civilitie, and Christianitie call for as due to every man... without Impeachment and Infringement [which] hath ever bene and ever will be the tranquilitie and Stabilitie of Churches and Commonwealths."

Take Church and Christianitie out of that and I think you have a reasonable (and pre-Lockeian) ancestor of the sentiments in the Declaration.

Jonathan said...

Maybe we have a different understanding of theocracy. When I look at their capital laws, I see theocracy. For anyone reading this the link is here.

94. Capitall Laws.


(Deut. 13. 6, 10. Deut. 17. 2, 6. Ex. 22.20)
If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death.


(Ex. 22. 18. Lev. 20. 27. Dut. 18. 10.)
If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death.


(Lev. 24. 15,16.)
If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.

[Page 274]


(Ex. 21. 12. Numb. 35. 13, 14, 30, 31.)
If any person committ any wilfull murther, which is manslaughter, committed upon premeditated malice, hatred, or Crueltie, not in a mans necessarie and just defence, nor by meere casualtie against his will, he shall be put to death.


(Numb. 25, 20, 21. Lev. 24. 17)
If any person slayeth an other suddaienly in his anger or Crueltie of passion, he shall be put to death.


(Ex. 21. 14.)
If any person shall slay an other through guile, either by poysoning or other such divelish practice, he shall be put to death.


(Lev. 20. 15,16.)
If any man or woeman shall lye with any beaste or bruite creature by Carnall Copulation, They shall surely be put to death. And the beast shall be slaine, and buried and not eaten.


(Lev. 20. 13.)
If any man lyeth with mankinde as he lyeth with a woeman, both of them have committed abhomination, they both shall surely be put to death.


Lev. 20. 19. and 18, 20. Dut. 22. 23, 24.)
If any person committeth Adultery with a maried or espoused wife, the Adulterer and Adulteresse shall surely be put to death.


(Ex. 21. 16.)
If any man stealeth a man or mankinde, he shall surely be put to death.


(Deut. 19. 16, 18, 19.)
If any man rise up by false witnes, wittingly and of purpose to take away any mans life, he shall be put to death.


If any man shall conspire and attempt any invasion, insurrection, or publique rebellion against our commonwealth, or shall [Page 275] indeavour to surprize any Towne or Townes, fort or forts therein, or shall treacherously and perfediouslie attempt the alteration and subversion of our frame of politie or Government fundamentallie, he shall be put to death.

Lori Stokes said...

I'd say only numbers 1 and 3 are about religion; the same laws about adultery and murder are in just about every civilization in the world. And the last one is clearly about civil treason, and doesn't mention God or religion at all. Because the civil government in question was a Christian one doesn't make this law particularly about Christianity.

One can argue that the laws against murder, adultery, etc., are from the Ten Commandments, and that's true in Christian societies. But again you'll find those laws all around the world, in nations that were not Christian at all.