Monday, July 7, 2008

Proto-democracy in Puritan New England

I was rereading James F. Cooper, Jr.'s great book Tenacious of their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts, in the context of this blog on the founding of America. While Cooper's book focuses on church polity for the most part, his Introduction stresses the ways in which the Puritans at once failed and succeeded at being democratic.

The Puritans have been labeled as the ultimate anti-democratic people, almost completely on the basis of their religion. Because they only allowed church members to vote to elect representatives to the General Court (the judiciary and legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), and because Puritan giant John Cotton once wrote a letter in which he said that democracy was not ordained by God as a fit government, and mostly because people today hate the Puritans, scholars spent most of the last three decades denying that religious Puritans were ever democratic. The town meeting was hailed as the real democratic institution, and put in direct conflict with church-going.

The Puritans were not democratic in some ways. They did not let women have a political voice. One did have to be a church member to vote for the GC. They did not always provide justice for all, and there was no freedom of speech or religion.

But in other ways, they were the first democratic English society in America. As Cooper says,

"Congregational thought and practice in fact served as one indigenous seedbed of several concepts that would flourish during the Revolutionary generation, including the notions that government derives its legitimacy from the voluntary consent of the governed, governors should be chosen by the governed, rulers should be accountable to the ruled, and constitutional checks should limit both the governors and the people. ...Congregationalism certainly encouraged a significant (if varying) degree of popular participation. Notwithstanding its undeniable debts to the Enlightenment and the English dissenting tradition, Revolutionary ideology in Massachusetts emerged from a political culture that contained deeply rooted libertarian traditions stretching back to its founding generation of Congregational settlers."

When we study the Founders of the Revolutionary period, we struggle to understand the meaning of religion in an overwhelmingly politically focused tradition of scholarship. When we study the Puritans, the opposite is true: we struggle to recognize the innovations and importance of politics in an overwhelmingly religiously focused scholarship.

The importance of acknowledging the proto-democracy of the Puritans is not just that it goes a long way toward explaining the political climate of Massachusetts in 1770. It's also that their Puritan heritage helped shape Massachusetts Founders' attitude toward God and man, their belief that religion matters but should be entirely personal, but that politics must answer to God, in whatever form.

4 comments:

Brad Hart said...

"When we study the Founders of the Revolutionary period, we struggle to understand the meaning of religion in an overwhelmingly politically focused tradition of scholarship. When we study the Puritans, the opposite is true: we struggle to recognize the innovations and importance of politics in an overwhelmingly religiously focused scholarship."

An excellent take, Lori. I've never thought of it this way. I do, however, strongly believe that it is impossible to separate Puritan politics from their religion. After all, the two go hand-in-hand in so many ways that it would almost be irresponsible to separate them. Religion was the key component to Puritan politics.

Lori Stokes said...

I agree that Puritan religion gave birth to Puritan politics. The Puritans had two goals: to reform society by eradicating poverty; and to create a society in which every congregation was autonomous. That second goal led to the power of the laity and the absolute demand that each congregation decide its own actions, with no one else, not even the pastor, in power over them telling them what to do.

This congregational stance paved the way for town meeting, and other proto-democratic features of Puritan life.

So yes, Puritan religion paved the way for proto-democratic politics. Though I don't think that's the kind of affirmation of Puritan religion that most people have in mind when they say you can't separate Puritan religion and politics!

Pinky said...
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Pinky said...

(prior post deleted for typo fault)
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It seems to me that is would be almost impossible to separate religion from politics in any serious study of the centuries long founding period of our American society.
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Religion was a department of government by English law. As such, it had been an overwhelmingly important factor in the early Pilgrims decisions to come to these shores.
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So, as religious thought grew within the colonialists political framework, so politics grew within the religious framework. The two were irrevocably intertwined for all practical purposes. It took the ratification of the U.S. Constitution to break the hold religion had on our fledgling government.
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Thankfully...