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Running Head: Colonial American History  

Colonial American History

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     The first successful English colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. A few years later, English Puritans came to America to escape religious persecution for their opposition to the Church of England. In 1620, the Puritans founded Plymouth Colony in what later became Massachusetts. Plymouth was the second permanent British settlement in North America and the first in New England.

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In New England the Puritans hoped to build a "city upon a hill" -- an ideal community. Ever since, Americans have viewed their country as a great experiment, a worthy model for other nations to follow. The Puritans believed that government should enforce God's morality, and they strictly punished heretics, adulterers, drunks, and violators of the Sabbath. In spite of their own quest for religious freedom, the Puritans practiced a form of intolerant moralism. In 1636 an English clergyman named Roger Williams left Massachusetts and founded the colony of Rhode Island, based on the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state, two ideals that were later adopted by framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Colonists arrived from other European countries, but the English were far better established in America. By 1733 English settlers had founded 13 colonies along the Atlantic Coast, from New Hampshire in the North to Georgia in the South. Elsewhere in North America, the French controlled Canada and Louisiana, which included the vast Mississippi River watershed. France and England fought several wars during the 18th century, with North America being drawn into every one. The end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 left England in control of Canada and all of North America east of the Mississippi.

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Soon afterwards England and its colonies were in conflict. The mother country imposed new taxes, in part to defray the cost of fighting the Seven Years' War, and expected Americans to lodge British soldiers in their homes. The colonists resented the taxes and resisted the quartering of soldiers. Insisting that they could be taxed only by their own colonial assemblies, the colonists rallied behind the slogan "no taxation without representation."

The Puritans were nonconformists as were the Pilgrims, both of which refusing to accept an authority beyond that of the revealed word. But where with the Pilgrims this had translated into something closer to an egalitarian mode, the "Puritans considered religion a very complex, subtle, and highly intellectual affair," and its leaders thus were highly trained scholars, whose education tended to translate into positions that were often authoritarian. There was a built-in hierarchism in this sense, but one which mostly reflected the age: "Very few Englishmen had yet broached the notion that a lackey was as good as a lord, or that any Tom, Dick, or Harry...could understand the Sermon on the Mount as well as a Master of Arts from Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard" (Miller, I: 4, 14). Of course, while the Puritan emphasis on scholarship did foster such class distinction, it nevertheless encouraged education among the whole of its group, and in fact demanded a level of learning and understanding in terms of salvation.

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Knowledge of Scripture and divinity, for the Puritans, was essential. This was an uncompromising attitude that characterized the Puritans' entry into New England, according to Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, whose thematic anthology, The Puritans (1932, 1963), became a key text of revisionist historicism, standing as an influential corrective against the extreme anti-Puritanism of the early twentieth century. Following Samuel Eliot Morison, they noted that the emphasis on education saw the establishment, survival, and flourishing of Harvard College--which survived only because the entire community was willing to support it, so that even the poor yeoman farmers "contributed their pecks of wheat" for the continued promise of a "literate ministry" (Miller, I: 14). And again, to their credit, Puritan leaders did not bolster the knowledge of its ministry simply to perpetuate the level of power of the ruling elite. A continuing goal was to further education among the laity, and so ensure that not only were the right and righteous ideas and understandings being held and expressed, but that the expressions were in fact messages received by a comprehending audience. An Act passed in Massachusetts in 1647 required "that every town of one hundred families or more should provide free common and grammar school instruction." Indeed, the first "Free Grammar School" was established in Boston in 1635, only five years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded (Miller, II: 695-97). For all the accusations of superstition and narrow-mindedness, the Puritans could at least be said to have provided their own antidote in their system of schools. As John Cotton wrote in Christ the Fountaine of Life, "zeale is but a wilde-fire without knowledge" (qtd. in Miller, I: 22).

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The Puritans who, in the 1560s, first began to be (contemptuously) referred to as such, were ardent reformers, seeking to bring the Church to a state of purity that would match Christianity as it had been in the time of Christ. This reform was to involve, depending upon which Puritan one asked, varying degrees of stripping away practices seen as residual "popery"--vestments, ceremony, and the like. But many of the ideas later associated strictly with the Puritans were not held only by them. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination, with which Puritanism agreed, was held by the Pilgrims as well: both believed that the human state was one of sin and depravity; that after the Fall all but an elect group were irrevocably bound for hell; that, because God's knowledge and power was not limited by space or time, this group had always been elect. In other words, there was nothing one could do about the condition of one's soul but try to act as one would expect a heaven-bound soul to act.

As Perry Miller points out, they inherited Renaissance humanism just as they inherited the Reformation, and so held an interesting place for reason in their overall beliefs. The Puritan idea of "Covenant Theology" describes how "after the fall of man, God voluntarily condescended...to draw up a covenant or contract with His creature in which He laid down the terms and conditions of salvation, and pledged Himself to abide by them" (Miller, I: 58). The doctrine was not so much one of prescription as it was of explanation: it reasoned why certain people were saved and others were not, it gave the conditions against which one might measure up one's soul, and it ensured that God would abide by "human conceptions of right and justice"--"not in all aspects, but in the main" (Miller, I: 58). The religious agency for the individual Puritan was then located in intense introspection, in the attempt to come to an awareness of one's own spiritual state. As with the Pilgrims, the world, history, everything for the Puritan became a text to be interpreted. One could not expect all of God's actions to be limited by one's ideas of reason and justice, but one at least had a general sense, John Cotton's "essentiall wisdome," as guidance. And of course, one had the key, the basis of spiritual understanding, the foundational text and all-encompassing code, the Bible.

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It was because the Puritan mode of interpretivity--with its readings of providence and secondary causes--could reach such extremes that the Salem witch-trials broke out. Of course, as Thomas H. Johnson writes, the belief in witches was generally questioned by no one--Puritan or otherwise--"and even as late as the close of the seventeenth century hardly a scientist of repute in England but accepted certain phenomena as due to witchcraft." But the Puritan cosmology held a relentless imaginative power, especially demonstrated in narratives wherein Providence was shown to be at work through nature and among human beings. The laity read and took in such readings or demonstrations of Providence, and the ministry felt compelled by a sense of official responsibility to offer their interpretations and explain the work of God in the world (Miller, II: 734-35).

Johnson notes the "lurid details" of Cotton Mather's Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689), which helped generate an unbalanced fascination with witchcraft. This would prove both fire and tinder for Salem Village, so that "by September, twenty people and two dogs had been executed as witches" and hundreds more were either in jail or were accused (Miller, II: 735). Yet to envision the Puritan community at this point simply as a mob of hysterical zealots is to lose sight of those prominent figures who stood against the proceedings. Granted that they did not speak out too loudly at the height of the fervor, but then to do so would be to risk exposure to a confusion of plague-like properties, where the testimony of an alleged victim alone was enough to condemn a person. But it was the injustice of this very condition against which men such as Thomas Brattle and Increase Mather wrote. Brattle's "A Full and Candid Account of the Delusion called Witchcraft...." (1692) argued that the evidence was no true evidence at all, because the forms of the accused were taken to be the accused, and the accusers, in declaring that they were informed by the devil as to who afflicted them, were only offering the devil's testimony. His was an argument which seemed wholly reasonable to many, but it led Brattle to the fear "that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land" (In Miller, II: 762). Mather wrote in 1693, in Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits, that "it were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person be Condemned" (Qtd. in Miller, II: 736).

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Beyond this is as well is the journal of Samuel Sewall, which records his fascinating approach to what had happened. This complicates the idea of the 'Puritan' on another level because while Brattle and (Increase) Mather may have offered challenges to any conception of the homogeneity of Puritan belief, Sewall reminds one of the variability within an individual. It introduces an axis of time by which the measure of the 'Puritan mind' must be adjusted. On Christmas Day, 1696, one reads the terse opening, "We bury our little daughter." And three weeks later is a transcript of the notice Sewall had posted publicly. It relates that "Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family...Desires to take the Blame and Shame of [the Salem proceedings], Asking pardon of Men..." (In Miller, 513). This is once again an interpretation of the "reiterated strokes of God" which has brought the sense of shame to his consciousness, and it suggests that, at least for Puritans such as Sewall, these readings of nature and events are not merely those of convenience or self-justification. There is at least the indication here that if some Puritans stood ready to see the guilt in others, some of those same people at least made their judgments in good faith and with honesty, giving credence to their understanding of the ways of God, even when they themselves were the object of judgment. Sewall's example suggests a kind of Puritan whose Puritanism not only carries him to almost inhuman extremes, but also relentlessly brings him back, full circle, to humility.

What also must be emphasized is the absolute ground of religious understanding that the Biblical text represented for the Puritans. The Bible was the Lord's revealed word, and only through it does He directly communicate to human beings. While the natural world may be studied and interpreted in order to gain a sense of His will, He is not the world itself, and does not instill Himself directly into human beings by means of visitations or revelations or divine inspirations of any sort (Miller, I: 10).

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What the Puritans faced in Hutchinson, or in the Quaker idea of "inner light" which allowed every person direct access to God, was an outbreak of "dangerous" individualism, one which threatened the foundation of their social order. It was not simply a matter of letting Hutchinson spread her ideas freely--not when those ideas could carry the Puritan conception of grace to such an extreme that it translated into an overall abandonment of any structured church, which is to say, the basis of a Puritan society. Miller states how the followers of Hutchinson became caught up in a "fanatical anti-intellectualism" fed by the original Puritan "contention that regenerate men were illuminated with divine truth," which was in turn taken indicate the irrelevance of scholarship and study of the Bible. Both possibilities were potentially destructive to the Massachusetts Bay colony, and both only carried out Puritan ideas further than they were meant to go (Miller, I: 14-15); the individualistic tendencies that was embedded in the Pilgrim community, exists as well with the Puritans. In reference to Tocqueville's use of the term in volume II of Democracy in America, Ellwood Johnson goes so far as to say, "The anti-traditionalism and de- ritualization of society that he named Individualisme had their sources in Puritan culture. This Puritan individualism had survived especially in the habit of judging others by their characters of mind and will, rather than rank, sex, or race..." (Johnson, 119). Of course, as Johnson notes, Tocqueville's experience in America was limited both in time and geographic location. But Hutchinson and her followers were banished, after all, and while Puritanism did substitute the more simplified approach of Ramean logic to replace the overly recondite and complicated mediaeval scholasticism, and while it fostered a more personal mode of religion with its emphasis on individual faith and access to Scripture instead of the structured ritualism and mediation of the Catholic church, it nevertheless took for granted a society and state which relied upon what was only a translated form of class division, and which depended upon a hierarchy where the word of God would not become dispersed (and so, altered) into a kind of religious precursor to democracy. The Puritans had themselves suffered repeatedly under a society which had seemed to evince the potentially ominous side of the relation of church and state. The king was the leader of the church, and the state decided how the church was to function, and in 1629 when Charles I dissolved parliament, the people found that they no longer had any political representation, any means to act legislatively. Their secular agency had then become a measure of their religious agency; the removal to Massachusetts in turn was a way to gain a political voice, to create a state that would develop according to their own beliefs and fashion itself harmoniously with the church.

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It was not an effort to establish a society wherein one might unreservedly express what one wished to express and still hope to have a say in communal affairs. If religion was to come to bear on the governance of the society, to what good would a more egalitarian, democratic form come? The integrity of the community as religious entity (Winthrop's "citty on a hill"), which had been the purpose of their coming to America, could only be, at best, weakened and dispersed, and at worst, be challenged to such a degree and in so many ways that there would be no agreement, no action or political effectiveness. Their religion itself would seem to be faced with a prospect of which kind does not easily (if at all) admit--a prefiguration of what is now called 'gridlock.' Despite what some later commentators would say, Puritanism and Democracy were not coproductive ideas, no matter how much one might have anticipated, and even allowed the eventuality of, the other.

One who stated the problems which would ultimately unravel Puritanism as a dominant political force was Roger Williams. For one thing, Williams's critique of the institutions being developed in Massachusetts directly illuminates the difficulty indicated above--that of perpetuating a religion which both held the seed of an increasingly liberating individualism and at the same time maintained the need of a limited meritocracy. The primary point of contention for Williams began in 1631 when he declared that the church in New England was, in its failure to fully separate from the English church, inadequate, and tainted. He removed to Plymouth, where he remained for a year. But even there "Williams wore out his welcome" (Heimert, 196). Part of the reason lay in another of Williams's critique of New England as it was developing, that the lands granted to the colonists had been unjustly given by the crown, because they had not been first purchased from the Indians. For his efforts, Williams was banished. His primary response to this was one of his more threatening ideas, "that the civil magistrates had no power to punish persons for their religious opinions" (Miller, I: 215). This was not necessarily an over-arching argument for full toleration, but rather implied a statement specific to Christian salvation, that "no power on earth was entitled to prevent any individual from seeking Christ in his own way" (Heimert, 198). For the Puritan ministry, this was far enough, because it targeted the strongest tie between it and civil government, and thus implied a potential disconnection between the two. As John Cotton wrote, the question of "mens goods or lands, lives or liberties, tributes, customes, worldly honors and inheritances" was already the jurisdiction of "the civill state" (qtd. in Hall, 117), but the establishment of laws which fostered Christian principles and punished threats to them-- that was only part of the continued and increasing realization of divine will on earth.

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That dissenters such as Hutchinson and Williams were banished, suggests what has recurringly been described as a major factor in the evolution not only of the Puritan theocracy, but of supposed national identity in general--the frontier. Both Crevecoeur and Tocqueville portray the pioneer type, the individual who, being away from the influence of religion and mannered, social customs, becomes increasingly rough, and even near-barabaric. This same figure is also seen as a necessary precursor to more and more 'civilized' waves of society. Another view of the frontier effect comes with the increasing democratization of the United States, where populist movements occur such as the Jacksonian Revolution, suggesting a kind of evolutionary mode through which the American socio-political 'self' is more and more fully realized. For Puritan society, Miller suggests a more socio-economic effect, where the frontier increasingly disperses communities and so disperses the effect and control of the clergy, and where the drive for material profit begins to predominate over the concern with "religion and salvation" (Miller, I: 17). And if the frontier demands more a stripped-down material efficacy than the finer attributes of 'culture' and class distinction, then so too does frontier-influenced religion lose its taste for the nicer distinctions of theological scholarship, and move instead toward a greater simplicity, toward the eventual evangelism of the Great Awakening in the 1740s, further out toward "fundamentalism" and other forms of belief that had long-since ceased to be Puritan.

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At this point one must step back with a bit of caution, and once again take note of an important provision underlying the terminology. That is, in using the term "puritan" above and assigning to it a set of characteristics and preponderances, I must qualify the grounds of the (non)definition. Specifically, an argument such as that belonging to Darrett Rutman becomes useful, even if one does not take it as far as does he (in using specifically against the likes of Perry Miller). Primarily, he takes issue with an approach to history that employs only the selected writings of a selected few, in determining some "notion of Puritan quintessence"--one which is supposed to represent all of Puritan New England, ministry and laity alike. As he puts it, this "view of New England Puritanism...rests upon two major implicit assumptions....that there is such a thing as 'Puritanism'...and that the acme of Puritan ideals is to be found in New England during the years 1630-1650" (In Hall, 110). His argument is correlative to one which Sacvan Bercovitch will take up in The American Jeremiad, where he points out that historians, in assuming this so-called decline, are simply following the lead of "Cotton Mather and other New England Jeremiahs." Taking statements such as Mather's, historians, instead of seeing it as part of a tradition of "political sermon" (to use Bercovitch's phrase) that could be evinced all the way from the sailing of the Arbella, have instead interpreted them as even more historically specific, reactions against an increasing lack of coherence between religious and secular authority, and declarations of a failing mission. Rutman indicates the "pragmatic value" of seeing the jeremiad this way, in that it helps isolate a model of Puritanism, and narrows the historian's task to one of describing the thought of a specific twenty-year period.

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Rutman's basic argument rests on the recognition that, to gain a clearer picture, one must study not only published sermons and theological treatises, but also more wide- ranging anthropologic data--records of social, political, and economic relations within and among individuals and communities. Into the specifics of this, one need not go; a study in this vein of Sudbury, Massachusetts, reveals underlying instabilities that challenge assumptions of a dominant Puritan 'theocracy,' but then this is not so far from Miller's own conclusion, that Puritan ideology held within it the basis of its own loss of control. The point here is rather the point from which Rutman begins and with which he concludes, that one must be careful not assume an essence of identity to be described before attempting to describe simply what one finds, that such an assumption may lead to dangerous equivocations between the ideology of Puritanism and the history of New England (and extrapolating from that, much of the United States as a whole).

It is the old instability--that between the religious and the secular--which the idea of Puritanism contains. The confusion then becomes translated into the historical perspective in terms that, as Bercovitch states, come from the jeremiad itself: "the New England Puritan jeremiad evokes the mythic past not merely to elicit imitation but above all to demand progress" (Bercovitch, 24). For Bercovitch, who reads those key texts of the 'Great Migration'--John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity" and John Cotton's "God's Promise to His Plantations"--as important transitions into distinctly American forms of the jeremiad, this entails an "effort to fuse the sacred and profane," to historicize transcendent values and goals into what he calls a "ritual of errand" (Bercovitch, 26,29). Defined then not so much by pre-existing social distinctions but rather by a continual and purposefully-held sense of mission to which the modern idea of 'progress' is intrinsic and out of which the notion of "civil religion" (as Kammen would say, "memory in place of religion") develops, Puritanism, as an ideological mode and not (Rutman's) historical "actuality," suggests America as a modern region from the very beginnings of its colonization.

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Less so with historians than popularizers of a Puritan mythos, the evocation of a "golden age" existing less as past fact than future promise, comes to dominate the sense of 'Puritan tradition'. This, as Bercovitch indicates, is at the heart of 'explaining' America, with all its promise as a New World, with its idea of Manifest Destiny, with the kind of self-idealization of National Purpose that Henry Nash Smith describes in Virgin Land. The modern perspective and its blurred secular and religious (or moral) understandings, thus is what will be explored in the sequel.

 
 


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