Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Puritan Democrats?

When a group of pioneers writes down charters and laws for their new government, they inadvertently set down for all time their understanding of human nature, of how society works, and of their own values. The New England puritans did the same thing when they set up shop (governmentally speaking) in 1630. Though they were still technically under the authority of the King of England, they didn't have any royal authorities tagging along with them on the voyage -- no surprise there, given how often colonies failed -- so they could run things pretty much as they pleased.

The government of Massachusetts Bay is often described as a "theocracy" -- literally, "rule by God," but practically, rule by the ministers, or rule according to religious standards. This is because only male church members could vote and hold office, and ministers were among the most influential men in the colony. But if we take another look at this system and judge it by seventeenth-century standards, another picture begins to emerge. Far from some kind of religious dictatorship, the puritans set up what was likely the most representative government in the world at that time.

We have to deal with some of our biases first. First of all, the male-only voting thing: women could not vote or hold office anywhere. They could not vote in England or in any of the colonies. So we don't want to hold the puritans to standards that did not yet exist by criticizing them for not enfranchising their women. But the suffrage picture in this era was even bleaker than that. In England (or anywhere), not even all men could vote or hold office. These were privileges, not rights. You had to attain to a certain standing in society -- usually, you had to own a certain amount of land or have a certain income -- in order to participate politically in society. This made perfect sense in a society that believed that government should come from the Best Men -- the men of superior social standing, or at the very least the ones who had shown they had the smarts and talent to succeed financially. No one believed in democracy, except maybe a few crackpots.

The puritans chose a different standard by which to determine who could hold political power. Ever distrustful of human nature, ever aware that anyone with political power could be tempted to use it corruptly, they put their trust in the place where God dwelled -- the hearts and minds of His chosen people. Christians, in other words. Church members. Could they be corrupted? Sure. Would some be? Of course. Puritans had no illusions about the potential darkness of the human heart. But it was the best of the available choices.

So how many men in Massachusetts Bay were church members? In those early years, almost all of them. They came to escape an aggressive king and maybe coming judgment from God on England, and passion for God was high. We don't know for sure, but likely over 80% of men who were of age were church members and therefore eligible to vote and hold office. This was a far higher percentage than back home in England, or in Virginia, their colonial neighbor to the south.

And those early puritan leaders did not have to do this. The charter on which they based their government -- the charter they got from the king, that they had to have before they could leave -- gave the ruling committee authority to retain the power in their own hands. They chose not to do so. Instead, they opened it up to everyone.

It was a smart move, as well. They were a long way from royal authority, and settlers always are more cooperative with the local strongmen if they have a stake in the system. Even worldly Virginia, which was motivated by profits and not Protestantism, found that out.

The puritans also kept a political rein on their ministers. If you were an ordained minister, you could not hold political office. Back in England, these people had suffered at the hands of bishops with political power who used it against them. That was not going to happen in New England.

We don't want to go too far with this line of reasoning and say, "And from thence sprang American democracy!" It sprang not from thence. The story is a little more complicated than that. The puritans were not democrats. They were themselves: ardent 17th-century Christians, seeking to live out the Bible, and struggling to determine how to do that on the template of laws and charters.

For the above insights I am indebted to Edmund Morgan's fine book, The Puritan Dilemma. And thank you, Dr. Breen, for assigning it way back in that colonial history class. As a brief, well-written history of the puritan migration, there is no better.

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