Puritans: The Original Republicans?

What political legacy did the Puritans leave to America? There was a time when historians commonly portrayed the Puritans as America’s founding democrats.  No one better articulated this view than Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in Democracy in America that

Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine, but it corresponded in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories. It was this tendency which had aroused its most dangerous adversaries. Persecuted by the government of the mother country, and disgusted by the habits of a society which the rigor of their own principles condemned, the Puritans went forth to seek some rude and unfrequented part of the world, where they could live according to their own opinions, and worship God in freedom.

Recent historians have, as often as not, emphasized the non-democratic qualities of the Puritans, particularly in their denial of religious liberty to dissenters, and their appallingly violent wars with Native Americans.

As I noted in an earlier post, I have been reading Michael Winship’s Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill , and am writing a full review of it for The New England Quarterly. The book is a remarkable scholarly achievement by Winship, one of our top scholars of the Puritans. Godly Republicanism is a complex treatment of English and American Puritanism, but one of its major contributions is to explain how Puritan church government influenced the development of their political views.

To Winship, the Puritans were not necessarily the original American democrats, but they may well have been America’s first republicans (with a small ‘r’). It was not so much the love of liberty or belief in equality that drove them, but the fear of ecclesiastical and political tyranny. Puritans shared “the dread of the corrupting effects of power, the fear of one-man rule, the emphasis on the consent of the people, and on balanced government” with the proponents of classical republican thought made famous by historians such as Bernard Bailyn [The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution].

Some historians, such as Mark Noll in his magisterial America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, have portrayed the Puritans as fundamentally anti-republican, particularly because they associated republicanism with religious skepticism. But Winship is not concerned with the anti-orthodox leanings of many republican writers. The Puritans, he says, explicitly rejected the top-down authority of the bishops in the Anglican Church, and English Puritans became key opponents of the monarchy in their Civil War of the 1640s and ’50s. In Massachusetts, congregations elected elders to govern the churches, and politically, the colony extended the vote to all male church members. These practices made seventeenth-century Massachusetts the only place within the English empire “where the freemen had final control over all the officials who immediately affected their lives.”

Contemporary historians will undoubtedly continue to balk at oversimplified notions of the Puritan meetinghouse as a crucible of American democracy. But Winship makes a powerful case that America’s republican ideology did have  strong Reformed and Puritan roots.

  • Brian S

    I am confused about the “appallingly violent wars with Native Americans.” Did not the Puritans make treaties that went unviolated for fifty years before there was strife? All wars are “appallingly” violent and it is my understanding that the NE Puritans hated these conflicts. In fact, I have read that these wars were considered a curse brought by none other than the falsely accused witches.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

    Brian, check out the Pequot War of the 1630s, for one example. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pequot_War And King Philip’s War of the 1670s was, by percentage of people killed, one of the deadliest wars in American history.

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    The Puritans were, as a religious minority, generally Whigs. The Whigs of course were the driving force behind the “Glorious Revolution” in England and the revolution here in America. Those who were not outright republicans certainly believed in a constitutionalized monarchy – that was the whole point of the Glorious Revolution, and – as far as the American Revolution went – the desire for a written constitution was very much at the heart of things.
    I don’t believe the question was ever would there be voting or not – the constituent element in a democracy; rather, it was would there be a king or not. In this country, at least, I think the Whigs – and closely intertwined with them, the Puritans – were leaders in rejecting the proposition.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      very good point, thank you Ryan!

      • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

        Thanks for a good article. Actually, I have been reading a lot of revisionist history on the Whigs and Tories, in particular, right now, Herbert Butterfield’s “The Whig Interpretation of History.” The Puritans had never crossed my mind, though, oddly enough.
        It’s a temptation to think that there was a lot new with our revolution. Of course there were some things new, but voting in local and national assemblies was not one of them. In many ways, the American revolution was a deeply conservative revolution, and Americans have been notably conservative on the topic of revolutions ever since – consider the French by way of contrast. It is in this sense that the revolutionaries fought, not to institute, but to restore their traditional liberties, such as assembly and suffrage. Having these liberties codified was not particularly new, either. In fact, the habit of codification goes back – in the English-speaking world – at least as far back as Magna Carta.
        Thanks for the very thought-provoking article.

  • johnturner

    Thanks for reminding us about Winship’s book. I’ve missed the Puritans in recent years, other than dipping into Valeri’s Heavenly Merchandize.

  • John C. Gardner

    This post on the Puritans is excellent. This book will be on my reading list as soon as I finish several others. The information that you provides reminds me of both the dark and light side of colonial and American history. I will be starting your work on Patrick Henry today. Do you know of a good book on Johnathan Edwards?
    Thanks and God bless,
    John G.

  • Bill Isom

    The writer of this article wants to compare Purtians with modern day Republicans? Well, it seems to me that modern day Democrats are the left-0vers of British loyalist who supported the King of England against America. So called liberal “historians” cease to amaze when it comes to drawing political and religious parallels.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Bill, I don’t believe you read a word of my piece! It says not a word about modern day Republicans.

    • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

      Bill, when I first saw the headline, I thought the same thing you did. Reading the piece, though, I realized that Mr. Kidd meant “republicans” as in people who want a republic (a state without a monarch), not Republicans, as in members of the GOP. In this sense, almost every American is a republican. It gets trickier, too, because we can contrast, as Mr. Kidd does, republicans with democrats. In this sense, a democrat is not a member of the Democratic Party, but is someone who believes in democracy. In this sense, of course, we are almost all of us democrats. But again, contrasting the two, republicans generally prefer a permanent governmental structure, whereas democrats prefer a series of popular votes on issues as they arise. Such a model can work reasonably well on a very local level, but clearly not on a large, national level.

      So, to conclude, in these senses, both modern Republicans and modern Democrats are republican-leaning democrats! Lololol.

  • http://thereformedmind.wordpress.com Troy

    Wow, very different take on the Puritans political thought than I’m used to hearing. But I wonder about their association with the Federalists, who were most decidedly not republican (at least not Jeffersonians). My understanding is that Federalists relied most heavily upon two groups, business interests and Old School Puritan holdouts in the New England area especially. If that’s the case (certainly that’s the way Gordon Wood portrays it in his Empire of Liberty) then how does this square with this new interpretation?

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Troy, I think the confusion is that Winship is talking about the early colonial period (1630s) rather than the 1790s-early 1800s, when, as you note, New Englanders were decidedly anti-Jefferson and his new “Republican” or “Democratic-Republican” party.

      • http://thereformedmind.wordpress.com Troy

        Ok, that makes sense.

  • John Carter

    Check out Jack P. Greene’s _Pursuits of Happiness_. He makes an interesting synthesis of known scholarship as well as advancing a thesis of a contrast between Puritan visions for a “Grand Society” and Southern agricultural interests.

  • Chris Mahoney

    One has to view the Puritans as the leftists of their day, whereas the Jamestown settlers were mercenary, Anglican, and somewhat secular. The Puritans initially experimented with communism, whereas such an idea never crossed the Virginian’s mind. Their business was tobacco and slaves.

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  • Paul Belter

    Where does the Guilford Covenant fit into this?

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