No, the Puritans Did Not Found the Country

No, the Puritans Did Not Found the Country July 26, 2013

One of the little rhetorical tricks that the Christian nation apologists love to use is to point to the Puritans who settled the Plymouth Bay Colony and pretend that they founded the United States. But they didn’t. They created a brutal theocratic British colony that was repudiated by the Constitution. Warren Throckmorton tuned in to that class on the Constitution that they wanted to teach at a school in Ohio and found them doing exactly that.

In the first part of the session, Peroutka discusses what he believes are contributions of the Puritans to American law and government. Generally, he attempted to draw a straight line from the Puritans to the American Constitution. For instance early in the program, he said, “Civil government has jurisdiction over our actions but not our conscience. Conscience is between God and man.” Peroutka claims this principle comes from the Puritans. However, in my opinion, his effort to find liberty of conscience in the Puritan theory of government fails because he ignores what the Puritan government did.

While it may have been fashionable at one time to link the Puritans to liberty (and some Puritans did speak about “liberty of conscience” — e.g., British clergy William Perkins), a review of basic events will contradict that notion. It is well documented that non-Puritans were not well tolerated in Massachusetts. For instance, Roger Williams was exiled to Rhode Island and set up real religious freedom there. Of course, there is problem of the witch trials. Furthermore, Quakers were often tortured and sometimes killed for their beliefs.

Anyone who claims that there was anything remotely like religious freedom or “liberty of conscience” under the Puritans in Massachusetts is either an ignoramus or a liar. In Peroutka’s case, I’m betting on liar.

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  • There were other English colonies (like Jamestown) as well as Spanish settlements (like St. Augustine), quite a few years before the “Pilgrims” arrived in Massachusetts, yet everyone seems to forget this and keep perpetuating the myth that the Puritans are only ancestors we have in this country.

  • raven

    The high point of Puritan theocracy was the murder of 25 alleged witches in Salem, Massachusetts.

    They also hunted down and killed a few heretics, Unitarians and Quakers, and persecuted the Baptists.

    Eventually, people got tired of them and their cruel religion and they disappeared. IIRC, they morphed into the Congregationalists.

    They were not nice people.

  • Aren’t those the more conservative Puritans you’re talking about? I thought we Unitarians originally came from the liberal or Arminian branch of Puritanism.

  • “Anyone who claims that there was anything remotely like religious freedom or “liberty of conscience” under the Puritans in Massachusetts is either an ignoramus or a liar.”

    Wrong! The Puritans believed in the same Religious Liberty that the Christian Nation mythers do; their own.

  • Trebuchet

    Anyone who claims that there was anything remotely like religious freedom or “liberty of conscience” under the Puritans in Massachusetts is either an ignoramus or a liar. In Peroutka’s case, I’m betting on liar.

    It doesn’t have to be “or”. I’m betting on both.

  • Draken

    I’ve just read large part of their Wikipedia entry and concluded that they must at least in part be the seed of the religious theocratism we now see in the GOP. Maybe they’ve been Sleepers since 1691?

  • Maybe they’ve been Sleepers since 1691?

    More plausible than Al Quaeda.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    Read the diary of Samuel Sewall … they were definitely a theocracy, and he was happy about it.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    They DID strongly influence the writers of the Constitution, mostly to prevent the possibility of their view of what government should be from becoming a reality.

  • I don’t know about other people’s grade school history courses, but around about 5th grade, American history went something like this: Mayflower pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, the first Thanksgiving, Boston Tea Party, Revolutionary War, writing up the Constitution after the Articles of Confederacy flopped. In later grades, my teachers kind of broke up the implied linearity by adding other colonists and peeled off some of the whitewash. They also added in Salem, had us read The Crucible and the background of puritan persecution surrounding it.

  • mjmiller

    Stating that the settlers at Plymouth Colony were promoting religious tolerance is similar to saying the owner of “Bob’s Country Bunker” promoted musical diversity

    Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?

    Claire: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country and western!

  • steve84

    One of the biggest American myths and lies is that the Puritans came to America for religious freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were kicked out of England because they were too crazy even for a country used to religious warfare. They then fled to the Netherlands, which was a country renowned for its religious freedom and was thus a refuge for minorities from all over the continent. This of course had the problem that the Puritans and especially their children were exposed to other ideas. Can’t have that obviously. And like in England they weren’t allowed to impose their ideas on other people. So they went to America in order to establish their own theocracy and finally be able to oppress and kill everyone they hated.

  • JustaTech

    For a long time the “America was founded by the Pilgrams” was pushed because the Pilgrams were in the North, and Jamestown was in the South. And religious ideals sounded better as a founding principle than capitalism.

    Reading “The Scarlet Letter” in school gave me the impression that all Puritans were assholes. Nothing I’ve read since has changed that opnion. Nobody likes a zelot, let alone a whole bunch of them. They’re lousey neighbors, trading partners, business people, subjects, rulers and enemies. I bet the Dutch invented a dessert to celebrate them leaving.

    (I say this as a person with at least one Mayflower ancestor. He fished a drunk Pilgram out of the ocean, twice. That guy is my friend’s ancestor.)

  • busterggi

    As I recall the Puritans also outlawed Christmas, instituted high taxes and demanded government sanctioned relief for the poor.

    Too bad that was in the real world rather than neo-con world.

  • Puritans were the first combatants in the War on Christmas! Someone call Bill O’Reilly!

  • Childermass

    What is now the Unitarian-Universalists definitively has roots with the Congregationalists and thus with the Puritans. The irony is that the Puritans would roasted anything resembling a modern UUs.

  • bad Jim

    It’s funnier than what robertbaden and Childermass have mentioned. Around the time of the Revolution, all but one of Boston’s Congregationalist (Puritan) churches became Unitarian.

    Maybe there’s something about revolution that encourages heterodoxy: “We don’t need a king! And by the way, Jesus isn’t God, and everybody goes to heaven!”

  • Eric Ressner

    Bronze Dog @10:

    …writing up the Constitution after the Articles of Confederacy flopped.

    I think it’s the Articles of Confederation you’re talking about there. The Confederacy came along a bit later, and also flopped, IIRC.

  • tomvandyke


    How to Govern a City on the Hill: The Early Puritan Contribution to American Constitutionalism

    John Witte Jr.

    Emory University School of Law


    Emory Law Journal, Vol. 39, p. 41, 1990


    Historians are adopting a more generous view of Puritans; however, the Puritan contribution to American constitutionalism is often abstracted. There is a trend to focus on the 18th century writers and ignored the 17th century writings, focus on constitutional ideas and ignored constitutional institutions and legal structure, and divorce Puritan constitutional ideas from their explicit theological foundation. The idea of covenant, in particular, was a hugely important theological and social doctrine for the Puritans.

    The Puritans believed mankind had various covenants with God. Social covenants were based in the natural law, and one must voluntarily swear allegiance to the social covenant and live under the discipline of the community. Ecclesiastical covenants were covenants that called the church to preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and care for the poor and needy. Political covenants showed that God vested in the state temporal power of the sword. Thus, the state reflected and represented God’s majesty and authority.

    Church and state were therefore separate covenantal associations that had distinct callings and responsibilities. This was a very basic separation; the two covenants were not to be confounded, but they were still close and compact institutions that influenced one another. Due to the human nature of sin, Puritans also had strict limitations on the power of officials to prevent them from aiming for self-gain and self-indulgence. Puritans believed that officials should have as godly a character as possible, with a limited tenure in a limited government to prevent abuses. This doctrine led to a quasi-federalist form of government, with developed legal codes and strict statutes that laid out magistrate controls. Thus, the Puritan theology naturally led to a democratic form of government.