From Puritan To Yankee

Editor’s Note: I hope you are enjoying history sperging Saturday. This is a brief respite from our tedious chronicling of current events.

In light of everything I know about American history, I was skeptical of the Louis Hartz thesis that “America was always Lockean.” The Puritan founders of New England were not Lockeans. They had come to the New World to create a Calvinist religious utopia.

It wasn’t until the third or fourth generation that the Puritan became the Yankee:

“Finally, this new “organization of family life contributed to the emergence of the liberated individual, a person who was exempt from all except voluntary ties to the family of his birth and free to achieve his own goals.”

By further undermining the coercive power of the old socioreligious regime that the founders of the orthodox puritan colonies had set out to implement and thereby opening up New England society, increasing population growth and the changing character of religious, economic, social, and familial life provided, as Richard L. Bushman has argued, the necessary preconditions for nothing less than a behavioral revolution that stretched over and had a transforming effect on all but the least dynamic areas of the region. Far from merely playing a passive role, people became active agents in this process. Increasingly ignoring traditional ideological and social restraints, they turned energies formerly devoted to religious and community endeavors to their own private pursuits of personal and individual happiness.

By encouraging a considerable amount of autonomous and aggressively competitive behavior, this behavioral revolution also provided identity models and standards of personal conduct for the society at large that stood at marked variance with the original values of the leaders of the founding generation. No longer was the moral and psychological necessity of obedience to the authority of the community and its traditional leaders – magistrates, pastors, and fathers – automatically assumed. Rather, contemporary models of behavior emphasized the authority of self rather than of the community; individual economic achievement and success rather than ascriptive criteria for political leadership and social status; the fulfillment, privacy, and comfort of the individual rather than self-denial in favor of the common good; and the “capacity of the individual to direct his own existence rather than … an unquestioning response to public morality.” With this behavioral revolution, the pursuit of wealth and gentility became as important as the pursuit of salvation and even more important than the pursuit of consensus and community …”

Full stop. There is a lot to unpack here:

1.) First, New England wasn’t founded as a Lockean settlement. Plymouth was founded by the Pilgrims in 1620. Massachusetts Bay was founded by Puritans in 1630. John Locke was born in 1632 and his Two Treatises on Government weren’t printed in Boston until 1773.

2.) Second, the early history of Massachusetts doesn’t at all resemble Lockean liberalism. Massachusetts was a Congregationalist theocracy. Religious tolerance was imposed on Massachusetts by King Charles II when it became a crown colony and was merged into the Dominion of New England. This was unpopular with the Puritans of Massachusetts, who rose in rebellion, and the Dominion of New England was dissolved after King James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution.

3.) Third, the Puritan only became the Yankee in the third or fourth generation, and this was the result of a number of trends in early 18th century New England: the growth in the population, the expansion of capitalism, economic stratification, the rise of individualism, the decline in religious and parental authority and the “New Light” theology that following the Great Awakening of the 1740s.

In other words, Yankee liberalism is based on a big lie. There was never a “social contract” in which autonomous individuals left a “state of nature” to “enter society.” Instead, there was a Puritan religious covenant that had created a highly religious, egalitarian collectivist society. After three or four generations, the Puritan’s corporate society disintegrated and became much more individualistic. It was swept by a religious revival in the Great Awakening and on the eve of the American Revolution latched on to Locke’s theories as a rationalization for its own rebellion.

The key here is that this was an organic process. New England had experienced tremendous change social and economic change in the 18th century when the Puritan became the Yankee. The social order had never been based on abstract universal theories of “liberty” and “equality.”

Note: Richard L. Bushman has a book called From Puritan To Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690–1765. The excerpt above also comes from Jack P. Greene’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture.

About Hunter Wallace 12379 Articles
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  1. Quick Edit needed Hunter, Charles wasn’t overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, but in the English Civil War. James II was overthrown by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland.

      • James II was a wuss who lost his nerve. Probably could have sent the Dutch packing if he had any balls. The Irish and Scots Highlanders were willing to fight for him.

        • The 271st anniversary of the Battle of Culloden is coming up! I would strongly recommend those intetested in trying to get Bonnie Prince Charles on the British throne to restore the Stuart monarchy watch the the great Peter Watkins docudrama “Culloden”.

        • I believe he was a Roman Catholic and that that was what the hullabaloo was mainly about and why he was deposed.

  2. I suspect the puritans already had a certain amount of egalitarian predisposition already. The Mayflower Compact promised to make “just and equal” laws.

    I’m not denying that a cultural change took place later, but I think the predisposition to lean a certain way was already there.

    • Interesting point. Yes, that the Puritans generally practiced congregational rule in their churches instead of elder rule like Presbyterians or bishop rule like the Anglicans does tend toward political empowerment of all people (well, all adult males). And their town meetings seem to me more democratic than the representative county government of the Southland.

    • The predisposition lay in the history of ancient Israel. Not in any Lockean sympathy… Until- they all forsook calvinism, and then became Unitarians and Socinian heretics.. Then all bets were off.

  3. Look up Hugh Peter, founder of Harvard and the Chaplain of the New Model Army.

    I’m pretty sure you’d call him a Social Democrat today.

  4. Because my own impression had never been that the whole Locke thing went back to Plymouth Rock, I’m a little bit surprised, Mr. Wallace, that you seem to have thought it went back that far. I guess I’ve thought of it, for some time, as a sort of late-Enlightenment, post-Rousseau thing that had caught the imagination of Jefferson and the other hipsters there, among the Founders. Yes, Locke’s work on government predates the Enlightenment, but I guess I think of the Enlightenment as a French reflex of something English. Somewhere–won’t look it up–no, wait, dutiful Occidental Dissent commenter that I am, I’ve just taken the trouble to look it up:

    Beyond Good and Evil,/i> Nietzsche, “Peoples and Fatherlands,” section 253 (Walter Kaufmann translation:)

    “Finally, we should not forget that the English with their profound normality have once before caused an over-all depression of the European spirit: what people call “modern ideas” or “the ideas of the eighteenth century” or also “French ideas”–that, in other words, against which the German spirit has risen with a profound disgust–was of English origin; there is no doubt of that. The French have merely been apes and mimes of these ideas; also their best soldiers; unfortunately, their first and most thoroughgoing victims as well ….”

    Elsewhere (Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man,” Section 48, as you’ll see below), Nietzsche speaks of Rousseau as “this first modern man” …

  5. i had Quaker ancestors among those puritans – i’m not sure how well the quakers & puritans got on. my NH quaker kin were visited by stealth-injuns in 1724 who killed some of their children, kidnapped mom & spirited her, infant, & a few kids north into canada. the non-quakers were all safe in the town’s garrison. but, the quakers thought god would protect them. immediately, the injuns were bashing the 4-year old’s brains out, swinging him by the ankles into a tree (he wouldn’t be quiet). See account of Elizabeth Hanson’s captivity also, Vaughan & Clark’s Puritans Among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity & Redemption, 1676-1724,
    as for the (mormon) historian richard L. bushman above, you can keep him. the rest of his books were all interpreting history as joseph smith apologetics, & though thorough, very one-sided. he’s the jared diamond of his oeuvre, & is a shill for joseph smith. …reminds me:

  6. Very good stuff, but I would just point out that it was James II who was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, not Charles II.

    • What? You’re saying you’d rather your mother not have meddled in your growing up, to let you become a Heathen and a roustabout? Or are you?

      The “meddling” you mention, was familial in nature -because they were all one family! You might as will agree with the libertarians and deny family exists-but then you’d be a communist Marxist- oh well.

      • I’m talking about social and political meddling, the kind of thing busy bodies, do gooders, liberals and Yankees do.

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