Joseph A. Conforti’s Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America
What went wrong in New England?
Why is this region the stronghold of American liberalism?
I’ve studied the cultural origins of the South – the founding of the Virginia Tidewater, the Lowcountry and the Deep South and most recently the German and Scots-Irish settlement of the backcountry in Greater Appalachia. I have a solid grasp of Southern cultural history.
New England, of course, differed from all the other American colonies from the very outset. The founders of New England were English Separatists (the Pilgrims) who arrived in Plymouth in 1620 and the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s. The Bible Commonwealths of Massachusetts and Connecticut were settled for religious reasons by Protestant dissenters while the other colonies in the South and the British West Indies were settled by mainstream Anglican settlers for largely commercial reasons. The idea that brought English settlers to Virginia and Carolina was a desire to get ahead in the world while the founders of New England were reformers who wanted to get closer to God.
New England was by far the healthiest colonial region in the New World. It was also the most culturally homogeneous. The population exploded between 1620 and 1776 through natural increase. New England was settled by middle class families, not by indentured servants from London and the West Country. It achieved a much healthier gender ratio much faster than the Southern and Caribbean colonies. It was the most literate region. Newspapers and universities which languished in the South were quickly established in New England. The Puritans valued education more for religious reasons. The people of New England settled in towns rather than dispersing across the countryside like in the South. New England also never developed a plantation economy based on cash crop agriculture and the intense labor system it required at the time. New England has a harsher climate than England and the South because the soil is rockier and poorer. The economy that emerged there was oriented toward international trade and fishing. Insofar as New England ever had a distinct “crop,” it was whaling and fishing and harvesting lobsters.
In spite of these well known differences, it is the similarities which are more striking. As in the South, the Puritan settlers of New England initially tried to get along with the local Indians and convert them to Christianity. There were “praying towns” of Indians in colonial New England. Harvard also briefly had an “Indian College.” Racial attitudes in New England hardened due to the experience of the Pequot War and the attempted genocide of White settlers in King Philip’s War and especially due to the “Second Hundred Year’s War” between England and France which in New England meant decades of intermittent frontier warfare with New France (King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, the French and Indian War) and its Indian allies until the final expulsion of the French from North America in 1763. The Indians were typically seen as pagan savages in New England and their demise by devastating epidemics like smallpox was interpreted as a sign of divine providence that allowed God’s Elect to settle in the region.
In the colonial era, New England had slavery like the Southern colonies. Rhode Island was the epicenter of the American slave trade. 10% of the population of Rhode Island was black. Massachusetts had an anti-miscegenation law. Massachusetts even developed racial chattel slavery before Virginia. Voting rights were reserved to White men and to confirmed Christians before Massachusetts became a royal colony after the Glorious Revolution. New Hampshire and Maine were settled by more secular settlers than Massachusetts and Connecticut. Northern New England has always been less religious. Rhode Island was created by dissenters from Puritanism. The first Baptist church in America was established in Rhode Island in the colonial era. The Great Awakening which spread evangelical Christianity through the colonies was centered in New England. Also, the Country Ideology which fueled the American Revolution in South Carolina planted deep roots in New England where the Revolution began at Lexington and Concord.
Conforti tracks the development of three distinct versions of New England regional identity in the colonial era – in the first phase, the Bible Commonwealths which were established for explicitly religious reasons by English dissenters; in the second phase, the “re-Anglicization” of New England after the Glorious Revolution when the Anglicanism became more popular and New England’s past was reinterpreted through the lens of the growth of the British Empire and the triumph of Protestantism, commerce and civil and political liberty over French Catholicism and Absolutism; in the third and final phase, the rupture with Britain over the British Constitution that culminated in the American Revolution. The second and third phase mirrored developments in the South. Generally speaking, the American colonies became more alike in the 18th century and the American Revolution was the culmination of the trend.
If we are looking for the origins of New England liberalism and its later divergence from the South in the 19th century, then the answer seems to be its unique circumstances after the Revolution. The French and Indian threat to New England which had long menaced and chastened the Puritans had been removed. New England had no reason to fear slave insurrections like the Southern states. New England always had a much more literate culture and stronger ties to England due to its commercial orientation. As a consequence, it was more influenced by English trends and movements like abolitionism. The British Empire established the first liberal world order in the Victorian era and New England was simply a cultural satellite of Britain. As New England’s elites gradually lost their religion and embraced Unitarianism and liberalism, they retained some characteristics of their earlier Puritanism. The Puritan became the Yankee while English settlers in other regions of North America developed along a different trajectory. Oddly enough, the Puritan strain in American culture led to both the abhorrence of miscegenation and immigration and liberal ideological fanaticism. It manifests in different ways.