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Cultural Orphans in America

By Diana Loercher Pazicky | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE The Puritans as Orphans

A family is a little commonwealth, and a commonwealth is a great family.

-- JOHN WINTHROP

T he most important secular institution in Puritan culture was the family. The family was not only the primary source of stability and security but a model for social and political institutions that incorporated its patriarchal and hierarchical structure. The family model also influenced the nature of interaction with other groups and cultures. Despite the earlier belief that the Puritan family was an extended unit that embraced a range of generations and relatives, more recent scholarship points to its nuclear nature. As John Demos asserts in A Little Commonwealth, "It is now apparent...that small and essentially nuclear families were standard from the very beginning of American history, and probably from a still earlier time in the history of Western Europe" (62).

Endemic to the nuclear structure of the Puritan family were the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion through which one family distinguished its identity from that of others by strict criteria of kinship. The primary characteristic of the family that the Puritans imported to the New World was the insularity of both individual families and the collective family of Puritan culture. John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, wrote in "A Defense of an Order of Court" ( 1637), in which he justified the exclusion of heretics, "A family is a little commonwealth, and a commonwealth is a great family. Now as a family is not bound to entertain all comers, no not every good

-1-

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