Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America

By T. H. Breen | Go to book overview

I
Persistent Localism: English Social Change and the Shaping of New England Institutions

SEVERAL ESSAYS IN this collection had already been published when I began to write this piece. It appears first because it discusses the specific background of New England settlement comprehensively and at the same time raises themes central to the entire volume.

If Charles I is remembered at all today, it is as an ineffectual monarch who lost his head on the chopping block. During the first years of his reign, however, he brought considerable energy to his position. He instituted or tried to institute far-reaching changes in civil, ecclesiastical and military affairs. These unprecedented, often arbitrary policies disrupted the fabric of local society, and they were a major preoccupation of the men and women who moved to Mass'achusetts Bay. One cannot fully understand the institutional decisions that the colonists made in America unless one realizes how gravely Stuart centralization threatened established patterns of daily life in England's local communities.

This essay was well received, but some readers missed an important point that I had tried to make. The English background of many migrants, humble men and women about whom we know very little, was not the English background of John Winthrop or other members of the colonial gentry. The two groups did not disagree on fundamentals, especially not on the role of religion in their society. Rather, their perception of localism was different. Winthrop's experiences in England had been largely on the county level, and when he attempted to strengthen the hand of the Bay magistrates, to keep the colony's villages from

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