Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England

Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England

Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England

Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England

Excerpt

Good titles are like eels, slipping away just as you reach out to catch hold of one. As this book was beginning to form in my mind, an eellike title appeared and, almost as suddenly, disappeared: “Why They Mattered.” Remembering that moment, I realize that it grew out of my aspiration to change how we think about the English people— the “Puritans”—who created the institutions and social practices I describe in these pages. Should I do so by characterizing these people as forerunners of the American Revolution and the democratic nationalism of the nineteenth century? A project of this kind would have the sanction of John Adams, who did something like it in A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765), and of orators in the nineteenth century, one of them Henry David Thoreau, whose way of eulogizing the anti-slavery fanatic John Brown in 1859 was to link him with Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. Intrigued though I am by this connection-making, in the end I wanted to write about the seventeenth century on its own terms. This is what I have attempted, in particular by emphasizing the pre-liberal aspects of the colonists’ thinking and practice. But I have allowed myself a brief look forward in the Conclusion.

The argument that runs through this book is plain enough: the people who founded the New England colonies in the early seventeenth century brought into being churches, civil governments, and a code of laws that collectively marked them as the most advanced reformers of the Anglo-colonial world. Not in England itself but in New England did the possibilities for change opened up by the . . .

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