Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America

By T. H. Breen | Go to book overview

V
War, Taxes, and Political Brokers: The Ordeal of Massachusetts Bay, 1675-1692

DECLENSION HAS LONG fascinated historians of late seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay. The members of Winthrop's generation, we are told, came to the New World on a special mission, but their sons and daughters soon lost sight of the "city on a hill." Puritan divines obligingly recorded evidence of the children's loss of faith, a trend that threatened to unloose God's wrath upon New England. Public controversy was a particularly troublesome symptom of spiritual decline. The settlers clashed over a whole range of material concerns, selfish matters, forgetting apparently that the Lord expected them to "be knitt together in this worke as one man." Increase Mather, who monitored the colony's religious health, asked rhetorically in 1682, "Have not we been like foolish Birds, pecking at one another, until the great Kite be ready to come, and devour one as well as another?" Many modern historians share the minister's belief that institutional controversy -- indeed, change of any sort -- was somehow bound up with secularization.

With respect to Mather, I do not find this interpretation persuasive. It is true that within certain institutional settings the colonists forcefully, even truculently articulated their demands. They quarreled over taxes and asked embarrassing questions about what their rulers did with public funds. I argue in this chapter that dissension or perception of dissension was largely the product of extraordinary expenditures connected with war. It cost more to be a citizen of Massachusetts Bay in 1680 than it had in 1640, and one would expect villagers to challenge political leaders more frequently after King Philip's War than they

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