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On Puritans

A critique of the Puritans, on the 300th anniversary of the Mayflower's arrival at Plymouth Harbor.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

The solemn hour approaches. It will soon be just three hundred years since the Pilgrims let go their anchor off the coast of Cape Cod. A flood of oratory will surely descend upon us. The New England Societies, the Pilgrim societies, the Forbears societies, the Colonial Dames, and the French and Indian War societies, and all those who need an excuse for a night out will attend banquets given under the benign auspices of astute hotel managers. College presidents, serene, secure, solemn and starched will rise and tell again to restless youths the story of Miles Standish and Cotton Mather. Evangelical clergymen will set aside special days for sermons and thanksgivings. The Archbishop of Canterbury (shades of Laud!) will send a cablegram to the Back Bay Brotherhood! We shall be shown again, as Henry Jones Ford (Scotch-Irish) once remarked, “how civilization entered the United States by way of New England.” We shall hear again how it was the Puritans who created on these shores representative and democratic republics, wrested the sword of power from George III, won the Revolutionary war, and freed the slaves. It has ever been thus. Egomania must be satisfied and after dinner speakers must have their fees.

The flood of half truth, honest ignorance, and splendid conceit will produce an equal reaction—a cry of rage and pain from the improvers of America. Mr. H.L. Mencken will burst upon our affrighted gaze in full war paint, knife in teeth, a tomahawk dripping with ink in one hand, a stein of Pilsner in the other, and the scalps of Professors Phelps, Sherman, and Matthews hanging to his belt. He will spout a huge geyser of pishposh and set innumerable smaller geysers in motion near Greenwich village.

In view of the clouds on the horizon and the impending deluge, it would be well to take our latitude now and find our course lest we should be blown ashore and wrecked upon the rocks of Plain Asininity. Nothing would be more sensible than to renew our acquaintance with Green, Gardiner, Prothero, Hallam, Lingard, Clarendon, Ludlow, Bradford, Usher, Bancroft, and the other serried volumes that flank the wall. The record seems to stand fairly clear: an autocratic Stuart monarchy and an intolerant ear-clipping Church, the protests of the purifiers, qui ... receptam Ecclesiae Anglicanae disciplinam, liturgiam, episcoporum vocationem in quaestionem palam vocarunt, immo damnarunt, the propositions of Cartwright, the godliness of the independents, the Mayflower compact. Cotton Mather’s Magnalia, and all the rest.

But neither the orators nor the contemners are content with the plain record. They must show how the Puritans had all the virtues or all the vices. Once the term Puritanism had fairly definite connotations. Now it has lost them all. By the critics it is used as a term of opprobrium applicable to anything that interferes with the new freedom, free verse, psycho-analysis, or even the double entendre.

Evidently in the midst of much confusion, some definition is necessary, and for that purpose I have run through a dozen eulogiums on the Puritans (not omitting G. W. Curtis’s orations) and an equal number of attacks on the Puritans (not omitting Mencken’s Prefaces). From these authentic documents I have culled the following descriptive terms applied to Puritans. I append a table for the benefit of the reader. Puritanism means:

Resistance to tyranny
A free church
A free state
Equal rights
A holy Sabbath
Liberty under law
Individual freedom
The gracious spirit of Christianity
Harsh restraint
Sour-faced fanaticism
Supreme hypocrisy
Enmity to true art
Intellectual tyranny
Brutal intolerance
Grape juice
Grisly sermons
Religious persecution

I look upon this catalogue and am puzzled to find “the whole truth.” When I think of Puritan “temperance” I am reminded of cherry bounce and also the good old Jamaica rum which New England used to make in such quantities that it would float her mercantile marine. When I think of “demonology,” I remember that son of Boston, Benjamin Franklin, whose liberality of spirit even Mencken celebrates, when he falsely attributes it to French influence, having never in his omniscience read the Autobiography. When I think of “liberty and individual freedom,” I shudder to recall stories of the New England slavers and the terrible middle passage which only Ruskin’s superb imagination could picture. When I think of “pluck and industry,” I recollect the dogged labors of French peasants. Catholic in faith and Celtic in race. When I see the staring words “brutal intolerance” I recall the sweet spirit of Roger Williams, aye, the sweeter spirit of John Milton whose Areopagitica was written before the school of the new freedom was established. When I read “hypocrisy” and “canting” I cannot refrain from associating with them the antics of the late Wilhelm II who, I believe, was not born in Boston. So I take leave of the subject. Let the honest reader, standing under the stars, pick out those characteristics that distinctly and consistently mark the Puritans through their long history.

If we leave generalities for particulars we are equally baffled. Some things of course are clear. The art of reading and writing was doubtless more widely spread in New England than in the other colonies, but that has little or no relation to education or wisdom. Until about 1890 New England did most of the Northern writing for “serious thinkers.” It is not necessary to name authors or magazines. New England early had a considerable leisure class free for excursions into the realm of the spirit, but whether that was the product of Puritanism or catches of cod is an open question. Most of our histories have been written in New England, but the monopoly has long passed. New England contributed heavily to western settlement, to the Union army, and to the annual output of textiles.

Puritanism did not build our railways, construct our blast furnaces or tunnel our hills. But when one goes beyond so many pages of poetry, so many volumes of history and sermons, and the Puritan Sabbath one is in a quaking bog. Critics attribute the raucous and provincial note in our literature to the Puritans. No student of the history of colonization would make that mistake. What have the millions of French who have lived and died in Canada produced to compare with the magnificent literature of France? How many Greek colonies scattered along the shores of the Mediterranean could rival the metropolis in sculpture or tragedy? The rusticity of the province was not monopolized by Puritans.

Take then the matter of government. The Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and the Fundamental Articles of New Haven set forth a form of religious brotherhood as old as the Church at Jerusalem described in the Acts. The Pilgrims were not Puritans anyway but even if they were they did not invent the term or the idea of a compact. The so-called democracy of the Massachusetts Bay Corporation was nothing but the democracy of an English company of chant adventurers brought to America. What not religious was English. Nothing was new. Nothing in the realm of ideas was contributed by the Puritans.

Consider also the spirit of our government. If we speak of American democracy, must we not think of Jefferson rather than John Adams or Fisher Ames? And Jefferson was born in the original home of slavery, indentured servitude, an aristocracy, and an Established Church. Moreover his doctrines, especially his political views, were not as Mencken implies “importations” from Prance. Any schoolboy who ever heard of John Locke knows better. Was John Locke a Puritan?

Did Jefferson create American democracy? I resort to a Puritan of the Puritans, who according to authentic documents knew and loved good whiskey, Daniel Webster. He delivered an oration at Plymouth on the two hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, and he told more solid truth than will be found in all the oratorical eruptions that will break forth in this harassed land December. And what did he say? “Our New England ancestors ... came to a new country. There were as yet no land yielding rent, and no tenants rendering service ... . They were themselves either from their original condition or from the necessity of their common interest, nearly on a general level in respect to property. Their situation demanded a parcelling out and division of the lands and it may be fairly said that this necessary act fixed the future frame and form of their government. The character of their political institutions was determined by the fundamental laws respecting property.”

For more than two hundred years the freeholder his wife who labored with their own hands the course of American development. This fact has more to do with American democracy, American art, American literature, as Mencken himself knows and says, than all the Puritanism ever imported into New, England. The yeoman and his wife were too busy with honest work to give long hours to problem plays, sex stories, or the other diversions of “the emancipated age.” Imagine Bernard Shaw, Gilbert Chesterton, or Baudelaire doing a turn at log rolling or at spring in the stormy fields of New Hampshire!

Sufficient unto the day is what comes out of it. Whoever will not try to see things as they really need not set himself up as a critic or teacher. And let it be remembered that the Irish, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and Jews are not the only people who can be objective, high, diaphanous, Olympian und understand “poor, crude America, with its dull, puritanical, Philistine history.”

It was not the Puritans that inflicted professors doctors of philosophy upon us and doctor’s dissertations, seminars, research, and “thoroughness.” It was not a Puritan nor even an Englishman who first spent five years on the gerundive in Caesar. It was not a Puritan who devised the lecture system, or professorships in English literature. The Puritan may not measure up to Mencken’s ideal of art, but he did built houses that are pleasing to the eye and comfortable to live in, and he never put his kitchen midden before his front door. Let us remember also that it was not the Puritans who expelled Shelley from Oxford, and that Lincoln, of New England origin, loved a ripping story, wrote a good hand, had irregular notions about Providence, was not a Sabbatarian, and did not advocate the eighteenth amendment.