How Did the Puritans Influence the New England Colonies Politically, Socially, and Economically?
Many Puritans immigrated to the New World in the 17th century. Once there, they sought to fabricate a Holy Commonwealth in the New England region. Puritanism remained one of the dominant cultural powers in that region until well into the 19th century. The morals and ideals held by Puritans between 1630 and 1670 influenced the social development of the colonies by putting into practice a series of rules, which our own founding fathers would use to create the political structure of the New England colonies. The Puritans also influenced the economic well-being of the colonies by setting a precedent of self-reliance (as far as farming goes), and reducing the dependence on international trade.
The social structure of the New England colonies under the Puritans was one of brotherhood, togetherness, community, and even liberality. As John Winthrop wrote in his piece “A Model of Christian Charity:"
“Wee must delight in eache other; make other’s conditions our owne; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together…”
The communities set up by Puritans in the New England colonies were close-knit and centered around the church, both physically and mentally. As stated in the Enlarged Salem Covenant of 1636:
“We do hereby promise to carry our selves in all lawful obedience to those that are over us, in Church or Commonwealth, knowing how well pleasing it will be to the Lord..."
It’s no wonder that because of their strong belief in God, the Puritans of the New England region were an extremely passionate group of people. This passion for freedom and justice can be seen in two of our most prominent Founding Fathers, John Adams and Samuel Adams. The “brotherhood, community, and togetherness” that Puritans believed in helped instill a sense of justice and love for freedom in the two men. One particular value held by the Puritans that can still be seen today is their sense of religious freedom. Nathaniel Ward stated in, The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam that:
“That state that will give liberty of conscience in matters of religion, must give liberty of conscience and conversation in their moral laws, or else the fiddle will be out of tune.”
And although some Puritans did not believe in religious freedom, they still managed to create safe-havens for religiously persecuted peoples. Roger Williams cautioned that a lack of religious liberty could result in the “ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”
Another strong belief of the Puritans was the fierce sense that everyone was predestined to do something for God. Unfortunately for the surrounding Native Americans and all other non-Puritan groups (the Quakers, for example), the Puritans had no qualms with killing in the name of God.
William Bradford, in his note about the colonists’ attack of the Pequot’s Mystic River village, reveals that:
“They gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud, insulting, and blasphemous an enemy.”
Although the Puritans’ belief in God was strong, their belief in “living up to” God’s predestined task drove many Puritans to utter extremes. The thought of leading an idle life (a life full of wasted hours, or hours spent on leisure) haunted many Puritans. As Robert Keayne said in his last will and testament:
“[My account books] . . . testify to the world on my behalfe that I have not lived an idle, lazie or dronish life, but have rather studyed and endeavored to redeeme my time as a thing most deare and precyous to me, and have often denyed myself in such refreshings."
Keayne’s insight into the mind of a Puritan living in the New England area in the 1600’s helps us understand where our founding fathers got their zeal and tenacity.
Social Contracts and Way of Life
A social contract is the belief that the state only exists to serve the will of the people, and that they are the source of all political power expressed by the state. The origin of this term can be traced back to 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes wrote Leviathan in response to the English Civil War, and from it stemmed many of the ideas upon which the Puritans based their social structure, and even their political beliefs.
One example of a social contract is the Mayflower Compact of 1620. In the Mayflower Compact, one will find all of the essentials of, say, the United States Constitution (minus some details). The political standpoint of Puritan communities centered fundamentally around God and the Bible. With this in mind, we can begin to dissect the Puritan form of government, or as many historians believe, their lack of government.
One reason why the Puritan form of government can be seen as a weak government is because it was local (and by local, I mean it varied from community to community). The Puritans believed in personal, as well as collective, self-government within each community or settlement. Their faith was known as Congregationalism, which can still be found in some communities today. Their belief in self-government gave them local control over both religious and political matters. The well-known New England town meeting was proof to their idea of self-government. They were not ruled by foreign lands because they believed that there was “nothing [being] more authoritative than the Bible.” One of the only reasons for the education of young Puritans in the New World was so they could read scripture. A statement made about education in New England in 1643 states that: “the next things we longed for, and looked after. was to advance learning, and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.”
This quote shows that the primary educational concern of Puritans of the time was to leave an educated population of church-goers, and as Ryan Moran most likely mentioned, a literate ministry.
What many people fail to see is that hidden behind the wall of “God laws” is the foundation of our own Constitution. New England Puritan minister John Cotton stated:
“Let all the world learn to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use—for use it they will.”
This statement bears a very simplified meaning of our modern system of checks and balances. John Cotton also said:
“And for the people, in whom fundamentally all power lies.”
This statement essentially sums up democracy. From this we can see that Puritans laid the foundation on which freedom fighters such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Samuel Adams would build America.
As clergyman John Higginson said to merchants of his time:
“This is never to be forgotten, that New England is originally a plantation of Religion, not a Plantation of Trade; That worldly gain was not the designe of the people of New England, but Religion.”
Although this was true for many Puritans of the time, trade was a vital part of society as well. The economic well-being of the New England colonies during Puritan occupation was mostly centered around family-sized farms, and occasional trading. If you were a Puritan during the 1650s, you would likely have a small area of land where you grow your plants, cut wood and build things, buying metals, books, cloth and other food and provisions from merchants.
When one looks at a Puritan society, a society dominated by the church, controlled indirectly by God, and in which it was considered a crime not to attend mass on the Sabbath, it is hard to imagine our society stemmed from such a strict social system. Politically, our system of checks and balances, as well as our whole system of democracy can be traced back to the Puritans in the New England colonies. Economically, up until the 1930’s, our system of farming and communal trade could also be traced back to the Puritans who lived here. In our society today, religion does not play as big of a role as it did in the mid 1600’s, but we can still see their influence in today’s society. The tenacity and enthusiasm to do God’s work held by the Puritans of the 1600’s can be seen today in a different form: the pursuit of happiness.
- Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “Puritanism and Predestination.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/puritan.htm
- Mayflower Compact. http://www.allabouthistory.org/mayflower-compact.htm
- John Winthrop. http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/16071783/lit/winthrop.htm
- Social Contract. http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon.htm
- Congregationalism. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0813223.html
- The Brief American Pageant
- Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
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