The Declaration, the Constitution and Puritans, oh my!
Puritan thought was instrumental in the early development of the colonies and in the acceptance of Americans for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Puritanism has had a lasting impact on the values and institutions of the American founding. Two important impacts are 1) democratic thought and the development of America’s unique sense of individualism; and 2) an overall national concept of work ethics. This article will outline each of these lasting impacts and its importance to the founding of America.
Democratic Thought and the Development of America’s Unique Sense of Individualism
Puritanism laid the foundation for democracy. This was first developed by the Mayflower Compact, which established a temporary agreement of self-government, a sovereign government. The Mayflower Compact was a social contract in which all parties involved agreed to follow certain rules, in spite of any differences, to ensure the survival of the community coming to the New World. This social contract model followed down through the colonies and gave sustenance for future forms of social contracts, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Evidence of Puritan foundation for democracy can be found in the Declaration of Independence, which states that all men are created equal and that through the Creator, there are unalienable rights that everyone is entitled. Those rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This Declaration states that governments are instituted by men and derive power from the consent of the governed. It further states that these rights, or truths, are self-evident, in other words, these are rights are (or should be) apparent to everyone. It includes the laws of nature as well as nature’s god, allowing for the inclusion of both religion and science, or reason.
Puritan thought had slowly changed over time. Calvin had established the concept that the “light of human reason is quite dim.” He had developed predestination and rejection of covenant works. This bleak outlook on life had been passed down to the Colonial Puritans, who had accepted it without much thought. In addition, it had previously been accepted that scripture was truth, but with the overall Protestant movement, came an unintended consequence of there being no single authority of this truth because everyone had a relationship, or priesthood, with God. Truth was somewhat left up to interpretation. With this history in hand, problems eventually arose in Calvinism. Anarchy can stem from predestination and good works being irrelevant to salvation – what is there to live for? The people were searching for answers and hope for their very existence in this world. It became apparent that societies must live in some social order. Rejecting the Arminianism concepts of good works as a condition for salvation, the Puritans accepted covenant of works in a newly developed form that would envelope grace. In other words, works were necessary in this world but not sufficient for salvation. Puritans also rejected Antinomianism, which provided grace abundantly for no apparent reason from God. Puritans determined that grace was the key function in creating social order.
Free thinking religion and reasonable enlightenment had begun to merge. If God created the universe in a rational fashion and if he created man in his image, choosing to provide his Will and knowledge to mankind, then humans are rational, reasonable creatures who can figure things out for themselves. The challenge then moved from a “truth” social order in which the goal was to find these truths and live by them to a more private order in which everyone must figure out how to live together. This was best done by written rules. This paradigm shift opened the doors for the founders and is evident in the Declaration of Independence as an evolved document from the original Puritan truth thought to reason and it carries with it the importance of social order and community, or nation, laying down basic human values and rights.
While Puritanism did focus on community, ironically, the concepts of individuality came from Puritan thought as well. Self-reliance is one example of how individualism eventually comes into play in American life. Self-reliance theoretically leads to the mutual respect of others. Because God is the authority, there was a Puritan aversion to “earthly” authority. Since each person is a priest of God, the soul is free and independent which defines liberty and individualism. That aversion to authority becomes further developed within the youthful nation as a whole and thus, is evident in the Constitution, which begins “we the people.” In other words, the people govern.
Using the Puritan Massachusetts model, the founders developed the Constitution. One example of protection from a corrupt government and majority tyranny, or in Puritan terms, an earthly authority, was the separation of powers of the three branches of government, executive, legislative and judicial. First, is the bicameral structure of legislature. The house is directly elected and the Senate is chosen by state legislature in order to keep an eye on the House. The separation of powers is one way to keep each branch from having too much control. More importantly, is the blending of the powers that the three branches are afforded. The blending allows for each branch to intervene, typically by veto, at any time during any decision-making process.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States reflect a community willing to find a way to work together for the good of the nation, by recognizing collective and individual rights, freedoms and responsibilities. Though truth was initially sought and dismissed later for rules to govern as political thought evolved, the importance of Puritanism is the establishment of social contract in practice, community as at least equal to the individual, individualism, and the establishment of rule by the governed. All four lent themselves to the writing of the Declaration and later, the Constitution, documents which have formed and continued America’s democratic thought and unique sense of individualism.
National Concept of Work Ethic
The basic tenet of Puritanism, according to its interpretation of the Bible, was that God had supreme authority over the church. Since Puritans did not separate church and state, rather they considered them as one entity divided into two sections to promote a common purpose. (Abbott 22) Alexis de Tocqueville had suggested in his work, Democracy in America, that Puritanism provided the firm foundation for democracy in America. Discipline in economic matters is outlined in both Tocqueville and later through Max Weber. In Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), he argued that the combination of asceticism and God rewarding via material success or worldly possession in this life led to capitalism (Abbott 24).
Indeed there is an odd combination of asceticism and work reward that continues today through America’s work ethic. Covenant or federal theology was developed by the Puritans because it was interpreted Biblically that God worked through covenants with His people. Each Christian could hope for his own covenant with God in the hopes that salvation would be the reward for grace. Because of this, Puritans sought individually and collectively to conform to the Bible’s teaching, which included moral and ecclesiastic purity. Predestination was a concept that other Christian denominations did not accept at this time. According to predestination doctrine, Jesus could not provide salvation. Salvation was determined by God’s sovereignty and it had been decided by Him ahead of time, before the birth of Jesus. Each individual was given special works by God to do because of their individual priesthood in God’s kingdom. Works required extreme discipline because people were naturally sinful. Therefore, that work was needed for God’s reformation in each individual, which would then reform the community. This reformation came by the grace of God through this hard work; therefore, hard work and mental determination for accomplishment were considered religious duties. Finally, Puritans believed in humbleness and obedience and that whatever work an individual had been given to do should reflect that humbleness and obedience to God. This would be done through obedience to the employer or job at hand, including the accomplishment of it.
According to Puritan belief, there was no way to know who exactly was going to heaven, so they looked towards wealth on this earth to gauge this. Those who had wealth were blessed by God. Those who worked hard would obtain that blessing. Over time, this work ethic developed into American’s unique frontier spirit in searching for wealth. As such, within this lays the roots of the rags-to-riches story as a major theme in America and in the development of capitalism. Material goods, especially land, showed the success of the American and are considered good indicators of community values and individualism. While many of these indicators have had fluent thought through the years, what remains intact is the work ethic in which they all lie.
One consistent theme that runs through all of American Protestantism, including Puritanism, is the belief that Americans are people who have been set apart with a providential mission. Winthrop’s description that “we shall be as a City upon a Hill” (Arbella, 1630) poetically pointed out that the colonists would be required to live in charity. In essence, the people of New England would be the New Jerusalem, connected to the concept of the land rewards after the Israelites’ time in the desert. The Israelites were given the land of milk and honey to be a beacon of light that God had saved them by providing for them. They, in turn, were to be a testament of the love and salvation of God. Many times Winthrop’s speech is used to denote a beacon of light to provide hope for a future and provide reason for the patriotic spirit of America. This beacon of light includes a republic with basic core values.
Throughout the history of America, ideas on how best to promote these values ebb and flow, but those basic core values and the institutions founded upon them remain the same. The Puritans’ contribution to democratic thought and the development of America’s unique sense of individualism, as well as overall national concept of work ethics, provide the foundation for which nearly every decision, individually and collectively, is made. Americans are indeed a unique people.
Did you know?
Most are aware that there was Puritan influence in moral issues in America. Did you know that the Puritans had the influence described in this article?
© 2013 Karre Schaefer