Sunday, December 27, 2015

Puritans: Proto-Liberals or Traditionalist Tyrants?

Hall, David D. A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

This is a different sort of book about Puritans. Instead of focusing on theology and religion, it looks at politics and government. It's also different in another regard: instead of asserting that Puritan government was authoritarian and anti-democratic, historian David D. Hall argues that so much of the Puritan political experiment actually ran in the opposite direction.

From the very beginning of A Reforming People, it's clear that Hall wants to stick up for the misunderstood and much-maligned Puritans. "The argument that runs through this book," he writes, "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" (xi).

Hall notes that during the 1620s and 30s, the search for a proper balance between liberty and order was a huge question in both England and New England. Along these lines, the big advances emerged in New England, not old England (4). Looking back on the Puritans of the seventeenth century, he explains, observers and historians have taken one of two opposing views. According to some, the Puritan impulse was essentially top-down and authoritarian. They suggest that the Salem witch trials should come as no surprise. According to others, the Puritan outlook was essentially democratic and anti-authoritarian. They point to the development of democratic ideology in nineteenth-century America. Hall argues that both of these common, popular views of New England Puritans are seriously flawed. No, they weren't proto-liberals. But neither were they unfeeling, authoritarian despots.

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