Posted by Peter Lawler
That’s MY controversial suggestion. They didn’t give us everything, but they did give us something, as Tocqueville and Marilynne Robinson remember.
Wonderful piece, Dr. Lawler. It perhaps would be necessary to add that In the next paragraph Tocqueville adds that with the spirit of religion the Puritans brought with them its strongest and most dangerous adversaries; absolute democractic and republican theories. Does this mean that the Puritans are responsable for the best and the worst of the American way of life?
JC--Well, sure. Maybe not best and worst, but both good and bad. Even abolitionism wasn't all good, as friend Abe L. explained. As you say, egalitarian idealism, especially when detached from genuine religious belief, produced all sorts of insanity. And we can't forget stuff like prohibitionism, which is all bad.
Great article. More should be done on Puritan political thinking.
The tension in Puritan thought between the depravity of man and equality before God would be helpful these days. We are equal before God (and by reasonable supposition man) but driven by selfish desires nonetheless. Though this can be changed by a work of God, Calvinism tells us not all will receive this grace. Therefore we're stuck with facing selfish human nature in political regimes. Separation of powers and other attempts to divide authority all have some roots in this understanding. We do appeal to the better angels of our nature. Yet we understand that is not enough to keep political order.
Further, the Puritans remind us that liberty is not license to do as one desires-that is merely enslavement to passions. Liberty is liberty with and for a purpose, for the Puritans the glory of God. We would do well to be less dismissive of our Puritan heritage.
Adam - On the early American Calvinists, we should all read or reread the later essays of Wilson Carey McWilliams, which buttress your good thoughts.
Very nice article Peter - thoughtful and quite readable. You are absolutely right that the Puritans were first American intellectuals and at the forefront of the Enlightenment. Cotton Mather was well-published in scientific tracts, read all the latest from Europe, and was a member of the British Royal Society. His struggle for smallpox inoculation forms the topic of my new book, scheduled for publication next fall. They practiced self-government both as a political body but also within themselves as they sought to master their sin and passions. As others have said, they had an ordered sense of liberty, and did strongly believe in liberty. The Puritans remind us of that idea by John Winthrop that we are a "city upon a hill," with the exceptional American political system and character truly being an example for the world over the last two hundred years. We should be thankful to the Puritans.
I for one have always been thankful to the puritans for providing me with such a polar ideology worth synthesizing.
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