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How Puritans Resisted the Temptation of Utopia

IF THERE WAS ever a people whose intellectual baggage equipped them for a journey into Utopia it was the New England Puritans. In their Bible they had a blueprint for the Good Society; their costly expedition to America gave them a vested interest in believing it possible to build Zion on this earth. In view of these facts it is remarkable that there was so little of the Utopian in their thinking about society. There are a number of explanations for this. The English law was a powerful and sobering influence: colonists were persuaded by practical interests such as the retention of their charter and the preservation of their land-titles, as well as by their sentimental attachment to the English basis of their legal system. The pessimism, the vivid sense of evil, which was so intimate a part of Calvinism discouraged daydreams. Finally, there was the overwhelming novelty and insecurity of life in the wilderness which made the people more anxious to cling to familiar institutions, and led them to discover a new coincidence between the laws of God and the laws of England (and hence of New England).

The peculiar character of their Biblical orthodoxy nourished a practical and non-Utopian frame of mind. Their political thought did not turn toward delineating The Good Society, precisely because the Bible had already offered the anatomy of Zion. Moreover, the Bible was a narrative and not a speculative work; theirs was at most a common-law utopianism, a utopianism of analogies in situation rather than of dogmas, principles, and abstractions.

Perhaps because their basic theoretical questions had been settled, the Puritans were able to concentrate on human and practical problems. And strangely enough, those problems were a preview of the ones which would continue to trouble American political thought. They were concerned less with the ends of society than with its organization and less with making the community good than with making it effective, with insuring the integrity and self-restraint of its leaders, and with preventing its government from being oppressive.

The problems which worried the Puritans in New England were three. The first was how to select leaders and representatives. From the beginning what had distinguished the Puritans (and had laid them open to attack by Lechford and others) was their strict criterion of church-membership, their fear that if the unconverted could be members of the church they might become its rulers. Their concept of a church was, in its own very limited way, of a kind of ecclesiastical self-government: there were to be no bishops because the “members” of each church were fit to rule themselves. Many of the major disputes of early New England were essentially debates over who were fit rulers and how they should be selected. The early political history of Massachusetts Bay could almost be written as a history of disagreements over this problem. What were to be the relations between the magistrates and the deputies? How many deputies from each town? Many of their sermons and even their “speculative” writings were on this subject.

Their second concern was with the proper limits of political power. This question was never better stated than by John Cotton. “It is therefore most wholsome for Magistrates and Officers in Church and Common-wealth, never to affect more liberty and authority then will do them good, and the People good; for what ever transcendant power is given, will certainly over-run those that give it, and those that receive it: There is a straine in a mans heart that will sometime or other runne out to excesse, unlesse the Lord restraine it, but it is not good to venture it: It is necessary therefore, that all power that is on earth be limited….” The form of the early compilations of their laws shows this preoccupation. The first compilation of Massachusetts law (1641) was known, significantly, as “The Body of Liberties” and managed to state the whole of the legal system in terms of the “liberties” of different members of the community. It began with a paraphrase of Magna Charta, followed by the limitations on judicial proceedings, went on to the “liberties” of freemen, women, children, foreigners, and included those “of the brute creature.” Even the law of capital crimes was stated in the form of “liberties,” and the church organization was described as “the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches.” The preamble to this first Body of Liberties would have been impressive, even had it not come out of the American wilderness:

The free fruition of such liberties Immunities and priveledges as humanitie, Civilitie, and Christianitie call for as due to every man in his place and proportion without impeachment and Infringement hath ever bene and ever will be the tranquillitie and Stabilitie of Churches and Commonwealths. And the deniall or deprivall thereof, the disturbance if not the ruine of both.

The Puritan’s third major problem was, what made for a feasible federal organization? How should power be distributed between local and central organs? Congregationalism itself was an attempt to answer this question with specific institutions, to find a means by which churches could extend “the free hand of fellowship” to one another without binding individual churches or individual church-members to particular dogmas or holding them in advance to the decisions of a central body. The practical issues which did not fall under either of the two earlier questions came within this class. What power, if any, had the General Court of the colony over the town of Hingham in its selection of its captain of militia? This was the occasion when one of the townspeople “professeth he will die at sword’s point, if he might not have the choice of his own officers.” Or, what was the power of the central government to call a church synod? The deputies of the towns (in a dispute over the character of their union which foreshadowed the issues of the Revolution and the Civil War) were willing to consider an invitation to send delegates, but objected to a command.

All the circumstances of New England life—tradition, theology, and the problems of the new world—combined to nourish concern with such practical problems. It is easy to agree with Lechford’s grudging compliment that “wiser men then they, going into a wildernesse to set up another strange government differing from the setled government here, might have falne into greater errors then they have done.”

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