The Puritan Legacy to American Politics

Term Paper, 2005

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3





2.1 Roots and Development of Puritanism
2.2 Puritan Theology
2.3 The Appeal of Puritanism
2.4 Defining Puritanism

3.The Puritan Legacy to American Politics
3.1 American Civil Religion
3.2 The Role of Puritan Concepts in Domestic Politics
3.2.1 The Puritan Legacy to Presidential Politics
3.2.2 Puritan Elements in Political Speeches
3.3 Puritan Concepts in American Foreign Policy - American Exceptionalism


5. References

1. Introduction

Americans express a peculiar fascination with the founding of their country. Both citizens and scholars often disagree over details of the beginnings but many Americans define themselves in relation to the founding. History inspires them and provides a patriotic sense of belonging. It is often debated whether current policies are faithful to the so-called founding principles, what has stayed the same and what has changed. Though many countries celebrate their birth, only Americans combine so much cultural myths and political history.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously said: “I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores”(Tocqueville 1831-32). And indeed, much of American mainstream culture builds on a Puritan legacy. They claim to have inherited it by promoting the idea of religious freedom and equal opportunity, by being a ‘city upon a hill’, a stronghold for democracy, and much more. However, only by retracing the historical development of Puritanism and its roots, it becomes possible to determine what sufficiently defines the Puritan legacy and what causes the persistent relevance in American politics up to this day. As Perry Miller stated, “[w]ithout some understanding of Puritanism, it may safely be said, there is no understanding of America” (Miller 1950, 4).

In this work I will therefore begin with reviewing the historical background of Puritan theology and development in North America. Given this as a basis, I intend to trace back political modes of thought and behavior to Puritan roots. I will answer the question in how far Puritanism is still alive today and how its legacy to American politics can be described.

2. Puritanism

2.1 Roots and Development of Puritanism

In 1534 the Church of England, also called the Anglican Church, broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. The process, known as the English Reformation, began when King Henry VIII. tried to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. As tensions grew, King Henry persuaded Parliament to recognize the divorce and to proclaim him supreme head of the Anglican Church. The king’s successors split the country over the issue of religion, trying to shape the church, as they desired. When Elizabeth I. became queen in 1558, most English were protestant. There existed however a small group of reformed Calvinists, claiming that the Church of England as a whole needed to be reformed (Boyer et al. 2002, 21).

The initial intention of these radical assemblies was to purify the Anglican Church from within, thus being aptly named ‘Puritans’. The congregations saw themselves as Anglicans, however, with a more ardent faith and better understanding of what the church needed to change. By no means did they intend to cause a schism with the state church. While remaining members of the church, they sought to reform it, in many cases without having found a unified standpoint on their own.

Nevertheless, in the early 1600s, Puritans developed a limited but decisive ideology to which all congregations adhered. They believed that the true church was a local body of genuine believers in Jesus Christ. Such a church should therefore be self-governing and non- hierarchal, with Christ as its real head. Puritans believed in salvation through grace alone (Perry 1944, 82-84; 91). They drew on theological concepts of Calvin, Luther and other figureheads of the protestant reformation, but also on Catholic writings by Augustine and Aquinas. After the Puritans had gained support among many Englishmen in the 1620s, the clearly visible divide between the Church of England and the radicals made any peaceful settlement impossible and the movement realized that reform from within was not an option anymore. (Bremer 1995, 15)

Puritanism drew many of its members from the middle-class. Since studying the Scripture was an essential element of Puritan theology, mostly well-educated merchants, artisans or lawyers found their place in Puritan congregations. During the early colonial period this would be important for the development of Puritan settlements, since they were then evolving in an intellectual, literate climate, which in turn would enhance the reflection of religious and political thought. (Bremer 1995, 28)

In the 16th and 17th century, the North American continent served as an outlet for religious unrest in Europe. While a number of Europeans fled from economic and political disasters, religious minorities all across Europe were lured by the opportunity to find a religious haven in the New World, where persecution would not be an issue.

2.2 Puritan Theology

In his relation with human beings, God was seen as absolutely sovereign but also benevolent. Puritans believed in the concept of original sin, seeing themselves as having inherited a sinful nature by being descendents of Adam and Eve who had fallen from grace and broken the covenant with God. As to the effects of original sin, the Puritans named physical suffering, such as illness and death, spiritual weakness, the separation from God, and absolute self-centeredness. The belief that man deserved damnation for his shortcomings was linked to the concept of predestination. Though Puritans saw their own sinful nature and accepted damnation as a just sentence for that, they believed in salvation for a few chosen believers. (Bremer 1995, 18)

In the words of John Winthrop, “God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence has so disposed of the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection” (Winthrop 1630). Visible blessings of God in this life, such as prosperity and health were seen as the characteristic of the chosen ones, the visible saints. In effect, Puritans longed to assure and prove personal salvation by detecting such blessings in their own lives. However, Puritans believed that final assurance over individual predestination could not be gained, which caused many Puritan believers to live in a state of uncertainty and anxiety. „Despite, or perhaps because of such doubts, Puritans gravitated toward each other to form a communion of fellow saints helping one another on the path to the celestial kingdom.“ (Bremer 1995, 23)

During the 17th century, Puritan theology remained remarkably uniform and orthodox. However, by the middle of the 18th century, it had lost most of its original strength and elements of it where incorporated into two very different movements: evangelical Revivalism and rational Unitarianism. In many ways, theological and communal principles were distorted in the process of adaptation and because later movements did not adhere to Puritanism in its original form, Puritanism is often inadequately credited for certain aspects seen in American culture today. (Miller 1950, 5-6) In Miller’s words, the „[...] accretion[s] ha[ve] colored or distorted our conception of the original doctrine“ (Ibid.). The Puritans have been praised to be the first ones to fight for religious freedom, democracy, economic competition and free market policies on numerous occasions; these claims are inadequate, as their conception of a religious, social, and economic community did in fact oppose the very essence of these features. This is not to say Puritanism denied what is seen as the stepping stones of modern America, however, given this context, a more careful interpretation of the Puritan legacy to the United States seems appropriate. (Miller 1950, 7)


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The Puritan Legacy to American Politics
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