The socio-political structure of the New England town is one of the Puritans' major contributions to American society. Puritans sought to build a society rooted in community and family, one that mirrored their ecclesiastical identity. As members of the Congregationalist sect, they favored autonomous congregations of churchgoers over a national, centralized church (which is what separated them from the Presbyterians). Thanks to a balanced sex ratio that led to rapid population increases over time, towns mushroomed across the landscape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all based on an English village model that New England settlers understood and replicated, and all supervised by the colonial authorities. This model of settlement distinguished New Englanders from other American colonists in myriad ways; it meant that slavery had little or no future in a region of primarily small-scale family farming and maritime trade, even as planters in the southern colonies became increasingly reliant upon slave labor to maintain the plantation model of settlement.
Towns were the means of community organization, of regional colonization, and the venue in which Puritan culture could be disseminated and transformed. Settlers, who were already organized into a church, petitioned the General Court for a town and then divided up the land according to specific criteria, such as who had the largest family or higher status, or who invested more in the endeavor. Towns assumed heightened importance after 1640, when the English Revolution constricted available credit, prices fell, and demand increased for commodities to support the population. New towns could help meet the increased demand for goods and secure a livelihood (not to mention land ownership) for many young families. When one town became too populous, or riven by internal discord, another one would spring up, usually as a result of the efforts of citizen-founders who played key roles in the process. Families migrated as units, and the heads of household left the older and more developed towns, despite the hard labor involved in establishing a new settlement, for the sake of gaining land and new opportunities for social advancement.
Though serial town settlement was ultimately a laboratory for the democratic system that would flourish after the American Revolution, it also possessed conservative tendencies. Wherever a new town emerged, it tended to—was in fact designed to—reproduce the same agrarian system governed by strict rules and adhering to common Puritan values and customs. Through this process, the Puritans intended to bring order and stability to the chaos and "uncultivated" disarray of the wilderness; town settlement was both a spiritual and a physical transformation of the landscape. This ordering of society, of souls and of the environment, was viewed at the time as a fulfillment of the Puritans' holy mission. Orderly and civilized expansion was the Puritans' righteous justification for having left England to establish a "city upon a hill" as an upright and pious society that could serve as a model to the rest of the world. Yet this process, as implemented in the New World, produced unexpected consequences.
Ministers in colonial Massachusetts were forbidden by law from holding office, so that there could be no interference of politics with their spiritual duties. Yet church and state were closely aligned; the law mandated that states enforce religious devotion, and all towns were required to establish a (Congregationalist) church and support a minister by levying taxes. According to the Body of Liberties issued by the General Court in 1641, "Every man whether Inhabitant or fforreiner [sic], free or not free" was guaranteed freedom of speech before the colonial Council, Court, or its town meetings, provided that any comments be "done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner."11 The Body of Liberties also prohibited cruelty to animals, guaranteed the right to counsel, and prohibited military conscription except in the case of "defensive wars." Yet slavery was permitted and social inequalities along the lines of gender, age, and status (servants had a separate list of liberties) were considered natural extensions of God's will. Anyone who practiced witchcraft, committed blasphemy, or worshipped a god other than the one acknowledged by the Puritans was subject to death.
In Plymouth, any man—even a non-church-member—could vote. The government rested on the principle of consent, and all land was communally held until 1627, when it was divided among the colonists. Yet historian George Langdon, Jr. has concluded that "In seventeenth century Plymouth, the trend seems to have been away from, rather than towards, political democracy." Community stability and social harmony were deemed so paramount that modern concepts of individual rights, privacy, and liberties would have been unfamiliar and potentially threatening to the Puritans. Towns could and did exile inhabitants for criticizing the church or the government. Respect for authority was inculcated at a very young age, and with extreme repercussions for rebellious children: the laws of Massachusetts Colony in 1648 and in Plymouth Colony in 1671 stated that any child over sixteen and "of competent Understanding" would be put to death if they were to "Curse or Smite their natural Father or Mother," unless "it can be sufficiently verified that the Parents have been very Unchristianly negligent in the education of such Children, or so provoked them by extream [sic] and cruel Correction." This provision was actually taken from the Bible in Exodus 21:15 and 17, which holds that "he that smitheth his father or his mother...[and] that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death."12
The Puritan electorate was quite broad in contrast to its European counterpart. Male property owners usually chose the local officials, but any full church members could vote in colony-wide elections. Yet with the passage of time, the government became controlled by an ever-diminishing percentage of the population, and church members became increasingly privileged participants in Puritan democracy.