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New England Puritans & Pilgrims Summary & Analysis

The first half century of English settlement along the northern Atlantic coast was a dynamic period of discovery, interaction, and growth, but also one of decimation and violent warfare. The Puritan colonists faced a multitude of hardships, which only increased the strong sense of religiosity that prompted their migration to America in the first place. When they experienced starvation and Indian attacks, they reasoned it was God's will and possibly also His punishment for their materialism and other sins. When they were victorious in battle with the Indians or reaped a bountiful harvest, they gave thanks to God. Throughout the period, the Puritans sought to erect a new kind of society on the premise that they were a special, chosen people in the eyes of God. This faith sustained them, but it also generated a dangerous brand of self-righteousness that led them to feel justified in mounting ferocious attacks on New England tribes such as the Pequots.

Despite the oft-employed stereotypes that have come to be associated with their name, the Puritans were—like everyone else—a multi-faceted group of people who exhibited a range of interests and beliefs. The same was true of the Native Americans in dozens of different tribes who inhabited the region. Although a few broad characteristics can be traced for both groups, students of history must remain conscious of the complexity and diversity that lie beneath such labels.

Since they were the second major wave of English settlement on the North American mainland (after Jamestown), Puritans tend to be described and analyzed through the lens of hindsight. That is, historians and others have frequently cited aspects of their society such as government-by-consent, the value of individual judgment, the importance of education, decentralized church structure, and the establishment of the town settlement system as seed beds for the birth of democracy that followed a century and a half later in the American Revolution. There is some truth to these assertions, and the unique history and composition of New England society certainly played a central role in the development of democratic ideas and institutions. For example, the Puritan theology maintained that God had entered into a covenant, or contract, with the people. Through this covenant, people could obtain salvation; by extension, groups of Christians could enter a covenant to worship God in communion. Take that one step further, and you have a religious version of John Locke's "social contract" theory, by which people in a society can enter into a voluntary union for the purposes of mutual stability and security.

But we should not exaggerate those observations, either. Puritans were not the first settlers on North American land and they were hardly the sole contributors to the society and culture that became America's 170 years after settlement. Historians have recently emphasized this point because it has serious implications; by focusing on New England's contributions to American society and institutions, scholars since the Civil War have conveniently avoided the thorny issue of where slavery fits into our national heritage. Slavery was permitted in New England but very few slaves were in the region, especially compared with the Chesapeake-area settlements. By forcing ourselves to consider the legacy of slavery in American life, even after emancipation, we might be able to better understand the multiple and often conflicting strands of our past, which weave into our present-day society.

There are several important differences between the cornerstones of United States government and the world that the Puritans built. The Puritans did maintain a separation of church and state, but residents were taxed to support the church, and they all had to attend church services. And on their contributions to the democratic tradition in America, perhaps the Columbia Encyclopedia explained it best: "political democracy as we know it today was virtually nonexistent in the 17th cent. except in such rare cases as the Rhode Island colony....the Puritans regarded unconfined democracy as an aberration. To them only the most substantial, respectable, and reliable Christians were considered worthy to build up a community essentially religious in design."7 In other ways, the darker legacy of the Puritans resonated through future generations of American history: Indian warfare and the concept of a special divine mandate (what would come to be called Manifest Destiny) remained central aspects of the American experience for generations.

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