There’s little less fashionable today than praising the Puritans, especially for their egalitarian political idealism, their promotion of genuinely humane and liberating learning, and their capacity for enjoyment and human happiness. Praising the Puritans is especially difficult for us because even most of our Protestants have abandoned them. When a European calls us Puritanical we don’t say, “yes, thanks a lot, you’re right.” Instead, we either deny it, saying we’re way beyond those days. Or we admit it, saying that, “yes, we should be less capitalistic, less repressed, and more free thinking, just like you.” But the truth is that the Puritans remain the chief source of the American difference—our ability to live freely and prosperously without unduly slighting the longings of our souls. It’s the Puritans’ idealism that made and even makes Americans civilized.
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America almost begins by showing us how much our democracy owes the Puritans. He calls attention to two quite different English foundings, two quite different displays of democratic freedom—the one in the South and the other in the North. Virginia was founded by “gold seekers,” “restless and turbulent spirits,” solitary adventurers out to get rich quick. They were England’s “lower classes,” people “without resources” or virtuous habits, people incapable of being animated by “noble thought” or some “immaterial scheme.” They had no sense of home and no sense of having the paternalistic, magnanimous responsibilities of class. They weren’t even ennobled by any bourgeois devotion to the virtue of worthwhile work well done. They, like the middle-class Americans Tocqueville elsewhere describes, loved money, but, unlike the properly middle class, they weren’t at all devoted to the just principle that it should be the reward of one’s own honest industry. The Virginians were in every crucial respect uncivilized (DA, 1.2.2; all other references to and quotes about the founding in Virginia and New England—including the Puritans—are from this section unless otherwise noted).
So the Virginians readily accepted the introduction of slavery—or extreme stratification based on the introduction of a separate class of men who work and do nothing but—into the colony. That racist institution further contributed to their combination of “ignorance” and “haughtiness,” enervating their minds and heightening their propensity to dishonor work. It diverted them further from useful activity.
The English of Virginia, Tocqueville wants us to see, had all of the vices but none of the virtues of hereditary aristocrats, as well as, of course, all the vices but none of the virtues of the American middle-class. Their laziness was uncompensated for—as, Tocqueville reports, aristocratic leisure sometimes was—by souls soaring above ordinary vulgarity in the direction of immaterial ideals. Everything ignoble about modern liberty in America Tocqueville, in effect, traces to the South’s founding in Virginia.
He goes on to tell us that the Puritans established colonies without lords or masters—without, in fact, economic classes. They weren’t out to get rich or even improve their economic condition; they were in no way driven by material necessity. They “belonged to the well-to-do-classes of the mother country” and would have been better off in the most obvious ways staying home. Their lives were structured by resources and by morality; they came to America as family men, bringing their wives and children. They were models of social virtue. They were also extremely educated men—on the cutting edge, in many ways, of European enlightenment. They were, Tocqueville observes, animated by “a purely intellectual need.” They aimed “to make an idea triumph” in this world.
The Puritans were, in fact, singularly distinguished by the nobility of their idealistic, intellectual goal. They willingly imposed themselves to “the inevitable miseries of exile” to live and pray freely as they believed God intended. Those called “the pilgrims,” Tocqueville observes, were that way because their “austere principles” caused them to be called Puritans. Their pure standards—their excessive claims for freedom from the alleged corruption of bodily need and pleasure—caused them to be insufferable to all the governments and societies now in existence. The Puritans always seem to others to be “enemies of pleasures” (DA, 2.3.19).
Puritan principles could become real only in a new world carved out of the wilderness, where they are the founders of “a great people” of God. They had no choice, they thought, but to be “pious adventurers,” combining the spirits of religion, morality, family, and education with something like the restlessness that drove other “small troop[s] of adventurers going to seek fortune beyond the seas.” Unlike the Americans Tocqueville observed himself, their restlessness led them to their true home and didn’t leave them isolated or disoriented.
The first Americans of the North chose exile in America not for prosperity or physical liberty, but to satisfy an intellectual need that has nothing to do with their bodies. The Virginians, by contrast, were extremely moved by singularly materialistic—really, criminal—pursuits. (Most colonies, Tocqueville notices, originate in the lawless greed characteristic of pirates.) But that’s not to say the men of New England thought of themselves as too good or too pure for this world.
All those democratic political freedoms that we Americans often trace to the social contract theory of the philosopher Locke the Puritans adopted “without discussion and in fact.” Being clearly derived from Biblical principle, they didn’t depend on or exist merely in the speculative dialogue of the philosophers. Even the Americans Tocqueville saw for himself in his visit understood that accepting some religious dogma “without discussion” turns out to be an indispensable foundation of the effective exercise of political freedom.
Because the Puritan conception of political freedom wasn’t based on the apolitical, selfish, rights-obsessed, and duty-negligent Lockean individual, it not only demanded virtuous civic participation but also connected political freedom with the creature’s charitable duty to the unfortunate. It set a high or virtuous standard for political competence and incorruptibility, and it didn’t seem to need to rely on institutions with teeth in them to restrain the spirit of faction and boundless ambition of leaders.
Whatever Puritan government was, it was not another name for a band of robbers, just as Puritan freedom could never be confused with another name for nothing less to lose. The Virginians’ view of freedom was finally merely useful or materialistic; it is the liberty of beings with interests and nothing more. The Puritans distinguished themselves by their “beautiful definition of freedom,” “a civil, a moral, a federal liberty,” “a liberty for that only which is just and good.” That’s the liberty for which it makes sense “to stand with the hazard of your very lives.” Only if liberty is beautiful or for the display of the most admirable and virtuous human characteristics can it really be worth the courageous risk of life.
The citizens of New England took care of the poor, maintained the highways, kept careful records and registries, secured law and order, and, most of all, provided public education for everyone—through high school when possible. The justification of universal education was that everyone should be able to read the Bible to know the truth about God and his duties to Him for himself. Nobody should be deceived by having to rely on the word of others; they had the democratic or Cartesian distrust of authority without the paralyzing and disorienting rejection of all authority (DA, 2.1.1) That egalitarian religious understanding, of course, was the source of the American popular enlightenment that had so many practical benefits.
Middle-class Americans, Tocqueville explains, later achieved a universal level of mediocre literacy as what’s required for making money for oneself. For the middle class, education’s justification was wholly practical or applied, and not at all for the cultivation of the mind or soul. But it’s the Puritans who provided us the genuinely ennobling justification for universal education. For them, democratic education is liberal education, for discovering the liberating truth about who we are. The degrading theory that universal education must be primarily technical education dissolves for us Americans once we remember that the democratic view that education is for everyone has two justifications—one directed toward the body and the other toward the soul.
Tocqueville’s Puritans, we might even add, were more for democratic liberal education than Tocqueville himself. He recommended the study of the Greek and Roman authors in their original language for the few Americans with the talent and passion to pursue literary careers and so to assume responsibility for the ennobling of democratic language. Most Americans, he thought, would just become dangerously dissatisfied with the banality of their industrious middle-class routine if infused with such aristocratic longing (DA, 2.1.15). But the Puritans believed that the soul’s longings exist in us all and deserved to be educated in every case.
“Puritan civilization in North America,” Marilynne Robinson observes in her collection of essays The Death of Adam, “quickly achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity, and mass prosperity, or happiness, as it was called in those days.” What’s good for the soul, the Puritans showed, can also be good for the body, and the spirit of religion is what reconciles the pursuit of prosperity and human happiness (as opposed to the endlessly restless pursuit of happiness Locke described). It’s most instructive to see the early Americans “seeking with an almost equal ardor material wealth and moral satisfactions.” Just as it’s instructive to see the marvelous combination of “the spirit of religion” with “the spirit of freedom.” In this respect, the Puritans look less like extremists than evidence of the fact that, as Tocqueville says, “[t]he human heart is vaster than one supposes; it can at once contain a taste for the goods of earth and a love of those of Heaven” (DA, 2.2.15).
Both the North and the South—New England and Virginia—began with extreme views of what human liberty is. Neither Tocqueville could affirm as what’s “true and just,” although both have elements of truth and justice. The Americans, with their subtle and unprecedented statesmanship, haven’t found it necessary to choose, as Tocqueville says people are often stuck with doing, between the excesses of one extreme or another. America at its political best is a compromise between colonial North and South, between New England and Virginia, between meddlesome, intrusive idealists and vulgarly self-indulgent and morally indifferent pirates.
The Puritans can be criticized as hyper-moralistic despots in some ways, but the Virginians were amoral despots in others. For the Virginian, in effect, every man is the despot, and his point of living is to make himself wealthy and powerful, even at the expense of others. That view, truth to tell, is even present in the Lockeanism of our Founding Virginians, who regarded every man as a sovereign who consents to government only for his personal convenience. And it’s the individualism or emotional solitude that is the product of that Lockeanism that paves the way to the soft despotism he feared far more than any Puritan excess. The American religious and political, localist way of combating individualism, Tocqueville makes it quite clear, are our most fortunate Puritanical legacies, ones indispensable for combating individualism.
We see this spirit of compromise in our Declaration and Constitution, in which the influence of the Virginians Jefferson and Madison was as much as prudent statesmen as principled theorists. The theoretical core of the Declaration is all about inalienable rights and not about the personal God of the Bible. “Nature’s God” is a past-tense Creator, and the guidance he provides men now is questionable, insofar as they institute government and many other inventions to move as far away from being governed by nature as possible. But thanks to the insistence of members of Congress who were more under the influence of Christian Calvinism than, say, Jefferson and Franklin, God also became, near the Declaration’s end, providential and judgmental, or present-tense and personal.
Probably the most nuanced or balanced judgment on the significance of our Declaration comes from R. L. Bruckberger in Images of America (1959). Bruckberger, another of our friendly French critics, took what Tocqueville said about our Puritans about as seriously as anyone, and maybe surpassed Tocqueville in seeing more clearly the connection between the Puritans and the Calvinist believers who helped to shape our founding documents. “The greatest luck of all for the Declaration,” Bruckberger explains, “was precisely the divergence and the compromise between the Puritan tradition and what Jefferson wrote.” A “strictly Puritan” Declaration, of course, “would probably not have managed to avoid an aftertaste of theocracy and religious fanaticism.” But if it had “been written from the standpoint of the . . . philosophy of that day, it would have been a-religious, if not actually offensive to Christians.”
The Declaration as a whole, Bruckberger concludes, might even be viewed “as a more profound accomplishment,” one of “the great masterpieces of art, in which luck is strangely fused with genius.” The combination of American Lockeanism and American Puritanism/Calvinism produced something like an accidental American Thomism. It’s that fact that led the American Catholic John Courtney Murray in We Hold These Truths (1960) to praise our political Fathers for “building better than they knew,” although even Murray didn’t acknowledge properly the Puritan contribution to what our political Fathers built. Arguably the Declaration as compromise is a better guidance for Americans than the intentions of either of the parties to the compromise.
God is personal, but that fact supports rather than negates the equal right to freedom all human beings have. Properly understood, in Tocqueville’s eyes, that understanding of equality unites the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Locke, while both Locke and Jesus distance religious idealism from the requirements of good government. But it’s still the idealism of Jesus that turns equality into more than a principle of calculation or self-interested consent, into a beautiful idea or an undeniable moral proposition that leads us to do good even at the risk of our lives.
Now more than ever is the time for our statesmen, legislators, and enlightened writers to talk up the Puritans in the name of the most sublime faculties, those with which we can be happy as human beings. The justice of the middle-class American, as Tocqueville says, is that nobody is above or below being a being with interests—someone who is free and who works for himself (DA, 2.2.8). But the Christians provide the indispensable addition that each of us is more than a being with interests, and so each of us share in a kind of greatness the aristocrats reserved only for themselves. So each of us was made to enjoy civilization and liberal education and the leisurely, social, conversational contemplation of who we are under God. Truth to tell, we’re much more repressed and unhappy these days than the Puritans ever were, at least at their best.
It’s fashionable today to identify our Puritanical legacy chiefly with the moralism of our “religious right” and so to identify it with illiberal and prejudiced fundamentalism. We tend to contrast that moralism with leftism defined as the mixture of moral libertarianism and egalitarian political progressivism than characterizes our liberalism. That contrast is most misleading. Most of our enduring egalitarian, “leftist” (if you want) criticisms of individualistic indifference both personal and political, Tocqueville and Robinson show us, come from the Puritans. To the extent that we remain egalitarian idealists and believe that our liberty is for doing good for all our fellow citizens and creatures we remain Puritanical.
So our Calvinism, contrary to Weber, is most deeply less about our spirit of capitalism than one of our main ways of curbing its selfish excesses. Our religion, as Tocqueville observes, saves us from degrading self-absorption and for the free and dignified performance of our common moral duties (DA, 2.1.5). The spirit of political liberty—the ennobling activity of citizens—depends, the Puritans taught us, on the spirit of religion. And they also showed that egalitarian citizenship depends on the truth that each of us is more than merely a citizen.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia. His previous articles can be found here.