I teach this class on Monday afternoon, and it's not meeting this week because of Presidents' Day, so I'm staying in the Seventeenth Century for this diary. It's inspired by a discussion question I ask all my students as part of the online activities attached to the course:
Ask most Americans why Europeans migrated to North America during the colonial era, and most of them will answer “for religious freedom.” By extension, most American consider colonial Massachusetts – the union of two colonies settled for religious reasons--to represent colonial America as a whole, which ignores colonial Virginia. To what extent are these impressions accurate? Be as specific as possible in your response.We covered Virginia last week, so now it's time to consider the two colonies that compose Massachusetts, particularly the fact that the first group of settlers have managed to escape the abuse that the second group of settlers pretty much asked for. So follow me below the great orange Satan's magic sign for a discussion of the separatist Puritans we know as the Pilgrims and the mainstream Puritans we know as, well, the Puritans.
First, we have to deal with the term "Puritan." It may not even be useful any more: like many other historical terms, it was attached to the people who are described by it by their opponents, especially those on the Royalist side in the English Civil War (1642–1651) who attached it firmly to the idea of intolerance. Naturally, there's an extensive historiographical trail on this, and where it's leading is to the phrase "hot Protestant" (interesting monograph if you want to know more about the term and the argument). Anyhow, here's the image that history has lodged in our minds:
But I digress. Let's concede that the two groups of religious migrants to Massachusetts were Calvinist Protestants who wanted to see the Church of England reformed. The fact that we use different terms to refer to the groups shows that there are issues. So to assess the reputation question, let's look at the first group -- separatist Puritans who had already migrated from England to the Netherlands in order to practice their religion without interference. When these people began to worry that their children would forget they were English, they petitioned the Plymouth Company to settle in the upper portion of their holdings, and were granted permission to send 40 people to "New England". Because everyone was aware of what had gone wrong at Jamestown and to ensure a secure return on their investment, the London sponsors insisted they travel with 64 “strangers” -- non-Puritan craftsmen, farmers and laborers --who would share in building the colony.
The 104 travelers boarded the Mayflower September 18 1620 and arrived on Cape Cod (where Provincetown is today), well north of the Virginia Company’s holdings. While they waited, they wrote the Mayflower Compact. You will hear that this was British North America's first constitution, and it was, but what it did was to give the individual householders (who had to be accepted church members) control over most civic and religious matters and thus guarantee their authority over the “strangers.” After several weeks, they found a site on the coast, and landed in December, which meant a New England winter, and about half of the Mayflower settlers didn't make it to the next spring.
These people had help that the settlers in Jamestown didn't have. If you went to school in New England, you'll be familiar with Indians named Squanto and Samoset. You probably won't know HOW they were able to help the Plymouth Colony Puritans unless you have a good imagination. We know about Squanto (properly called "Tisquantum") because he was captured by English traders (in fact, by an associate of John Smith in 1614, was carried to England, and returned to Massachusetts 1619 after jumping off an English ship. Because he could interpret for his tribe, the Wampanoags, the Indians and the Puritans concluded a treaty that survived into the 1670s.
And about the first Thanksgiving. Well, no, because the holiday we now celebrate was dreamed up by a VERY influential woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the major women's magazine of the 19th Century, Godey's Lady's Book. Mrs. Hale began to lobby the presidents for such a day in 1846. She struck out with Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, but Abraham Lincoln agreed with her, and the holiday was celebrated in 1863. Still, especially in New England people dress up as Pilgrims in late November, and political cartoons depict Pilgrims as well to make all sorts of points. I thought I'd change the cartoon every year, but Jeff Parker of Florida Today came up with one in 2006 that was SO good I'm keeping it in the deck until something even better and more topical appears.
Plymouth Colony suffered internal dissension, but the most famous dissent was the Merry Mount settlement (near present day Wollaston). This was apparently a secular community, where the settlers drank to excess with the Indians, including Indian women. The last straw for Plymouth came when the inhabitants set up an 8-foot tall maypole, which the governor saw as a blatant demonstration of paganism. Thomas Morton, the head of the community, was arrested and deported in 1628; once back in England, he published an anti-Puritan tract (the three-volume New England Canaan) in 1637 that ridiculed and condemned the rigidity of the Plymouth colonists. Nathanael Hawthorne wrote a story about this, included in Twice-Told Tales, called "The Maypole of Merry Mount", and here's an illustration:
So paganism. Not as bad as the other Puritans, mainstream Puritans who had stayed in England, 14,000 of whom arrived (along with 10,000 "strangers") between 1630 and 1640 to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut, New Haven, New Hampshire, and (not intentionally on their part) Rhode Island. This settlement, especially Boston, was intended to serve as example to a sinful world, but migration had three significant limits: 1) MOST English Puritans stayed in England; 2) New England emigrants represented no more than 30% all English who came to British North America during 1630s, and, 3) the Puritans who stayed in England saw this migration as hindering their efforts for religious reform at home.
We know what this settlement did to establish the country we live in today: Remarkable literacy, commitment to the education of children and Puritan ministers (Harvard College was founded in 1636), and the first printing press in British North America. We also know that religious liberty in Puritan New England wasn’t what we think of when we say religious liberty. The migration that John Winthrop led in 1630 had consisted of a group of wealthy merchants who converted their charter to a self-governing colony thousands of miles from the king and the bishops of the Church of England. At the very least, they hoped it would be a refuge from the divine punishments the separatists expected to be incurred by the wicked English nation. Church membership, which was synonymous with citizenship, was limited to “visible saints,” those who could publicly and persuasively recount a conversion experience; only full members who were male could govern the church, and it was because of this that they worked hard to keep dissenters out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Yes, Roger Williams was banished in 1636, and Anne Hutchinson in 1638, but this wasn't the worst thing these people did in the way of intolerance.
So I give you two cases in which people who disagreed with the Puritan leadership actually died at the hands of the Puritans: the Pequot War, and a 1658 law that prohibited Quakers from traveling to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The narrative concerning the Pequot War is derived from a remarkable book: Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (2008) which is an absolute must read. First, the mainstream Puritans imagined, as is evident from their Great Seal, that they were on a mission -- nay, invited on a mission -- to help the natives of New England:
Vowell points out that William McKinley imagined the same thing about the Philippines and the George W. Bush administration imagined the same thing about Iraq. Anyhow, the settlers of Connecticut, attracted by bigger land grants, followed their minister, Rev. Thomas Hooker (no, the term doesn't even come from the name of a person) to the banks of the Connecticut River to found the city of Hartford. The Pequot Indians, who were attempting to control the trade on the lower Connecticut River and had already made an alliance with the Massachusetts Bay colony (in 1635, to make sure the Pequot didn't keep trading with the Dutch), balked at the incursion, and this led to war. I'll just skip to the event that ended the war here. On May 25, 1637, in league with the Mohegans and the Narragansetts, the Connecticut forces encircled the settlement where Sassacus, the Pequot sachem, had his headquarters, and started a battle. I'll let Vowell tell you what happened next:
[Captain John] Mason [one of the commanders of the Connecticut militia] is hit with arrows and Underhill's hip is grazed, Mason is faced, on a smaller scale, with the same problem Harry Truman would have when he was forced to ponder the logistics of invading Japan in 1945 . . . The Puritan commander, in a smaller, grubbier, lower-tech way, arrives at the same conclusion as Truman when he ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mason says "We must burn them." And they do.In Mason's account of the war, he observes that as many as seven hundred people, women and children included, were "utterly destroyed" -- meaning burned alive in their homes.
Again, here's Vowell, on Mason:
[Mason] praises the Lord for "burning them up in the fire of his wrath, and dunging the ground with their flesh. It is the Lord's doings, and it is marvelous in our eyes!" That might be the creepiest exclamation point in American literature. No, wait -- it's this one: "Thus did the Lord judge among the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies!"The remaining Pequots are hunted down by the Mohegans and the Narragansetts who decapitate some of them and send their severed heads to the English. Boston sells others into slavery in Bermuda. The colony proclaims a day of thanksgiving June 15, 1637 "for the victory obtained against the Pequot." That's a BIG difference from Plymouth and its peaceful relations with the Wampanoags.
There's a punchline to this. The remnants of the Pequot tribe have a major hotel and casino, the Foxwoods Resort, operating in Ledyard, Connecticut on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation. A way to separate the descendents of the Puritans from their money.
But, as they say, there's more. The Puritans continued to be dismayed by people who promoted alternate forms of Protestantism, and John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts, denounced “lawlessness of liberty of conscience” as an invitation to heresy and anarchy, and eventually to divine anger and punishment. No Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists or Quakers were welcome; they were given liberty to keep away from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and if they did arrive, they were tried, convicted and exiled as Anne Hutchinson had been. In 1658, Massachusetts passed an especially strict set of anti-Quaker laws that decreed any Quaker found in Massachusetts would be sentenced to banishment upon pain of death. After three Quaker missionaries – Marmaduke Stephenson, William Robinson, and Mary Dyer, who had been a strong supporter of Anne Hutchinson -- were indeed put to death in 1660, the Quakers made an extra effort to publicize their mistreatment. In 1959, Massachusetts put up a statue of Mary Dyer in front of the State House, in Boston:
Killing people for dissenting religious beliefs appears to be why later historians tried to wall off the Plymouth Colony from the rest of the Puritans who settled New England. It's understandable.
So that's the settlement of some of Southern New England by people who believed in religious freedom for themselves, but not for other people. Next time, stuff you should know about Benjamin Franklin, who's even more important in world history and the economic history of the United States than you might have imagined.
5:13 PM PT: Thanks for the reposts! Only one of them was my own.
6:14 PM PT: and thanks for the rec list! My first diary in this series didn't get there!
7:02 PM PT: Updated to fix some typos and to add a section on the Pequots' revenge on Massachusetts and Connecticut, a few centuries later.