American History Series: From Puritan To Yankee

The following excerpt comes from Jack P. Greene’s book Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture:

“Establishment of these new American colonies during the last half of the seventeenth century added greatly to the cultural diversity of the English overseas dominions. In addition to Ireland, there were by 1700 six distinctive cultural regions in colonial Anglo-America – the Chesapeake; Bermuda and the similar colony of the Bahamas, permanently established in 1718; New England, including Nova Scotia after it was acquired from the French in 1713; the West Indian colonies; the Middle Colonies; and the Lower South, which included Georgia after its founding in 1732. Within each of these cultural regions, moreover there was significant local diversity which, for instance, distinguished Rhode Island from Massachusetts and Connecticut, Barbados from Jamaica, and New York from Pennsylvania.

Notwithstanding these important regional and local differences, there was also a single broad fault line that, at least during their early histories, divided these colonies into two sharply different categories. First, there was puritan New England, by which I prefer principally to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven, and some of the early New Hampshire towns. With their strong religious orientation, communal impulses, perfectionist aspirations, sense of chosenness, belief in social and religious exclusivity and uniformity, suspicion of the modern market world, and modest economic opportunity, these contained and closely knit settlements constituted what Richard S. Dunn has correctly characterized as “a highly distinctive society.” They represented a deep commitment to an effort to recover a stable, harmonious, Christian, and traditional world which, if it had ever existed, was rapidly disappearing from England. Only such an intense commitment, along with the absence of strong and immediate environmental pressures to relinquish it, could, as John M. Murrin has observed, have overcome the powerful impulses, “obvious in all the secular colonial experiments of the period, to scatter through the wilderness in search of something better.”

During the early decades of settlement, in every one of the English colonies outside of New England except possibly for some communities in Ulster and to a large extent even in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, settlement patterns, sociocultural configurations, and individual priorities were shaped by the economic opportunities the colonists found, created, and manipulated in their new environments and by the ambitions and aspirations they thereby unleashed. Invariably, the societies they created tended to be individualistic, without much cohesion, permissive, secular, exploitative, differentiated, conflicted, even contingent. To one degree or another, they all represented a logical, if still greatly simplified, extension – and not in any sense a rejection – of the dynamic, fluctuating and increasingly “modern” world the settlers had known in England and upon which they mostly remained heavily dependent for capital, markets, finished goods, and manpower. …

Far from being normative then, at least in their earliest decades, were, in Nicholas Canny’s words, “totally exceptional by [British] colonial standards” and represented a deviant strain in English colonial history of which there were no other comparable examples except perhaps for a few villages in Ulster.”

In addition to Ulster in Ireland, there were six cultural hearths in the English America in 1700: New England, the Chesapeake, the West Indies, the Lower South, the Middle Colonies and the Atlantic Islands. It turns out that New England was unlike the all the other colonies which were more similar to the Chesapeake. Even New York and Pennsylvania were more like Virginia at the time.

Uniquely among American colonists, the saints of New England thought of themselves as “exceptional.” They were perfectionists. The Puritan elect had a divine mission which required them to closely police the behavior of their neighbors. They were a “beacon” to the Old World. Unlike the Anglican South, which identified with the English mainstream establishment, their social order was based on a covenant with God. This was totally unlike the conditions in any other colony except for the “Holy Experiment” of the Quakers in Pennsylvania which was eventually overrun by the Germans and Scots-Irish.

It was the South which was in the “mainstream” of British colonial development. Normal Americans came here to improve their condition in life, not to create a religious utopia. They also went to the Middle Colonies like Pennsylvania where they became farmers that exported grain. Generally speaking, the settlers of New England came from East Anglia, the settlers of the South came from the West Country and Metropolitan London, the settlers of Pennsylvania came from the Midlands and the settlers of Appalachia came from the North of England and lowland Scotland.

In light of everything I know about American history, I was skeptical of the Louis Hartz thesis that “America was always Lockean.” The Puritan founders of New England were not Lockeans. They had come to the New World to create a Calvinist religious utopia.

It wasn’t until the third or fourth generation that the Puritan became the Yankee:

“Finally, this new “organization of family life contributed to the emergence of the liberated individual, a person who was exempt from all except voluntary ties to the family of his birth and free to achieve his own goals.”

By further undermining the coercive power of the old socioreligious regime that the founders of the orthodox puritan colonies had set out to implement and thereby opening up New England society, increasing population growth and the changing character of religious, economic, social, and familial life provided, as Richard L. Bushman has argued, the necessary preconditions for nothing less than a behavioral revolution that stretched over and had a transforming effect on all but the least dynamic areas of the region. Far from merely playing a passive role, people became active agents in this process. Increasingly ignoring traditional ideological and social restraints, they turned energies formerly devoted to religious and community endeavors to their own private pursuits of personal and individual happiness.

By encouraging a considerable amount of autonomous and aggressively competitive behavior, this behavioral revolution also provided identity models and standards of personal conduct for the society at large that stood at marked variance with the original values of the leaders of the founding generation. No longer was the moral and psychological necessity of obedience to the authority of the community and its traditional leaders – magistrates, pastors, and fathers – automatically assumed. Rather, contemporary models of behavior emphasized the authority of self rather than of the community; individual economic achievement and success rather than ascriptive criteria for political leadership and social status; the fulfillment, privacy, and comfort of the individual rather than self-denial in favor of the common good; and the “capacity of the individual to direct his own existence rather than … an unquestioning response to public morality.” With this behavioral revolution, the pursuit of wealth and gentility became as important as the pursuit of salvation and even more important than the pursuit of consensus and community …”

There is a lot to unpack here:

  • First, New England wasn’t founded as a Lockean settlement. Plymouth was founded by the Pilgrims in 1620. Massachusetts Bay was founded by Puritans in 1630. John Locke was born in 1632 and his Two Treatises on Government weren’t printed in Boston until 1773.
  • Second, the early history of Massachusetts doesn’t at all resemble Lockean liberalism. Massachusetts was a Congregationalist theocracy. Religious tolerance was imposed on Massachusetts by King Charles II when it became a crown colony and was merged into the Dominion of New England. This was unpopular with the Puritans of Massachusetts, who rose in rebellion, and the Dominion of New England was dissolved after King James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution.
  • Third, the Puritan only became the Yankee in the third or fourth generation, and this was the result of a number of trends in early 18th century New England: the growth in the population, the expansion of capitalism, economic stratification, the rise of individualism, the decline in religious and parental authority and the “New Light” theology that followed the Great Awakening of the 1740s.

In other words, Yankee liberalism is based on a big lie. There was never a “social contract” in which autonomous individuals left a “state of nature” to “enter society.” Instead, there was a Puritan religious covenant that had created a highly religious, egalitarian collectivist society. After three or four generations, the Puritan corporate society disintegrated and became much more individualistic. It was swept by a religious revival in the Great Awakening and on the eve of the American Revolution latched on to Locke’s theories as a post hoc rationalization for its own rebellion.

The key here is that this was an organic process. New England had experienced tremendous social and economic change in the 18th century when the Puritan became the Yankee. The social order had never been based on abstract universal theories of “liberty” and “equality.”

Note: Richard L. Bushman has a book called From Puritan To Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690–1765.

About Hunter Wallace 8838 Articles
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  1. Post hoc rationalization is what people do to make sense of what they do in a world in which very little of what happens is actually intentional or in their control.

    I can see this being the origin of mythology and cosmologies as people slowly became aware, waking from the animals near sighted programming and becoming thinking/planning beings.

    The great question, why am I here, necessitates a coherent answer. Without it, intellect turns the recognition of self only, in a sollipsistic disintegration of the organic social fabric which exists as a necessity since as animals we were always poorly suited to being alone.

    The first colonies here were a living nightmare of hardwork and starvation/disease, fighting against the odds and the indians to just survive. Theres no time for philosophy.

    3 or 4 generations later, life can be taken for granted again, and leisure activites resume, people start to ask who am I, then they dont see a coherent answer from people wearing silly hats and dewcend into individualism (sollipsism).

    Boom!, faggotry. Which is a totally selfish lifestyle, becomes a human right.

    • As someone or other wise once said, ‘people who don’t know where they came from, don’t know where they’re going.’ Or something like that. Come to think of it, I think the author of that quote (or at least my paraphrase of same) might actually have been a woman, and she may have been Emma Willard, but I’ll have to double-check that. In any event, people who do know where we came from are perfectly aware of where we’re headed. And that is the point.

  2. The old-time Yankees I knew in NH, VT and RI were sober, conservative, practical types who made jokes about how the coloreds didn’t like cold weather.

    • Yeah, and I bet the ones in Vermont are wondering about the joke of their new state government Diversity and Inclusion Kommissar who is finna to git ready to do something about 96% Huwhite Vermont.

  3. The not-so-charming Boston accent (pahk the cah in Havahd Yahd) is largely derived from the kind of English spoken in East Anglia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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