A seventeenth-century one-party state

Elegant and urbane, [Perry] Miller’s works successfully explained the history of Puritan Massachusetts by evoking a “New England Mind” culled from a narrow range of remarkably abstruse and knotty theological treatises. Although subsequent scholarship has refuted many of the details (and even some of the essentials) of Miller’s vision, his basic strategy of explicating the behavior of the Bay Puritans in terms of their theological beliefs and carefully formulated doctrines has been more than vindicated by its dominant role in the literature of Puritan studies. As a social historian with pronounced naturalistic inclinations, I was deeply troubled by this whole idealist mode of explanation. Yet there was no denying its success. I became obsessed with trying to explain why this strategy was so fruitful in interpreting the saga of New England Puritanism. In general terms, I found myself raising the old Cartesian question of interaction to the historical plane, namely, how did the ethereal elements of the world of ideas and mentalities actually impact the material world of historical events? More specifically, what were the social and political features of early Massachusetts history that gave technical theological doctrines such powerful causal efficacy?

The most plausible answer to my question came from David Hall’s and Micahel Walzer’s studies of the Puritan ministry. Sophisticated theological doctrines shaped the history of massachusetts because the educated divines who studied and formulated these doctrines had a preponderant influence over the colony’s social and political life. This answer raised even more questions. How could an educated elite of ministers (and magistrates, as I learned from Timothy Breen) hold such dominant power in a fledgling colonial settlement? Granted the deference normally accorded a university degree, these educated leaders lacked the large-scale property interests normally associated with a ruling stratum. Wht were the institutional arrangements and practices that facilitated this remarkable empowerment? Finally, why did this elite choose to use their power to impose an order on Massachusetts derived from academic theology? What did it mean that the Bay Colony was patterned after a high cultural theory?

I sought the answers to these questions in the sociology of intellectuals. Two works in particular — Alvin Gouldner’s three-volume Dark Side of the Dialectic and George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi’s The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power — confirmed my most unsettling hunches. Professional intellectuals and intelligentsia comprised a collective interest. They were the great unexamined class in modern political history, whose will to power occasionally took the form of revolutionary ideological politics. I had a greater appreciation for Michael Walzer’s claim that the Puritan divines were the precursors of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. This realization undermined my whole conception of the class struggles that underlay modern ideological politics. This realization undermined my whole conception of the class struggles that underlay modern ideological politics. It also failed to explain the different role and status of the Puritan educated elite in Massachusetts and England. Although the clergy was undoubtedly a critical element in the English Puritan movement, I remained convinced with Christopher Hill that its ultimate result was a bourgeois revolution that, in the last instance, served the interests of the landed gentry and urban merchants. Why did the Puritan intellectuals emerge as the dominant political group in Massachusetts while their colleagues in England were reduced to the status of ideological cheerleaders?

As I pored over the primary documents, gradually an answer began to emerge. Massachusetts differed from England in two vital respects. First, unlike their English counterparts, the Bay Puritans were not a small minority ruling over a divided society, much of which was ideologically disaffected. By excluding the ungodly, the founders of early Massachusetts were spared the necessity of either purging or accommodating such elements. Second, the thinking class that contributed to the colony’s settlement and foundation was an extremely cohesive and class-conscious group. They constructed the institutions of church and state to facilitate the transformation of their high cultural and theoretical expertise into social and political power. They did this by creating a new form of political authority that I have called cultural domination. They legitimated their power by claiming to be the authentic bearers of the Puritan cultural and religious tradition. Through them, they insisted, the established Christian wisdom of the ages would exercise its sway over the New World Bible commonwealth. While the Puritan thinking class in England may have helped initiate the tradition of radical ideological politics, their colleagues in the Bay created a stable revolutionary regime. Puritan Massachusetts was a seventeenth-century one-party state.

Darren Staloff, Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts.

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2 responses to “A seventeenth-century one-party state

  1. Pingback: A seventeenth-century one-party state | Reaction Times

  2. Azure James January 20, 2015 at 4:08 am

    It would have been interesting to grow up in Puritan times. More physical work, closer communities, no online-offline split, completely different views, morals, and paradigms, more immediacy to death, different clothing, I’m quite fascinated by it. The closest I’ve seen to it is the Old Order Amish in Cattaraugus County.

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