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The Spirit of the Puritans

2nd half

Return to Chapter 3 part 1 

 Among these early inconsistencies and disagreements Roger Williams stood out as the sole fearless and logical figure. Consistency and bravery were far from being his only good qualities; in drawing his portrait, the difficulty is to find shadows with which to set off the lights of his character. The Puritans feared the world, and even their own constancy; Williams feared nothing; but he would reverence and obey his conscience as the voice of God in his breast, before which all other voices must be hushed. He was not only in advance of his time: he was abreast of any times; nothing has ever been added to or detracted from his argument. When John Adams wrote to his son, John Quincy Adams, "Your conscience is the Minister Plenipotentiary of God Almighty placed in your breast: see to it that this minister never negotiates in vain," he did but attire in the diplomatic phraseology which came naturally to him the thought which Williams bad avouched and lived more than a century before. Though absolutely radical, Williams was never an extremist; he simply went to the fountainhead of reason and truth, and let the living waters flow whither they might. The toleration which he demanded he always gave; of those who had most evilly entreated him he said: "I did ever from my soul honor and love them, even when their judgment led them to afflict me." His long life was one of the most unalloyed triumphs of unaided truth and charity that our history records; and the State which he founded presented, during his lifetime, the nearest approach to the true Utopia which had thus far been produced.

Roger Williams was a Welshman, born in 1600, and dying, in the community which he had created, eighty five years later. His school was the famous Charterhouse; his university, Cambridge; and he took orders in the Church of England. But the protests of the Puritans came to his ears before he was well installed; and he examined and meditated upon them with all the quiet power of his serene and penetrating mind. It was not long before he saw that truth lay with the dissenting party; and, like Emerson long afterward, he at once left the communion in which he had thought to spend his life. He came to Massachusetts in 1631, and, as we have seen, was not long in discovering that he was more Puritan than the Puritans. When differences arose, he departed to the Plymouth colony, and there abode for several useful years.

But though the men of Boston and Salem feared him, they loved him and recognized his ability; indeed, they never could rid themselves of an uneasy sense that in all their quarrels it was he who had the best of the argument; they were often reduced to pleading necessity or expediency, when he replied with plain truth. He responded to an invitation to return to Salem, in 1633, by a willing acceptance; but no sooner had he arrived than a discussion began which continued until he was for the second and final time banished in 1636. The main bone of contention was the right of the church to interfere in state matters: He opposed theocracy as profaning the holy peace of the temple with the warring of civil parties. The Massachusetts magistrates were all church members, which Williams declared t? be as unreasonable as to make the selection of a pilot or a physician depend upon his proficiency in theology. He would not admit the warrant of magistrates to compel attendance at public worship; it was a violation of natural right, and an incitement to hypocrisy. "But the ship must have a pilot," objected the magistrates. "And he holds her to her course without bringing his crew to prayer in irons," was Williams's rejoinder. "We must protect our people from corruption and punish heresy," said they. "Conscience in the individual can never become public property; and you, as public trustees, can own no spiritual powers," answered he. "May we not restrain the church from apostasy?" they asked. He replied: "No: the common peace and liberty depend upon the removal of the yoke of soul oppression."

The magistrates were perplexed and doubtful what to do. Laud in England was menacing them with episcopacy, and they, as a preparation for resistance, decreed that all freemen must take an oath of allegiance to Massachusetts instead of to the King. Williams, of course, abhorred episcopacy as much as they did; but he would not concede the right to impose a compulsory oath. A deputation of ministers was sent to Salem to argue with him; he responded by counseling them to admonish the magistrates of their injustice. He was cited to appear before the State representatives to recant; he appeared, but only to affirm that he was ready to accept banishment or death sooner than be false to his convictions. Sentence of banishment was thereupon passed against him, but he was allowed till the ensuing spring to depart; meanwhile, however, the infection of his opinions spreading in Salem, a warrant was sent to summon him to embark for England; but he, anticipating this step, was already on his way through the winter woods southward.

The pure wine of his doctrine was too potent for the iron-headed Puritans. But it was their fears rather than their hearts that dismissed him; those who best knew him praised him most unreservedly; and even Cotton Mather admitted that he seemed "to have the root of the matter in him."

Williams's journey through the pathless snows and frosts of an exceptionally severe winter is one of the picturesque and impressive episodes of the times. During more than three months he pursued his lonely and perilous way; hollow trees were a welcome shelter; he lacked fire, food, and guides. But he had always pleaded in behalf of the Indians; he had on one occasion denied the validity of a royal grant unless it were countersigned by native proprietors; and during his residence in Plymouth he had learned the Indian language. All this now stood him in good stead. The man who was outcast from the society of his white brethren, because his soul was purer and stronger than theirs, was received and ministered unto by the savages; he knew their ways, was familiar in their wigwams, championed their rights, wrestled lovingly with their errors, mediated in their quarrels, and was idolized by them as was no other of his race. Pokanoket, Massasoit, and Canonicus were his hosts and guardians during the winter and spring; and in summer he descended the river in a birch-bark canoe to the site of the present city of Providence, so named by him in recognition of the Divine mercies; and there he pitched his tent beside the spring, hoping to make the place "a shelter for persons distressed for conscience."

His desire was amply fulfilled. The chiefs of the Narragansetts deeded him a large tract of land; oppressed persons flocked to him for comfort and succor, and never in vain; a republic grew up based on liberty of conscience, and the civil rule of the majority: the first in the world. Orthodoxy and heresy were on the same footing before him; he trusted truth to conquer error without aid or force. Though he ultimately withdrew from all churches, he founded the first Baptist church in the new world; he twice visited England, and obtained a charter for his colony in 1644. Williams from first to last sat on the Opposition Bench of life; and we say of him that he was hardly used by those who should most have honored him. Yet it is probable that he would have found less opportunity to do good at either an earlier or a later time. Critics so keen and unrelenting as he never find favor with the ruling powers; he would have been at least as "impossible"' in the Nineteenth Century as he was in the Seventeenth; and we would have had no Rhode Island to give him. We can derive more benefit from his arraignment of society two hundred and fifty years or more ago than we should were he to call us to account to-day, because no resentment mingles with our intellectual appreciation; our withers seem to be unwrung. The crucifixions of a former age are always denounced by those who, if the martyr fell into their hands, would be the first to nail him to the cross.

But the Puritanism of Williams and that of those who banished him were as two branches proceeding from a single stem; their differences, which were the type of those that created two parties in the community, were the inevitable result of the opposition between the practical and the theoretic temperaments. This opposition is organic; it is irreconcilable, but nevertheless wholesome; both Aides possess versions of the same truth, and the perfect state arises -from the contribution made by both to the common good-not from their amalgamation, or from a compromise between them. Williams's community was successful, but it was successful, on the lines he laid down, only during its minority; as its population increased, civil order was assured by a tacit abatement of the right of individual independence, and by the insensible subordination of particular to general interests. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, which from the first inclined to the practical view-which recognized the dangers surrounding an organization weak in physical resources, but strong in spiritual conviction,  and which, by reason of the radical nature of those convictions, was specially liable to interference from the settled power of orthodoxy-in Massachusetts there was a diplomatic tendency in the work of building up the commonwealth. The integrity of Williams's logic was conceded, but to follow it out to its legitimate conclusions was deemed inconsistent with the welfare and continuance of the popular institutions. The condemnation of dissenters from dissent sounded unjust; but it was the alternative to the more. far-reaching injustice of suffering the structure which had been erected with such pains and sacrifice to fall to pieces just when it was attaining form and character. The time for universal toleration might come later, when the vigor and solidity of the nucleus could no longer be vitiated by fanciful and transient vagaries. The right of private judgment carried no guarantee comparable with that which attached to the sober and tested convictions of the harmonious body of responsible citizens.

When, therefore, the young Henry Vane, coming to Boston with the prestige of aristocratic birth and the reputation of liberal opinions, was elected Governor in 1635, and presently laid down the principle that "Ishmael shall dwell in the presence of his brethren," he at once met with opposition; and he and Anne Hutchinson, and other visionaries and enthusiasts, were made to feel that Boston was no place for them. Yet at the same time there was a conflict between the body of the freemen and the magistrates as to the limits and embodiments of the governing power; the magistrates contended that there were manifest practical advantages in life appointments to office, and in the undisturbed domination of men of approved good life and intellectual ability; the people replied that all that might be true, but they would still insist upon electing and dismissing whom they pleased. Thus was inadvertently demonstrated the invincible security of democratic principles; the masses are always willing to agree that the best shall rule, but insist that they, the multitude, and not any Star Chamber, no matter how impeccable, shall decide who the best are. Herein alone is safety. The masses, of course, are not actuated by motives higher than those of the select few; but their impartiality cannot but be greater, because, assuming that each voter has in view his personal welfare, their ballots must insure the welfare of the majority. And if the welfare of the majority be God's will, then the truth of the old Latin maxim, vox populi, vox Dei, is vindicated without any recourse to mysticism. The only genuine aristocracy, or rule by the best, must in other words be the creation, not of their own will and judgment, but of those of the subjects of their administration.

The political experiments and vicissitudes of these early times are of vastly greater historical importance than are such external episodes, as, for example, the Pequot war in 1637. A whole tribe was exterminated, and thereby, and still more by the heroic action of Williams in preventing, by his personal intercession, an alliance between the Pequots and the Narragansetts, the white colonies were preserved. But beyond this the affair has no bearing upon the development of the American idea. During these first decades the most profound questions of national statesmanship were discussed in the assemblies of the Massachusetts Puritans with an acumen and wisdom which have never been surpassed. The equity and solidity of most of their conclusions are extraordinary; the intellectual ability of the councilors being purged and exalted by their ardent religious faith. "The Body of Liberties," written out in 1641 by Nathaniel Ward, handles the entire subject of popular government in a masterly manner. It was a counsel of perfection molded, by understanding of the prevailing conditions, into practical form. The basis of its provisions was the primitive one which is traced back to the time when the Anglo-Saxon tribes met to choose their chiefs or to decide on war or other matters of general concern. It was the basis suggested by nature; for, as the chief historian of these times has remarked, freedom is spontaneous, but the artificial distinctions of rank are the growth of centuries. Lands, according to this instrument, were free and alienable; the freemen of a corporation held them, but claimed no right of distribution. There should be no monopolies; no wife beating; no slavery "except voluntary"; ministers as well as magistrates should be chosen by popular vote. Authority was given to approved customs; the various towns or settlements constituting the commonwealth were each a living political organism. No combination of churches should control any one church-such were some of the provisions. The colonies were availing themselves of the unique opportunity afforded by their emancipation, in the wilderness, from the tyanny and obstruction of old-world traditions and licensed abuses.

By the increasing body of their brethren in England, meanwhile, New England was looked upon as a sort of New Jerusalem, and letters from the leaders were passed from hand to hand like messages from saints. Up to the time when Charles and Laud were checked by Parliament, the tide of emigration set so strongly toward the American shores that measures were taken by the King to arrest it; by 1638 there were in New England more than twenty-one thousand colonists. The rise of the power of Parliament stopped the influx; but the succeeding twenty years of peace gave the much needed chance for quiet and well-considered growth and development. The singular prudence and foresight of Winthrop and others in authority during this interregnum was showed by their declining to accept certain apparent advantages proffered them in love and good faith by their English friends. A new patent was offered them in place of their royal charter; but the colonists perceived that the reign of Parliament was destined to be temporary, and wisely refused. Other suggestions, likely to lead to future entanglements, were rejected; among them a proposition from Cromwell that they should all come over and occupy Ireland. This is as curious as that other alleged incident of Cromwell and Hampden having been stopped by Laud when they had embarked for New England, and being forced to remain in the country which soon after owed to them its freedom from kingly and episcopal tyranny.

Material prosperity began to show itself in the new country now that the first metaphysical problems were in the way of settlement. In Salem they were building ships, cotton was manufactured in Boston; the export trade in furs and other commodities was brisk and profitable. The English Parliament. passed a law exempting them from taxes. After so much adversity, fortune was sending them agleam of sunshine, and they were making their hay. But something of the arrogance of prosperity must also be accredited to them; the Puritans were never more bigoted and intolerant than now. The persecution of the Quakers is a blot on their fame, only surpassed by the witchcraft cruelties of the concluding years of the century. Mary Dyar and the men Robinson, Stephenson, and Leddra were executed for no greater crime than obtruding their unwelcome opinions and outraging the propriety of the community. The fate of Christison hung for a while in the balance; he was not less guilty than the others, and he defied his judges; he told them that where they murdered one, ten others would arise in his place; the same words that had been heard many a time in England when the Puritans themselves were on their trial. Nevertheless the judges passed the sentence of death; but the people were disturbed by such bloody proceedings, and Christison was finally set free. It must not be forgotten that the Quakers of this period were very different from those who afterward populated the City of Brotherly Love under Penn. They were fanatics of the most extravagant and incorrigible sort; loud mouthed, frantic, and disorderly; and instead of observing modesty in their garb, their women not seldom ran disheveled through the streets of horrified Boston in broad daylight. They thirsted for persecution as ordinary persons do for wealth or fame, and would not be satisfied till they had provoked punishment. The granite wall of Puritanism seemed to exist especially for them to dash themselves against it. Such persons can hardly be. deemed sane; and it is of not the slightest importance what particular creed they profess. They are opposed to authority and order because they are authority and order; in our day we group such folk under the name Anarchists; but, instead of hanging them as the Puritans did, we let them froth and threaten, according to the policy of Roger Williams, until the lack of echoes leads them to hold their peace.

Although slavery, or perpetual servitude, was forbidden by the statute, there were many slaves in New England, Indians and whites as well as negroes. The first importation of the latter was in 1619, by the Dutch, it is said. No slave could be kept in bondage more than ten years; it was stipulated that they were to be brought from Africa, or elsewhere, only with their own consent; and when, in 1638, it appeared that a cargo of them had been forcibly introduced, they were sent back to Africa. Prisoners of war were condemned to servitude; and, altogether, the feeling on the subject of human bondage appears to have been both less and more fastidious than it afterward became. There was no such indifference as was shown in the Southern slave trade two centuries later, nor was there any of the humanitarian fanaticism exhibited by the extreme Abolitionists of the years before the Civil War. It may turn out that the attitude of the Puritans had more common sense in it than had either of the others.

The great event of 1643 was the natural outcome of the growth and expansion of the previous time. It was the federation of the four colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut. Connecticut had been settled in 1630, but it was not till six years afterward that a party headed by the renowned Thomas Hooker, the "Son of Thunder," and one of the most judicious men of that age, journeyed from Boston with the deliberate purpose of creating another commonwealth in the desert. Connecticut did not offer assurances of a peaceful settlement; the Indians were numerous there, and not well disposed; and in the south the Dutch of New Amsterdam were complaining of an infringement of boundaries. These ominous conditions came to a head in the Pequot war; after which peace reigned for many years. A constitution of the most liberal kind was created by the settlers, some of the articles of which led to a correspondence between Hooker and Winthrop as to the comparative merits of magisterial and popular governments. Unlearned men, however religious, if elected to office, must needs call in the assistance of the learned ministers, who, thus burdened with matters not rightly within their function, might err in counseling thereon. Of the people the best part was always the least, and of that best the wiser is the lesser. This was Winthrop's position. Hooker replied that to allow discretion to the judge was the way to tyranny. Seek the law at its mouth; it is free from passion, and should rule the rulers themselves; let the judge do according to the sentence of the law. In high matters, business should be done by a general council, chosen by all, as was the practice of the Jewish and other well-ordered states. This is an example of the political discussions of that day in New England; both parties to it concerned solely to come at the truth, and free from any selfish aim or pride. The soundness of Hooker's view may be deduced from the fact that the Constitution of Connecticut (which differed in no essential respect from those of the other colonies) has survived almost unchanged to the present day. Statesmanship, during two and a half centuries, has multiplied details and improved the nicety of adjustments; but it has not discerned any principles which had not been seen with perfect distinctness by the clear and venerable eyes -of the Pnritan fathers.

Eaton, another man of similar caliber, was the leading spirit in the New Haven settlement, assisted by the Reverend Mr. Davenport; many of the colonists were Second Adventists, and they called the Bible their Statute Book. The date of their establishment was 1638. The incoherent population of Rhode Island caused it to be excluded from the federation; but Williams, journeying to London, obtained a patent from the exiled but now powerful Vane, and took as the motto of his Government, amor vincet omnia.

New Hampshire, which had been united to Massachusetts in 1641, could have no separate part in the new arrangement; and Maine, an indeterminate region, sparsely inhabited by people who had come to seek not God, but fish in the western world, was not considered. The articles of federation of the four Calvinist colonies aimed to provide mutual protection against the Indians, against possible encroachment from England, against Dutch and French colonists: they declared a league not only for defense and offense, but for the promotion of spiritual truth and liberty. Nothing was altered in the constitutions of any of the contracting parties; and an equitable system of apportioning expenses was devised. Each partner sent two delegates to the common council; all affairs proper to the federation were determined by a three-fourths vote; a law for the delivery of fugitive slaves was agreed to; and the commissioners of the other jurisdictions were empowered to coerce any member of the federation which should break this contract. The title of The United Colonies of New England was bestowed upon the alliance. The articles were the work of a committee of the leading men in the country, such as Winthrop, Winslow, Haynes, and Eaton; and the confederacy lasted forty years, being dissolved in 1684.

It was a great result from an experiment begun only about a dozen years before. It was greater even than its outward seeming, for it contained within itself the forces which should control the future. This country is made up of many elements, and has been molded to no small extent by circumstances hardly to be foreseen; but it seems incontestable that it would never have endured, and continued to be the goal of all pilgrims who wish to escape from a restricted to a freer life had not its corner stone been laid, and its outline fixed, by these first colonis fixed of New England. It has been calculated that in two hundred years the physical increase of each Puritan family was one thousand persons, dispersed over the territory of the United States; and the moral influence which this posterity exerted on the various communities in which they fixed their abode is beyond computation. But had the Puritan fathers been as ordinary men: had they come hither for ends of gain and aggrandizement: had they not been united by the most inviolable ties that can bind men-community in religious faith, brotherhood in persecution for conscience' sake, and an intense, inflexible enthusiasm for liberty-their descendants would have had no spiritual inheritance to disseminate. Many superficial changes have come upon our society; there is an absence of a fixed national type; there are many thousands of illiterate persons among us, and of those who are still ignorant of the true nature of democratic institutions; all the tongues of Europe and of other parts of the world may be heard within our boundaries; there are great bodies of our citizens who selfishly pursue ends of private enrichment and power, indifferent to the patent fact that multitudes of their fellows are thereby obstructed in the effort to earn a livelihood in this most productive country in the world; there are many who have prostituted the name of statesmanship to the gratification of petty and transient ambitious: and many more who, relieved by the thrift of their ancestors from the necessity to win their bread, have renounced all concern in the welfare of the state, and live trivial and empty lives: all this, and more, may be conceded. But such evil humors, be it repeated, are superficial, attesting the vigor, rather than the decay, of the central vitality. America still stands for an idea; there is in it an immortal soul. It was, by the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay that this soul was implanted; to inspire it was their work. They experienced the realities, they touched the core of things, as few men have ever done; for they were born in an age when the world was awakening from the spiritual slumber of more than fifteen hundred years, and upon its bewildered eyes was breaking the splendor of a great new light. The Puritans were the immediate heirs of the Reformation (so called; it might more truly have been named the New Incarnation, since the outward modifications of visible form were but the symptoms of a freshly communicated informing intelligence). It transfigured them; from men sunk in the gross and sensual thoughts and aims of an irreligious and priest-ridden age-an age which ate and drank and slept and fought; and kissed the feet of popes, and maundered of the divine right of kings-from this sluggish degradation it roused and transfigured the Englishmen who came to be known as Puritans. It was a transfiguration, though its subjects were the uncouth, almost grotesque figures which chronicle and tradition have made familiar to us. For a people who were what the Puritans were before Puritanism, cannot be changed by the Holy Ghost into angels of light; their stubborn carnality will not evaporate like a mist; it clings to them, and being now so discordant with the impulse within, an awkwardness and uncouthness result which suggest some strange hybrid: to the eye and ear they. are unlovelier and harsher than they were before their illumination; but Providence regards not looks; it knew what it was about when it chose these men of bone and sinew to carry out its purposes. Once enlisted, they never could be quelled, or seduced, or deceived, or wearied; they were in fatal earnest, and faithful unto death, for they believed that God was their Captain. They had got a soul; they put it into their work, and it is in that work even to this clay.

It does not manifestly appear to our contemporary vision; it is overloaded with the rubbish of things, as a Greek statue is covered with the careless debris of ages; but, as the art of the sculptor is vindicated when the debris leas been removed, so will the fair proportions of the State conceived by the Puritans, and nourished and defended by their sons, declare them selves when in the maturity of our growth we have as similated what is good in our accretions, and disencumbered ourselves of what is vain. It is the American principle, and it will not down; it is a solvent of all foreign substances; in its own way and time it dissipates all things that are not harmonious with itself. No lesser or feebler principle would have survived the tests to which this has been subjected; but this is in destructible; even we could not destroy it if we would, for it is no inalienable possession of our own, but a gift from on High to the whole of mankind. But let us piously and proudly remember that it was through the Puritans that the gift was made. Other nations than the English have contributed to our substance and prosperity, and have yielded their best blood to flow in our veins. None the less is it true that what was worthiest and most unselfish in the impulse that drove them hither was a reflection of the same impulse that actuated the Puritans when America was not the most powerful of republics, but a wilderness. None of us all can escape from their greatnessfrom the debt we owe them: not because they were Englishmen, not because they made New England, but because they were men, inspired of God to make the earth free that was in bondage.