From the Puritans to the Tea Party

Print Friendly

Where does the Tea Party come from? William Galston recently argued that the Tea Party represents an update of the “Jacksonian tradition.” Drawing upon the work of Walter Russell Mead, Galston says that they “embrace a distinctive code, whose key tenets include self-reliance, individualism, loyalty and courage.” That’s true to a point but it also misses something fundamental. There are also some Puritan elements in the Tea Party.

PuritansThe Puritans have a bad rap in American culture. Puritans, so the story goes, were killjoys who invented the witch hunt, and they were known to punish fornication and other such sins. But trying witches was hardly unique to the Puritans–witch trials were quite common in early modern Europe, and they were hardly unknown in colonial British America outside of Massachusetts. The last witch trial in the colonies was probably the one that took place in Virginia in 1730. And colonial Virginia was known to punish fornication, although probably less regularly than colonial Massachusetts. Because they have such a bad rap, movements are often loathe to be associated with the American Puritans. Yet the Puritans represent some important elements of American culture, many of which are manifest in the modern Tea Party. In particular, the Tea Party echoes the Puritan belief that America is a special nation with a special purpose, they share the middle class character of the Puritan colonies, the hostility to cronyism and special privileges, the worry that welfare breeds dependency, and even, to a degree, support for local government against the forces of centralization.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between the American Puritans and the modern Tea Party is the idea of “American Exceptionalism.” The term may be a 20th Century coinage, but the concept is much older. En route to Massachusetts in 1630, John Winthrop spoke of the Puritan colony as “as a city upon a hill.” That phrase was a favorite of Ronald Reagan, himself a favorite of the modern Tea Party. But what does it mean? For Winthrop, it meant that the community was engaged in a holy experiment. The conventional wisdom of the day held that it would be impossible to build any community, much less a well functioning one, on Puritan principles. If the Puritan experiment succeeded, Massachusetts would be a model for future colonies.

The Puritans, of course, believed in original sin. “In Adams’ fall we sinned all,” ran the old Puritan reading primer. They did not think that man was fundamentally good, or that human nature was a blank slate, and that mankind could be remade. But they did hold that it was possible to create a better community, working with man as he was, and not as one might wish him to be. That was precisely the challenge: to do the best possible with man as he is.

A covenant community had a special responsibility. The potential rewards and penalties would be greater. A few sentences after quoting the “city upon a hill,” from the Gospel of Matthew, Winthrop turned to the words Moses addressed to the Jews before they entered Israel, “But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.” New England believed that virtue would be rewarded and vice punished on the communal level.

The modern idea of American exceptionalism–the notion that America is, and ought to be, a different kind of community than are the other nations of the world–is not so different. When the modern Tea Party worries about the Social Democratic direction of President Obama’s policies, and when they complain that too many of our intellectuals have been trying to import Continental European political models to America, this is what they are worrying about. They worry that some of our political leaders wish to make America a nation just like all the others and, therefore, bring an end the American experiment. Moreover, they fear that today’s American elites are deserting our sacred charter–the Constitution–in favor of modern theories of “progress” (which justify creative reinterpretations of the Constitution) and even of foreign legal standards, standards judged by an unaccountable elite, rather than in accord with the will of the people. These critics of Progressivism agree with the Puritans that human nature can’t be changed, even if they view America as a unique experiment. Finally, they worry that America is growing decadent, and that we will all suffer for it.

When we turn from ideas to the demographics of the modern Tea Party, we also see some echoes of the New England Puritans. Galston notes that:

Many frustrated liberals, and not a few pundits, think that people who share these beliefs must be downscale and poorly educated. The New York Times survey found the opposite. Only 26% of tea-party supporters regard themselves as working class, versus 34% of the general population; 50% identify as middle class (versus 40% nationally); and 15% consider themselves upper-middle class (versus 10% nationally). Twenty-three percent are college graduates, and an additional 14% have postgraduate training, versus 15% and 10%, respectively, for the overall population. Conversely, only 29% of tea-party supporters have just a high-school education or less, versus 47% for all adults.

The demographics of the Puritan settlers were probably fairly similar, translated to the standards of the day. They were not the poorest of the poor, and some of them, like Winthrop, were fairly wealthy. On the other hand, very few extremely wealthy families moved to Massachusetts. Tea Party conservatives are not Wall Street Conservatives. Similarly, large corporations, and the men and women who lead them, are seldom Tea Party activists, as Mitch McConnell’s recent complaints demonstrate.

The GOP establishment supported the ban on the incandescent bulb. Tea Partiers chafe at such restrictions, and often note that the ban was a classic example of how environmentalism provides a cover for crony capitalism.

Like the modern Tea Party, the Puritans were, on average, more educated than the average Englishman. That did not mean they were not dismissed and stereotyped in some of the same ways that the typical reader of the New York Times stereotypes the modern Tea Party. After all, the typical reader of the New York Times, like the aristocrats in London of old, is probably, on average, more wealthy, more educated, and, like Pinch Sulzberger, likely to be an Episcopalian. Similarly, the Puritans are often stereotyped as anti-science and anti-reason. Another canard. Cotton Mather was a member of the Royal Society and he worked with Zabdiel Boylston (John Adams’ great uncle) to bring smallpox inoculation to Boston. Their view of science was not unusual. The Puritans believed that reason was one of the goods that God gave to man. Similarly, the modern Tea Party is unfairly stereotyped as anti-science. Dan Kanan, a Yale Don was recently surprised to find “Identifying with the Tea Party correlates positively (r = 0.05, p = 0.05) with scores on the science comprehension measure.” Compared with other colonists, the same was probably true of the Puritans.

That said, it might be that the Puritans and the modern Tea Party are much more concerned with the limits of scientific knowledge than are others. The modern scientific method focusing only on facts, correlations, and calculations. Hence there is no such thing as a modern scientific ethics, nor can science decide what is a good direction for policy to go. Moreover, they know that even in legitimately scientific fields, political claims often go beyond what the facts merit. The Tea Party is skeptical of such claims to expertise. History is full of such false claims to wisdom, after all. In particular, bureaucrats, scientists, and judges are no less prone to self-serving claims than anyone else. Hence the feud between the Tea Party and Progressives. The latter think that the educated class can, collectively, move society in the direction History needs. Tea Partiers are skeptical of such “wisdom.”

In early Virginia, one reason why development was slow was that many “gentlemen” and specialized laborers, such as watch-makers and iron-mongers arrived. Following the usual English custom of the times, such men did not work the fields. That was the job of other specialists, and peasants. (Think of Hollywood today, where a cameraman might be fired for changing a lightbulb–Union rules specify who may preform such tasks). The men who made New England breathed a different spirit. Since God expelled men from Eden, it was incumbent upon each of us to work for his bread. No necessary toil was degrading by nature. Similarly, no one was above work. By contrast, many of the gentlemen who settled Virginia refused to soil their hands with manual labor. We see this spirit today in the story of a law school graduate recently profiled by Business Insider. He was on the law review at a top 50 law school, and, having failed to get a job as a lawyer, finds himself working in retail. This has cost him “my last shred of dignity,” he complains. Tea Party friendly blogger Glenn Reynolds (Aka: Instapundit) notes that “there’s nothing undignified about honest work,” and “check your class privilege dude.” Such respect for all legitimate forms of work was much more prevalent in colonial Massachusetts than colonial Virginia.

This idea of the dignity of work was related to a more general understanding of a man’s responsibility to provide for his own. As Christians, the Puritans believed in charity, and in taking care of the poor, the elderly, and the sick. A New England town taxed locals to help the poor. Moreover, they held that in times of crisis, it was incumbent upon men to surrender their wealth for the good of the community. At the local level, they were even willing to regulate wages sometimes. (Economic reality taught them the futility of most such efforts.) In normal times, however, individuals and families were responsible for themselves. As Winthrop noted, in ordinary times, “A man must lay up for posterity, the fathers lay up for posterity and children, and he is worse than an infidel that provideth not for his own.” The modern Tea Party believes many of the same things. They are not opposed to charity. (If they resemble America’s “conservatives” as a whole, they are more likely than other Americans to donate to charity, as Albert Brooks has noted.)

Similarly, the modern Tea Party is not opposed to having a safety net. That said, they worry that a society that dispenses with assistance too easily will foster a culture of dependency, and they are concerned about the rising number of Americans on permanent disability. As recently as the 1940s, surveys showed that Congregationalists were the most likely of all American religious groups to oppose “guaranteed economic security.”* It is no coincidence that Calvin Coolidge was a Congregationalist.

Meanwhile Galston notes that the modern Tea Party worries that expanding “entitlements” is a political power play, and our elites are “building political support by increasing Americans’ dependence on government.” Hence Tea Party folks worry about the large increase in unemployment disability claims we have seen in America lately.

Anti-elitism had an analogue in the Church itself. Puritans, as radical Protestants, rejected Church hierarchy. It was an individual’s responsibility to read and think about the meaning of the Bible for himself, rather than trusting a Priest to read it for him (that is why literacy was so important in colonial New England). If one wishes to visualize this belief in action, compare a typical Puritan Meeting House with an Anglican Cathedral. The architecture reflected something deeper. In places like Virginia the Church of England hired ministers for communities. Moreover, Virginia’s Anglicans understood their church to be part of one large, national organization, under a single, unified administration with the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury as its head. Congregationalists saw things rather differently.

Congregationalism meant what the name signified–each church hired its own minister, and there was no binding religious authority beyond the congregation. The modern Tea Party’s resistance to “Big Government” partakes of a similar spirit. The question is not whether our communities should support schools, poor relief, hospitals, etc. The question is whether there should be one big system for the entire country of 300 plus million, or whether there can be genuine local diversity in this regard, and in so many other ways. The Anglican way was, of course, also less strict than the Puritan. Indeed, the Puritans fled England in the 1630s because the Anglican establishment was persecuting them for their religious excesses, and for refusing to conform to the establishment’s way. The “tolerant” establishment’s persecution of those who dissent from its tolerant orthodoxy is nothing new.

In his Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, Edmund Burke noted that:

All Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. This religion, under a variety of denominations agreeing in nothing but in the communion of the spirit of liberty, is predominant in most of the northern provinces; where the Church of England, notwithstanding its legal rights, is in reality no more than a sort of private sect, not composing most probably the tenth of the people. The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was the highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners, which has been constantly flowing into these colonies, has, for the greatest part, been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and have brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.

Burke’s analysis reminds us that truly to understand America we must understand the Puritans and the other dissenting Protestant sects that have been so influential in America for so much of our history. They were not the only settlers of English America, but they were certainly important to our cultural and political development. Given that heritage, it may be that a national administrative state will never be a good fit for American governance. If happiness is connected to the belief that we are doing worthwhile work, then it might be that the bureaucratization of American life is harmful to national happiness. Hence the Tea Party may be right that the direction we should move as a people is away from the bureaucratic administrative state that America built in the 20th century, (What Walter Russell Mead calls the “Blue Model”), and toward a more open society.

* Wesley Allinsmith and Beverly Alleismith, “Religious Affiliation and Politico-Economic Attitude: A Study of Eight Major U.S. Religious Groups,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 12:3 (Autumn, 1948) pp. 379-380)