From the Puritans to the Tea Party

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)

Richard Samuelson

Richard Samuelson is Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino.

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  1. Glen says

    Correlation still doesn’t equal causation.

    Today’s Progressives are the undisputed heirs of New England Puritanism, for mostly worse. That their better intentions can be said to have diffused more broadly throughout American culture only serves to cloud the historical analysis.

  2. Richard S says

    What’s the logic? The argument usually is that Progressives like to tell people what to do. Puritans liked to tell people what to do. Therefore, runs the argument, Progressives are the heirs of Puritanism. That’s certainly an argument based on correlation. But I assume you have a more sophisticated analysis that can trace the particular steps that take us from the American Puritans of the 17th century to today’s Progressives.

  3. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    I think in general it is anachronistic to compare a religious movement of the 17th century, which should be understood within the context of the time that produced it, with a political movement of the 21st century, which should be understood within the context of its own time and place. Puritanism is one of a great many intellectual and religious movements that have contributed to contemporary America, and there are continuities to be found between it and those ideological movements of our own day. The fallacy is to ignore all of the intervening points of deflection–to portray the connections as direct and unmediated, as this essay implies–is to distort history.

    One error that deserves mention. Professor Samuelson writes: “If the Puritan experiment succeeded, Massachusetts would be a model for future colonies.” Perhaps so–but this was not the way the Puritans understood themselves, nor their “errand into the wilderness.” That phrase was first used as the title of an historical account written by a Puritan minister in 1670, but became famous, at least to historians, when used by the historian Perry Miller as the title of a brilliant 1950s essay. As Miller, not to mention subsequent distinguished historians like Edmund Morgan, noted, the Puritans conceived of themselves as engaged on an errand on behalf not of other colonists but rather to rescue the English people from their own cultural depravity. They had precisely zero intention of setting a model for other colonies–they were after much bigger game than that.

    As historian Jack P. Greene has pointedly and persuasively argued, if we wish to understand the colonial origins of 19th century American political culture, we are much better served looking to the 17th century South than to the culturally idiosyncratic New England colonies. And as students of 18th century political thought have emphasized–I am thinking for example here of the work of Barry Shain–New England puritanism produced a powerful communitarian streak that is quite alien to the Jacksonian individualism that the Samuelson perceives (correctly, to my view) to be a progenitor of the ideals of the contemporary Tea Party. More immediate intellectual ancestors of the Tea Party are people like Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge–both of whom drew far more immediately from the 1850s Republican Party than they did from the 17th century Puritans.

  4. Richard S says

    Sure, the Puritans sought “a shelter and a hiding place,” if I recall a phrase Morgan quotes. And they wished to purify the English church. But they also believed that the eyes of the world were upon them, as Winthrop noted on the way to Massachusetts. They wished to help England. Did they think there would be no more English colonies? Hence I’m not sure why it matters that the phrase “errand into the wilderness” was from later in the 17th century. The point of the errand was that the eyes of the world were on them. The trouble, as Miller notes in his essay, is that the world seemed to be looking elsewhere by then. (And they worried that they were not living up to their fathers’ standards).

    Jackson’s coalition owed much to the South. So? It’s no coincidence that Coolidge was a good son of New England. And Lincoln’s coalition, like Coolidge’s excluded the South. But it did include the parts of the U.S. where sons of Puritans tended to go when they left New England. And is it a coincidence that Congregationalists in the 20th century were the most skeptical religious group toward guaranteed income by government?
    Because the Puritans have a bad rap, we sometimes miss what they contributed to American cultural development.

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says


      I am assuming you are the author of the essay? Given the erudition you have displayed elsewhere in the various conversations, that would make a lot of sense. If you are willing to indulge professional curiosity, are you an Onuf student?

      Anyway, if Miller was correct–and at least from the text of Winthrop’s writing, I think we have to take the possibility seriously that he was–then the answer to your question “did the Puritans think there would be no more colonies” is that it is irrelevant. They did not understand their mission in terms of shaping English colonialism–they were concerned with England itself. The errand on which they embarked, in other words, was an errand on behalf of English people in England, not English people living elsewhere in the world. Or perhaps better, it was on behalf of English people in toto–the overwhelming majority of whom lived in England. In 1630, we should remember, *all* of the English colonies were marginal, inconsequential places. (If you have not yet done so, check out Bailyn’s sprawling, marvelous BARBAROUS YEARS–I found his chapter on Bradford to be quite moving.)

      One of the problems with your analysis is that there are significant discontinuities between 17th century Puritanism and 19th (let alone 20th) century Congregationalism. In religious terms, the doctrine of preparation, which began to creep into Puritan religious thought in the late 17th century, opened the way for rational, arminian theology. By the time of the first great awakening, liberal (that is, free will and perfectionist) theology had made powerful inroads–this is the theology against which guys like Jonathan Edwards railed. But in emphasizing the awakening, we easily forget how powerful and pervasive the liberal, Arminian-tending wing of Congregationalism really was. The Congregationalism of the 19th century–the religious impulse that produced guys like Finney–was a far remove from the religious and cultural impulses that motivated the original Puritans. I have found two recent books–one by Brooks Holifield, THEOLOGY IN AMERICA; the other by Mark Noll, AMERICA’S GOD–to be especially useful in charting all of this.

      My point here is not to argue that the Puritans are irrelevant, but rather that if we want to understand guys like Lincoln, or Coolidge, we are better advised to attend to religious movement that are closer to them in time than to look to the 17th century. It is not that the 17th century has no role, but rather that there are a bunch of intervening developments that are considerably more important. That is what I meant by my comment about “intervening points of deflection.”

      Finally–I would urge you to take a look at Darren Staloff’s provocative MAKING OF AN AMERICAN THINKING CLASS, before you strive too hard to rehabilitate the Puritans. As Staloff notes–I think correctly–we can just as easily compare the 17th century Puritans to 20th century totalitarianism . That is anachronistic too–a point I made when I reviewed his book. But even so, a 17th century movement that can be seen to be antecedent to Stalin (Staloff), communitarianism (Shain), and the tea party (Samuelson) is pretty plastic, wouldn’t you agree? Given that plasticity, I think we are better advised to emphasize intellectual and theological movements closer in time to the people we are trying to understand.

      All best wishes,

      • Richard S says

        The Puritan’s goals in New England went beyond that of saving England itself. Funny you focus on that point, as it was an addition, suggested to me by good scholar of New England Puritanism.
        Cleveland–a descendent of Connecticut Presbyterian ministers. Taft. A descendent of New England Congregational-Unitarian stock. Coolidge, ditto. Coincidence. Ha!
        And Lodge took on the League of Nations against the son of a Southern Presbyterian minister.

        And wasn’t it a New Englander who wrote “Self Reliance”?

        Sure. Communities were strong in New England. But note the plural. I am dubious that the Congregational principle scaled up. Hence in time New England’s soil, combined with other forces of dissenting Protestantism, as I note in the end of the essay, are a very important part of the background today. I would argue that that strain was very well suited to the world of civil society and voluntary associations for which Antebellum America, particularly in the North, is famous.

        Read or watch a production of Tyler’s “The Contrast,” and you’ll see many of the themes.

        • Kevin R. Hardwick says


          You believe that ideology is in the genes? OK–so that is unfair–a reductio ad absurdam. But if you *don’t* believe that, then you have to concede that ideals change over time.

          The changes in the mid-18th through mid-19th century to the original Puritan impulse are quite profound. Horace Bushnell and the other New Divinity ministers–the men who defined Congregationalism in the 19th century–are not in any easy way obvious intellectual descendants of John Cotton or Richard Mather, or even of that pair’s grandson, Cotton Mather. Comparing the liberal Christianity of the late 19th and 20th century Congregationalists to the Puritans is, theologically speaking, comparing apples to oranges. To imply continuity–as you seem to wish to do–is highly misleading.

          We may be arguing past each other. You can certainly find an intellectual genealogy here. But surely you are also familiar with the conventional critiques of the kind of genealogy that you attempt in this blog post. I think we are better advised to adopt a critical historicism–that is what I have been advocating in my various posts in this thread.

          • Richard S says

            I’m skeptical of “historicism.” It’s a modern concept, and not a universal truth about history . . .

          • Kevin R. Hardwick says


            I likely misused the term. Historicism, properly understood, is the idea that what most matters for understanding a culture, society, ideology, field of human endeavor, whatever, is its history.

            I am really talking about something akin to what our English lit colleagues term “New Historicism,” which is the idea that the meaning of a text must be understood within the context in which its author produced it. Here, though, I am talking less about individual texts and more about ideas more broadly. I am, in essence, asserting that if we want to understand the thinking of an historical actor or group of actors, we should attend to the more immediate circumstances in which they spoke and wrote.

            In your original post, by contrast, I understand you to be making a kind of restrained historicist argument, in essence asserting that to understand the contemporary tea party, it is useful to understand a group of people (Puritans) whom you assert are their intellectual ancestors. Am I misreading you?

          • Richard S says

            If we focus only on the then current circumstances we miss a great deal. How men and women understand what to do and how men and women think is shaped by how they were raised.
            Years ago we used to call Louis XIV an “absolute” monarch. Then historians figured out that there were, in fact, things he couldn’t do. Duh! That’s not what absolute meant when people with common sense used it. The same is true with intellectual genealogy. It’s useful, but common sense suggests both its place and its limits.

          • Kevin R. Hardwick says


            I am not detecting any profound disagreement, at least at the level of theory.

            I have no quarrel with the claim that, for example, to understand Calvin Coolidge we must understand how he was raised–the value system in which his identity was shaped.

            Where we would (it would seem, anyway) disagree is the importance of understanding Puritanism in that endeavor. I am contending that if we want to understand the values of Coolidge, we should attend to the Congregationalism of guys like Bushnell, in the 19th century. As I read your posts here, however, you are claiming that we do better to understand Coolidge by attending to the Congregationalism of guys like John Cotton and Richard Mather, in the 17th.

            Similarly, I would argue that to understand the Tea Party, we should attend to the values of the latter half of the 20th century. You, by contrast, seem to be defending the idea that we do better to attend to the values of the 17th century Puritans.

            I am not contending that the 17th Puritans have no role to play here. Rather, I am arguing that their influence is so mediated by subsequent events, we should attend to those more immediate events and influences and ideas first, and the more distant events and influences and ideas (like the Puritans) only as a coda to the more important and more immediate in time.

            Stated this baldly, I am at some risk of caricaturing your argument. But I am surprised that you would disagree with what I take to be the fairly modest claims I am advancing.

      • Kevin R. Hardwick says

        I should correct an error of my own: Finney was a Presbyterian, not a Congregationalist. There are connections between his theology and that of the 19th century Congregationalists, but making the connections requires several steps that I omitted. Apologies for being misleading here.

        For anyone interested, Brooks Holifield was (if I recall correctly) a student of Sydney Ahlstrom. His history of American theology from the 1630s to the Civil War (THEOLOGY IN AMERICA: CHRISTIAN THOUGHT FROM THE AGE OF THE PURITANS TO THE CIVIL WAR) is about as magisterial as it gets–the result of twenty odd years of work to produce a worthy successor to Ahlstrom’s RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. See in particular his just marvelous sketch of Horace Bushnell’s thought–much of what Holifield does in his study is to try to account for the religious transformation, away from the conventional reformed theology of the first generation of Puritan ministers and towards what in time became the liberal, mainline Christianity of the late 19th and 20th century Congregationalists.

  5. Jeremiah Bourque says

    The Tea Party arose out of an extremely simple concept: the money does not exist to pay for all of this. Assigning moral force to a backlash arising from recognition of arithmetic is a slippery and ethereal endeavor.

    • gabe says

      Well said, Jeremiah!

      If one were to look only at the initial economic organization of the Puritan “errand into the wilderness”, it should not be difficult to suppose a close relationship (correlation?) with a communitarian, read; socialist, political tendency.
      Were one to look at the corrective measures employed upon the failure of the initial economic / societal organization, re: classical liberalism, perhaps, you could show an antecedent relationship with, if not the Tea Party, then to a more conservative political / economic outlook.
      What is chosen is, frequently, a simple matter of the aim of the rhetoric.
      Slippery, yes!
      Let us not fall into the Progressive practice of changing history into “Fractured Fairy Tales” (some of we older folks may remember this cartoon of the 1960’s) simply to advance our own rhetorical ends.

      take care as always
      No, this is not directed at Richard or Kevin – just a general comment.

      • Richard S says

        The Plymouth colony tried common property, very briefly, but the Massachusetts colony, the Puritan mainstream, never did.
        Early Virginia also tried common property, and did so for more years.

        • gabe says


          Thanks for the info.
          I was not aware of the virginia efforts in this regard. You say they maintained this for a good number of years. Was it any more successful?
          BTW: Reading both Kevin and your comments is quite instructive and helps to fill in many of the glaring gaps in my knowledge. So again, many thanks for the comments / info.

          take care

          • Richard S says

            Didn’t last long there, either. There’s an argument about whether that ended the real “starving time” in Virginia. Virginians were still dying off rapidly after the switch to private plots.

        • Kevin R. Hardwick says

          Technically–and this may amount to historical nit-picking–the experiments of the two colonies were quite different.

          Plymouth did indeed experiment with communal ownership of property, along the lines of the primitive church.

          In Virginia, however, property was always held by individuals. Early Virginia was a joint-stock corporation, and property established in the colony–which amounted to land and improvements in land–was owned by individual shareholders in proportion to their investment in the colony. The problem with that was that most of the people who immigrated to the colony were technically employees. They proved rather difficult adequately to supervise, given that most of the owners of company property were not on site, but were instead 3,000-0dd miles away. At every stage of the endeavor employees could and did own property of their own, although in practice this mostly meant personal property. Because the incentives in this set up were not conducive ultimately to the interests of the company and its shareholders, the company experimented with a variety of property schemes. They never did develop a means for making profits in the colony as a company, although some individuals did manage to acquire moderately substantial wealth. When King James discovered just how many people were dying in the colony, and just how badly managed the company was, he dissolved it and converted Virginia into a Royal Colony.

          Plymouth never had a charter, and was not incorporated in the fashion of the Virginia company. Among other disabilities, this rendered property rights in the (de jure illegal) Plymouth colony insecure. I know considerably less about the history of property rights in the Plymouth colony, however, than I do for Virginia–so take all of this with a grain of salt.

          • Richard S says

            Fair enough. In early Virginia, a few connected bigwhigs sought to have peasants work their land for them. In Plymouth, they tried communal ownership, but turned to individual plots. Massachusetts began with individual plots. Mostly farms were family run. In Virginia, by contrast, bigwhigs controlled the land, and used servants, and then slaves, to farm.

  6. gabe says

    Somewhere along the way, I recall reading that the Virginia settlers were hampered by an inability to endure the heat / climate, etc as well as susceptibility to disease as well as lack of familiarity with proper agricultural techniques for the Tidewater region. One assumes that these conditions obtained both prior to and after the switch to private plots.
    Was there some specific cause, social or economic, that contributed to the continued high death rate?

    thanks again

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says


      There was an effort by an historian with training in the history of medicine in the 1970s (I forget his name at this point, but can look it up if you have interest) to account for the incredibly high mortality rates of early 17th century Virginia. He concluded that the massive seasonal dying (at its worst, 1/3 of the population each year died) was accounted for by the geography of the tidewater Chesapeake. In essence, in Summer the inflow of water from the rivers feeding the Chesapeake bay–functionally an enormous tidal estuary–dropped each summer to the point that the water supply at the mouth of the rivers did not “flush.” Early settlement hugged the shore and took its drinking water from the bay–thus, contamination from human fecal matter, combined with increased quantities of salt water, led to a poisonous environment. Salt poisoning, malaria, and typhoid did the killing. When settlement moved inland, and drinking water came from upland wells rather than the bay itself, mortality rates declined. The essay I am thinking of is in Thad Tate and David Ammerman, THE CHESAPEAKE IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, if anyone cares.

      That was the thesis, anyway. Demographic work by subsequent historians (eg. Trevor Burnard, CREOLE GENTLEMEN, a study of colonial Maryland, where the records are considerably more complete than for early Virginia) however has demonstrated that rates of mortality remained high, and life expectancy surprisingly low, for the entire colonial period.

      So to my knowledge, what we know with reasonable certitude is that the colonial chesapeake was an unhealthy place to live–beyond that, there are a variety of theories to account for it, but at this point they remain pretty much that, hypthoses.

      • gabe says


        Thanks a bunch!

        I will do a little reading on it as it ties in with some works i will be reading on slavery in Upper south and some environmental impulses sustaining that abysmal practice.

        take care
        and keep a good sweater on


  1. […] 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.(Read More) […]

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