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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Puritan Colonies

By Goldwin Smith (1823–1910)

From ‘Lectures on the Study of History’

WITH popular government, the Puritans established popular education. They are the great authors of the system of common schools. They founded a college too, and that in dangerous and pinching times. Nor did their care fail, nor is it failing, to produce an intelligent people. A great literature is a thing of slow growth everywhere. The growth of American literature was retarded at first by Puritan severity, which forced even philosophy to put on a theological garb, and veiled the Necessarianism of Mr. Mill in the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards. Now, perhaps, its growth is retarded by the sudden burst of commercial activity and wealth, the development of which our monopolies long restrained. One day, perhaps, this wealth may be used as nobly as the wealth of Florence; but for some time it will be spent in somewhat coarse pleasures by those who have suddenly won it. It is spent in somewhat coarse pleasures by those who have suddenly won it at Liverpool and Manchester, as well as at New York. One praise, at any rate, American literature may claim: it is pure. Here the spirit of the Pilgrims still holds its own. The public opinion of a free country is a restraining as well as a moving power. On the other hand, despotism, political or ecclesiastical, does not extinguish human liberty. That it may take away the liberty of reason, it gives the liberty of sense. It says to man, Do what you will, sin and shrive yourself; but eschew political improvement, and turn away your thoughts from truth.

The history of the Puritan Church in New England is one of enduring glory, of transient shame. Of transient shame, because there was a moment of intolerance and persecution; of enduring glory, because intolerance and persecution instantly gave way to perfect liberty of conscience and free allegiance to the truth. The founders of New England were Independents. When they went forth, their teacher had solemnly charged them to follow him no farther than they had seen him follow his Master. He had pointed to the warning example of churches which fancied that because Calvin and Luther were great and shining lights in their times, therefore there could be no light vouchsafed to man after theirs. “I beseech you remember it: it is an article of your Church covenant that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you from the written word of God.” It was natural that the Puritan settlement should at first be a church rather than a State. To have given a share in its lands or its political franchise to those who were not of its communion would have been to make the receiver neither rich nor powerful, and the giver, as he might well think, poor and weak indeed. But the Communion grew into an Establishment; and the Puritan Synod, as well as the Council of Trent, must needs forget that it was the child of change, and build its barrier, though not a very unyielding one, across the river which flows forever. Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, were partly secessions from Massachusetts, led by those who longed for perfect freedom; and in fairness to Massachusetts, it must be said that among those seceders were some in whose eyes freedom herself was scarcely free. The darkness of the Middle Ages must bear the blame if not a few were dazzled by the sudden return of light. The name of Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, is the thank-offering of Roger Williams, to whose wayward and disputatious spirit much may be forgiven if he first clearly proclaimed, and first consistently practiced, the perfect doctrine of liberty of conscience, the sole guarantee for real religion, the sole trustworthy guardian of the truth. That four Quakers should have suffered death in a colony founded by fugitives from persecution, is a stain on the history of the free churches of America, like the stain on the robe of Marcus Aurelius, like the stain on the escutcheon of the Black Prince. It is true there was no Inquisition, no searching of conscience; that the persecutors warned their victims away, and sought to be quit of them, not to take their blood; that the Quakers thrust themselves on their fate in their frenzied desire for martyrdom. All this at most renders less deep by one degree the dye of religious murder. The weapon was instantly wrested from the hand of fanaticism by the humane instinct of a free people; and the blood of those four victims sated in the New World the demon who in the Old World, between persecutions and religious wars, has drunk the blood of millions, and is scarcely sated yet. If the robe of religion in the New World was less rich than in the Old, it was all but pure of those red stains, compared with which the stains upon the robe of worldly ambition, scarlet though they be, are white as wool. In the New World there was no Inquisition, no St. Bartholomew, no Thirty Years’ War; in the New World there was no Voltaire. If we would do Voltaire justice, criminal and fatal as his destructive levity was, we have only to read his ‘Cry of Innocent Blood,’ and we shall see that the thing he assailed was not Christianity, much less God. The American sects, indeed, soon added to the number of those variations of the Protestant churches, which, contrasted with the majestic unity of Rome, furnished a proud argument to Bossuet. Had Bossuet lived to see what came forth at the Revolution from under the unity of the Church of France, he might have doubted whether unity was so united; as, on the other hand, if he had seen the practical union of the free churches of America for the weightier matters of religion, which Tocqueville observed, he might have doubted whether variation was so various. It would have been too much to ask a Bossuet to consider whether, looking to the general dealings of Providence with man, the variations of free and conscientious inquirers are an absolute proof that free and conscientious inquiry is not the road to religious truth.

In Maryland, Roman Catholicism itself, having tasted of the cup it had made others drink to the dregs, and being driven to the asylum of oppressed consciences, proclaimed the principle of toleration. In Maryland the Church of Alva and Torquemada grew, bloodless and blameless; and thence it has gone forth, as it was in its earlier and more apostolic hour, to minister to the now large Roman Catholic population of the United States, whatever of good and true, in the great schism of humanity, may have remained on the worse and falser side. For in Maryland it had no overgrown wealth and power to defend against the advance of truth. Bigotry, the mildest of all vices, has the worst things laid to her charge. That wind of free discipline, which, to use Bacon’s image, winnows the chaff of error from the grain of truth, is in itself welcome to man as the breeze of evening. It is when it threatens to winnow away, not the chaff of error alone, but princely bishoprics of Strasburg and Toledo, that its breath becomes pestilence, and Christian love is compelled to torture and burn the infected sheep in order to save from infection the imperiled flock.

There have been wild religious sects in America. But cannot history show sects as wild in the Old World? Is not Mormonism itself fed by the wild apocalyptic visions, and the dreams of a kinder and happier social state, which haunt the peasantry in the more neglected parts of our own country? Have not the wildest and most fanatical sects in history arisen when the upper classes have turned religion into policy, and left the lower classes, who knew nothing of policy, to guide or misguide themselves into the truth? New England was fast peopled by the flower of the Puritan party, and the highest Puritan names were blended with its history. Among its elective governors was Vane, even then wayward as pure, even then suspected of being more republican than Puritan. It saw also the darker presence of Hugh Peters. While the day went hard with freedom and the Protestant cause in England, the tide set steadily westward; it turned, when the hour of retaliation came, to the great Armageddon of Westminster and Naseby; after the Restoration it set to the West again. In New England, Puritanism continued to reign with all that was solemn, austere, strange in its spirit, manners, language, garb, when in England its dominion, degenerating into tyranny, had met with a half-merited overthrow. In New England three of the judges of Charles I. found a safer refuge than Holland could afford; and there one of them lived to see the scales once more hung out in heaven, the better part of his own cause triumphant once more, and William sit on the Protector’s throne.

Among the emigrants were clergymen, Oxford and Cambridge scholars, high-born men and women; for in that moving age the wealthiest often vied with the poorest in indifference to worldly interest and devotion to a great cause. Even peers of the Puritan party thought of becoming citizens of Massachusetts, but had enough of the peer in them to desire still to have a hereditary seat in the councils of the State. Massachusetts answered this demand by the hand of one who had himself made a great sacrifice, and without republican bluster: “When God blesseth any branch of any noble or generous family with a spirit and gifts fit for government, it would be a taking of God’s name in vain to put such a talent under a bushel, and a sin against the honor of magistracy to neglect such in our public elections. But if God should not delight to furnish some of their posterity with gifts fit for magistracy, we should enforce them rather to reproach and prejudice than exalt them to honor, if we should call those forth whom God doth not to public authority.” The Venetian seems to be the only great aristocracy in history, the origin of which is not traceable to the accident of conquest; and the origin even of the Venetian aristocracy may perhaps be traced to the accident of prior settlement and the contagious example of neighboring States. That which has its origin in accident may prove useful and live long; it may even survive itself under another name, as the Roman patriciate, as the Norman nobility, survived themselves under the form of a mixed aristocracy of birth, political influence, and wealth. But it can flourish only in its native soil. Transplant it, and it dies. The native soil of feudal aristocracy is a feudal kingdom, with great estates held together by the law or custom of primogeniture in succession to land. The New England colonies rejected primogeniture with the other institutions of the Middle Ages, and adopted the anti-feudal custom of equal inheritance, under the legal and ancestral name of gavelkind. It was Saxon England emerging from the Norman rule. This rule of succession to property, and the equality with which it is distributed, are the basis of the republican institutions of New England. To transfer those institutions to countries where that basis does not exist would be almost as absurd as to transfer to modern society the Roman laws of the Twelve Tables or the Capitularies of Charlemagne.

In New York, New Jersey, Delaware, settlements formed by the energy of Dutch and Swedish Protestantism have been absorbed by the greater energy of the Anglo-Saxons. The rising empire of his faith beyond the Atlantic did not fail to attract the soaring imagination of Gustavus: it was in his thoughts when he set out for Lützen. But the most remarkable of the American colonies, after the New England group, is Pennsylvania. We are rather surprised, on looking at the portrait of the gentle and eccentric founder of the Society of Friends, to see a very comely youth dressed in complete armor. Penn was a highly educated and accomplished gentleman; heir to a fine estate, and to all the happiness and beauty, which he was not without a heart to feel, of English manorial life. “You are an ingenious gentleman,” said a magistrate before whom he was brought for his Quaker extravagances: “why do you make yourself unhappy by associating with such a simple people?” In the Old World he could only hope to found a society; in the New World he might hope to found a nation, of which the law should be love. The Constitution he framed for Philadelphia, on pure republican principles, was to be “for the support of power in reverence with the people, and to secure the people from the abuse of power. For liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery.” He excluded himself and his heirs from the founder’s bane of authority over his own creation. It is as a reformer of criminal law, perhaps, that he has earned his brightest and most enduring fame. The codes and customs of feudal Europe were lavish of servile or plebeian blood. In the republic of New England the life of every man was precious; and the criminal law was far more humane than that of Europe—though tainted with the dark Judaism of the Puritans, with the cruel delusion which they shared with the rest of the world on the subject of witchcraft, and with their overstrained severity in punishing crimes of sense. Penn confined capital punishment to the crimes of treason and murder. Two centuries afterward, the arguments of Romilly and the legislation of Peel convinced Penn’s native country that these reveries of his, the dictates of wisdom which sprang from his heart, were sober truth. We are now beginning to see the reality of another of his dreams: the dream of making the prison not a jail only, but a place of reformation. Of the two errors in government, that of treating men like angels and that of treating them like beasts, he did something to show that the one to which he leaned was the less grave; for Philadelphia grew up like an olive-branch beneath his fostering hand.

In the Carolinas, the old settlement of Coligny was repeopled with English, Scotch, Irish, Germans, Swiss; the motley elements which will blend with Hollander and Swede to form in America the most mixed, and on one theory the greatest of all races. The philosophic hand of Locke attempted to create for this colony a highly elaborate constitution, judged at the time a masterpiece of political art. Georgia bears the name of the second king of that line whose third king was to lose all. Its philanthropic founder, Oglethorpe, struggled to exclude slavery; but an evil policy and the neighborhood of the West Indies baffled his endeavors. Here Wesley preached, here Whitfield; and Whitfield, too anxious to avoid offense that he might be permitted to save souls, paid a homage to the system of slavery, and made a sophistical apology for it, which weigh heavily against the merits of a great apostle of the poor.

For some time all the colonies, whatever their nominal government,—whether they were under the Crown, under single proprietors, under companies, or under free charters,—enjoyed, in spite of chronic negotiation and litigation with the powers in England, a large measure of practical independence. James I. was weak; Charles I. and Laud had soon other things to think of; the Long Parliament were disposed to be arrogant, but the Protector was magnanimous; and finally, Charles II., careless of everything on this side the water, was still more careless of everything on that side, and Clarendon was not too stiff for prerogative to give a liberal charter to a colony of which he was himself a patentee. Royal governors, indeed, sometimes tried to overact the King, and the folly of Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia, all but forestalled—and well would it have been if it had quite forestalled—the folly of Lord North. With this exception, the colonies rested content and proud beneath the shadow of England, and no thought of a general confederation or absolute independence ever entered into their minds.

As they grew rich, we tried to interfere with their manufactures and monopolize their trade. It was unjust and it was foolish. The proof of its folly is the noble trade that has sprung up between us since our government lost all power of checking the course of nature. But this was the injustice and the folly of the time. No such excuse can be made for the attempt to tax the colonies—in defiance of the first principles of English government—begun by narrow-minded incompetence and continued by insensate pride. It is miserable to see what true affection was there flung away. Persecuted and excited, the founders of New England, says one of their historians, did not cry Farewell Rome, Farewell Babylon! They cried, Farewell dear England! And this was their spirit even far into the fatal quarrel. “You have been told,” they said to the British Parliament, after the subversion of the chartered liberties of Massachusetts, “you have been told that we are seditious, impatient of government, and desirous of independence. Be assured that these are not facts, but calumnies. Permit us to be as free as yourselves, and we shall ever esteem a union with you to be our greatest glory and our greatest happiness; we shall ever be ready to contribute all in our power to the welfare of the whole empire; we shall consider your enemies as our enemies, and your interest as our own. But if you are determined that your ministers shall wantonly sport with the rights of mankind; if neither the voice of justice, the dictates of law, the principles of the Constitution, nor the suggestions of humanity, can restrain your hands from shedding human blood in such an impious cause,—we must then tell you that we will never submit to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ for any nation in the world.” What was this but the voice of those who framed the Petition of Right and the Great Charter? Franklin alone, perhaps, of the leading Americans, by the dishonorable publication of an exasperating correspondence which he had improperly obtained, shared with Grenville, Townshend, and Lord North, the guilt of bringing this great disaster on the English race.

There could be but one issue to a war in which England was fighting against her better self; or rather, in which England fought on one side and a corrupt ministry and Parliament on the other. The Parliament of that day was not national; and though the nation was excited by the war when once commenced, it by no means follows that a national Parliament would have commenced it. The great national leader rejoiced that the Americans had resisted. But disease, or that worse enemy which hovers so close to genius, deprived us of Chatham at the most critical hour.

One thing there was in that civil war on which both sides may look back with pride. In spite of deep provocation and intense bitterness, in spite of the unwarrantable employment of foreign troops and the infamous employment of Indians on our side, and the exasperating interference of the French on the side of the Americans, the struggle was conducted on the whole with great humanity. Compared with the French Revolution, it was a contest between men with noble natures and a fight between infuriated beasts. Something, too, it is that from that struggle should have arisen the character of Washington, to teach all ages, and especially those which are inclined to worship violence, the greatness of moderation and civil duty. It has been truly said that there is one spectacle more grateful to Heaven than a good man in adversity,—a good man successful in a great cause. Deeper happiness cannot be conceived than that of the years which Washington passed at Mount Vernon, looking back upon the life of arduous command held without a selfish thought, and laid down without a stain.

The loss of the American colonies was perhaps, in itself, a gain to both countries. It was a gain, as it emancipated commerce, and gave free course to those reciprocal streams of wealth which a restrictive policy had forbidden to flow. It was a gain, as it put an end to an obsolete tutelage, which tended to prevent America betimes to walk alone, while it gave England only the puerile and somewhat dangerous pleasure of reigning over those whom she did not and could not govern, but whom she was tempted to harass and insult. A source of military strength colonies can hardly be. You prevent them from forming proper military establishments of their own, and you drag them into your quarrels at the price of undertaking their defense. The inauguration of free trade was in fact the renunciation of the only solid object for which our ancestors clung to an invidious and perilous supremacy, and exposed the heart of England by scattering her fleets and armies over the globe. It was not the loss of the colonies, but the quarrel, that was one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest disaster that ever befell the English race. Who would not give up Blenheim and Waterloo if only the two Englands could have parted from each other in kindness and in peace; if our statesmen could have had the wisdom to say to the Americans generously and at the right season, “You are Englishmen like ourselves: be, for your own happiness and our honor, like ourselves, a nation”? But English statesmen, with all their greatness, have seldom known how to anticipate necessity; too often the sentence of history on their policy has been that it was wise, just, and generous, but “too late.” Too often have they waited for the teaching of disaster. Time will heal this, like other wounds. In signing away his own empire over America, George III. did not sign away the empire of English liberty, of English law, of English literature, of English religion, of English blood, or of the English tongue. But though the wound will heal,—and that it may heal, ought to be the earnest desire of the whole English name,—history can never cancel the fatal page which robs England of half the glory and half the happiness of being the mother of a great nation.