Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fortress Upon a Hill


This is the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. You'll note the Indian with his bow and arrow, symbols of his primitive nature... and the phrase written as coming from his mouth, "Come over and help us." I rather believe that they would not have said that. But, it was how the seventeenth-century European would have viewed it... even though they witnessed with their own eyes the competence of the native in his environment. Settlers even depended upon the natives for various trade goods and services. Still, it served their, and God's purposes to simplify the Native Americans.

John Winthrop came to America ten years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. These Puritans claimed not to be separatists, to still have legal ties to mother England. However, in Winthrop's vision, the Massachusetts Bay colony was to be a beacon shining for all to see of God's glory and his magnificence in a wild place like America, inhabited by these "savages," as misnomer the European created to justify their claims to American lands. In a sense, they claimed the right of conquest, even though they claimed to have purchased these lands from the Indians who gave them title freely to these lands. A major problem was that the Native American does not even have a word for "land ownership." Thus, they could not understand the meaning of a deed to land. We have to imagine that Europeans understood this peculiarity of the Indians and took advantage of it to lay claim to vast territories.
The following is a book review of two books, actually. It is rather, a compare and contrast between two authors, one favorably inclined toward John Winthrop and the other, not so much. The books are listed below:

Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, third ed. (New York: Longman, 2006).

Richard S. Dunn, Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630‑1717 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962).

Any student’s impression of John Winthrop, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony usually conveys a very austere, hard man. The term, “Puritan” carries connotations of humorlessness, stale and tedious recitations, and pulpit-pounding sermons delivered by a man plainly dressed in black. Visions of burning at the stake, mass hangings, or peine de fort, the pressing by stones accompany this vision. Thank you, Nathaniel Hawthorne. At the very least, Winthrop’s name, even the name of “Massachusetts Bay” dredges up thoughts of sternness and asceticism. However, Edmund S. Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop reintroduces Winthrop as a husband, a father, an in-law, a caring yet, admirable sort. Morgan sees him as a born leader. This is a man that few understand. Perhaps though, Morgan represents him as a bit too lenient, almost motherly at times. Though this is not what Morgan states in his book, he firmly declares Winthrop to be a direct man. Still, Winthrop acquiesced and relinquished his position as governor much too easily at the people’s command. Morgan relates this time in great detail and seems to know Winthrop well. Or, does he?

On the other hand, Richard S. Dunn, in Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England, 1630‑1717, in the beginning delivers almost a caricature of the man. Dunn generalizes about important preliminary points, the reasoning or initiative in going to America, for instance. Like Morgan, he stressed the urgent need to leave England’s wickedness, to separate from the evil influence. Yet, Morgan stresses the anxiety that Winthrop felt a bit more. Dunn says that, for Winthrop, motivations were all about religion rather than gold. Many of his preliminary points like this seem rather blunt. The ideas thud against the brain like a hammer striking a nail. However, his book details not only John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay founder, but also a few more generations past him. So, space was limited for a psychologically detailed analysis like that of Morgan’s. Indeed, Dunn agrees with Morgan that Winthrop has been judged in error by history yet, remains elusive about the man, personally. Still, the politics involved in maintaining his vision in America are displayed in detail. His descriptions of the political intrigues of Bishop Laud, for example show the continued fascination of the English clergy with causing trouble for Puritans.

Morgan’s Winthrop comes across nicely… maybe too nicely. Winthrop's "City on a hill" was designed to be an example to the world, a repudiation of Anglicans, Arminians, Antinomians, and Nihilists. “Repudiation,” indeed, was the intent of the Puritans. In a sense, they were separatists. After all, they left England on a mission, with a goal to create a society that they perceived was better than the one they left behind. However, they brought with them counterfeit wampum for trade with the Indians (Jennings 1975, 96). Winthrop understood that wampum was like money to the natives and he and his followers made fake money to buy Indian goods. Perhaps they considered the natives too simple to understand the difference but, perhaps they did not. Winthrop may not have had the most objectivity in his accomplishment of his grand vision. Richard Dunn offers a look at a John Winthrop whose objectives may have provided a greater dilemma for the Puritans than maintaining religious continuity in America. Winthrop could not avoid the moral responsibility of their effect on the native population. God really would not have liked that, either and he had to have known it.

In Morgan’s view, Massachusetts Bay was a highly organized group of people whose focus was not on them, but on God. However, for a society with that kind of focus, they often had their own disparate view. Agreeably an unavoidable human tendency, the Massachusetts colonists drew away from the path that Winthrop had envisioned. Dissension was a constant force of "evil" for Winthrop. As a natural leader, he held the government of Massachusetts Bay together for awhile. Punishments became necessarily severe at times, for odd things (to us) like not coming to church, even if Morgan resisted telling the horror stories. Dunn was not so nice. Union of the church equated with the union of Massachusetts, as Winthrop envisioned, and once that union failed, so did the state. Differences between people can't really be avoided. So, when Roger Williams began pounding the pavement (and Winthrop's nerves) with his denouncement of England's Anglican ways, it became a problem. Winthrop wanted in no way to anger the King by telling him that he was evil. Dunn quite agrees with Morgan on this point. We probably all agree on that point.

In both books, the portrayal of Roger Williams was persistent, an annoyance. Winthrop tried to convince him of the error of his ways. You could not escape the evils of the world, but had to constantly fight them, Winthrop pleads. Alas, Williams left for Salem and started his dissension business there, even had the backing of the congregation in Salem. Inevitably, however, Williams' vibrant personality and stubbornness eventually got to the Salem crowd and they wanted him out, too.

Both authors agree on Winthrop’s treatment of Roger Williams. According to them, Roger Williams was almost sent back to England in chains. However, the Massachusetts guys found a better place for him than jail... Rhode Island. Williams was banished (along with 20 or so people he convinced and dragged with him) to found another colony that became as hard to get along with during the Revolution as England herself. Winthrop maintained his correspondence with Williams far after the culmination of their differences. Dunn even mentions how they negotiated the purchase of an island together.

Morgan’s dilemma for Winthrop, at least, develops from the struggle to maintain a coherent religious doctrine, to flourish with God’s approval, while remaining a successful business endeavor. Morgan, an excellent writer, was rather successful. Still, he left out details that Dunn included; gruesome details that may have changed our impression of John Winthrop. Perhaps Morgan was too good a writer. Richard Dunn’s version of Winthrop, though probably more accurate is much crueler. He depicts Winthrop as a tyrant who burns homes, whips people for freely stating their opinion and taking their ears off besides! Dunn gives the impression of Winthrop as a man who would burn someone at the stake, hang, or lop off their ears for saying the wrong thing (of course that did happen in 1692 Salem).

On the other hand, Morgan’s Winthrop was a caring man that really tried to keep everyone together while Dunn’s remains difficult to see as more than an historically significant character. Dunn’s sources are primary and seem valid, so the question of whether Morgan was biased toward Winthrop looms the horizon like a storm over his calm and serene fatherly character. Dunn’s Winthrop seems more businesslike than fatherly while Morgan’s treatment of Williams, as viewed through Winthrop’s eyes, seems to be rather judicial, almost charitable in a sense. Perhaps he provides the reader with a view that John Winthrop, himself would have liked to have had. It should be remembered, however, that Winthrop had an idealized notion of the religious convictions of Massachusetts Bay and its “City on a Hill,” perhaps of himself as well. Winthrop molded his religious convictions around the business at hand, in Dunn’s point of view, rather than preserve them intact, but at a morally evil cost. The colony became less “Godly” as Winthrop saw it with every day. Even though this was partly Morgan’s intent, Dunn provided a better display of it. Francis Jennings commented in The Invasion of America that some elaborate trains of thought led to Indian dispossession in Massachusetts Bay, a possibly subconscious ignorance of Native American agricultural abilities (Jennings 1975, 82-3). Winthrop preferred to see them as wild “savages,” incapable of farming, even when the evidence was right before his eyes. At least, this view of ignorance aided in the assumption that they would not recognize counterfeit wampum when they saw it.

Furthermore, his interpretation of God’s purpose was more strenuous and, indeed less “godly” in many respects than Roger Williams’ offshoot colony. Jennings also mentioned that there were ninety-two persons tried and executed for witchcraft in New England before the infamous witch-hunts of 1692 (Jennings 1975, 51). Out of those ninety-two, the majority occurred in Massachusetts Bay and absolutely zero in Rhode Island. To modern sensibilities, this fact makes Roger Williams out to be less the fanatic and more of the revolutionary. Williams perceived that there was something wrong with the “City on a Hill” and perhaps it needed revision. Most Americans today might have agreed with him. This realization somewhat tarnishes Morgan’s interpretation of Winthrop and vindicates Richard Dunn’s. Dunn’s historical admissions of “ear-croppings” in Massachusetts Bay appear to tell the stark reality.

Dunn seems to be more forthright in his telling of history, even though in a shorter format. Morgan is greatly detailed in his analysis and yet, still somewhat one-sided. The common impression of Puritans as stark, dark, and unforgiving begins to appear much more accurate than Morgan presented in his analysis of John Winthrop. Perhaps what we were taught in high school was fairly accurate.

Dunn and Morgan both have the same sense of timing when it comes to Anne Hutchinson who basically repudiated everything! No one can be saved! The whole world is evil and we're all doomed! Well, it wasn't complete Nihilism... maybe. Still, she frightened Winthrop even more, perhaps because she was his superior in everything but politics, according to Morgan. Once Winthrop regained the governorship, he took steps to deal with Hutchinson and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright, growing ever popular and, to Winthrop, dangerous. By the way, she began the dissension in his home church in Boston. So, he banished the pregnant Hutchinson and her seventy-five adherents to Rhode Island. However, this was not enough, according to Dunn, who continues the horrid tale by telling that Winthrop used Hutchinson’s miscarriage as an example of her unrighteousness. He goes much farther when he explains Winthrop’s “eagerness” in this affair, examining witnesses and having Hutchinson’s friend’s stillborn child dug from her grave, describing all of the gory details in his journal. Winthrop was somehow certain that the child’s body would expose evidence of their complicity with Satan. Thankfully, says Dunn, this religious zeal was reduced in the next generation of Winthrops.

All this high-fevered banishing means that Massachusetts Bay began to be surrounded by dissenter states; around the one, true Godly one. Dunn goes into a bit more detail about the various offshoot colonies, New Haven and Connecticut, for example. He also tells that Henry Vane, former governor of Massachusetts Bay and later, a parliamentary leader in England, wrote Winthrop advising him to be more accepting of other’s religious views. Although Dunn did not specify any names, Vane may have been referring to Williams, Hutchinson, Groton, and others like them. The rigid Winthrop apparently was faced with democratic reform on many fronts.
Another detail that distinguished Richard Dunn was the detailed connection he displayed of Massachusetts Bay and England, especially during the English Civil War. Many Massachusetts men fought in England, a fact of which many Americans probably are not aware. However, the most important development during this war was the annexation of New Hampshire, Shawomet, and Pawtuxet and the joining of Connecticut, New Haven, and Plymouth in 1643 to form the enormously important New England Confederation. Still, Winthrop’s government refused to accept Roger Williams’ dissenting colony. Again, a consideration of Jennings’ statistics of witchcraft trials and killings becomes significant in regard to Winthrop’s repudiation of Williams. Morgan avoided the Civil War, the annexations, and the dealings with French papist colonies to the north for the most part, concentrating on the character of John Winthrop. A greater dilemma might have been centered on Winthrop’s quandary over dealing with his own Boston merchants, who anti-biblically desired French fur loot during the marine/piratical excursions. Generally, in fifty-six pages, Dunn gives a better historical survey of Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay events while Morgan strives to understand Winthrop alone.

Once Morgan’s interpretation of John Winthrop is revealed to be somewhat prejudicial, other aspects of Winthrop’s personality come into question as well. It is Morgan’s fault for having been so elaborate and detailed about Winthrop personally. Morgan alludes to the idea that stating that Massachusetts Bay would be as a “City on a Hill” somehow hides the fact that the Puritans deserted their brethren, fellow Englishmen. They desired to build a godly community yet; they were forced to leave some behind. God would not have done that. Winthrop struggled with this until the day he died and he was continually beset by other opinions once in Massachusetts, tearing at the fabric of his vision.

The strength of Edmund Morgan’s biography rests in its descriptions of American values and their development in Massachusetts, arguably more so than in other localities, like the “flesh-pot” sanctuary of Virginia. Nathaniel Ward’s “Body of Liberties” might read like the Bill of Rights in many aspects: trial by jury, due process, separation of church and state, and many of the liberties that Americans and Englishmen alike hold so dear today. Morgan states that it was more than this, however. It was to be a blueprint for studying the Puritan experiment, the New England way. It was the seed of American government. Morgan was quite successful at this.
Morgan’s task primarily centered upon demonstrating Winthrop’s vision for the colony and his dilemma over the idealistic vision he created versus the reality of humanity in the American wilderness. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were only two minor aspects of the ecclesiastical picture. Dunn gives a better picture of the difficulties inherent in keeping a religiously-based society together. Still, out of this struggle, the basics of state-church separation grew over the years. For the development of America, that ideology was important. Edmund Morgan’s display of Winthrop gets this across pretty well.

However, the Puritans in New England discovered that the search for this religious communion came with a price. They searched for freedom yet, they cast out the dissenters who availed themselves of this freedom. It is easy to be critical. Retrospection offers an opportunity that cannot so easily be observed when in the midst of a struggle. In tune with Marxist historians of the modern age, John Winthrop, indeed, had a struggle on his hands. Hindsight suggests that his struggle more properly belonged in England than in America. His mistake from the beginning may have been in leaving the troubles behind. Morgan would have us believe that Massachusetts Bay developed a vision for America that was nobler than the separatist Pilgrims ten years earlier. However, how can that distinction be justified when both groups escaped to America, avoided the problems in England when the nobler task was to face those problems down? The “City on a Hill” then becomes an excuse for shirking responsibility. That intellectual avoidance of the futility of their purpose may have limited understanding of critical developments in their relations with Native Americans, whom the Puritans increasingly viewed as “savage” in order to take their land. They left one problem in England only to find that the problem was really within them. They brought it to America.

Francis Jennings quoted from a Puritan town meeting a resolution that exposes all too human motives behind the “City on a Hill.” “Voted that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness, thereof; voted, that the earth is given to the Saints; voted, that we are the Saints” (Jennings 1975, 83). Winthrop had to notice the delusions of his fellow Puritans. He ignored this, perhaps hoping that it would work out in God’s plan. Perhaps he was just as deluded as they. Today, Americans realize that this was a symptom of King Philip’s War, among the many ills that precipitated. Nineteen people died in 1692 when the Puritans had no one else to prey upon but their own. Rhode Island’s lack of violence may have been the revelation that something good came from this endeavor, however. While Morgan idealized Winthrop, Roger Williams perhaps deserved some of the limelight. Still, Richard Dunn cast no illumination upon this matter. However, he did not shield his eyes from Winthrop’s actions or motivations. The “City on a Hill” became a fortress to be stormed, a fundamentalist embankment. Tragically, for the little considered Native Americans, they were gone before they could have any effect against the storm.

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