Harper’s Magazine, one of the oldest general-interest publications in the nation, asked Joshua Miller, professor of government & law, to submit a response to the great American novelist Marilynne Robinson’s essay on the Puritans, which was published in Harper’s August edition. A frequent contributor to Harper’s, Robinson has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005.

Miller’s response, below, appears on the last age of the October issue of Harper’s.

“Pure and Simple”

The approval ratings of the American founding fathers have plummeted. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are now accurately recognized as hypocritical enslavers; it’s understood that Abraham Lincoln, for generations known as “the Great Emancipator,” propagated racist stereotypes. Marilynne Robinson seeks to resuscitate a different set of flawed founders, but it’s a hard sell. After all, the New England Puritans opened the door to the displacement of Indigenous peoples. They exiled Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams and barred women from preaching. Sorcery, adultery, and rape were capital offenses. They restricted alcohol, tobacco, long hair, and unsanctioned intimate relations, laws Tocqueville deemed “deviations…[which] bring shame on the spirit of man.” As Robinson writes, “puritanical” has come to mean censorious and abstemious; H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.”

They rejected the term “democracy,” because they believed it implied an inappropriate equality. And yet, as Robinson notes, the Puritans were truly “revolutionary from their founding,” and nowhere more so than in their governance. The members of the church chose their own ministers; the citizens of the community chose their own leaders. Tocqueville wrote that, in Puritan communities, “democracy more perfect than any of which antiquity had dared to dream sprang full-grown and fully armed from the midst of the old feudal society.” These early proto-democratic experimenters can teach us something about contemporary politics: John Winthrop once said that we elect leaders in the hopes that they’ll do their best—which is all they can do, because no one leads perfectly. If we find them lacking, we can vote them out at the next election, but, as long as they’re not corrupt, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. In this light, the New England Puritans should be seen as astute progenitors of a generous and communitarian strain of American politics sorely needed in our time.

Joshua I. Miller,
Professor of Government and Law
Lafayette College
Easton, Pennsylvania

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