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Puritanical Influence on the US Constitution

 


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Religion always played a very important role for any human society. It is an undeniable fat that religion is a traditional part of life practically for all societies and at different stages of their development the role of religion varied. If nowadays in western countries religion we observe a great variety of religion and unprecedented freedom of beliefs than earlier the situation was quite different. In my paper, I would try to analyze on of the principle religions which influenced the development of the US as a country, as well as it influenced its political and to a certain extent social system.

Naturally, I mean Puritanism which was so popular not only in the US but also in Europe, particularly in Great Britain, where Puritanism actually came from. It is particularly important if we take into consideration when Puritanism developed and prospered. It was not simply a time of great changes it was also a period when religion played an extremely important role for all people, when the faith in God was one of the strongest beliefs, and in the mean time it was the epoch of great changes, social, economic and political. So, to better understand the role of Puritanism for the US, and its Constitution in particular, I would focus my attention primarily on the history of Puritan movement and then I would discuss the influence of its religious, social, cultural and, probably philosophical aspects. I think that such analysis will definitely give us plenty of information about the roots of the contemporary American social and political system as well as American lifestyle.

At the beginning I would like to dwell upon the history of Puritanism and its spread in the US. First of all, it is necessary to say that Puritanism was not a solid movement from the very beginning. Puritanism was quite a complicated movement which included quite radical and different viewpoints and ideology though basically they were united by one common idea. The movement was engendered in England as the opposition to dominating Anglican Church and suggested a radical reformation of the church and certain changes in worship. Generally speaking, it suggested certain democratization and liberalization of religion for ordinary people and severely criticized the existing within Anglican Church bureaucracy. Naturally, in Great Britain this movement faced a strong opposition not only from the part of the dominating church but from the part of the state as well. In search of better life many puritans moved to the new World where they hoped to build a new country with a new religion, or it would be better to say new church, based on new more democratic and liberal principles.

As a result many puritans who were disagree with British religious policy were forced to move to America where they were one of first settlers and these people were intended to bring a new religion and even civilization to the New World. By the way, in my opinion it is very important to underline their attitude to local Native American population. Unfortunately, it was not so good as it was supposed to be and in general, the effect of this move from Europe to the New World was quite disappointing and disenchanting for those idealist who believed in the creation of new life in a new country, though, on the other hand, we cannot say that it had no positive effect at all, but I will discuss it a bit later.

As I have already said, puritans moved to American in search of new life and they were actually one of the first Europeans inhabited that part of the continent where they settled. But before I speak in details about it I want to return to different trends and movements within Puritanism. It is necessary to say that two radical wings of Puritanism found a new motherland in America. Among them were Pilgrims who settled the Plymouth colony and Puritans who settled in Virginia and Massachusetts Bay. Often they were opposing to each other and have different views on certain points. Now I would like to speak a bit about Pilgrims. Traditionally, we have quite a positive image of Pilgrims who became famous for many good deeds, namely we have “the blunderbuss and the turkey – a good-natured and benign collage of historical images that help fill the nation collective past with reassuring facts, help establish sense one’s sense of tradition by allowing it key moments of adherence” (Crispin 1970:48). Actually, they really produced quite a positive effect, their views and culture, their social life influenced greatly the whole American society.

Furthermore, we may say that it is due to them Americans have constitutional traditions because exactly these Pilgrims settled in Plymouth prepared the first Constitution written in America. It was called “The Mayflower Compact” according to which “41 men in the company agreed to covenant and combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic for or better ordering and preservation” (Crispin 1970:172). Furthermore, they even elected a governor. Their social life was quite innovative for the society of that time because it was a kind of communist community which had strict regulations of life within this community. It is also noteworthy that they did not even have a pastor in first decade of the community existence. Very interesting was their relation to other churches. In general their policy may be characterized as isolationist because they tended to “reject any contact with non-redeemed” (Crispin 1970:206), naturally they also tended to a certain independence of their church. In my opinion, even their immigration to America was to a certain extent the result of such isolationist policy. It seems quite logical to presuppose that such policy would lead the community to gradual decline that, finally, really happened to them.

Quite different from them were other Puritans who mainly inhabited Virginia and Massachusetts Bay, particularly in their relation to other churches. In this aspect they were more tolerant and contributed to the diversity of religion and beliefs in America as well as to democratization and enlargement of personal spiritual freedom. Unlike Pilgrims, they admitted coexistence with other sister-churches showing their tolerance, which became one of the basic principles of American Constitution, to others that was quite contrasting especially if we compare them with other churches in Europe. Finally, Puritans absorbed more radical Pilgrims but at the same time some specialists indicate that their tolerance was declarative and did not really correspond to practical life. The followers of this idea remind several facts which could serve as evidences of Puritan’s intolerance among them I would single out the case of Roger Williams who wished to start the Baptist Church in Massachusetts Bay but, probably it was not the worst thing he wished to do and did. He also attempted to reveal that Puritans are not so ‘pure’ in real life.

He incriminated them an ill treatment of native Americans whom, according to Williams, they beat and stole from. Moreover, he was disagreeing with Puritans conception concerning the possibility of state church, which actually would violate separate of church and state conception widely accepted later by the US legislation. The result of his public accusations of Puritans and his intentions he was exiled from the community that at that time was practically equal to death sentence. On analyzing this situation, I come to the conclusion that it was a normal reaction of the Puritans to such aggression from outside because the level of development of the church and the society at large was quite low and fro them such self-protection was quite natural, particularly if we take into account that they strived for religious dominance regardless their declarations about religious tolerance but the fact of such declaration was already noteworthy because it created a precedent and the only problem was neither Puritans nor the whole society were ready for this step.

Not surprisingly, there exist other allegations of Puritans who are considered by some researchers as hypocrites, for instance in relation to Quakers they are also accused in intolerance. But I have just explained my position at this point. What I would like to draw the attention of the reader to is the fact that due to such policy or any other facts Puritans became probably the most powerful movement that influenced not only the lifestyle of many Americans but also American social and political life, we may say that to a certain extent they even created a philosophical conception of American society and as a historian Bernard Bailyn estimates Puritanism “channeled into the main stream of eighteenth-century political and social thinking… by almost the entire spectrum of American Protestantism” (1974:230). However, their attempts to create an ideal Puritan Commonwealth failed and the main causes of it lies mainly in the movement itself. Firstly, the ideology of tolerance gradually began to work and in such a conditions it was quite difficult for Puritans to compete with other churches. Furthermore, there was economic side of the problem, for instance, witchcraft accusation within the community led to the seizure of the victim’s property by the accuser. One more thing that caused certain troubles were exams that all candidates for any position in church or state had to pass, naturally, time passed and they gradually disappeared.

Now I would like to basically dwell upon Puritans’ contribution into the development of American political and legislative system, particularly on their influence on Amereican Constitution that is the basic legislative document for all citizens of the US and if it is possible we may call it a ‘civil Bible’ for every American. Actually, I have already mentioned some of Puritans’ principles which produce a certain effect on the shaping of American political and social thought. First of all, it is religious tolerance, regardless the fact whether it was real or just declared tolerance. In my opinion, that it was only the question of time when such a principle, once declared, would start to work. Also it is obvious that religious tolerance would obligatory go further because if the society accepted then I would accept tolerance in other aspects of life in its political, racial, social aspects etc. But it was not the only idea that influenced American Constitution and many other legislative acts implemented in the US.

Many specialists estimate that Puritans brought a new ideology to the US, new principles which were more democratic than any people have ever known there. Probably it was the result of their opposition to a traditional Anglican Church, or it is also quite probable that Puritans were mainly very progressive people who were disagree with the existing system either religious or political and who wanted to suggest to the world an ideal alternative and whether they failed or not in their intentions is quite arguable but, at the same time, the positive effects of such opposition and such intentions are evident. By the way, very often I make a link between religion and politics, it is the result of the system which existed at that epoch in Europe as well as in the US because the influence of religion was really great and it was basically the religion that defined moral standards and shaped people’s spiritual lifestyle. However, not only Puritans ideology influenced political and juridical life of the US, and the Constitution in particular. I have also to underline that their social life, the relations existing within the community also played a significant role as well as the relations within the church, including its leaders and the separation of power within the church. Many specialists estimate that it was the Puritans who brought the separation of power to the US, and probably we are obliged to them for our modern division of power on three independent branches. Quite often we may come across the following idea in historical literature: “it was the Puritans who brought across the Atlantic these pre-modern, messy checks, balances and separation of powers that obstruct the untrammeled exercise of popular sovereignty” (Heimert and Delblanco 1985:196).

In my opinion it was extremely important because without the separation of power the US would nave never achieved such level of democratization and liberalization as the country did and it was a good example for other countries, particularly those in Europe which forced Puritans and other people like them to move from their motherland to the New World in the seek of better life and better community. I often asked myself why did Puritans succeeded in the US, at least at first centuries of its existence, and failed in Great Britain or any other European country. I think the main cause is in the way of thinking of the Puritans and people who inhabited America. These people got used to freedom they could not think otherwise as they did. Consequently, as the freedom was in their nature it was the principal value for them and it became one of the principal notions put in the basis of American Constitution, for human rights and personal freedom are cornerstones of the Constitution.

The role of Puritans in this aspect can hardly be underestimated, it will be enough to remind what kind of relations reigned within their community. We may take in terms of example Pilgrims community which was practically a communist community that presupposed the equality of rights and obligations of all members of the community regardless their social status. As a result Puritans crated a particular society, with their own religious and cultural traditions, with their own way of thinking and lifestyle that produced a great impact on the further development of the whole country and its Constitution.

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Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, I come to the conclusion that Puritans movement played a very important role in American history and produced a significant impact on the basic principles of American philosophy of political and social thought, its ideas were also used in the Constitution of the US even though the movement was practically in decline at the period when the Constitution was created. In my opinion, the history of this movement, being closely related to the history of the whole country, demonstrates that the ideas engendered by certain movement even if they were not realized in its time, I mean in the time when the movement if not prospered then existed quite comfortably, so, these ideas would naturally influence the society if they are progressive enough and oriented to the harmony and democracy within the society.

Briefly speaking, in the case of Puritan movement we can see that some of its principles were ‘too progressive’ for its time but very prospective and outlived the movement itself. It is due to Puritans movement the ideas of tolerance, equality, separation of powers were deep rooted in the conscious of American citizens that made the nation one of the most democratic in the whole world and permitted to create the Constitution which had unprecedented care of human liberties and rights and which proved its efficacy by its long life and only few amendments.

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