Dennis – The Puritan Achievement
William C. Dennis
Senior Program Officer Liberty Fund, Inc.
The Philadelphia Society
National Meeting in Philadelphia
April 26, 1997
"The Puritan Achievement"
(Permission to quote this speech must be granted by the
The search for the causes of American exceptionalism has been long and not
altogether satisfactory. (Indeed, many would say that recent history has proven
that it is a mistaken search, for there is nothing exceptional to be found.) A list
of explanations would include the lack of a feudal past and the dominance of a
home grown liberalism; material abundance; the presence of a frontier of free
land; the facts of equality, opportunity, and mobility-both physical and social;
the filtering nature of immigration (only certain types of people came to
America); our Anglo-Saxon roots-and I suppose other reasons as well.
To this list I would add another possibility-not as a single cause, deterministic
explanation, but as a significant and differentiating influence-and this is the
American Puritan heritage. To be much of an influence this Puritanism has to be
more than just the direct effects of the seventeenth century founding of the
colonies of Massachusetts Bay, New Haven, Connecticut, and New Hampshire
by non-separating Congregationalist dissenters within the Anglican church-as
important as this development is. Also should be included what we might call
the "practical" Puritanism of most of the British, German, Huguenot, and Dutch
settlers, both North and South, well into the nineteenth century. It is this
practical Puritanism that is at the root of American Protestantism in general and
goes a long way towards explaining American exceptionalism.
How would I characterize this practical Puritanism? To an overwhelming degree
(at least after the first few decades) early American settlement, of the free
population, came from church-going families. Their churches had substantial de
facto independence, and congregational control or influence on church
management and the practices of worship. If there were governing church
hierarchies, they were weak in comparison to the history of European
Christendom. (In this regard Catholic and Jewish congregations weren’t too
different.) The great question of salvation was at the core of the doctrine and
practice of these churches, emphasizing the importance of individual conscience
and faith, the presence of sin in each person, and the need for individual
initiative if salvation were to be achieved. Their view was that salvation came
through grace and faith, but it was a salvation to be demonstrated by a
substantial body of good works. (More on these works in a moment).
There were, of course, important differences in doctrinal understanding about
these core beliefs among the different Protestant sects represented in
America-differences which often obscured the underlying similarities among the
churches. These similarities, however, encouraged practical cooperation across
church boundaries and led to the spread of substantial religious toleration
everywhere by the mid-eighteenth century, and to the separation of church and
state by the early nineteenth century, accompanied by a generalized Protestant
consensus that was noted by Tocqueville among others.(2)
To be sure, not all church members were puritan in faith or practice, nor were
all Americans church goers. Southern Anglicans, especially in the Tidewater and
in the few southern cities may have been less puritan than most. But early
American were a churched people and relatively serious about their faith-and
that faith tended more and more over time towards this homogenized
These American Puritans understood much of their faith in terms of a covenant
theology (not unique to Americans or to Protestants, but more emphasized here
than elsewhere). What originally in New England was a carefully developed,
rigorous interpretation of God’s commands and Christian doctrine, became, an
implicit aspect of much of American church practice. This covenant theology
led Americans to certain conclusions about the proper organization of one’s life,
and from those conclusions to particular views on the nature of the good
society and state. Though salvation came through Grace and Faith, God had
promised his people that if they would do their part, he would bring to them
salvation and eternal life. Strictly speaking, salvation could not be earned
through works, but the presence of good works in one’s life, by God’s own
promise, was a sign of salvation. God was bound by his own promise to help
those who helped themselves. "A comfortable thing when rightly considered,"
wrote one Puritan divine.
In order to best prepare themselves for salvation, Puritans believed they needed
regular church attendance, biblical study, and continued examination into the
state of their souls and the conduct of their lives. Evidence that they did indeed
do these things was taken to be evidence of likely salvation. Each individual
seeking to be a good Christian needed to study his own life and habits, his
strengths and weaknesses, his desires and temptations, in order to better go
about his own affairs in a godly way. Then he would be a credit, rather than a
burden, to society and and a contributor to the well-being of those around him.
God made self-examination the duty of all men. Proper education and
attendance at a good church would help a man in this task. But a truly righted
life, while in and of itself not meritorious, probably belonged only to those who
had assurance of salvation.
These duties, or works–study, attendance on the word, self-examination,
–required education sufficient to read the Bible, an educated clergy, a settled
church, and civil peace. All these conditions were best obtained in a society of
morally upright people. Such people worked hard at their callings. By working
hard to glorify God and to care for His earth, men contributed to the unfolding
of God’s plan. Hard work, in a free land, produced a prosperous, ordered
society that freed men from the harsh realities of physical existence, giving them
better opportunities for coming to know God. And a man had many callings
which served to define his place in society. As a farmer he worked the soil; as a
parent he provided for himself and his family; as a neighbor he lent aid and
comfort where he could; as a citizen he tried to live an exemplary life; as a ruler
he tried to be fair and just with the people and to protect their liberties so that all
could follow their many callings. In the free soil of America successful pursuit
of callings often produced riches. But the Puritan knew that he was only a
steward of God’s bounty and he was not to waste his substance in luxurious
living, but was to live within his means and leave behind a world more
prosperous than he had found it. He knew also that though hard work produced
riches, riches produced temptation. And the only cure for temptation was more
self-examination and a better pursuit of ones calling. But the harder he worked,
the richer he grew and the more he prayed: "Therefore you have need pray for
the repentance of your repentance; and to beg the pardon of all your prayers."
Just as their theology was based on covenants, these American Puritans also
believed their civil polity should have a contractual basis. Sovereignty belonged
to God, not man. Government was a necessary part of the good social order as
long as magistrates confined themselves to the proper calling of their offices.
Government was necessary to punish evil doers and protect that civil peace
necessary to free men to pursue their callings. But man’s sinful and defective
nature meant that trusting men with too much power over other men was bound
to lead to corruption and an abuse of trust. One way to check magistrates was
to keep the government popular and to keep its most essential functions at the
local level; another was to use covenants and constitutions to confine
government to its proper bounds.
Americans really did not believe in the traditional European doctrine of
Sovereignty. Sovereignty was not located in Congress, Court, or President. Nor
even in the great body of the people at large. Even when the people were acting
in their capacity as a constituent assembly, they knew they were limited by
God’s sovereign laws. As Madison and later Calhoun noted, constitutions and
covenants were inherently documents that limited power rather than unleashed
These early Americans were not democrats, but since they were property
owners and responsible Puritans, government could be based on a wide
franchise. Nor were they libertarians as we would define the term today. Their
governments were active, busy, and ever present. But they also were local and
based on the near unanimous consent of the free, adult population. As society
became more complex and diversified and this unanimity broke down,
governments rather than expanding to stand athwart of change, contracted their
functions in order to sustain the consensus.(4)
Another way to reach this same point is to take a look at the question of good
works from a different angle. For these Puritans, good works could be broken
down into three categories: piety, self-government, and benevolence. Piety was
church-going and devotional study; self-government meant living a responsible
life and taking care of yourself and your family so that they would not be a
burden on others. Successful self-government was not possible without piety.
People who had real piety were self-governed. People with piety and
self-government would normally, in America, accumulate sufficient property that
(if they were men) would allow them to participate directly in the governance of
the political order as well-another meaning of self-government.(5)
Benevolence, or what I call the third good work, is what we would call charity.
Benevolence was a good work, and good works were required for salvation.
People who were pious and self-governed would have sufficient resources for
benevolence. Those needing benevolence, by this understanding, were, for the
most part, almost by definition, without piety and self-governance. Puritan
peoples in need of benevolence were ashamed of their condition. What could
be done for such people? Probably very little. Those especially deserving help
were those who had fallen into destitution, or into temporary reverses, through
no fault of their own. Private charity could and should provide support for such
people. Still, many such probably lacked sufficient character to be helped
effectively. The best that could be done for them was to see that they got to
church and that their children got some education. Attending on the Word in
church and school might produce piety and self-governance. So, as it turns out,
the most important act of benevolence was to support the church and church
attendance. Social welfare was dependent on church going; but church goers
would not need much in the way of social welfare.
In this manner family, church, school, society, state, together with self-discipline
and pious living, were all joined together in an interdependent web of
relationships, voluntarily entered into and largely organized on the local level. A
society made up mostly of such Christians as those I have described here was
likely to be a pretty good place to live. A society that was a pretty good place to
live, was likely to have a good number of saved Christians. And a society of
good Christians did not need much of a state to begin with. All these
characteristics were linked together by what we would call positive feed-back
mechanisms-they were mutually reinforcing characteristics. This combination of
characteristics and practices seems to me to be peculiarly American and these
familiar characteristics may legitimately be called Puritan.
These Puritans emphasized the responsibility of each person for his salvation.
They were dedicated to pursuing a calling. They had a highly developed sense
of the need for personal integrity, virtue, and morality. They placed great
importance on education for the large body of citizens. They believed in charity
as a religious duty. They were willing to examine continually and critically the
nature of their institutions. They thought the major institutions of the civil
society should be based on explicit popular consent.
These Americans of the founding were genuine conservatives-drawing upon
medieval notions of church and social harmony, and rooting their personal and
political governance in the stewardship of private property. They believed that
social hierarchy and distinction were gifts of God to man, which taught us to
love each other to aspire to self-betterment, to appreciate individual differences,
to follow our calling, to choose virtuous rulers, and to show respect to those in
positions of legitimate authority.
They were, however, conservatives with a difference. They were American
conservatives, drawing their ideals and institutions from one of the most
individualistic theologies the world has ever seen. They believed in a reasonable
universe where man’s reason and God’s design went hand in hand. Despite the
presence of sin and the fall of man, they believed that God had made them
promises that gave them reason to hope for a better world and the
self-confidence to get on with the business at hand in this world. That business
was based on a variety of social contracts without being a creation of the
Enlightenment. This was a conservatism that from the very beginning united
what to some may look like incompatible strains of liberal individualism and
social conservatism, but I think it should be described as a home grown
conservatism of individual liberty and responsibility and combined with
On the airplane to Philadelphia yesterday, after I had completed writing out my
remarks. I read Ed Feulners wise essay, "The State of Conservatism, 1997."
Here Ed, citing Ronald Reagan, says that what conservatism today should stand
for can be summarized in five words: family, work, neighborhood, freedom,
peace-a pretty good succinct summary of what these original American Puritan
conservatives believed as well.
What impresses me, at least on my optimistic days, is how much of American
Puritanism still remains with us despite the effects of dilution and degradation
and decline that the twentieth century has wreaked on the American character.
We are still largely a churched people; a sense of self-responsibility is still
strong; protection of private property and low taxes is still a rallying cry that
politicians can ill afford to ignore; hard work is still honored; contracts matter;
the phrase "the deserving poor" still has some meaning; people still think of
families as parents and children together; the issue of character still is a concern
in politics; many leftists would say that they believe in limited government, even
if their actions belie their protestations.
We here at the Philadelphia Society, more than most, know that none of these
beliefs and values are secure anymore. We cannot assume any longer that they
will prevail well into the future. (Perhaps they do not deserve to prevail, having
worn out their usefulness-though I doubt many of us believe this.) But they have
not dwindled to the point of vanishing altogether as they have in much of the
rest of the West. And they can still be defended and honored in practice without
embarrassment throughout this land. Such a defense is partly what the
Philadelphia Society has been all about over the last thirty three years.
(1) Though this is a newly composed paper for this occasion, it draws upon,
and sometimes quotes without citation, from an article I wrote long ago for
Modern Age, "Puritanism as the Basis for American Conservatism," Fall 1974,
pp. 404-413. In introducing this talk to the Philadelphia Society, I mentioned
that it was offered in evidence of the "fusionist" understanding of American
conservatism as originally developed by Frank S. Meyer.
(2) By this I mean not separation of church and state as defined today by the
supreme court, but separation in the original sense of no government financial
aid or direct support of particular churches or of religious practice in general.
(3) The thought in this paragraph was "ad-libbed" at the oral presentation and
added to the formal paper later on.
(4) This trend can be seen from the mid-seventeenth century through the
triumph of Jacksonian democracy, 1832-1860. Only with the election of the
Lincoln Republican and the coming of the Civil War did the national
government begin a significant expansion. Even then, this expansion was slow
and easily reversible up to Woodrow Wilson and World War I. But to
demonstrate this point convincingly would be the subject for several more
(5) This section draws upon my unpublished dissertation, A Federalist
Persuasion: The American Ideal of the Connecticut Federalists, Yale 1971.