The continuing influence of New England culture on the United States and world can be traced back to the 1600s, the arrival of the Puritans in Massachusetts and their evolution as a distinct people. Murray Rothbard writes of them:
The Puritans had no sooner landed in the New World than they began coercively to “purify” their surroundings. As early as John Endecott’s arrival in Salem, the Puritans had surprisingly shifted from their loyal opposition within the Anglican church and had severed themselves from the Anglican communion. In this way, they became to a large extent as Separatist as the Plymouth Pilgrims they had previously despised.
The interventionist, meddling attitude of these proto-Yankees was evident from the beginning of their colony, as Rothbard describes:
To the saints and their leaders, any idea of separation of church and state was anathema. As the Puritan synod put it in their Platform of Church Discipline (1648): “It is the duty of the magistrate to take care of matters of religion…. The end of the magistrate’s office is… godliness.” It is the duty of the magistrate to punish and repress “idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, venting corrupt and pernicious opinions… open contempt of the word preached, profanation of the Lord’s Day.”
The great Southern journalist and editor H. L. Mencken succinctly described this tendency of the New Englanders with his quip: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”
One of the most influential of the New England Purtian leaders was Cotton Mather. Born in Boston in 1663, Mather “was a socially and politically influential New England Puritan minister, prolific author and pamphleteer; he is often remembered for his role in the Salem witch trials. He was the son of Increase Mather, and grandson of both John Cotton and Richard Mather, all also prominent Puritan ministers”.
Holliger and Capper write in The American Intellectual Tradition:
Mather’s voracious passion to experience the power of his Christian faith through a multiplicity of forms animated, for better or worse, virtually all his far-flung works, from his ill-fated search for evidences of witchcraft to his enthusiastic embrace of the new natural science.
One cane also see this drive operating in his influential Bonifacius. Most of this tract was taken up with various benevolent and (to a modern eye) meddling practical proposals for “doing good.” But in these opening and closing chapters, Mather was both bolder and more revealing. He carefully asserted the orthodox basis of his good works in the saving grace of God while showing how the doing of good might bring about social cohesion, worldwide political change, and a joyful fulfillment of a faith so anguished as to seem otherwise almost unbearable.
A superstitious man who never admitted any guilt for his role in the infamous Salem witch trials (which resulted in the Puritans killing over two dozen people for supposedly being witches), Mather was also well-known for his “do-gooder” gospel which advocated a meddling intervention in the lives of others in the community and around the world.
[I]f men would set themselves to devise good, a world of good might be done, more than there is, in this present evil world. It is very sure, the world has need enough. There needs abundance to be done, that the great God and His Christ may be more known and served in the world; and that the errors which are impediments to the acknowledgements wherewith men ought to glorify their Creator and Redeemer, may be rectified. There needs abundance to be done, that the evil manners of the world, by which men are drowned in perdition, may be reformed; and mankind rescued from the epidemical corruption and slavery which has overwhelmed it. There needs abundance to be done, that the miseries of the world may have remedies and abatements provided for them; and that miserable people may be relieved and comforted…
Of course, some of what Mather starts with here sounds very good. Few would question the virtue of helping the poor and those who need to be comforted. Charity surely is to be encouraged. However, you’ll notice how mankind needs to be “rescued” and there is “abundance to be done” everywhere on the planet. These are the themes that Mather develops as he continues in laying out his early version of the so-called social gospel:
I will imagine that generous ingenuity, in my readers, which will dispose them to count themselves well-rewarded in the things itself, if God will accept them to do good in the world…. A man must look upon himself as dignified and gratified by God, when an opportunity to do good is put into his hands. He must embrace it with rapture, as enabling him directly to answer the great End of his being…. I will only say: “If any of you are strangers unto such a disposition as this, to look upon an opportunity to do good, as a thing that enriches you, and to look upon yourselves as enriched, and favored by God, when He does employ you to do good: I have done with you.”
The focus then, is on good works, which must become a driving force in one’s life, to change the world. The evil-doer is always busy and the good Yankee Puritan must be equally busy in his campaign to do good works:
There is a man, of whom we read: “He deviseth mischief upon his bed, he sets himself in a way that is not good.” Now I beseech you, why should not we be as active, as frequent, as forward, in devising of good; and as full exquisite contrivance? Why should not we be as wise to do good, as any people are wise to do evil? I am sure, we have a better cause; and there is more of reason for it….
While some of the previous rhetoric used by Cotton Mather may be a bit disturbing to those of us who wish to be left alone to live our lives in peace and as we see fit without bother from zealous and self-righteous meddlers, the totality of what he is advocating is only revealed in the next passage:
‘Tis lamentable to see the ignorance and wickedness, yet remaining, even in parts of the British dominions: in Wales; in the Highlands; and in Ireland. Are the Gouges all dead? There are pretended shepherds, in the world, that will never be able to answer before the Son of God, for their laying so little to heart, the deplorable circumstances, of so many people, whom they might, if they were not scandalously negligent, bring to be more acquainted with the only Saviour. And there might be more done, that some of the American colonies, may no longer be such Cimmerian ones.
Why is no more done, for the poor Greeks, and Armenians, and Muscovites, and other Christians, who have little preaching, and no printing among them? If we sent Bibles, and Psalters, and other books of piety among them, in their own languages, they would be noble presents, and God knows, how useful ones!
Poor sailors, and poor soldiers, call for our pity. They meet with great and sore troubles. Their manners are too commonly such, as discover no very good effort for their troubles. What shall be done to make them a better sort of men? There must, besides more books of piety distributed among them, other methods be thought upon….
Ah! Catholicism must be stamped out back in Britain. The Irish, the Welsh and the Highland Scots – all Christian peoples – must be made into Puritans. It does not matter that they are across the Atlantic Ocean, a good Puritan will go there and make them like the Yankees back in Boston. And notice how Mather believes the American colonies to be barbaric and dark places because they have not devoted themselves to re-making the world in the image of Massachusetts (of course, this is precisely the attitude adopted by the American state today in its conintual quest to spread democracy and remake the world in the image of New England). In fact, the Puritans must go everywhere. They must get Bibles and Puritan sermons in the hands of Greeks, Armenians and Russians. And the poor sailors and soldiers, Mather thinks them to be crude and lowly men who must be made better. Do you begin to see the massive mission of re-making the world that the Puritan leader preached?
I take the works of our day to be:
1. The reviving of primitive Christianity….
2. The persuading of the European powers, to shake off the chains of popery. This argument – that there is no popish nation, but what by embracing the Protestant religion, would ipso facto, not only assert themselves into a glorious liberty, but also double their wealth immediately – ’tis marvellous; that it is no more yet hearkened unto! Sirs, prosecuted it, with more of demonstration. One shows, that the abolishing of popery in England, is worth at least eight millions of pounds yearly to the nation. Let the argument be tried with other nations, the argument, ab utili.
3. The forming and quickening of that People, that are to be, the Stone Cut Out of the Mountain. Here, as well as in some other things, none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand….
Notice that the second mission of the Puritans was to completely eliminate Catholicism from all of Europe. He referred to it as “the chains of popery,” though I’m quite sure the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italians, Austrians, etc. might have begged to differ! No matter, they must be made into good Puritans. And if this were to happen, they would immediately be more wealthy, claims Mather. In fact, he believes that he knows exactly how much more wealthy England was because it was primarily a Protestant nation – eight million pounds a year! This is certainly laughable, to say the least. No man can possibly know such a thing.
Mather concludes by speaking about the pleasure of doing good and intervening in the affairs of one’s ” poor, mean, miserable neighbor”:
The Zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform these things: a zeal inspired and produced by the Lord of Hosts in his faithful servants, will put them upon the performances of such things…. While we are at work for God, certainly, He will be at work for us, and ours. He will do for us, more than ever we have done for him…. Every day of our activity for the Kingdom of God, will be in some sort a day of Pentecost unto us, a day of the Holy Spirit’s coming upon us…. Yea, the pleasure in doing of good offices, ’tis inexpressible; ’tis unparalleled; ’tis angelical; more to be envied than any sensual pleasure; a most refined one…. I will conclude with a Testimony that I shall abide by. ‘Tis this: were a man able to write in seven languages: could he converse daily with the sweets of all the liberal sciences, that more polite men ordinarily pretend unto; did he entertain himself with all ancient and modern histories; and could he feast continually on the curiosities which all sorts of learning may bring unto him; none of all this would afford the ravishing satisfaction, much less would any grosser delights of the sense do it; which he might find, in relieving the distresses of a poor, mean, miserable neighbor; and which he might much more find, in doing any extensive service for the kingdom of our great Saviour in the world; or anything to redress the miseries under which mankind is generally languishing.
Where did all this lead? Libertarian author Murray Rothbard described the evolution of what might be called the Yankee ethos, based in large part on their view of collective salvation and the importance of “good works”:
The North, in particular the North’s driving force, the “Yankees” – that ethnocultural group who either lived in New England or migrated from there to upstate New York, northern and eastern Ohio, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois – had been swept by a new form of Protestantism. This was a fanatical and emotional neo-Puritanism driven by a fervent “postmillennialism” which held that, as a precondition for the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, man must set up a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth.
The Northern war against slavery partook of fanatical millennialist fervor, of a cheerful willingness to uproot institutions, to commit mayhem and mass murder, to plunder and loot and destroy, all in the name of high moral principle and the birth of a perfect world. The Yankee fanatics were veritable Pattersonian humanitarians with the guillotine: the Anabaptists, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, of their era.
Prohibition was one of the Yankees Neo-Puritans’ pet programs, and they advanced it with religious fervour. First Oregon and then Maine passed anti-drinking laws in 1843 and 1847.
A wave of prohibition statutes followed. Delaware, on the heels of Maine, passed its first prohibition law only to have it declared unconstitutional the following year. Similar laws were enacted in Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York during the next few years. They met with varying fates, including veto by the governors, repeal by the legislatures and invalidation by the state supreme courts…. “This thing is of God,” cried Lyman Beecher from the pulpit. “That glorious Maine law was a square and grand blow right between the horns of the Devil.”
And once the South was out of the Union in the 1860s (and later brought back in on the North’s terms), the Yankees were free to pass all sorts of draconian taxes on alcoholic beverages, continually increasing these early “sin taxes”:
Part of the heritage of the Civil War [sic] was the tax on liquor and beer imposed in 1862. Rates were increased several times between 1863 and 1868, so that the tax imposed at the rate of 20 cents per gallon rose to $2 per gallon.
Having crushed and attempted to remake in their own image the only competing center of political and cultural influence in the Union – the Southern States – the Yankees were left with a free hand. “A series of ‘isms’ was aroused in this era [1970-1913]: feminism, unionism, socialism, and progressivism. Prohibition absorbed elements of them all, and vice versa.”
Progressivism, “a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action [and which] grew out of the ‘Social Gospel’ of American pietist millenarianism in the 1820s” was another creation of the Yankee Neo-Puritans. Often using the language of the Classical Liberals, the Progressives rejected small government as well as personal and economic liberty in favour of the emerging welfare state (for a view of how the Progressives see themselves and the world click here). The Progressives have given us the Federal Reserve, the income tax, Prohibition, gun and property regulations, restrictions on free speech and a host of other government interventions in failed attempts to perfect society. And while this is a largely secular movement today, it evolved from the Yankee Puritans and has kept their religious tone and zeal (for lots of examples of this just check out Daily Kos). The environmentalist movement operates as a quasi-religion and is definitely part of the broader Progressive front.
Over time, as Progressives have implemented one after another of their goals on society, they has grown more authoritarian. Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo writes of this trend:
Neo-puritanism seems to be running amok in the United States. The federal excise tax on alcohol was doubled in 1991; many states have sharply increased tax rates on tobacco products and have enacted myriad smoking bans; the Washington Post reports a growing movement to ban the wearing of perfume in the workplace; and the New York Timesrecently promoted the idea of imposing new “sin taxes” on high-fat foods. In the past year, “reports” issued by various Washington-based, neo-puritanical political activists have condemned hot dogs, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food, beer, steak, milk(!), and even golf courses (too many lawn chemicals).
The neo-puritan movement is composed of elitists who seek to use the coercive powers of the state to express their pet peeves and to force others into politically-correct consumption patterns.
Of course, Progressivism or Neo-Puritanism and the Yankee ethos behind it is to be contrasted with the traditional agrarian culture and Jeffersonian politics of the South. In 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis summed up the Southern position very nicely in one short sentence, “All we ask is to be left alone.” This is obviously too much to ask because it is the one thing the Yankee can never do. The peoples of the world can not be left to their own devices. As Cotton Mather said, “There needs abundance to be done, that the miseries of the world may have remedies and abatements provided for them; and that miserable people may be relieved and comforted.” And so, we – and the world - are never left in peace. There are regulations to be legislated, taxes to be enacted, rights to be restricted, products to be outlawed, speech to be curtailed, crusades to be launched and ”oppressed” people to be “lifted up” without end. A Yankee’s “good work” is never done.