Colonial Puritanism was Commonly Known as “Platonic Christianity”
Originally published November 5, 2013
Excerpted from quaqua.org
In their new home, the Puritans implemented many of the same onerous legal restrictions upon religious liberty that had vexed them while living in England. For example, John Cotton, a leading Massachusetts cleric, implemented a law that no man could vote unless he was both a Puritan church member and a property owner (non-Puritans were dispossessed of their private property). Additionally, all colonists were legally required to attend austere Puritan church services. If the Church Warden caught any person truant from church services without illness or permissible excuse, the truant was pilloried and the truant’s ear was nailed to the wood. This approach was widespread and long-lasting in Puritan society. The Plymouth court of 1752 convicted defendant Joseph Boardman of “unnecessary absence from [Puritan] worship” and “not frequenting the publick worship of God.” In short, Puritan salvation was to be achieved through compulsory social engineering of the community, rather than voluntary individual piety.
The Puritans implemented a form of Platonic Christian Socialism, which was based upon an ideological synthesis of such influences as 1) Plato’s Republic, 2) a utopian interpretation of the New Testament (especially Acts 2:44-46), 3) a joint-stock agreement between colonial shareholders and the London-based John Peirce & Associates company, 4) a Continental European cultural attitude toward education (acquired during Pilgrim settlement in Holland), and 5) especially close economic and cultural bonds between Boston’s elite and the ruling class of England. During their first three years in the New World, the Puritans abolished private property and declared all land and produce to be owned in common (a commonwealth).
In Plymouth over half the colonists promptly died from starvation. Governor William Bradford observed that the collectivist approach “was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” He lamented the “vanity of that conceit of Plato’s . . . that the taking away of property and bringing community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.” Governor Bradford implemented private ownership of property, but Platonic Christianity continued to dominate other aspects of regional social policy.
For his part, John Winthrop delivered a famous speech in 1630 that articulated the prevailing contemporary Bay Colony ethic of social collectivism:
[W]e must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together . . . [and] make others’ Conditions our own, . . . always having before our eyes our . . . Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body[.] . . . [W]e shall find that . . . when [God] shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill.
Winthrop’s words were not mere inspirational rhetoric. Each statement reflected an expansive element of social policy, pressed to its logical end and enforced by the Puritans with deadly seriousness.
The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony openly espoused rule by the elite. “If we should change from a mixed aristocracy to mere democracy,” Winthrop once explained, “we should have no warrant in scripture for it: for there was no such government in Israel . . . A democracy is, amongst civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government.” John Cotton wrote: “I do not conceive that ever God did ordeyne [democracy] as a fit government eyther for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors who shall be governed?”
Despite utopian aspirations, the Massachusetts colonies were quickly beset with political and religious division. Internally, the Puritans persecuted and even tortured non-conforming Christians. In Boston Common, dissenters were hung or buried alive. In 1636, Roger Williams, who became a Baptist, was banished in the dead of winter and led some religious dissidents away to found Rhode Island. The same year, Thomas Hooker, another preacher at odds with the Bay Puritans, founded Connecticut with a separate breakaway group.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony attempted to curtail further dissent by utilizing a tightly-controlled system of schooling and neighborhood monitoring. In 1635, the first “public school” was established in 1635. In 1636, by general vote of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans established what was then termed “the School of the Prophets.” This divinity school, which grew into Harvard College and then Harvard University, was meant to superintend the lives of the colonists and prevent any further deviations from proper doctrine.
With Harvard established as the capstone of their system of social control, the Puritans then set about to construct supporting strictures. The Puritan paradigm utilized certain aspects of the Platonic paradigm of community child raising, including indentured servitude:
[There was a] practice common among English Puritans of “putting out” children–placing them at an early age in other homes where they were treated partly as foster children and partly as apprentices or farm-hands. One of the motivations underlying the maintenance of this custom seems to have been the parents’ desire to avoid the formation of strong emotional bonds with their offspring–bonds that might temper the strictness of the children’s discipline or interfere with their own piety.
A controlling, punitive culture gradually emerged. The Puritans enacted laws that curtailed parental rights, created community schools, established Puritan precepts as a civic requirement, imposed community taxation for majoritarian schooling, and encouraged citizens to report upon non-conforming relatives and neighbors. By separating children from their parents, community leaders could monitor all family members. No family member could rebel against the community scheme or the official dogma without putting other family members at risk of reprisal. Children became more vulnerable to various forms of abuse.
The Massachusetts Education Law of 1642 (re-enacted with a preamble and local taxation features in 1648) was a natural extension of the Puritan requirement that all citizens had to attend Puritan church services. School was, like church, an institution designed to inculcate a particular world view. Puritans thought that their world view should be sanctioned and disseminated under government auspices. This same precept necessarily underpins the enactment of every compulsory education statute, Puritan or otherwise.
In Connecticut, Yale filled the same role as Harvard did for Massachusetts. Much later in time, Congregational Reverend Eleazar Wheelock founded Moor’s Charity School in Connecticut to “civilize” Native Americans. In 1769, Wheelock moved the institution to Hanover, New Hampshire, and renamed it Dartmouth College. During the Framers’ Era, the Baptists complained vociferously about the oppression they experienced as a religious minority in Connecticut.
As the Massachusetts Puritan society became more overbearing, it developed a psychotic quality. Children committed suicide. Furtive adults coped with an environment in which due process and freedom of expression were denied. A dark era of suspicion and fear took hold, culminating most famously in the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 — 1 2. (Salem is located near present-day Boston). The aim of the trials was to eliminate individuals with “heretical” views or conduct. In practice, heresy included political criticism of the colonial government, eccentric personal behavior, and criticism of the witchhunt itself.
During the purge, nineteen men and women were executed as witches (along with two dogs thought to be accomplices). About two hundred other nonconformists were imprisoned, and four accused witches died in prison. One man who refused to submit to trial was killed using an European torture technique, peine forte et dure, whereby heavy stones are placed upon a man until he is crushed and suffocated. (Plymouth held witchcraft trials as well, but the defendants were acquitted.)
As the bloodlust ebbed, a general sense emerged amongst colonial leaders that their entire community had gone terribly awry. To their credit, judges and jurors issued public apologies for their errors in judgment. Reverend Samuel Parris was replaced as minister after reluctantly admitting to some mistakes. Unfortunately, Chief Justice William Stoughton, the most culpable actor in the bloodfest, refused to apologize. He was subsequently elected to be the next governor of Massachusetts (a feat emulated by Earl Warren, who was elected governor of California after the internment of Japanese Americans).
Fortunately, the lessons of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not lost upon the Framers of the United States Constitution. For example, home-educated Benjamin Franklin, one of the most influential Framers, frequently clashed with the officials and clerics in Boston. As a youth, Franklin bridled under the Puritan strictures in Boston, defied the Puritan culture of indentured servitude, fled to make his home in Quaker-dominated Philadelphia, and published criticisms of perceived Puritan bigotry.
Franklin also wrote a scathing criticism of Harvard. Writing under the “Mrs. Silence Dogood” pseudonym, he recounted her fictional deliberation about whether to send her son to Harvard. In the process, Dogood fell asleep and began to dream that she was journeying toward Harvard. Its gate was guarded by “two sturdy porters named Riches and Poverty,” and students were approved only by Riches. Once admitted, the students “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a room genteelly (which might as well be acquired at a dancing school), and from thence they return, after abundance of trouble and charge, as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.” Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania with a very different educational mandate.
After Franklin invented the lightning rod, many of the Puritans effectively accused him of sorcery. Reverend Thomas Prince, a prominent Congregationalist Puritan pastor of Boston’s Old South Church and a graduate of Harvard, led the the charge. Franklin, Prince decreed, had defied the will of God, the “Prince of the Power of the Air,” by interfering with His heavenly manifestation. Prince also asserted that Franklin’s rods had caused God to strike Boston with the earthquake of 1755. Franklin used his pithy wit to defang the campaign against his invention. Surely, Franklin observed, if interference with lightening was prohibited, roofs also defied God’s will by allowing people to stay dry in the face of His rain. Resistance to Franklin’s lightening rod subsided when it was discovered that his innovation prevented many churches from burning to the ground.
As another example, John Adams expressed concern about Puritan discrimination against Jews. Much of the discrimination was accomplished through Massachusetts’ imposed system of state-mandated religious observance and government-sponsored schooling. Harvard, for instance, implemented policies and quotas which were designed to curtail enrollment of meritorious Jewish students. John Adams unsuccessfully recommended revisions of the state constitution which would have enhanced free exercise of religion. Adams further urged that slavery be prohibited, darkly predicting it would lead to eventual civil war if uncurtailed.
Colonials living in the southern United States were equally wary of Massachusetts practices. In stark contrast to the Massachusetts model of public education, leading Southerners preferred apprenticeship and home education (a lifestyle that predominated until Reconstruction). Tutors and private schooling supplemented the educations of wealthy Southern children. James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, all Virginians, experienced the same general regime of home-education and apprenticeship known to Benjamin Franklin.
In perhaps the most critical indication of all, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams spoke forcefully against the Platonic model of governance by Philosopher-Kings. Jefferson reflected the contemporary sentiment of many of the Framers and Founders when he stated in his letter to Levi Lincoln of January 1, 1802, that “I know it will give great offense to the New England clergy; but the advocate of religious liberty is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.” Jefferson made other comments at odds with the Puritan approach to education, parental liberty, and religious pluralism, including oppression of the Quakers by the Anglican sects. Notwithstanding Winthrop’s aspirations in 1630, statements such as “Lord make our Virginian colony like that of Massachusetts” were conspicuously sparse during the Revolutionary Era.
While it is true that Madison, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson urged their communities to support education and morality in a general way, they pointedly refrained from endorsing Puritan-style compulsory education or compulsory attendance at school/church. Indeed, compulsory education for government schools did not exist during the Framer’s time. In the civic scheme envisioned by the preeminent Framers, community schools were to function much like public libraries. Some Framers encouraged communities to fund libraries and establish a system for purchasing books, but few legal scholars would suggest that the Framers were thereby endorsing a state power to compel use of library premises or materials. In the absence of conviction for a crime, such a constraint of liberty would clearly have run afoul of numerous Constitutional protections.
The Framers and Founders left no doubt that their Constitutional system of Ordered Liberty, which protected parental rights in so many complementary ways, was incompatible with the Platonic model for an Ideal Commonwealth. In Federalist Paper No. 49, a work promulgated by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, it is written:
The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. . . . In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.
In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson observed:
I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s republic. . . . While wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down so often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? . . . Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and dreams of Plato. . . . But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason . . . he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped . . . by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies onto the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind, is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. . . . It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women, and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest. . . . [I]n truth [Plato’s] dialogues are libels on Socrates.
. . . When sobered by experience, I hope that our successors will turn their attention to the advantage of education on the broad scale, and not of the petty academies . . . which are starting up in every neighborhood . . .
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams (July 5, 1814), in 2 The Adams-Jefferson Letters, at 432-34 (Lestor J. Cappon ed., 1959)(hereinafter “Letters”).
In reciprocal letters to Jefferson, John Adams was equally critical. He said the “philosophy” of Plato was “absurd,” Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (June 28, 1812), in Letters, at 308, berated Plato’s concept of “a Community of Wives, a confusion of Families, a total extinction of all Relations of Father, Son and Brother,” Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (September 15, 1813), in Letters, at 377, and observed that “Plato calls [‘Love’] a demon,” Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (October 10, 1817), in Letters, at 522.
In his most telling observations, Adams described his meticulous study of Plato’s writings, expressed delight at knowing that Jefferson shared the same “Astonishment,” “disappointment,” and “disgust” with Plato, and then concluded as follows:
Some Parts of [his writings] . . . are entertaining . . . but his Laws and his Republick from which I expected the most, disappointed me most. I could scarcely exclude the suspicion that he intended the latter as a bitter Satyr upon all Republican Government . . . . Nothing can be conceived more destructive of human happiness; more infallibly contrived to transform Men and Women into Brutes, Yahoos, or Daemons than a Community of Wives and Property . . .
After all; as long as marriage exists, Knowledge, Property and Influence will accumulate in Families.
Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (July 16, 1814), in Letters, at 437.