- Historic Sites
Reading, Writing, And History
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
Puritanism, as Mr. Morgan says, created in men and women an almost unendurable tension. It required a man to devote his life to the search for salvation, but it also taught him that he was really helpless to do anything but evil; he must reform the world, but the world’s evil was incurable. As governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in its all-important formative years, Winthrop faced the problem “of living in this world without taking his mind off God.” Withdraw from the world he could not; he had to stay on the firing line and do his best.
Not for Winthrop were Thoreau’s doubts about the extent to which a man should try to modify the society about him. Every nation (as Winthrop kept insisting) existed by virtue of a covenant with God, in which it promised to obey God’s commands. Government had a sacred task and enjoyed divine sanction in carrying it out, but the citizen was not thereby absolved from responsibility. If government lived up to its high commitment the citizen must support it, but if it should fall from grace the citizen must be ready to go on the warpath and replace it with a better government. He must also keep an eye on his neighbor.
The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop , by Edmund S. Morgan, edited by Oscar Handlin, Little, Brown and Company. 224 pp. $3.50.
A colony dedicated to such principles could not be an easy one to govern, for the line that separates such dedication from pure cantankerousness can be very thin. But it did have remarkable possibilities for development, and some of these possibilities, in Massachusetts Bay, were fully exploited. If men are bound to have a government which is bound by God’s laws, they must decide for themselves what sort of government that is to be and then they must create it. Winthrop saw to it that the colonists were able to do this—and, without quite realizing it, thereby carried the budding nation a long step in the direction of democracy.
He had his problems, among them one posed by Roger Williams, who in his seventeenth-century way was something like Thoreau: a man perfectly willing to withdraw from an imperfect society and go start a new one on his wild lone. When Winthrop prayerfully urged the young man to reconsider his notion that everyone but Williams was out of step, Williams retorted: “Abstract yourselfe with a holy violence from the Dung heape of this Earth.” From a perfectionism of this sort Winthrop consistently abstained. But the community to which he gave so much expert guidance was bound to develop men who felt that way.
The Massachusetts Bay experiment did not come out quite as Winthrop had anticipated. In a way, it succeeded; that is, as Mr. Morgan says, it “came as close as men could come to the Kingdom of God on earth.” But when it had attained this success—around 1640—it found that England, the mother country for whose guidance this difficult task was being performed, was looking the other way. The world was no longer watching … and thus the whole colony was on the verge of turning its collective back on the world and following a separatism of its own, stepping off into complete, self-satisfied isolationism. Against such a step Winthrop set himself. The rest of the world might indeed be lost in sin, but it had to be lived in and with; not even in a New World which they were shaping by the dictates of their own consciences could men escape from their responsibilities. To do right in a world gone wrong, man must remain in the society of his fellows.
Among the men who accepted this notion without hesitation were those two nineteenth-century leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. In 1858 they went straight to the hustings for a hand-tohand grapple with a burning political question which, boiled down, was the question of the continued existence or the containment and ultimate extinction of chattel slavery. They debated the issue, in a series of the most famous political arguments in American history, each man doing his best to bring about the political action that would make America a better land; and the complete record of their debates is made available in Created Equal? edited and with an uncommonly penetrating introduction by Paul M. Angle.
Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 , edited and with an introduction by Paul M. Angle. The University of Chicago Press. 460 pp. $7.50.
Both Lincoln and Douglas deserve the title, “statesman,” and in these debates they were doing what statesmen are supposed to do, but do not often do: that is, they were taking the hottest issue of the day and bringing it directly to the people, discussing it from the same platform so that an informed electorate might at last come to an intelligent decision. Yet something escaped them—or, perhaps, lay beyond the boundaries of the democratic process itself. For these notable debates did not finally settle the issue that engaged them. They did settle a state election, to be sure, and they had much to do with determining how a subsequent national election would go—but within three years the nation had given up debating the issue and had taken to fighting about it, getting into a four-year war whose incidental costs are still with us.