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The Puritan Experiment

New England ultimately failed as a "City upon a Hill," because the intended audience, the English, failed to pay attention. To most people at home, the Puritan experiment seemed at best strange and at worst sedidous. New England appeared especially irrelevant after the triumphant restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The Restoration terminated and discredited the shortlived revolutionarv regime led by English Puritans during the 1640s and 1650s. After the Restoration, English Puritans dwindled in number, prominence, and ambition. Most of the persistent made their peace with life as a quiet minority within an Anglican society. They dismissed New England as a distant and parochial backwater. In 1683 an English correspondent confessed to Cotton Mather, "I have often heard of New England, and long ago, but never took no great heed to it, only as persons do often discourse of things remote and at random."

New England Puritans blamed themselves for failing to inspire the mother ccnintry. During the later seventeenth century the New England clergy specialized in a genre of sermon known as the "jeremiad," named after the grim Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. A jeremiad catalogued the sufferings and sins of New England: the prevalence of Indian war, earthquakes, fires, and storms sent to punish a region wallowing in immorality and irreligion. Finding the present generation wanting, a jeremiad exhorted listeners to reclaim the lofty standards and pure morality ascribed to the founders of New England. Paradoxically, the popularity of the genre attested to the persistence, rather than the decline, of Puritan ideals in New England. Determined to live better, the laity longed for the cathartic castigation of the jeremiad. And the ministry complied with eloquence and zeal. But English Puritans often took the jeremiads at face value, confirming their unduly low estimation of New England.

In this literalism, those readers anticipated historians who reiterate the myth of a New England "declensiom" during the late seventeenth century. In fact, the overstated disappointment of the jeremiad was defined against an unrealistic and utopian depiction of the founders. The founding generation was, of course, far less perfect and united than it appeared in the mythic memory of the later generations. Naturally and necessarily, the orthodox New English culture and society evolved over the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, but the core principles persisted, especially the commitment to a moral, educated, commercial, and homogeneous people. The formula of the jeremiad masked the prodigious long-term accomplishments of the New England colonists in substantiating their faith in dozens of churches, each with a college-educated minister committed to Puritan ideals. The expensive construction and maintenance of so many churches and the long education of so many ministers - a commitment unmatched anywhere else in the English colonies - attested that the New English continued to yoke their economic achievements to their public faith. That the late-seventeenth-century New Englanders refused to take comfort or find reassurance in those accomplishments manifests how thoroughly Puritan they remained.

The myth of declension also obscures the prodigious and enduring Puritan legacy for English-speaking America. Compared with other colonial regions, New England was a land of relative equality, broad (albeit moderate) opportunity, and thrifty, industrious, and entrepreneurial habits that sustained an especially diverse and complex economy. The regions large, healthy families, nearly even gender ratio, and long life spans promoted social stability, the steady accumulation of family property, and its orderly transfer from one generation to the next. And nowhere else in colonial America did colonists enjoy readier access to public worship and nearly universal education. That those ideals remain powerful in our own culture attests to the enduring importance of the Puritan legacy. But those accomplishments also had a dark side, especially the intolerance for dissenters and suspected witches.

The region was first explored by Martin Pring (1603) and Samuel de Champlain (1605). In 1620 the Council for New England, formerly the Plymouth Company, received a royal grant of land between lat. 40-°N and 48-°N. One of the Council's leaders, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, formed a partnership with Capt. John Mason and in 1622 obtained rights between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers, then called the province of Maine. By a division Mason took (1629) the area between the Piscataqua and the Merrimack, naming it New Hampshire. Portsmouth was founded by farmers and fishermen in 1630.

Through claims based on a misinterpretation of its charter, Massachusetts annexed South New Hampshire between 1641 and 1643. Although New Hampshire was proclaimed a royal colony in 1679, Massachusetts continued to press land claims until the two colonies finally agreed on the eastern and southern boundaries (1739-41). Although they were technically independent of each other, the crown habitually appointed a single man to govern both colonies until 1741, when Benning Wentworth was made the first governor of New Hampshire alone.

John Mason, after serving (1615-21) as governor of Newfoundland, he and Sir Ferdinando Gorges received (1622) a patent from the Council for New England for all the territory lying between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers. In 1629 they divided the grant, Mason taking as his share an area 60 mi (95 km) deep between the Merrimack and Piscataqua rivers, which he named New Hampshire. This grant was confirmed to him when the Council for New England surrendered its charter in 1635. Attempts by his heirs to make good their claims to this land led to long litigation. The inhabitants were finally compelled to recognize the Mason rights, which were sold (1746) by one of Mason's descendants to a group of 12 Portsmouth men, who became known as the Masonian Proprietors. They issued settlement permits and land titles in the undeveloped parts of Mason's grant. The grant was redefined by the state in 1788.

The New Hampshire Grants was the early name (1749-77) for Vermont, given because most of the early settlers came in under land grants from Benning Wentworth, the colonial governor of New Hampshire. Although the 1664 charter for New York set New York's eastern boundary at the Connecticut River, it was modified by Connecticut in 1683, and Massachusetts in 1749 (officially 1757), at a line 20 mi (32 km) E of the Hudson River (c.45 mi/70 km W of the Connecticut River). Governor Wentworth, assuming that the line would be carried farther north, proceeded without authority to issue a grant for the settlement of Bennington in 1747, and in the next few years he issued numerous grants in the region. New York protested the infringement, but the French and Indian Wars intervened, and it was not until after 1760 (when Wentworth had resumed making grants) that the matter was brought before British authorities. In 1763 a decision in New York's favor was rendered, but it was difficult to enforce. The speculators, who had the grants, and the settlers who came in under them, opposed the New York claims. The Green Mountain Boys were organized, with resistance led by Ethan Allen . Violence resulted, and in 1777 the New Hampshire Grants declared themselves a republic (New Connecticut), independent of both New York and New Hampshire; they entered the Union in 1791 under the name of Vermont.

Although a royal order in 1764 established the Connecticut River as the western boundary of New Hampshire, the dispute flared up again during the American Revolution and was not settled until Vermont became a state.

The region of Rhode Island was probably visited (1524) by Verrazano, and in 1614 the area was explored by the Dutchman Adriaen Block. Roger Williams, banished (1635) from the Massachusetts Bay colony, established in 1636 the first settlement in the area at Providence on land purchased from Native Americans of the Narragansett tribe. In 1638, Puritan exiles bought the island of Aquidneck (now Rhode Island) from the Narragansetts. There they established the settlement of Portsmouth (1638). Because of factional differences, Newport was founded (1639) on the southwest side of the island, but the two towns later combined governments (1640-47). Another settlement, Warwick, was made on the western shore of Narragansett Bay in 1642.

In order to thwart claims made to the area by the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, Williams, through influential friends, secured (1644) a parliamentary patent under which the four towns drew up a code of civil law and organized (1647) a government. The liberal charter granted (1663) by Charles II of England ensured the colony's survival, although boundary difficulties with Massachusetts and Connecticut continued well into the 18th cent.

The early settlers were mostly of English stock. Many were drawn to the colony by the guarantee of religious freedom, a cardinal principle with Williams, confirmed in the patent of 1644 and reaffirmed by the royal charter of 1663. Jews settled in Newport in the first year of Williams' presidency (1654), and Quakers followed in large numbers. All the early settlers owned land that, following Williams' practice, was bought from the Native Americans. Fishing and trade supplemented the living won from the soil. Moreover, livestock from the Narragansett county (South County), especially the famous Narragansett pacers, figured largely in the early commerce, which developed rapidly in the late 17th century.

Williams, though he remained a Christian, disassociated himself from existing churches. His writings, reprinted in the Narragansett Club Publications (1866-74), reveal the vigor with which he propounded his democratic and humanitarian ideals. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644) was condemned by John Cotton, who was answered with The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652). Other works include Queries of Highest Consideration (1644), an argument for complete separation of church and state; The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's (1652); and George Fox Digg'd Out of His Burrowes (1676), a polemic against Quaker teachings. Of great personal charm and unquestioned integrity, Williams was admired even by those who, like both the elder and the younger John Winthrop, abhorred his liberal ideas.

Because of the colony's religious freedom, it was viewed with mixed loathing and fear by the more powerful neighboring colonies and was never admitted to the New England Confederation . However, it bore its share of the devastation caused by King Philip's War in 1675-76. Between 1750 and 1770 there was bitter strife between Providence and Newport over control of the colony.

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