A Tale of Three Thanksgivings in Two Acts
The 17th century experience with Puritanical excess helped America make the jump from a tribalistic identity politics to an actually "inclusive" live-and-let-live liberalism.
This is a guest contributor post by D.V. Williamson, a research economist who spent 20 years with the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice. He publishes The Free-range Economist on Substack.
The 17th century experience with Puritanical excess helped America make the jump from a tribalistic identity politics to an actually "inclusive" live-and-let-live liberalism.
The fighting in Gaza illuminates the disheartening fact that many observers maintain views contrary to E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”). Understatement. Rather, many observers in the West appeal to the trendy view that there are two parties, the oppressor and the oppressed, and that such antagonists can never by reconciled. We thus end up with, “Out of Two, Two” ever locked in struggle. But it gets worse in that this view is Manichaean. It identifies one party (the Israelis) as bad guys and the other party as good guys. The good guys must prevail by any means necessary.
Alas, instituting a liberal democratic order makes for a fraught and uncertain affair.
But, the experience of 17th century settlers in America, refugees from the religious wars of Europe, is illuminating. The experience illuminates the fact that various religious factions, each committed to organizing a society that would support its parochial interests, found themselves under pressure to get along with other factions. It took several decades, but the colonies eventually committed to norms supporting religious freedom.
“Religious freedom” might seem like a fringe concern to someone who maintains modern sensibilities, but I will suggest the important part about religious freedom is the bit about freedom. The kernel of it is the negative right of the individual to tell the State to leave one alone to organize one’s life as pleases. It indicates the right to be free from the predations of the State. The flight from religious wars then, amounted to an unwitting step toward launching a successful revolution for individual rights. It constituted a step toward making America America.
Whether they knew it or not, those Pilgrims were on to something, and we should be thankful.
* * *
The traditional tale of the original Thanksgiving illuminates at least three intertwined Thanksgivings.
The natives of the Wampanoag confederation contemplated annihilating the Pilgrims, but they ultimately decided to sponsor these people. Bringing the Pilgrims into their fold would strengthen the connection of the Wampanoag to the English and to trans-Atlantic trade networks. All of that, presumably, would enable the Wampanoag to deny the prospect of their own annihilation at the hands of rival, native American tribes, most notably the Narragansett. The Wampanoag had reason to be thankful.
It may not be obvious that those Pilgrims were situated to appreciate the fact that the Wampanoag had contemplated rendering them unto oblivion, but they would have had abundant reason to give thanks for the Wampanoag having offered them sponsorship in place of annihilation.
Finally, the Puritan experience in New England with conceptualizing religious freedom helped motivate a revolution in individual rights. Specifically, “religious freedom” constituted but one context through which our forebears came to appreciate the capacity of the State to abuse the individual, and that experience helped motivate those same people to learn to craft constitutional safeguards for individual rights. We should all give great thanks for that institutional heritage.
Act I – In which English settlers and native Americans resolve to collaborate rather than fight
Even as a schoolboy, the fairytale of “The Pilgrims” and “The First Thanksgiving” seemed more than a little strained and abbreviated: These mysterious people, the Pilgrims, washed up like bedraggled cats at a place they would call Plymouth Rock. Setting up shop in the wilderness made for a fraught affair. It was already late in the season when they got there, and not everyone subsequently made it through the winter. About half of the people who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 perished.
Enter this mysterious fellow, Squanto, one of the local native Indians. (We didn’t necessarily call them “indigenous people” or “native Americans.”) Squanto and his people taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn—although, as any schoolkid will have dutifully learned from the television advertisements for Mazola-brand margarine of the time, “You call it ‘corn’. We call it ‘maize’!”
So, Squanto and the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate maize. Come harvest season, the Pilgrims and the Indians got together to enjoy a wonderful feast. This was The First Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims gave thanks to their Lord for having delivered them through an abundantly difficult year.
There is some question about why the Pilgrims would have bothered to venture from England to the New World only to bear such grievous losses and suffering in that first year, but the standard story did explicitly address that question, although the answer was also a little strained and abbreviated. Specifically, the Pilgrims were interested in securing the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit. The Pilgrims perceived much “persecution” in England, and they had even decamped for Holland so that they might get relief. But, the Dutch themselves proved to be a little too jolly and irreverent for these hard-boiled Pilgrims. They became more serious about moving to somewhere where they could organize a community free of the distractions of Holland and free of persecution in England. They came up with the money to charter the Mayflower and secure passage to the New World. They also had to secure permission from King James to do this, but that bit about having to secure a “charter” would prove to be a legalistic detail that would get left out of the basic story. Nonetheless, with the charter in hand, the Pilgrims ended up committing themselves to dealing with the Indians, who might or might not prove to be friendly, rather than dealing with other Englishmen, many of whom proved to be very unfriendly, or dealing with the Dutch, who proved to be rather too friendly. On to the New World it was.
As a schoolkid one is left with the impression that there is a hint of passive aggressiveness in the telling of the story in that it was intended to suggest that Squanto and the Indians were friendly and helpful because they were just that: friendly and helpful. Indeed, the relationship between these Indians and those Pilgrims seem, implicitly, to have been held up as an exemplar of how relationships between native Americans and English colonists could subsequently unfold. Contrast that story with, say, King Philip’s War, nearly sixty years later, between descendants of many of those same native Americans and members of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies. About a third of the colonists perished in the war, and the native Americans fared no better.
But, back to the story of The First Thanksgiving … An inquiring mind might wonder why Squanto and his compatriots were so accommodating to these newcomers. These newcomers were pallid and unhealthy. They looked ridiculous in their big hats and big buckled belts, all in black. They piled out of the Mayflower like a stream of look-alike clowns. And, they demonstrated little sense in that they showed up just as winter was approaching. Why not show up just before planting season in the spring? What were they expecting?
Most importantly, these newcomers were newcomers. They were going to occupy land and potentially prove to be a nuisance in the future. Why help these people? Helping these people secure a foothold in their New World—in your ancient back yard—might prove
problematic going forward.
Then there are questions about these seemingly abstract things, “persecution” and “religious freedom”. One could (and we will) take some care to demystify these things and make them accessible, and the story about why we might care very much about these things involves unraveling a much bigger tale about why might care very, very much about constitutional governance. The key is the bit about “freedom” in “religious freedom” and—spoiler alert—about how we design governance structures to secure it. But, first, let’s start with the surprisingly cosmopolitan career of Squanto.
Squanto – International Man of Mystery
The mystery of Tisquantum (“Squanto” to his English friends like William Bradford) starts with a twenty-something Squanto and some number of his confederates somehow getting nabbed by an English entrepreneur and then sold into slavery in Spain where that same entrepreneur tried to pass them off as Moors from North Africa. Franciscan Friars seem to have secured Squanto’s release—and surely the release of others—aft er which he ended up in Britain in the service of another English agent of some sort. And, perhaps, that was part of the deal surrounding his release: having been bailed out of slavery, he would do some time working for another party before being granted passage home. And, one can imagine that, as someone who would have known a lot about the New World, his services and counsel might have been highly valued. So, effectively, it looks like he did the reverse of the usual indentured servant’s term: Instead of securing passage and then providing some years of service in the New World, he put in service in the Old World and to wherever his employer ventured, including the New World, and then secured passage back home. His passport was pre-paid.
He did make it back home only to discover that a disease epidemic (1617-18, small pox?) had ravaged his village community as well as other communities of the Wampanoag confederation. Bad enough as that was, losing numbers could upset the balance of power between rival tribes in the area; the Wampanoag likely found themselves less secure in their relationships with rival tribes, most notably the Narragansett who appear to have been spared “the great sickness.” Rival Indians might perceive the opportunity to annihilate the Wampanoag and to occupy their summer retreats (where they would plant maize and beans) as well as to their off -season hunting grounds further inland. (I surmise this last bit about the seasonality of Wampanoag habits from the William Cronon classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England .) Thus, one can imagine that it would have been incumbent upon the remaining Wampanoag to do some reshuffling, retrenching and consolidating in order to reconstitute themselves in a stable, secure, and self-sustaining coalition of villages.
And then these Pilgrims show up. And this is an opportunity. The matter must surely have been the subject of some debate and deliberation among the Wampanoag sachems. In “Squanto and Massasoit: A Struggle for Power,” New England Quarterly 60 (1987): 54-70, John Humins observes that “Two of the confederation's powerful chiefs, recalling incidents of kidnapping, rape, and murder which had punctuated relations with the Europeans who preceded Pilgrims, were strongly opposed to an alliance with the strangers.” Ultimately, the great sachem Massasoit and his people decided that it could yet be a good idea to align themselves with these newcomers. These people provided a connection to Europe, and that meant connection to the wares and technologies of Europe. Access to metal implements, guns, and gun powder could help the Wampanoag resolve their security problem. As Humins explained, “Massasoit resolutely pursued a policy of peace and cooperation with the English, whose numbers were not awesome but whose weapons were.”
These people, English “Separatists,” didn’t call themselves “Pilgrims” or even “Puritans”. “Pilgrim” was an innovation of story tellers most of two centuries later, and “Puritans” were people who occupied some other place on the spectrum of inconvenient, English religious communities. Separatists were intent on separating themselves from the Church of England—more on that shortly—and this cluster of Separatists ended up occupying the site of a deserted Wampanoag village. As the other Wampanoags observed, these people did not show up prepared to deal with the elements. But Massasoit did send envoys to the Pilgrims, most notably the sachem Samoset as well as the fluent English speaker Tisquantum.
Elaborate communications followed, and all parties secured commitments to transact with each other peaceably. The Wampanoag could see that this small community of English allies might not survive the winter, but some number of them did, and, when planting season finally arrived, the story about the Indians teaching the Pilgrims how to cultivate local crops became a reality. And there was more to the project than just planting maize. Among other things, mixing the cultivation of beans and maize together would allow bean sprouts to infuse the soil with nitrogen. Not that anyone had a concept of nitrogen, but the Wampanoag did have the knowledge that blending the cultivation of maize with beans would promote the yield of maize.
There is a lot going on in this story about the run up to The First Thanksgiving, much of which we can only surmise and will never know with certainty. There are also outstanding questions. For example, there is some suggestion that the Wampanoag had already been well networked with European agents who had been plying the coasts for most of a century looking to trade for furs and such. And there is some suggestion (correct or not) that the Wampanoag found themselves situated as middlemen in trade between European agents and other native American tribes—like the Narragansett. The Narragansett may thus have found themselves one step removed from Europeans, and that might go some way toward explaining how the Narragansett escaped the ravages of the 1617-18 epidemic and, in turn, how the Wampanoag found themselves diminished relative to the Narragansett by the time the Pilgrims stumbled into the scene.
And note what scene the Pilgrims did stumble into. It appears that anyone who may have expressed misgivings about having to deal with the Indians (in place of tolerating the Dutch back in Holland, say) may have been justly concerned. The Pilgrims were not setting up shop in a pristine wilderness, a Garden of Eden, populated by peaceable native tribes. These tribes and clans had been doing what tribes and clans the world over do: coalesce into coalitions of tribes, clans and confederations in order to defend themselves against other tribes, clans, confederations or other such agglomerations. And note that these people operate in environments in which secure property rights were not really available. They operated in an environment by which parties respected important norms about how to govern access to land and water—until it became too tempting to stop respecting such norms. Tribes and clans could cut deals in eff orts to sustain the peace. Cronon notes, for example, that the name of Lake Chabanokongkomuk (near Worcester, Massachusetts) could be roughly translated as something to the effect of “you fish your side; we fish our side; no problem”. But, note that the prospect of being annihilated by other tribes indicated that any claims to access could be contested. That would be a mild way of putting it.
So. Before the epidemic of 1617-18, were the Narragansett and the Wampanoag ensconced in a peaceful equilibrium? Did the epidemic undermine that equilibrium and induce the Wampanoag to do things like cut a deal with these new, English interlopers—a deal they would not otherwise have been disposed to cut? Would the Wampanoag otherwise have been disposed to annihilate the Pilgrims? Some had advocated for just such intervention.
And, here’s a question. If the Wampanoag were already centrally integrated into trade networks with the English and even with other Europeans and other tribes, and if rival tribes like the Narragansett occupied inferior places in the periphery of those networks, then why would the Wampanoag perceive demand to integrate themselves even more tightly with the English? It would be tempting to suggest that working to integrate themselves more tightly amounted to allowing the Pilgrims to secure a foothold in New England. That foothold may have enabled successive waves of English colonists to immigrate to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Did the Wampanoag merely end up solving an immediate problem (security from the predations of rival tribes) by taking on a longer-term problem (predations by increasing numbers of English)? Or did their move situate themselves to integrate, with nontrivial success, into a changing, globalizing society? Did they do a good job of adapting?
One can imagine the Wampanoag sachems inquiring with Squanto about this, for Squanto had spent appreciable time in Europe dealing with English traders. And one can imagine Squanto suggesting that holding back the English—or holding back the French or the Dutch or whomever has periodically shown up on the coasts—might not make for a sustainable, long-run strategy. Better to start integrating into these networks and developing productive, long-term relationships with these peoples. Who knows?
These questions about inter-tribal governance in the pre-colonial era and the things we do know about the emerging colonial experience blow up the traditional fairytale of The First Thanksgiving. These things also blow up fairytales about pre-colonial governance in the spirit of Rousseau’s “Noble Savage.” The Pilgrims did not land on entirely pristine shores and find themselves peering into virgin, primordial forest with, maybe, a few eyes peering back at them. It was not the case that the native inhabitants lived among each other in an always peaceful, harmonious equilibrium. Rather, the Pilgrims elected to walk into a wilderness that was largely tamed and actively managed by the native inhabitants and was wild more from the fact that having to manage relationships between themselves and competing tribes and coalitions of native inhabitants could make for a fraught affair. Basically, the Pilgrims elected to move into a rough neighborhood loosely governed by rival gangs that were themselves suspended in an uneasy peace periodically upset by episodes of gang warfare. It was just by dumb luck or Divine Providence that the Pilgrims stumbled into the scene at just the time that one of those gangs proved to be open to sponsoring their entry into the neighborhood. The Pilgrims ended up not being annihilated in 1620 and ended up enjoying the sponsorship of the Wampanoag going forward. Sponsoring the Pilgrims may, in the estimation of the Wampanoag, have induced rival tribes— principally the Narragansett—to exercise forbearance; the Wampanoag managed to neutralize the threat of themselves being annihilated. Taken all together, everyone who participated in that First Thanksgiving really did have something to be thankful for. They could all be thankful for not having been rendered unto oblivion and for having secured a productive future.
No less fraught, the Pilgrims would eventually learn by hard experience, would be the business of managing relationships between themselves and other factions of English colonists. Enter the Puritans and Quakers who made a big point of antagonizing each other with the former sometimes executing some number of the latter, all in the name of God.
The Separatists (“the Pilgrims”) and then the Puritans made the hazardous trip from England to New England so that they might secure freedom to worship as they saw fi t. Back in England they may have demonstrated themselves to be irascible cranks; the king may have been pleased and relieved to set them off doing something useful for king and country—specifically, to bear much of the physical and fiscal costs of establishing English colonies in the New World… and to make themselves scarce, for they were annoying their neighbors and the king, himself. But this abstruse business about “religious freedom” motivating these people to move to the Massachusetts Bay colony obscures some of the larger context. There are at least two very important dimensions to this missing context. First, one could just as well put the business of religious freedom aside and suggest that the Separatists and Puritans—and all the other Shakers and Quakers and cranks who followed them—were refugees of incipient English Civil Wars and then of the actual English Civil Wars starting in the 1640’s. The on-and-off Civil Wars were very serious business, taking away whole communities and very nearly decimating whole populations. Second, these refugees cared about their freedom to worship. They were not obviously interested in securing the freedom of any other people who might want to settle in their communities to worship as they please. They demanded conformity. Hence, religious freedom for me, and not for thee.
Act II – In which America begins to realize a revolution in individual rights
A joke circulating among the Quaker crowd—and there is a Quaker crowd—before the 2018 Superbowl match between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles pertained to the likely outcome of the game. The prediction was that Tom Brady and the New England Patriots would prevail. But it would be close. Indeed, the joke was that the Philadelphia Eagles would “hang around” and make the game close but that the New England Patriots would ultimately prevail.
Admittedly, that might make for a bit of an ambitious joke for people who do not follow American football and Puritans and Quakers. But the basis for the joke was: The Puritans of 17th century Boston made an ostentatious point of executing (by hanging) some of the more obstreperous Quakers who had made a point of showing up in Boston to ostentatiously antagonize Puritans. The connection to Philadelphia was that it was a town sited and designed by William Penn; Penn managed to secure a charter from the king to establish a colony (Pennsylvania) for Quakers. But “William Penn’s Charter” of 1682, as it came to beknown, eventually made explicit accommodation for “All person living in this province [of Pennsylvania] who confess and acknowledge the one almighty and eternal God...” Such people “shall in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion … nor shall they be compelled … to frequent or maintain any religious ministry.” So, one could worship as one saw fit as well as not be compelled to worship as others saw fit … so long as one believed in the Almighty.
Obstreperous. Ostentatious. Antagonistic. These are not terms one might naturally associate with Quakers. Terms like “granola,” “anti-GMO”, and “hippy-dippy” might conform more closely to the quasi-Quakers I myself know. But, Filippo Mazzei had the following to say in Recherches Historiques et Politiques sur Les États-Unis de l'Amérique Septentrionale (1788): “The Quakers arrived in 1654 [in the Massachusetts Bay Colony]. They were more violent and fanatical than the Anabaptists, and the colonies were obliged to enact even more severe law against them.” John Barry provides some color in Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (2012): “Quakers used outrageous behavior to draw more attention to their beliefs and provoke a response. A Quaker man walked into a Boston church holding a bottle in each hand, then smashed them to the floor; he shouted, ‘Thus will the Lord break all to pieces!’” More colorful yet, however: “A Quaker woman stripped herself naked and paraded through the Newbury church during worship. Another Quaker woman paraded nude through the streets of Boston.”
No surprise, it was differences in belief, especially between Puritans and Quakers, that established some basis for conflict. “Puritans believed in predestination,” a notion they had adopted from the Calvinists on continental Europe. Basically, if the Lord is omnipotent and all-knowing, then He has already established the trajectory of the universe, and God does not roll dice in the Puritans’ deterministic universe. Indeed, along that pre-determined trajectory, only some people secure salvation and go to heaven. But whom? Puritans lived in terror that one could never really know. Quakers, in contrast, believed that everyone could prospectively secure salvation.
They also eliminated the ministry and all forms of worship. They considered men and women virtually equal and allowed women to speak in worship. They also justified riotous behavior and even disobedience to the law … any one of these beliefs was, to Calvinists, blasphemy; taken together they certainly justified a death sentence.
Death? Really? … This will all seem rather abstract to a modern reader, but we do know that the Puritans of Boston did get around to hanging some number of Quakers on more than one occasion in the 1650’s. It was also about that time that the colony of Rhode Island had been accepting, not persecuting, Quakers, notwithstanding the fact that Rhode Island had been established and run by a bunch of Puritans. Roger Sherman and his cohorts had formally broken with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640’s, and despite the fact that Sherman and his co-religionists “despised the Quaker theology,” they made accommodations within their sphere of influence for some diversity of preferences with respect to religion. Contrast this to the still-unfolding project in Massachusetts to build “a city on a hill.” As John Barry suggests:
[T]o build a New Jerusalem, Massachusetts had always tried to cleanse itself of error and protect itself from contamination and infection. It had proscribed and banished Anglicans, it had proscribed and banished Antinomians, it had proscribed and banished Baptists. It had proscribed and banished any individual who dared challenge its theology, moral code, or political dominion. But no prior challenge represented in its view and that of the other United Colonies, the vileness and corruption of the Quakers.
The “United Colonies” of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Plymouth threatened the Rhode Island colony with economic sanctions—refusals to trade and such—in an eff ort it to compel Rhode Island to cease providing sanctuary for Quakers. Long story short: Sanctuary, not sanctions, eventually won out. Specifically, skip ahead several years to 1663, and Rhode Island manages to secure from the king, Charles II, a charter that explicitly codified a concept of religious freedom. The charter thus reads in the Royal first-person plural:
That our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anyway molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and does not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments…
Such language likely provided a template for other colonial charters such as the one that William Penn also managed to secure from His Majesty Charles II.
In the Afterword to his book, Barry indicates that one motivation for the book was to explore the foundations of the concept of the “separation of church and state.” But, if you read the Afterword one might discern faint suggestions that there is something more to it. And that more to it, I would suggest, involves individual rights and the things we use to secure individual rights—to wit, “equality before the law” and the “rule of law.”
If you go back to the opening chapters of the book, one can get a quick course in English constitutional law. The course of the Reformation in England involved Henry VIII breaking with the Catholic Church and substituting it with the Church of England. No surprise his motivations may have been strategic, for breaking with the Catholic Church enabled the king to plunder the wealth of the Church in England as well as to secure the annulment of his marriage to the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. He could then marry Anne Boleyn and make a new eff ort to produce a male heir.
The fundamental details of that drama may be more or less understood in Hollywood form. Less well appreciated, I would suggest, was the fact that the sovereign ended up installing himself as the head of the Anglican Church (the Church of England). And, what might the consequences of that have been?: Church and State were thus formally merged, and, assuming leadership of the Church of England would have afforded the king more ways of dealing with political adversaries. Just declare this person or that person a heretic; get them burned at the stake. Label whole communities of “non-conformists” heretics; dispossess them, take their wealth, execute them. This was the stuff of “persecution.” Again, those Separatists, the Pilgrims, did not brave the hazards of the New World for nothing.
“Separation of Church and State” and “religious freedom” matter less because they explicitly refer to religion, and more because they illuminate the prospect that the State may predate upon the individual. Indeed, the question of religious freedom constituted but one crucible from which the West wrought answers to larger questions about the relationship of the State to the individual. Ultimately, these things are about freedom, and a big aspect to “freedom” isa negative right: the capacity of the individual to tell the State to fuck off. The institutions supporting individual rights enable the individual to escape the predations of the State but also to secure rights-of-way to organize one’s life as one sees fi t. Indeed, one can just start to hear the Jeffersonian refrain about the “unalienable right” of the individual to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It may be no accident that the innovations of the Reformation in the England were eventually succeeded by the English Civil Wars. Under the former process, the Crown arrogated more power, and it used that power to bully individuals and whole communities into conformity and compliance. Even so, one might not really appreciate what the English Civil Wars were about after listening to the usual, desiccated accounts. The English Civil Wars might attract passing reference in the history lessons of American educators. Their textbooks might say something abstruse about “Roundheads” (roughly, proponents of parliamentary prerogatives) and “Cavaliers” (Royalist proponents of the divine right of kings), but, at least any appeal to “divine right” would start to get to the real question: Is the King above the Law? Can the king rule arbitrarily, because he’s been installed and inspired by the Lord and operates as His agent, in which case there really is no equality of individuals before the law? Ultimately, is there equality before the law, or, is there arbitrary law under which some people are more equal than others?
It took the English about 50 years of on-and-off fighting in civil wars (plural) to finally establish the pro-parliament view: The king is not above the law. Accordingly, the king can’t arbitrarily disband parliament or refuse to allow it to meet. The king can’t drag politically inconvenient people into his stacked court, the Star Chamber, and get them declared heretics and rendered unto oblivion.
An outstanding question is how it is that certain religious communities in England and individuals in those communities might become politically inconvenient. The Church of England and its leader (the king) demanded conformity to the practice of religion. You had to use The Common Prayer Book, not those prayer books. You had to go to church services at these prescribed times and worship in this way, not that way. Like, who cares?
I pose that question as a puzzle, but it is hard not to think that there are parallels with issues that occupy people today. For example, people who participate in the American public school establishment might perceive that that stuff about the Common Prayer Book may sound much like mandates to conform and teach “Common Core,” CRT-inspired content, or “gender-affirming” content. But, more generally, it is hard not to think that this business of conformism and “non-conformism” with respect to religious observance had less to do with religious observance per se and a lot more to do with (1) imposing compliance to the diktats of the State more generally and (2) the opportunities afforded by leadership of the Church to target specific political opponents. Did the Crown, for example, perceive that tolerating “non-conformism” revealed weakness? Did not tolerating non-conformism reveal actual weakness? Did the Crown perceive non-conformism as a threat to its authority? What were the underlying political issues around which certain individuals could be identified as potent opponents?
These are questions for further research, but one can observe that the 50 years of on-and-off English Civil Wars did ultimately diminish the Crown’s authority by relegating it to a “constitutional monarchy.” The Glorious Revolution of 1688 established that even the king would have to respect the constitution.
The Battle of Boyne in Ireland in 1690 reaffirmed that condition, at least in England and Ireland. Scotland was another matter, for not all of the Scots subscribed to constitutional monarchy. It took them another 50-some years to get the message. Specifically, the Bonnie Prince Charlie headed up the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 in an eff ort to restore the Catholic Stuart kings to the throne of England to rule by their divine right. “The 45” witnessed a number of spectacular Scottish victories over the English before the English finally prevailed over the Jacobites in equally spectacular fashion on the fi eld of Culloden in 1746. That ended the last eff ort of anyone in the British Isles to assert the divine right of kings.
That bit about “The 45” is burdened with all the romance of “Scotland the Brave” against “England the Strong.” Rousing stuff. But, it is hard not to suggest that the Jacobites were “on the wrong side of history.” Their cause was anti-constitutional and favored the arbitrary rule of kings, by virtue of divine right, over “equal protection under the law.”
I say this as someone descended from people from both sides of the issues that motivated “The 45.” On one side is a cluster of Puritans, refugees of the English Civil Wars, who first started showing up in Massachusetts in the 1640’s. One of the later arrivals was Samuel Sewall who had a hand (infamously) in presiding over the Salem Witch Trials. But (more famously) he later suggested that things at the trial might have gotten a little out of hand. More famously yet, he composed the first anti-slavery essay that had been widely distributed in the colonies. On the other side were Episcopalians who managed to extract themselves from Culloden and flee to Northern Ireland—much to the displeasure of some of the rather more Protestant locals. These people eventually made their way to Canada (likely post-1763, when the British would have absorbed Canada from France aft er the Seven Years’ War). Many of them eventually ended up occupying virtually whole blocks of Hudson, Wisconsin, a community on the St. Croix River just down the I-94 freeway from Minneapolis/St. Paul.
John Barry observed that his research into the separation of church and state illuminated debates that “could not be more relevant today.” In his case, “today” was situated somewhere before 2012. He observed that
King James had used “reason of state” to justify expanding state power in a time of terrorism. In the Justice Department of George W. Bush, John Yoo essentially repeated the arguments made by James’s lawyers and asserted not only that in war the president could ignore congressional mandates but that, in confronting terrorism, section of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting such things as warrantless search ‘would not apply.’” (Emphasis in the original)
These are the kinds of things by which journalist Glenn Greenwald made his name reporting and illuminating. Indeed, in a piece titled “The Pressure Campaign on Spotify to Remove Joe Rogan Reveals the Religion of Liberals: Censorship.” (January 29, 2022) “American liberals,” Greenwald suggests:
are obsessed with finding ways to silence and censor their adversaries. Every week, if not every day, they have new targets they want de-platformed, banned, silenced, and otherwise prevented from speaking or being heard (by "liberals,” I mean the term of self-description used by the dominant wing of the Democratic Party).
For years, their preferred censorship tactic was to expand and distort the concept of "hate speech” to mean "views that make us uncomfortable,” and then demand that such “hateful” views be prohibited on that basis. For that reason, it is now common to hear Democrats assert, falsely, that the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not protect “hate speech." Their political culture has long inculcated them to believe that they can comfortably silence whatever views they arbitrarily place into this category without being guilty of censorship.
Evidently, Joe Rogan had identified himself as one of the many individuals who are too politically inconvenient to be ignored and thus deserving of being rendered unto oblivion:
The emerging campaign to pressure Spotify to remove Joe Rogan from its platform is perhaps the most illustrative episode yet of both the dynamics at play and the desperation of liberals to ban anyone off-key. It was only a matter of time before this effort really galvanized in earnest. Rogan has simply become too influential, with too large of an audience of young people, for the liberal establishment to tolerate his continuing to act up.
The Accidental Constitutionalist: The Orange Man from Queens
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, some political pundits puzzled over the fact that Donald Trump seemed to be polling well with evangelical Christians. And, perhaps, we all puzzled over that. But then one could read lamentations among the pro-Clinton pundits—which was like, nearly all pundits—that went something to the effect of, “Don’t Evangelicals understand that Donald Trump is not an Evangelical?” Yes, we think evangelicals did understand that. The suggestion, however, was that those people were being unsophisticated; they didn’t understand;
they were falling for cheap rhetoric. But, an alternative interpretation is that these people were demonstrating great sophistication. Who was going to respect the rights of individuals to worship as they please? Who was going to respect religious freedom? Who was going to respect rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights—rights such as the right to free association, assembly and worship? And that was just the First Amendment of the ten amendments to the Constitution that constitute the Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
One could argue that the Obama Administration had passive aggressively demonstrated that it was hostile to the free exercise of religion and that it endeavored to compel speech on the part of conscientious objectors (as in the matter adjudicated in the Supreme Court in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, 140 S. Ct. 2367 ); it set the vast security apparatus assembled during the Bush years to monitor the purveyors of inconvenient facts and opinion in the press. Meanwhile, no one had reason to believe that a successive Clinton Administration would be accommodating if not even more hostile to the exercise of constitutional rights or even to plain-old human rights. (“Can’t we just drone this guy” Julian Assange, Clinton inquired, according to sources.) It was, after all, Hillary Clinton who gave us the language of “deplorables.” Instead, evangelicals and other “Deplorables” found themselves turning to the Big, Brassy Orange Man from Queens. Orange Man did not disappoint and demonstrated to much of the commentariat that he was instinctively more of a constitutionalist than the “professor of constitutional law” whom he had succeeded as President of the United States.
A big problem with the media’s lament about evangelicals is that it reflected nothing more than a cheap, primitive appeal to tribal identify politics. Evangelicals should not vote for Donald Trump, because he was not one of them. Such logic conforms to the kind of thing that the Puritans had set themselves up to do. Again, cue John Barry:
To build a city on a hill, to build a New Jerusalem, Massachusetts had always tried to cleanse itself of error and protect itself from contamination and infection. It had proscribed and banished [various communities of non-conformists]. It had proscribed and banished any individual who dared challenge its theology, moral code, or political dominion.
Does this sound not like just the latest flavor of militant, intolerant millenarianism? Does this not sound like Glenn Greenwald reporting on yesterday’s news or last month’s news or the news from 2006? Does this not sound like the news bubbling out of the universities of the Anglophone world on any given day? Have neo-Puritans not captured our institutions and dragged us back into an English Civil War, or have they not dragged us back to the pre-Enlightenment Inquisition?
The neo-Puritans, humorless parodies of themselves, have endeavored to do what the Classic Puritans attempted to do: To secure the freedom to organize society as they saw fit while imposing conformity on anyone who might deign to participate. They were not interested in extending equality to non-Puritans or in respecting the rights of non-conformists. They vigorously policed a militant identity politics, and they demonstrated that they were not above “othering” and destroying people different than themselves.
It turns out that the Classic Puritans’ efforts failed—albeit, not aft er getting a lot of people killed and otherwise inducing much harm. Their own ranks fractured, with some of their number going off to start more pluralistic societies. But the Chiliastic, Puritan impulse to “cleanse” society and impose conformity seems to find expression like recurring episodes of epidemic disease.
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This essay was motivated by the idea that the 17th century experience in New England of extending religious freedom equally to everyone in a community was a crucible through which the New England colonists wrought appreciation not just for religious liberty but for equality before the law. Those colonists left to the world a great heritage. The generation of the American Revolution would take that heritage and expand on it, complementing equality before the law with the concept that the State is not situated to grant rights; rather, we come into the world equally endowed with inalienable rights. The State may choose to disrespect those rights, but those rights are still ours to assert.
So, … Who cares about “religious freedom?” Isn’t that fringe stuff that only those marginal peoples, those despicable Little Sisters, those execrable Evangelicals or those deplorable Deplorables might care about? Again, the answer should manifestly be no. The key to peace and prosperity for all in a society that endeavors to be pluralistic—and thus accommodating of the non-conformists, “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently...”—is to invest the individual with the capacity to tell the State to fuck off. The reality is that Big Tech, the DC establishment, and the universities demonstrably do not believe in their own rhetoric. To them the rest of us are inconvenient Quakers to be either annihilated or compelled to conform.