Ethics & Revolution

In The William & Mary Quarterly article “The Puritan Ethic and The American Revolution,” Edmund S. Morgan, a historian from Yale University, attempts to underscore that, rather than being conscious or subconscious, the values and ideals which he refers to as “The Puritan Ethic” were a deliberate and open expression of the thought currents that raged through the tide of a rather stormy tempest; as the colonies began to defy The Crown in outrage against unfair taxation without representation, as well as other coercive acts.  According to the conventions of traditional history, the narrative we know is that in 1620 The Mayflower sailed from England to America and landed near modern-day Massachusetts to establish a colony where they could escape religious persecution and create a new world.  A world based on the belief that every individual should exercise “diligence in a productive calling, beneficial both to society and to the individual.  It encouraged frugality and frowned on extravagance.  It viewed the merchant with suspicion and speculation with horror.  It distrusted prosperity and gathered strength from adversity.  It prevailed widely among Americans of different times and places, but those who urged it most vigorously always believed it to be on the point of expiring and in need of renewal.”[pg 7]

By the 1760’s and 1770’s, The Crown’s imprint on America grew to include thirteen colonies and many more interests.  Personal and economic!  It is important to note that each of these colonies, while all members of The Royal British Empire, viewed themselves as individual countries.  Each with its own landscape: philosophically, politically, economically, and theologically.  While Morgan makes extensive, indeed excellent, use of primary source material, that provides intimate insight into the minds of those who played part in this historic occasion, he falls short in his ability to help clarify and underscore the motivations and reasons relevant to why other colonies, outside of New England, had for joining in the calls for Revolution.  But as he himself says at the start, he seeks not to explain the whole variety of The Revolution, but rather “to suggest that the movement in all its phases, was affected by a set of values inherited from the age of Puritanism.” [pg 3]

I would have to say that for the most part Morgan makes a compelling case in his description of The Protestant Ethic because it speaks to things that we pride ourselves on as a nation.  All of its tenets can be found in a simple phrase that Jefferson gave us: the pursuit of happiness.  That meant that America was always in the process of becoming.  Growing into its own better self.

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