Richard Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765, 1980

Subjects: Religion, Republicanism, Revolution.

I enjoyed From Puritan to Yankee, a thoughtful and well-done history of ideas, only slightly less than Refinement of America, even though a solid argument can be made that this is a much more dynamic tome. (Nevertheless, I want to retain my faith in the notion that historians get better as they get older.)

An archetypal example of the declension model, From Puritan to Yankee explores the fragmentation of the social order in Connecticut over the course of the seventeenth century. Bushman begins by explaining the psychological nuances of the Puritan mind, with its reverence for authority and order above all else, its rich capacity for both domination and submission, and its reflexive defensiveness in the wake of trampled rights. Then (and this is where, to my mind, Puritan outdoes Refinement), Bushman explores the mechanics of declension in these Connecticut towns, what drives the intellectual changes he describes in the first and last chapters.

These factors include the growth of proprietorship of once commonly-held land and increased numbers of "outlivers" moving away from the center of towns to more easily farm their plots. The explosion of trade and the enhanced economic opportunities, indebtedness, and desire for paper currency that follow also play a role in the creation of social schisms (old money v. new money, east v. west, center v. outlivers.) that work to further disrupt the halcyon days of a harmonious, authoritiative Puritan social order.

For Bushman's purposes, the most important event in this social disintegration of the Puritan system is the Great Awakening, in that it further fragmented an increasingly fractious ecclesiastical sphere, greatly attentuated the Godly authority once imbued in Puritan civil institutions, and supplanted rational intellect (order) with raw emotion (chaos) as the means of properly communing with the Creator. The Awakening also breeds more diverse sects and fosters a pitched battle between Old Lights (opponents of the revival) and New Lights (proponents of the revival) that spills over into politics (a fact which further works to secularize the civil arena.)

Bushman closes by describing the tenets of the Yankee mind of the post-Awakening period — the most interesting of which I found to be the transformed conception of liberty (from a virtue of authority to one of rebellion), the rise of public opinion as a relevant force, and the sublimating of powerful religious impulses and rights-defensiveness into the state, three qualities necessary to spur on the events of the American Revolution and the Founding.

All in all, quite an interesting book. Given that it's basically a recapitulation of the declension model, though, I found Bushman's research into gentility as a forgotten social movement in Refinement to be more innovative and thought-provoking. That being said, Bushman does a much better job here of explaining the historical forces at work here that spur the changes he's describing (which I suppose is an easier task with traditional sources than it is with the material sources he was using for the other book.)

Also posted at http://www.kevincmurphy.com/bushman2.html.

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