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Fraction of a Tradition

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

Puritanism and Democracy. By Ralph Barton Perry. The Vanguard Press. $5.00.

Written constitutions and the idea of inalienable rights were intended to limit the power of the representatives of the sovereign people; and the fact that Jefferson wished the slaves to be freed and then colonized shows that he could not visualize social equality between the races. He never veered from these principles, and one can find them running through the whole story as portrayed by Ambassador Bowers.

And America’s obvious hesitancies about her reasons for participating have inspired Ralph Barton Perry to write “Puritanism and Democracy.” But if our present national bewilderment is the occasion for this book, the book goes far beyond the occasion. It is an absorbing, thorough, illuminating effort to rediscover the American tradition, criticize it, reaffirm it, reapply it. Mr. Perry believes he has found the main threads of that tradition in puritanism and in democracy. Recognizing that both these American ideals have undergone severe, if irresponsible, de-bunking, he proceeds to disentangle and disclose them. He first re-examines the historical origins of each ideal and traces its development on American soil. He then examines each philosophically. Finally, he shows the relevance of each to the practical problems which our generation of Americans faces. He does all of these things with great skill, and his book is therefore an important and deeply interesting book.

Mr. Perry’s book is, however, so very good that it challenges any reader to ask himself why it is not still better. I should like to submit a possible explanation, which I hope others may care to test and correct in the light of their own reading of the book.

Mr. Perry shows an admirable awareness that American puritanism and American democracy are both heresies. They are heresies, not in the contemporary colloquial sense of unpopular views for which some wicked people would like to burn puritans and democrats at the stake. They are heresies in the original and important sense of the word: they are doctrines “chosen out” from their full context and canonized as “the” Truth. Like most vigorous heresies, they were badly needed when they arose; and like all interesting heresies, they are ignored at one’s peril. But they still remain essentially partial views of what cries for a total view. I suggest that it is the partial, or fractional, nature of the puritan and democratic views of the world that condemned them to run their course quickly, if magnificently, and to expose themselves to attack so soon. These attacks have rarely been thoughtful. Mr. Perry is surely right when he asserts drily that to drive the puritan from his position “would require heavier guns than most of his critics carry.” He is surely right in pointing out that a straw man had to be substituted for the real historical puritan before the de-bunkers could win even an apparent victory. But I am suggesting that a victory, even an apparent victory, would never have won so much applause from Americans generally, had the real puritan not already stood self-accused. And I suggest that the real indictment is that the impressive intellectual and moral tradition of the puritan was instinctively recognized as a partial truth parading as the whole Truth, as a local tradition parading as the human Tradition. It was history, not Archbishop Laud or even the Pope, who would finally convict him of heresy.

Mr. Perry invites us Americans, gently, persuasively, and wisely, to know ourselves. He believes that if we do, we will discover that we are democratic puritans. Knowing ourselves as such, we might be able with less confused purpose to tackle the problem of living as a peaceful fraction of the human community. But it would seem that to know ourselves as puritan democrats, without a deeper understanding of the fractional nature of our local tradition, would be to know ourselves only fractionally. I should expect such knowledge to lead us, not to fruitful and understanding collaboration with the other peoples of the world, but to a Crom-wellian attempt to force democracy and moral earnestness on our neighbors, This would be a nobler form of isolationism than the ostrich brand recently in favor. It would even be nobler than the commercial expansionism now causing some lips to smack. But it would not lead us to genuine and fruitful participation in those problems we share with our neighbors.

Until we come to understand better the cultural tradition from which the puritan and the democrat both seceded, until we know ourselves as inheritors of a larger tradition than the American tradition, we are likely either to refuse to assume any of our wider responsibilities or, like ancient Rome, assume all of them and a lot more besides.

Mr. Perry quite rightly discerns in the democratic tradition of America a universalism, a cosmopolitanism, that are all to the good. But perhaps it would take an historian from below the Potomac to recall that the New England tradition did not become the American tradition until after a four-year purge, during which America lost many of the understandings that would help us most today to understand a European. The Secession of the Confederacy was in large measure conservative protest against a deeper cultural secession—the secession of the American tradition from the tradition of which it was a part. Until the modern American understands that deeper secession, he will continue to suppose that his tradition started in 1620 and that the New World is the only world he need understand— which means that he will never understand even the New World.

But the learning process, like charity, may well begin at home. And it would clear the air if Americans generally could come to grips with the fraction of our tradition which Mr. Perry so admirably presents. It is not a fraction that either an American or a European can afford to despise. If Europeans will get busy and understand it, if Americans will get busy and understand its context, then the return voyage of the Mayflower may prove to be a less deadly dose of lend-lease than it now threatens to be.


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