Monday, December 8, 2014

The Americans: The Colonial Experience by Daniel Boorstin (Part One, Outlined)

I stumbled across Daniel Boorstin's The Americans trilogy in the spring of 1976.  The hoopla and mythmaking that infused an extended Bicentennial celebration made me determined to find a more believable, realistic story of how the United States came to be.

What impressed me most about Boorstin was how vividly he brought various aspects of American history to life, American social history, to be exact.   The standard practice when I attended school was to offer a year-long course on American history in 8th and 11th grades.  The curriculum featured the usual hodgepodge of colonial fairy tales and dry, deadening recitations of facts about wars and Presidents.  And we never made it into the 20th century.

Giving myself over to a full experience with this trio of books, I not only read but also outlined them, the first 4 pages of which are shared below.  And the extensive bibliographical notes sections informed my reading for years.

Part One.  A City Upon a Hill:  The Puritans of Massachusetts  
Chapter 1.  How orthodoxy made the Puritans practical
  • peculiar Puritan points
    • never a people so sure they were on the right track
    • less interested in theology than in application of theology to everyday life
    • less concerned with perfecting their formulation of the Truth than with making their society in American the embodiment of this truth.
    • Puritan New England was a noble experiment in applied theology
  • produced no major figures in theology , outside of the intransigent Roger Williams
  • not until McCarran Act were immigrants required to be so antiseptic
    • successful in keeping their community orthodox
    • whereas dissension in England would have produced another sect, in America it results in another colony springing up
      • critics, doubters, and dissenters were expelled
      • no theories of toleration developed
      • enjoyed luxury of pure and simple orthodoxy
  • first and foremost, community builders
    • spent little time in debate
    • time filled with overcoming dangers and strangeness of a wilderness

Chapter 2.  The Sermon as an American Institution
  • perfect medium of Puritan expression
  • lost "oral" history
    • topicality of the spoken word
    • explanation of the connection between shared community values and the predicament of settlement then
  • development of sermon
    • metaphysical style of Lancelot Andrews and John Donne vs plain style of Puritans
    • greater attention to persuasion and the practical consequences of a doctrine rather than to the elaboration of the theory itself
    • three characteristic parts
      • doctrine -- what was discovered when the preacher opened the Bible
      • reasons -- supported the doctrine
      • uses -- application of the doctrine to the lives of the congregation
    • reasons for proliferation of plain style in early years
      • simplicity of life in wilderness
      • strength of orthodoxy
      • homogeneity and strength of small community
  • meetinghouse was geographical and social center of community as sermon was central event of meeting
  • occasions for the sermon
    • twice on Sunday
    • lecture-sermon on Thursday
    • attendance required by law
    • absence punishable by fine
    • hardly a public event where sermon was not most important feature
    • secondary drawing power
      • lack of other amusements
      • chance to meet distant neighbors
      • opportunity to exchange news and gossip
    • long trek (in many cases) to a meetinghouse having no light or heat to ward off winter cold

Chapter 3.  Search for a New England Way
  • Puritans wanted to purify policy and practice of the English church, not its theology and theory
  • basic documents were platforms, not creeds
  • unified by a common quest, a common way of living
  • Bible, codification of Puritan beliefs
    • analogy to children of Israel going out in the wildernbess
    • set of binding precedents
    • preoccupied with similarities in paired situations
      • what was written in the Bible
      • that situation in which they found themselves
  • developed a practical common-law orthodoxy
    •  heavy reliance on the Bible
    • preoccupation with platforms, programs of action, and schemes of confederation rather than with religious dogma
      • fixed temper of their society
      • foreshadowed American political life for centuries to come

Chapter 4:  Puritan Conservatism
  • developing situation which would affect American political thought through the Revolutionary era
    • constitutionalism -- certain definite limits which legislators were not free to transgress
    • primary and normal way of developing civil institutions was by custom and tradition rather than legislation or administrative fiat
  • legislative history of early New England
    • attempt to provide a Magna Carta for inhabitants
    • followed by a handy compilation of laws
    •  first to take a pragmatic approach to common law
    • produced a layman's version of English legal institutions
      • lack of legal training
      • few law books to use as references

Chapter 5:  How the Puritans Resisted the Temptation of Utopia
  •  deterrents
    • English law, a sobering influence
    • pessimism and vivid sense of evil inherent in Calvinism discouraged daydreams
    • overwhelming novelty of and anxiety caused by new surroundings partially relieved by comfort of familiar institutions
    • Biblical orthodoxy nourished a practical and non-Utopian frame of mind
  • concentrated on human and practical problems
    • how to select leaders and representatives (many debates on this topic in early years)
    • proper limits of political power
      •  The Body of Liberties (1641)
        • first compilation of Massachusetts law
        • state legal systems in terms of the "liberties" of different members of thte commmunity
    •  creation of a feasible federal organization 

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