I admit it — I’m a Yankee. Born and bred in New York, so at least in the Civil War sense I’m a Yankee, as opposed to a Southerner. But I’m a Yankee in the earlier, and broader sense: an American who is a spiritual and political descendant of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Puritans of Massachusetts could not have been more different than the bulk of the founders of Jamestown, whose 400th anniversary we celebrate this weekend. Not that Jamestown is not worthy of our greatest admiration and respect. Rather, to believe, or, worse, proclaim loudly, that “Jamestown is America” is to lapse into an all-too-common modern malady: that of Form over Function.
Jamestown was a settlement of, by, and for the Establishment of early 17th century England. High Church of England; landed gentry; men of position and leisure. Again, not that they did not suffer and die, in great numbers, after they founded Jamestown in 1607 and discovered that the natives were restless…and armed to the teeth.
Jamestown ultimately prevailed, and those who survived quickly learned to adapt to a harsh new land. But these were, in a word, Cavaliers (almost 40 years ahead of the English Civil War of 1642-51, but of that party). The Puritans of Massachusetts, by contrast, were, at least, spiritual antecedents of the pro-parliament Roundheads who would form the true spirit of what would become the United States of America.
Function? Freedom of conscience, independence from a royal, hierarchical Catholic-in-all-but-name church, all working for the common good while retaining their basic sense of self. Discipline, and a simpler life, freed of much of what passed for Form in the 17th century.
Form? the pompous frippery that the Virginia gentlemen would have shown had they had the luxury of not being killed by Indians and disease.
In the end, both the hierarchical, high-church Virginia, and the Protestants of Massachusetts were both essential for the successful creation of the United States some 150 years after the landing at Plymouth. But our national character is best reflected in the Puritan ethic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Not the class-bound founders of Jamestown.