Puritans: A Progressive Unfolding

Abolitionist Julia Ward wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861. In it, she penned that God will use His “terrible swift sword” to bring judgment upon “condemners” and “crush the serpent with his heel.” The wicked this New Yorker wanted to vanquish was, of course, the Southern people.

Howe, the daughter of a Wall Street Banker and Calvinist-turned-Unitarian, saw the Northern cause as a holy war – the Yankees’ manifest destiny – and the Union as the army of God, whose cannons rained hellfire upon a peaceful people. Or God’s “fiery gospel writ in rows of burnished steel,” as Howe liked to call these weapons of conquest. “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” so goes the refrain.

Howe typifies the New England crusader mindset – a self-aggrandizing moral superiority that historian Clyde Wilson terms the Treasury of Counterfeit Virtue: “a kind of plenary indulgence that automatically pre-justifies the motives of American violence and the goodness inherent in America’s acts to force the world into conformity with its ideal version of itself.”

You know, Progressivism.

The artwork symbolizing this creed (pictured at the top of the blog) is called “American Progress.” Like an oil-brushed Julie Howe, the angelic female Progress is adorned with “the star of empire” on her forehead as she readies and leads us toward an era of modernity, democratic advancement, and westward expansion all the way to the Pacific.

This rallying cry was underpinned by the idea of divine providence: that God endowed America’s exceptionalism and, by virtue, her growing dominion.

Politically and socially, Puritans realized that a progressive heaven on earth could more easily be attained through imposing man’s laws on everyone everywhere, using urgent moralistic talk done with all the “vile fanatic passion” of Cotton Mather. Totalitarianism and emotion indeed comprise the Northern zeitgeist.

Moralizing busybody. Meddlesome. Irksome. Intolerant. Coercive. Holier than thou. The Yankee was born of such Puritan stock and sensibility. The self-righteous Puritan ideals remained internalized within the Yankee people and was embedded in the growing body politic.

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