Nature and Purpose of Colonial American Governments

In less than 3 pages, discuss the nature and purpose of government in colonial America, based on documents in the American Heritage Reader.

Legal documents from America’s Colonial Era characterized proper governments as entities that fulfill God’s divine mandates. The authors thought governments should protect Christian liberty and property rights by enforcing the rule of law, since both protections can only flourish under a stable common order. Most colonists were Puritans who escaped the Church of England’s ongoing persecutions of their fellowship; they also desired more economic freedom and opportunities. These Puritans grew resentful towards the Church of England’s ostensibly corrupt leadership; they intended to “sever all links” by settling in New England, where “they could create a church and society pleasing to God, or based on his precepts…” Under these conditions, Puritans would embody the ideals of Christ’s “True Church, as outlined in the New Testament.” To frame the discussion, this essay will outline how Puritan governments in Colonial America served to fulfill divine mandates, in order to promulgate the Christian Faith and protect civil liberty.

The Puritans devoted their governments to fulfilling God’s divine mandates. They “believed that every society possessed a covenant with [Him],” and would receive blessings for deference and punishments for disobedience. The Mayflower Compact (1620) was the first governing document crafted by the separatist Puritan emigrants, with jurisdiction over Plymouth, Massachusetts. Together, the “forty-one freemen” asserted a divine right to form a “civil body politic,” which would ensure “due submission and obedience” to the laws and hierarchies established by them. Everything they established would necessarily glorify God and promote “the general good of the colony.” By 1628, a separate group of English Puritans founded Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop, a key founder and the first governor, delivered the sermon, A Model of Christian Liberty (1630), which advocated for “conformity with God’s works,” along with “justice and mercy” toward fellow neighbors, in order to strengthen the “bonds of brotherly affection.” These Puritans believed God held high expectations not just for individuals, but for societies as a whole; they largely anticipated God’s wrath based on how the collective treated the divine mandates.

Winthrop later in his Speech to the General Court (1645) distinguished natural and civil liberty, and argued that governments must protect the latter, which he deemed superior to the former. Natural liberty is exercised by “beasts and creatures,” which have the “liberty to evil as well as to good,” but is “incompatible and inconsistent with authority.” It makes men become wicked, or omnes sumus licentiâ deteriores. Civil liberty is that “which is good, just, and honest,” and it protects “not only your goods, but your lives.” It is a kind of ordered liberty–it subjects itself to governing authority, as dangerous transgressors require separation from the civil society; otherwise, liberty will merely receive recognition without protection from the sword.

Based on the founding documents of English Puritans who settled in Colonial America to escape the Church of England’s persecution, colonial American governments intended to ensure societies obeyed God by upholding the rule of law, and allowing for civil liberty–“the chief end” of governing authority. They faithfully devoted themselves to fullfilling God’s divine mandates, because such mandates strengthen the religious piety and moral values of a civil society. Unfortunately, many Progressive academics argue that Puritans did not emigrate from England for religious freedom, but merely for economic opportunities. Historical documents, such as the ones this essay discussed, falsify this claim.


[1] “Two Colonial Covenants,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., American Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2011)

[2] John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., American Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2011)

[3] John Winthrop, “Speech to the General Court,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., American Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2011)

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