Free Society

Direct Democracy

(c) Earl L. Haehl  Permission is given to use this article in whole as long as credit is given.  Book rights are reserved.

“Blue laws” are a product, not of the tyrannical monarchy or the state church, but of the Puritan opposition and the dissenters in England as well as the direct democracy of New England Town Meetings. And the town meeting came from the dissenters and the Mayflower Compact.

The dissenters we think of as so noble in their quest were the Separatists of Scrooby who were generally left alone in England—Anglicans of the time did not care if the scruffy dissenters did not show up and drag mud into the Church—but were taxed anyway. They did object to the ostentation of the Establishment in dress and manners which might lead their children astray. We see similar traits in the German Anabaptist groups in this country who worry about their youth “marrying English.” They were equally or possibly more upset in Holland because of the idle games the Dutch (Nederlander) children played. So in 1620 they headed to the new world to find “religious freedom.” That last statement was a T/F question—the answer is F. They came to Plymouth to establish their own religion as the authority. The colony was divided into “saints and strangers.” No one referred to the as Pilgrims before the 19th Century—though I can imagine John Wayne as Miles Standish talking to Jimmy Stewart as John Alden. The strangers comprised about two thirds of the Plymouth “plantation” but were subject to the rules of the saints. (And some of their descendents get upset over the concept of Sharia.)

About ten years later the Puritans came to Boston and founded the Massachusetts Bay colony. My ancestors came with that group—hard, disciplined Puritans made their stern imprint on New England. They were technically Anglicans but eventually split into Congregationalists, Unitarians and some decided to return to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.

The Separatists sort of merged into the more dominant population. And the proponents of “religious freedom” banished Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams to Rhode Island to die—they did not have electroshock or mental hospitals. The good folk (John Alden for example) also executed Baptists and Quakers.

The unique governmental structure coming out of this is the Town Meeting. In many towns, the Meeting House was also the Congregational Church early on before disestablishment. The Blue Laws came from local ordinances in New England’s small towns—some were transferred to the new states by New Englanders who traveled west and took their attitudes and customs along. (The same problem exists today when some of the California refugees want to bring along the social legislation and the initiative that caused their tax problems where they came from.) My son has told me there is no greater tyranny than the New England Town Meeting.

Here is how it works. Majority vote at the meeting determines ordinances, budgets etc. The town meeting participatory democracy. And it has lasted as long as it has because it is part of the culture. The Congregational churches operated the same way. Prior to the American Revolution at least two Congregational ministers, Solomon Palmer and Samuel Seabury, lost their congregations and decided to take Anglican orders. Some found other jobs. Today a United Church of Christ minister has other options, but the congregation still has power to choose.


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