The Career of Puritan Jurisprudence
Law and History Review, Vol. 26, pp. 227-58, 2008
Posted: 20 May 2008
This essay explores the long, complex history of an idea often taken for granted today: that early Massachusetts lived under something called Puritan jurisprudence, a distinctive legal order strongly shaped by Puritan religious commitments and social thought. While this notion is a commonplace in the historiography of early New England, the idea has not always been accepted. In particular, the Puritans themselves did not assume that they lived under a distinctive jurisprudence that could be termed Puritan. Given contemporary opinion, what intellectual and political commitments encouraged later interpreters to give credence to the notion of Puritan jurisprudence? The heart of this article explores the gradual acceptance between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries of two presuppositions underlying the concept: first, that early Massachusetts had a legal order sufficiently distinctive to be styled a jurisprudence; and, second, that Puritan theology and social thought served as the central characteristic or essence of this jurisprudence. The mature synthesis of Puritan jurisprudence that crystallized in the twentieth century rested upon these assumptions. The central ambition of this essay is to explain how and why many scholars came to accept a concept that the Puritans, surveying their own law, would have found troubling. The essay adds a tincture of irony or poignancy to the notion of Puritan jurisprudence by revealing that those founders did not use the concept and that later generations only slowly came to accept it as a result of political and forensic maneuvers far removed from the concerns of the Puritans.
Keywords: new england, legal history, historiography, puritans, religion
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