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How to Govern a City on the Hill: The Early Puritan Contribution to American Constitutionalism

24 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2011 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017

John Witte

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 1990


While they maintained firm and sometimes brutal religious establishments, the New England Puritans also helped cultivate a number of striking constitutional ideas that would prove influential for the United States after the American Revolution. Among the most novel were their ideas of social, political, and ecclesiastical covenants, rooted in biblical covenant thinking but prescient of later secular social and government contract theories. Also influential were their ideas of natural rights and liberties and their necessary protection by church and state authorities alike. But the Puritans’ most prescient and enduring contribution lay in their theory of sin and the need to create constitutional safeguards against tyranny. This led them to develop early doctrines of separation of church and state, separation of powers within church and state, checks and balances amongst these powers, federalist layers of authority, codification of laws and limitations on equity, democratic election of religious and political officials, and the practice of congregational and town meetings between elections to render officials accountable to their constituents.

The themes and contents of this early Article were greatly expanded and revised in the author’s later book: The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Keywords: Puritanism; Constitution; Covenant; Natural Rights and Liberties; Separation of Church and State; Separation of Powers; Checks and Balances; Democratic Election; Town Meetings; Congregational Meetings; John Winthrop; Thomas Hooker; Samuel Willard

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, How to Govern a City on the Hill: The Early Puritan Contribution to American Constitutionalism (1990). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 39, p. 41, 1990; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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