Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History


"The American Constitution firmly separates church and state. Yet religion lies at the heart of American polities. How did America become a nation with the soul of a church? In Hellfire Nation, James Morone recasts American history as a moral epic. From the colonial era to the present day, Americans embraced a Providential mission, tangled with devils, and aspired to save the world." Moral fervor ignited our fiercest social conflicts - but it also moved dreamers to remake the nation in the name of social justice. Moral crusades inspired ...
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"The American Constitution firmly separates church and state. Yet religion lies at the heart of American polities. How did America become a nation with the soul of a church? In Hellfire Nation, James Morone recasts American history as a moral epic. From the colonial era to the present day, Americans embraced a Providential mission, tangled with devils, and aspired to save the world." Moral fervor ignited our fiercest social conflicts - but it also moved dreamers to remake the nation in the name of social justice. Moral crusades inspired abolition, woman suffrage, and civil rights, even as they led Americans to hand witches, enslave Africans, and ban liquor. Today moral arguments influence everything from abortion to impeachment, from education to foreign policy.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
In Mr. Morone's view, that moral streak has been America's Achilles' heel ever since the Puritans first "founded American moral politics" by going after religious dissidents, American Indians and scores of supposed witches with sometimes deadly opprobrium during the 17th century. Americans' eagerness to draw distinctions between "worthy and unworthy, between devout and degenerate," Mr. Morone says, reflects two "vital urges — redeeming `us' and reforming `them.' " But our insatiable appetite for a "politics of us and them" also reveals how the identification of a dangerous, morally inferior enemy provides "a shared identity" and "a renewed mission" for the devoutly worthy us. — David J. Garrow
The Washington Post
Hellfire Nation does place much of our public life in its proper soul-searching context -- and its careful anatomy of the hand-in-glove relations between the American state and the American faithful is both welcome and illuminating. We need more studies like it -- even if we also need less prodding to regard the American liberal tradition as something taken purely on faith. — Chris Lehmann
Library Journal
Morone (political science, Brown; The Democratic Wish) frames four centuries of U.S. history as a struggle between moralizers and social reformers. Since the first Puritan settlements, Americans have defined themselves in moral terms that require an immoral "other" as foil. Morone portrays an American soul torn in two by the clash between the individualist cult of state-imposed morality and the sect of social reformers seeking heaven through government programs. Political and social influence have shifted back and forth between "Victorians"-who preach about social decay, individual responsibility, and government strictures-and "social gospel" believers who look to the government to alleviate society's ill. Puritans used political power to punish dissenters; abolitionists beseeched the federal government to end the sin of slavery; temperance crusaders forced the entire country to take the pledge under Prohibition; and today, self-styled American patriots pay lip service to democracy while jailing Muslims without trial. This history of 400 years of social contention and moral suasion is recommended for academic and public libraries.-Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300094848
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2003
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.66 (h) x 1.77 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Hellfire Nation

The Politics of Sin in American History
By James A. Morone

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 James A. Morone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09484-1

Chapter One

The Puritan Foundations of Morality Politics (1630-1776)

* * *

We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken ... we shall surely perish out of the good land [which] we pass over the vast sea to possess. -Governor John Winthrop, 1630

You can and you can't ... You will and you won't ... You will be damned if you do And you will be damned if you don't. -Preacher Lorenzo Dow on Calvinism, 1814

In June 1630, four hundred English Puritans arrived in Salem, Massachusetts. There they found a squalid collection of shacks and tents, but what Governor John Winthrop reported in his journal was the good beer they drank with supper. (So much for the Puritan as teetotaler-but that's a story for a different chapter.) These were the first boatloads in a great migration-twenty thousand people followed over the next twelve years. By 1640, the New England Puritans made up more than half the European population in what would become the original United States.

From the start, these immigrants grappled with the perpetual American question: Who are we? In their search for answers, the Puritans wrote covenants that look something like modern constitutions, introduced political rules that roughly anticipate representative democracy, bore holes through Quaker tongues, whipped women for running naked through their villages, hanged the witches they found lurking in their midst, and prepared themselves for the millennial coming of Jesus to His new Israel.

This pious band of immigrants, living somewhere between the medieval and modern worlds, founded American moral politics. The Puritans articulated attitudes and organized institutions that-in constantly evolving ways-reach across American time. Exploring the Puritans and their legacy offers a new frame for old questions about American political identity.

Historians and literary critics will find this hard to swallow. The New England Puritans have already generated more scholarship, writes Gordon Wood, than "any similar small community in the history of the world." The studies have dug up details "far beyond anything the Puritans themselves could have coped with" (Bernard Bailyn), far beyond anything "sane men should want to know" (Edmund Morgan). Could we possibly have overlooked anything about these settlers?

Political scientists have overlooked almost everything about them. We generally start the American story with the Constitutional Convention of 1787-as if the United States sprang, fully formed, from James Madison's Enlightenment brain. But when you begin the story in 1630, a very different picture of America and its political culture snaps into view. Great bouts of moral fervor (from the second Great Awakening that roared through the country in the early nineteenth century to the culture wars rushing through it today) look less like anomalies and more like the soul of American politics.

In the traditional political story, the Puritans play unwitting colonial stagehands who set the scene for what we now call modern liberalism. Their view of work (a calling) and success (divine favor) would evolve into a great capitalist work ethic: work is virtuous, success smacks of salvation, poverty insinuates moral failure. The Puritan covenants would develop into secular constitutions. The elections by which the Puritans selected their leaders (who by election received a mandate from God) built the framework for modern elections and the mandate of the people.

Modernity, continues the usual story, began tugging on the Puritans almost from the start. Before they had been in America for a decade, Roger Williams insisted on separating church and state while Anne Hutchinson scorched colonial leaders over something vaguely like the rights of conscience. With time, Puritan religious forms and righteous fervor drained away, leaving the foundations of a profoundly liberal society. The result-liberal individualism-is both cheered and deplored. But, good or bad, it is said to drive off almost every other political possibility; liberalism seems to tower over American politics, culture, and institutions.

In this book I recast the story at the start of all that. American liberalism is tangled up in a very different story: the search for God, the moral urge. The trajectory of this alternate story does not run from religious to secular. Rather, American politics developed from revival to revival. The Puritan search for God organized all those pre-liberal institutions; piety drove them toward their modern forms.

Although the Puritan establishment grew rigid and zeal waned, fresh bouts of moral fervor remade the society. Rebels like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson shook up that establishment by demanding a more intense religious Experience-Williams separated church and state, for example, to protect the church from worldly corruption. A full century later, a fiery religious revival in the meetinghouses reorganized colonial politics and primed the colonists to challenge authority-even to defy the crown.

The Puritans constructed their society around a crusading religious spirit. They identified a mission: saving the world. Leaders used faith to impose order; renegades seized the religious spirit and fomented trouble. Still, the Puritan self proved exasperatingly elusive. Identity and solidarity had been a lot simpler back home in England. There, enemies defined the saints by persecuting them. Thomas Shepherd posed the ironic problem in 1636: "When men are persecuted by enemies, driven ... six miles off to ... hear a sermon ... then men thought, if one Sabbath here [is] so sweet ... in the midst of enemies, O how sweet to enjoy them all among saints, among friends. But New England's peace and plenty breeds ... strange security. There are no enemies to hunt you to heaven."

What to do? The Puritans groped back to the tried and true-they found terrible new enemies to define them. The saints constructed their "us" against a vivid series of immoral "them": heretics, Indians, witches. Each enemy clarified the Puritan identity.

Both sides of the Puritan vision would echo through the American experience. Religious revivals would reheat the old fervor and send it racing across the colonies. The little band of Rhode Island Baptists-boosted, as we'll see, by the tax code-rose up and spread. By the Revolution, three out of four Americans were professing some variation of the Puritan faith. The bulwarks of their regime-the grand mission, the special covenant, the tireless jeremiads-would all outlive the Puritans themselves. On the other side, a steady procession of dangerous others would continue to defy-and define-the American us.


Excerpted from Hellfire Nation by James A. Morone Copyright © 2003 by James A. Morone. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Nation with the Soul of a Church 1
Pt. I The Puritan Foundations of Morality Politics (1630-1776)
Ch. 1 Us: The City on a Hill 34
Ch. 2 Them: Heretic, Heathen, and Witch 55
Ch. 3 The Puritans Become America 100
Pt. II The Abolitionist Crusade (1800-1865)
Ch. 4 The Wrath of God in Black and White 123
Ch. 5 Abolition! 144
Ch. 6 South: The Pro-Slavery Argument 169
Ch. 7 North: The Ragged Chorus of the Union 183
Pt. III The Victorian Quest for Virtue (1870-1929)
Ch. 8 Purity and the Woman's Sphere 222
Ch. 9 White Slaves and the Modern Witch-Hunt 257
Ch. 10 Temperance: Crucible of Race and Class 281
Ch. 11 Prohibition and the Rise of Big Government 318
Pt. IV The Social Gospel at High Tide (1932-1973)
Ch. 12 The New Deal Call to Alms 350
Ch. 13 Manifest Destiny and the Cold War 378
Ch. 14 The Sixties 407
Pt. V The Puritans Roar Again
Ch. 15 Modern Morals 450
Epilogue 493
Notes 499
Index 561
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