A Constitutional Culture
New England and the Struggle Against Arbitrary Rule in the Restoration Empire
by Adrian Chastain Weimer
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In A Constitutional Culture, Adrian Chastain Weimer uncovers the story of how, more than a hundred years before the American Revolution, colonists pledged their lives and livelihoods to the defense of local political institutions against arbitrary rule.
With the return of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, the puritan-led colonies faced enormous pressure to conform to the crown’s priorities. Charles demanded that puritans change voting practices, baptismal policies, and laws, and he also cast an eye on local resources such as forests, a valuable source of masts for the English navy. Moreover, to enforce these demands, the king sent four royal commissioners on warships, ostensibly headed for New Netherland but easily redirected toward Boston. In the face of this threat to local rule, colonists had to decide whether they would submit to the commissioners’ authority, which they viewed as arbitrary because it was not accountable to the people, or whether they would mobilize to defy the crown.
Those resisting the crown included not just freemen (voters) but also people often seen as excluded or marginalized such as non-freemen, indentured servants, and women. Together they crafted a potent regional constitutional culture in defiance of Charles II that was characterized by a skepticism of metropolitan ambition, a defense of civil and religious liberties, and a conviction that self-government was divinely sanctioned. Weimer shows how they expressed this constitutional culture through a set of well-rehearsed practices—including fast days, debates, committee work, and petitions. Equipped with a ready vocabulary for criticizing arbitrary rule, with a providentially informed capacity for risk-taking, and with a set of intellectual frameworks for divided sovereignty, the constitutional culture that New Englanders forged would not easily succumb to an imperial authority intent on consolidating its power.
""With A Constitutional Culture, Adrian Chastain Weimer joins the first rank of historians of colonial New England and makes a powerful contribution to our understanding of the nature of political culture in early America. Weimer centers the period immediately following the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660 as the critical moment when a distinctive constitutional culture, different from and in resistance to the constitutional culture of Restoration England, coalesced in New England.""—Mark A. Peterson, Yale University
""Weimer’s deeply researched and elegantly written study offers fascinating new insight into the resistance of New Englanders to the absolutist pretensions of the Restoration monarchy. Drawing on a wide range of sources that highlight the social depth in politics in 1660s New England and the powerful interactions between the English state and Charles II’s subjects across the Atlantic, A Constitutional Culture is a must-read for English historians and Americanists alike.""—Tim Harris, Brown University