Anarchy – we think of it as something new, dating from the Seattle protests, 1968 Paris, 60s communes, the IWW, the Spanish Revolution, pre-soviet Russia, the Paris Communes.
Think 1630s Massachusetts and immigrants from England.
According to a book by T.H. Breen, Puritans and Adventurers, the 22,000 people who came from England during The Great Migration, 1630 to 1640, set up their new communities and villages along cooperative, “covenented” models.
We think of the Puritans as somber Calvinists with funny black hats and buckled shoes. We remember the stories from grade school of Puritans and Pilgrims coming to America to avoid religious persecution. That’s only part of the story.
England in the early 1600s was experiencing a tidal change from the rule of Queen Elizabeth to James I. James decided to take on the French militarily, necessitating the round up of cannon fodder (aka soldiers) in the all the towns and villages of the realm. This increased centralization f the military ran counter to conditions in Elizabethan England, when folx had gotten used to local autonomy and control. Life was village and community based, with the locals beholden to local lords and gentry, and far-off kings and princes considered a pretty uppity and meddling bunch, to be ignored whenever possible. James sent gangs of Irish mercenaries out into the villages and demanded that locals billet them in their homes, as the foreign ruffians dragged off the able-bodied men to serve the King across the Channel.
As part of the struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, James I sought to centralize the churches as well, and though Protestant, they were increasingly intolerant of ecclesiastic dissent and congregational experimentation, particularly those who sought a simpler, less bureaucratic approach to religion that ran counter to the centralized churches pomp, ceremony and demands for more and more money from the people, experimentation such as Puritanism.
To top off these social strains, the economy took a bad turn in East Anglia about this time, when immigrant cloth manufacturers entered the area and began taking jobs and business away from the locals.
So the move from England to America was not so much a flight to a new world where things would be different, but an escape from central authority to a place where things would stay the same.
Membership in the new communities in the Massachusetts Bay colony was by willing contract between the individual and the village. Immigrants were accepted into the community as “freemen,” which meant both membership in the social and economic community as well as the church. According to Breen, “The essential ingredient in this contract was free choice, for the Puritans believed that meaningful obedience could only grow out of voluntary consent, never out of coercion.”
The Massachusetts Bay colonists were our first anarchists, concerned first and foremost with anti-authoritarianism, cooperation and mutual aid. Even members of the military, in the form of covenented militias, called “trainbands,” in each village, voted to choose their own leadership. The Councils and Governorship of the Massachusetts Bay colonies accepted the decisions of the militias, since they knew they could not get cooperation from them without allowing this simple form of democracy.
In the end, it was money and commerce that did in this early anarchy. The voting franchise was further and further restricted after 1650, until, by the time of the American Revolution, only landed gentry could vote for political, economic and military organization and direction.
The next time you think of our “Founding Fathers,” think of them as anarchists!