Sarah Vowell on the Puritans' Legacy

The author and 'This American Life' correspondent talks about her book on the colonies' early religious leaders

Puritan leader John Winthrop arrives in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Corbis)

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You write about having some American Indian heritage yourself. Did that influence your research and writing at all, in terms of how you felt as you were reading about this?
Well, it influences who I am in terms of my relationship with American history. I wouldn't exist if not for the failure of the constitution. I wouldn't exist if the Indian removal policies of Andrew Jackson hadn't forced my Cherokee ancestors on the Trail of Tears at gunpoint. Knowing that, at such an early age...has sort of clouded my view of American history. It doesn't just influence how I look at American history, it influences how I think about the world—that you always have to be aware of who is telling a story, and how a story is told.

I think that very little biographical detail makes me naturally suspicious. But the other thing it does it make me naturally interested.

The same thing with the Puritans. Before I tell you about all of the horrible things Winthrop and his fellow magistrates in the Bay Colony did...I tell you what I love about them, and I present their best selves. It makes the horrors they perpetrated all the more horrific, because you know they're capable of this great idealism and Christlike love, at the same time as you know they're capable of this just vicious physical violence. And even though that makes them seem not as likeable, it also makes them seem more interesting.

You refer to this short passage from Winthrop's sermon as "one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language:"

'We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. '

Can you talk about what these words mean to you?
The thing that's beautiful about the Puritans is their almost selfless insistence on interdependence, and on togetherness, and on agreeing to agree. But then, you know, the dark side of that is that anyone who disagrees, anyone who does stand up, anyone who does criticize the magistrates or ministers—they are banished.

That's why the first line of the book is: The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. Because every beautiful belief has this flipside, has this dark side. And certainly I think that's true in this country. This idea of ourselves as special and God's chosen people, it inspires us to think better of ourselves, and try harder and strive farther...but it also makes us less likely to question our own motives.

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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