The customary modern image of the New England Puritans is a dark one: the Puritans, religious dissenters who valued propriety and order, are seen as a witch-hunting, suspicious tribe, and their very name carries connotations of grimness and primness.
Thirty years ago, at the outset of his career as a historian, John Demos decided to reexamine that view in light of the evidence. Among the findings that he reports in A Little Commonwealth is the surprising discovery that the Puritans were not so, well, puritanical. They were not, Demos argues, especially consumed by ideology, and in their daily lives, "religion seems to figure in a somewhat haphazard and occasional way." The Puritans, he continues, had no unusual objections to sexuality or fun-seeking, except where such activities endangered social harmony--and the Puritans were indeed fiercely protective of group stability. Demos examines such documents as the transcripts of divorce proceedings to suggest that Puritan women enjoyed, if not equal rights, then better consideration than most women in other English colonies in the New World. He looks closely into the material culture of the Puritans, which shows some odd discrepancies: for instance, although few households possessed more than a single chair (usually reserved for the elderly), many contained elaborate wardrobes--for, Demos writes, "clothing was not only a good investment for a man of some means; it was also a way of demonstrating his standing in the larger community and of confirming his own self-image."
In questioning the view of the Puritans as a plain-dressing, plain-living, haunted, and repressed sect, Demos provides a close and intriguing look at the New England past. Reissued on the 30th anniversary of its first publication, A Little Commonwealth deserves a wide audience today. --Gregory McNamee
"[A Little Commonwealth makes] our forebears come alive, not as cute, little democratic wind-up toys useful for indoctrinating children and Fourth of July speeches, but as irascible, intolerant, undemocratic, but real and fascinating human beings."--Commonweal
"Demos writes with great charm, his easy, relaxed style having much muscle underneath."--National Review
"One of the finest pieces of local history that I have read in years....Because Demos writes clear, terse, flowing prose, his book will be a delight to the general reader as well as the scholar....[His] portrait of family life is captivating."--Saturday Review