New England’s Greatest Gift to America

Is this New England’s greatest gift to America? Well, it’s just our opinion…

By Judson D. Hale

Dec 01 2014

As many of us prepare to celebrate Christmas this month, I think it might be appropriate for us to appreciate the fact that we have the freedom to do so. Unlike some countries you and I know about, we have no laws dictating how, when – or whom – we worship.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, thanks to one Roger Williams, little Rhode Island was the first civilized community in the world to allow freedom of religion. When it came to tolerance, they were way ahead of, for instance, the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.

The Puritans insisted everyone adhere – strictly – to Christianity. As for Christmas, well, there was to be no decorating trees, hanging stockings, giving gifts or “celebrating” in any way. All that sort of things would be way too much fun and “fun” was a definite no no.

However, before we dismiss these early Massachusetts settlers as intolerant, religious extremists, we should remember that it was these same people who came up with what I believe may well be the greatest gift New England has given to America. I’m referring to a certain tool these early settlers used to tell right from wrong. Throughout our history and unto the present day, it’s been known as The New England Conscience. John Quincy Adams once called New England “the colony of Conscience” and in most references to it in 19th century literature it is invariable capitalized.

For me, the best definition of the New England Conscience was one stated by the late Mary Peabody, mother of Governor Endicott Peabody and wife of Malcolm Peabody, Episcopal bishop of central New York. Remember when, sometime during the early 1960’s she went to St. Augustine, Florida, and, at age seventy-two, ended up in jail as a result of the Civil Rights demonstration at a local restaurant? As I recall, there were many people across America at that time who considered her as simply a meddling, do-gooding old coot looking for headlines. But I think most New Englanders knew better. They knew she was sincere.

“Do your duty, do your part in life – that’s what being a New Englander means to me,” she told my Dublin, N.H. neighbor, author Richard Meryman, when he talked with her in her Cambridge home fourteen years later. “Doing your duty, caring for things that are good and true, being a terrible prig, I suppose.”

The fuel shortage of the 1970’s had begun at the time of Meryman’s Yankee Magazine interview. “I don’t allow myself a fire if I don’t have anyone here,” said this frail, then eighty-six-year-old widow lady as she sat covered by a shawl, the thermostat set at sixty, in her ancestral home surrounded by memorabilia of her distinguished, wealthy, and influential ancestors.

“In my mother-in-law’s Bible, after she died, I found a little note she had written to herself. It said ‘Remember to be cheerful.’ I think that’s very important, not to complain, to say you’re lonely all the time. All I say is, I’m cold all the time…I’m very frugal. Also the thing to do is save energy. So I put on layers like the Chinese. My layers of clothes.”

I remember that after reading this, I felt like calling upon John Winthrop, Cotton Mather or any of the old-time leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to let poor old Mary Peabody off the hook. Enough of that Puritan ethic that’s passed down through so many generations. Why not tell her she can have a fire now? She could say she’s lonely, too. Let her alone, for heaven’s sake.

But, of course, that wouldn’t help. She would tell them how it ought to be. She didn’t need “permission” from anybody, past or present. For Mary Peabody, the only voice of authority was that which was deep within her – the voice of her New England Conscience.

Somehow, subtly, mysteriously I believe the New England Conscience (or call it what you will) remains within people of every faith throughout America today. It’s our strength, our leg-up on those who would do us harm.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Hanukkah, too.