Last month an instructor at the elite Groton School — founded in 1884 by, among others, J.P. Morgan and Endicott Peabody, its first rector, a descendant of Massachusetts Puritans — wrote me to take issue with some kind words I’ve published in this summer’s DEMOCRACY journal (subsequently adapted and posted by The Atlantic) about the Puritan steel in Groton’s bygone rites of passage to maturity and republican leadership as the school understood them .

“Groton is vastly different from Peabody’s school, with its culture of ‘manly Christianity,’” my correspondent sniffed, adding that “If it were anything like the Rector’s institution, I wouldn’t have spent these years teaching here.”

Can anything be said in defense of “manly Christianity” by anyone besides a true believer, especially now that Americans have taken new steps, whether in South Carolina or at the Supreme Court, to broaden our understandings of racial and sexual comity? Wasn’t the pedagogy of old preparatory schools such as Groton so elitist, sexist, and racist that we’re well rid of it?

Well, sort-of.

The old schools’ rigorous disciplines — extra-curricular, as well as curricular — were often unjustified and often misdirected, often hypocritically, and not only because they were institutionally sexist and racist. Some of them, including Groton and Choate, were founded late in the 19th-Century amid a phony revival of Puritanism by Gilded Age plutocrats hoping mainly to toughen their sons to exercise elite prerogatives.

Yet, that wasn’t what inspired civic visionaries such as Teddy Roosevelt, an early Groton supporter, or Peabody, flawed though they were; it wasn’t the schools’ deciding influence upon such Groton students as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, and Averill Harriman, or Choate students such as John F. Kennedy, or on scores of other future American leaders who strengthened the foundations of a more open, just society. Gilded Age prep schools emulated older ones, such as New York City’s Collegiate School and the Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts and Exeter, New Hampshire, founded long before or soon after American independence, in inculcating an ethic of citizen leadership that had begun with Puritans.

Groton’s motto, Cui servire est regnare — “To serve is to rule”— sure sounds craftily elitist. But it also carries the admonition of John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to fellow settlers in 1630: “It is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” Not content with sermons, Puritans based their commonwealth on a covenant, a social compact deeper than a legal contract. They seeded what the sociologist Philip Gorski, author of the forthcoming A Nation of Prophets: Civil Religion and Culture Wars from Winthrop to Obama, characterizes as “the complementarity of personal and social accountability and freedom and responsibility. The old languages of covenant and republic can give us some of the vocabulary we need.”

Something of those “old languages” drove graduates of these schools such as Roosevelt; the political writer Dwight Macdonald, a descendant of two Puritan college presidents; Elliot Richardson, the U.S. Attorney General who sacrificed his career rather than betray the republic when he refused President Richard Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox; Yale president Kingman Brewster, Jr., a descendant of Massachusetts Pilgrims who honored Martin Luther King, Jr. at the university’s 1964 commencement, when some Yale alumni thought him a lawbreaker, because Brewster saw that the civil-rights movement was recalling the republic to its mythic and covenantal origins; and of college chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who led students in resisting the government on behalf of the republic during the Vietnam War.

These men had civic steel and faith – and some of them, dare I say it, a “manly Christianity” — worthy of Puritans who believed what many of us, liberal and conservative, have forgotten: A good society, like a healthy individual, strides on both a “left” foot of social provision — of the village that raises the child, without which conservatives’ civic virtues won’t flourish — and a “right” foot of irreducibly personal responsibility, without which even the best “progressive” social engineering will reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

Puritans wove these truths decisively into the foundations of the republic. Americans have acquired that civic stride and faith not only in the schools and colleges that Puritans founded, of course, but also in historically black colleges and churches, state universities, immigrant settlement houses, labor unions, sporting leagues, YMCA’s and civic associations. But a surprisingly high proportion of even those institutions have been founded, led, and funded by graduates of the older, Puritan-derived schools. Barack Obama’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago is part of the black branch of the Congregational Church founded originally by Massachusetts Puritans. There he absorbed the language and some premises of his own variant of “manly Christianity.”

Say anything good about Puritan civic pedagogy these days, though, even to legatees of Puritanism itself, and you’re likely to get an “Out, damned spot!” reaction that perpetuates a tragicomic American obsession. We say “puritanical” to characterize anything we judge repressive, sanctimonious, and hypocritical, not noticing that we do it somewhat repressively, sanctimoniously, and hypocritically, suppressing challenges whatever is our latest conventional wisdom.

Maybe we’re still battling the Gilded Age’s 19th-Century miscarriages of Puritanism instead of coming to terms with what it bequeathed us –a challenge that scares libertarians, free-market conservatives, civil-liberties and welfare-state liberals, Davos neoliberals, and anyone else who imagines that some variant of marketed “individualism,” bureaucratic nudging, or surveillance will save us.

It won’t. Nor will throwing out the “baby” of social bonding and quasi-covenantal obligation that sustained the dreaded “manly Christianity” even as we very rightly throw out the dirty bathwater of the racism and sexism in which it was bathed.

Prep schools and colleges should also be throwing out the elitism that came along with it – instead of trying to compensate for the deception by holding revival rallies against racism and sexism.

The novelist John Irving likened such misplaced moralism, borne of a tormented, “puritanical” conscience, to wearing dirty socks that you don’t wash or discard but keep turning inside out and wearing again and again. From “manly Christianity” to ungendered whatever, we remain as moralistic and censorious as ever.

My Groton correspondent didn’t mention his institution’s unbroken record of preparing students for a global corporate “meritocracy” perhaps because the school is too busy turning its dirty socks inside out, replacing a variant of manly Christianity that once disguised the servicing and sinuous apologetics of greed with the “diversity” of a colorfully and sexually diverse multinational elite that serves greed quite as determinedly as its predecessors did.

That kind of diversity doesn’t strengthen the republican or moral code whose champions I’ve mentioned. It dissolves republican virtue and sovereignty while tending a cyber-web of constraints thicker and more intimately repressive than anything Puritans ever imagined.

Admittedly, it’s hard for old schools to disentangle civic-republican bonding from their patrilineal, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant origins. They deserve credit for trying. Groton’s current headmaster, Temba Maqubela, left South Africa in 1976, at 17, and taught in several American venues, including New York City public schools, before becoming dean of faculty at the Phillips Academy, Andover and, now, Groton’s head. And he is trying to enable more children of parents who aren’t wealthy to enter the school.

On the sexual front, Choate-Rosemary Hall, founded four years after Groton, featured a talk by a transgendered student (from the Phillips Andover Academy) this year at Choate’s fifth annual gay-straight alliance conference.

But while such shifts broaden the meanings of American independence, they don’t by themselves inculcate civic dedication deeply enough in youths’ formative years to sustain them later against temptation and intimidation. As elite schools open their doors to children of black diplomats, Hispanic multi-millionaires, and women CEOs, will they also deepen their students’ commitments to sustaining a commonwealth on any scale?

Puritans lost their own balance as they tried to ride and channel economic and demographic riptides beyond their control. Yet, sometimes despite themselves, they did gestate a civic-republican vision that has helped Americans to navigate swifter currents and to resist the “left-vs.-right” binaries that have hobbled our civic stride.

As R H. Tawney put it in 1926, “There was in Puritanism an element which was conservative and traditionalist, and an element which was revolutionary; a collectivism which grasped at an iron discipline, and an individualism which spurned the savorless mess of human ordinances; a sober prudence which would garner the fruits of this world, and a divine recklessness which would make all things new.”

Groton’s Peabody, who corresponded frequently with FDR until their lives ended a year apart, urged his students to honor John Winthrop’s rule that “particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” In 1963, JFK’s eloquent, unrehearsed, nationwide appeal for civil rights legislation after the March on Washington drew on republican commitments he’d internalized long before he considered racial justice.

Will the old schools merely replace their old, flawed straight-white-male cohort with non-white LGBT managers and apologists for concentrations of power that a true liberal education would interrogate before serving? Will they only turn their socks inside out, re-enacting the faux-Puritanism that the philosopher George Santayana captured well in his novel The Last Puritan:

“The old Calvinists… hadn’t been pure enough: You were not pure at all, unless it was for the love of purity: but with them it had all been a mean calculation of superstition and thrift and vengeance… They had flattered themselves that… God had sent down Moses and Christ to warn them of the dangers ahead, so that they might run in time out of the burning house, and take all the front seats in the new theater. And they… wanted to find, in some underhanded way, what was the will of God and be always on the winning side.”

If we imagine that we’re striding into a world more sunny and flat than that, we’ll miss the true Puritan understanding that the world has abysses. And then we’ll wind up just claiming the front seats in a new theater. And we’ll, opening suddenly at our feet and in our hearts, and that the young need inspiration and coordinates powerful enough to plumb them, face the demons in them, and even, sometimes, defy established powers instead of serving them. The old schools and colleges can’t avoid that challenge by misappropriating diversity as they sometimes did manly Christianity — to dodge having to uphold John Winthrop’s “true rule” that “particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.”

[Cross-posted at]

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Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.