Beacon Street Diary blog

Happy Birthday, Mrs. H.

This week the Congregational Library & Archives is helping to host a series of events marking the 425th anniversary of Anne Hutchinson's birth. Besides Anne, seventeenth-century Boston's famous Puritan dissenter, the list of attendees and speakers is pretty impressive. Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who issued a pardon in 1987 revoking the General Court's order of banishment, was present at an opening commemoration at the Hutchinson memorial on the State House Lawn last evening; afterwards, we retired to the Congregational Library & Archives for birthday cake and toasting. This morning Eve LaPlante, author of American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, will give a talk in the library's reading room. This afternoon, three prominent historians Mary Beth Norton, Catherine Brekus, and Robert Charles Anderson, will participate in a panel on Hutchinson's life and legacy, a conversation our executive director Peggy Bendroth be moderating at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

That's only the tip of the iceberg, though. The celebration also includes other events in Boston, including a walking tour, and an expanded itinerary following Anne's travels from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and then New York. (See the Anne Marbury Hutchinson Foundation website for further information about schedule and tickets.) It's a tribute to an unusual and gifted woman who charted her own path — and paid the price for doing so.

Involvement in these events makes sense for the Congregational Library & Archives, as we live at the intersection of serious academic scholarship and the wider world of people who are just plain interested in history. We are committed to supporting excellent historical research in every way possible, but more than that to provide occasions for two-way conversations between academics and readers from other professions and walks of life. That's why we host "History Matters" lunches: we want to build a conversation between professional historians and people who, though they might not read through an entire academic tome footnotes and all, want to know what it's about and why it's important.

In the case of Anne Hutchinson, that intersection is tricky. Most people do not have an opportunity to learn much about the New England Puritans. Our average tourist here in Boston, for example, can go on a Duckboat and hear a spiel about Quakers being hanged or might go up to Salem and visit the "witch museum". Everything else is the American Revolution: Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, Redcoats and Tea Parties. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but why stop there? We'd argue that you can't really understand what happened in 1776 without first knowing something about the Puritans — not lore and stereotypes but history in all its nuance and complexity. They were, after all, the ones who laid the ground rules for participatory democracy, in churches that gave voice to ordinary church members and demanded accountability from those in power.

The Puritans were not, in other words, a monolithic group of killjoys terrified of free speech, so afraid of Anne Hutchinson that they drove her into exile. They were people — just like us — who wanted a close-knit community, motivated by a common vision of the common good. And, like us, they stumbled over the problem of dissent, the clash between individual freedom and community integrity. Back in the 1630s Anne Hutchinson paid a steep price for challenging those categories — but are we any different now? Our own debates about gay marriage and immigration are in many ways the continuation of one started in Puritan Boston long ago.

Of course, there's another mythology about the Puritans that's just as inaccurate and potentially harmful as the witch-burning stereotypes. It's the declaration that they were the source of everything good and decent about American society, the ones who established the United States as a "Christian nation". That's a disservice not only to the Native Americans who fell in the Puritans' wake but to all those other founding fathers and mothers in other colonies like, say, Virginia.

To my mind, Anne Hutchinson fits best in between all of our myths and legends about the Puritans. She was, at bottom, a woman who was willing to defy categorization, and accepted the price for doing so. Now that's a birthday worth celebrating.