The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sarah Vowell doesn't disappoint. This book wasn't quite as enjoyable as Assassination Vacation, but I blame her subjects for that. The Puritans are even grimmer than three assassinated presidents. She focuses specifically on the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded several years after the settlement at Plymouth Rock and differed from them in some key ways. One of her main themes is the dissenters within the colony (dissent taking the form of theological differences of opinion).
I especially liked her portrayal of Roger Williams, a man banished from the colony for his loud-mouth opinions. Though even more purely Puritan than most of his neighbors, he ended up in hot water on religious grounds. He advocated for a separation of religion from government, fearing that civic involvement would just drag God through the mud and get him involved in lowly dealings. He was ultimately banished and went on to found the first settlement in Rhode Island (the first settlement to get a charter from the king that codified freedom of religion -- the oldest American Jewish temple is in R.I.). Vowell's portrayal of Williams is engaging because she captures how, though he would have been a pain in the ass to live with, his ideas were important. (He even said that the King of England didn't have the right to deed land to the colonies -- the colonists should have purchased it from the Indians. He paid the Indians in Rhode Island for his land there.) Vowell gets at the idea of how dissenters upset day-to-day routine, which would have been significant in a new settlement in the wilderness where people are just trying to survive the winter. But we have to make room for them in a free society. Vowell says about Williams that is hard to like him, but easy to love him. And she makes her case.
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