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The Sword or the Scroll: The Power of Rhetoric in Colonial New England

Published inAmerican studies, vol. 33, no. 1, p. 45-61
Publication date1992

The "America" in "American Studies" is an increasingly controversial object of study. At a time when minority group claims to serious intellectual consideration are becoming more urgent and are producing real change in academic curricula, it is imperative that teachers of American culture decide precisely what view of the world it is that they are promoting and why. Blurring the difference between "America" and the "United States" is only the most obvious of the hegemonic claims made by American Studies on behalf of the Anglo-American tradition in the New World. Among the most pervasive of these claims is the importance accorded the founding fathers of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the characteristic style of their rhetoric. The argument of this essay is that the typological rhetoric of the orthodox New England clergy was used for hegemonic purposes in order to claim, if not to preserve, a share of political power in the evolving colonial government. Typology, the reading of history as a pattern of promises and fulfillments, assumes a guiding intelligence of transcendent authority who touches and empowers the typological interpreter. It is the human decoding of significant repetitions that places the typological pattern within a specific historical context typological signs are the "parts" that hint at but do not fully reveal the "whole" of God's redemptive scheme. The interpreter must speak what God cannot. Typology thus confers a quasi-divine legitimacy upon human political decisions because the rhetorical framework within which decisions are made assumes such a legitimacy. The Massachusetts elite exploited the power of rhetoric to promote a peculiar view of the nature of the colonized New World, a view that depended crucially upon the role of the clergy within colonial government. That the ideal church-state never became a political reality only enhanced the appeal of a rhetorical style that asserted the authority of the clergy to speak both for God and for community.

  • Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • Religion
  • New England Puritanism
  • Congregationalism
  • Protestantism
  • Typology
  • Rhetoric
  • American Exceptionalism
  • John Cotton
  • Roger Williams
Citation (ISO format)
MADSEN, Deborah Lea. The Sword or the Scroll: The Power of Rhetoric in Colonial New England. In: American studies, 1992, vol. 33, n° 1, p. 45–61.
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Article (Accepted version)
  • PID : unige:88208
ISSN of the journal0026-3079

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