Scott McDermott


M.A., History, Saint Louis University
B.A., Cornell University

Year Matriculated into Graduate Program:
Fall 2007

Graduate Field:
United States History

Colonial New England

Dissertation and Advisor
Dissertation:  Body of Liberties: Godly Constitutionalism and the Origin of Written Fundamental Law in Massachusetts, 1634-1691

This dissertation locates the beginnings of written constitutionalism in a circle of political leaders called "godly constitutionalists." Far from a parochial clique of American exceptionalists, the godly constitutionalists composed a well-educated and cosmopolitan group that participated in a vibrant transatlantic exchange of ideas. They included Nathaniel Ward, whose book The Simple Cobler of Aggawam proved an English publishing sensation, Massachusetts Gov. Simon Bradstreet and his wife Anne Bradstreet, the first renowned Anglo-American poet, and Gov. Richard Bellingham, who strenuously opposed the policies of longtime Gov. John Winthrop. Godly constitutionalists were typically university-educated men strongly influenced by Protestant scholasticism, who drew on their English university formation to import such originally medieval concepts as the body politic, the natural law, the right of resistance, popular sovereignty, and the moral economy into American political culture. These ideas, as well as political experiences in both Old and New England, informed the "Body of Liberties" drafted by Nathaniel Ward and adopted as the fundamental law code of Massachusetts Bay in 1641. The dissertation moves beyond the level of formative ideas into an analysis of how the godly constitutionalist agenda played out on the ground in such laboratories as the Indian "praying towns." Understanding this movement fills a gap in American historiography; historians' explorations of such influences as colonial charters and the common law have thus far proven inadequate to account for the origins of written constitutionalism. A consideration of godly constitutionalism shows that American constitutional culture sprang neither from the concept of a "Christian nation" nor from democratic progressivism, but rather from deeply-rooted convictions about society, modified in response to human needs in the American colonial setting.

Advisor: Michal Jan Rozbicki

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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