Morgan’s book, “The Challenge of the American Revolution,” published in the bicentennial year of American Independence (1976), includes an important essay titled “The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution.” As the cover states, “this volume presents an eminent historian’s progress over thirty years in trying to understand the American Revolution.” This essay in particular conveys what Morgan believes to be the primary ideals that guided the Revolution “in all of its phases.” A selection of quotes from this compelling essay on the Puritan Ethic follow:
“Without pretending to explain the whole exciting variety of the revolution, I would like to suggest that the movement in all its phases, from the resistance to Parliamentary taxation in the 1760’s to the establishment of a national government and national policies in the 1790’s was affected, not to say guided, by a set of values inherited from the age of Puritanism [not to imply that the American Revolutionists were all Puritans].” (89)
“These values or ideas, which I will call collectively the Puritan Ethic, were not unconscious or subconscious, but were deliberately and openly expressed by men of the time. The men who expressed them were not Puritans, and a few of the ideas included in the Puritan Ethic were actually new. Many of them had existed in other intellectual contexts before Puritanism was heard of, and many of them continue to exist today, as they did in the Revolutionary period, without the support of Puritanism. But Puritanism wove them together in a single rational pattern, and Puritans planted the pattern in America.” (89-90)
“The Ethic conveyed the idea of each man’s and woman’s “calling” in life. “The emphasis of [work or labor] was on productivity for the benefit of society. In addition to working diligently at productive tasks, a man was supposed to be thrifty and frugal. It was good to produce but bad to consume any more than necessity required. A man was but a steward of the possessions he accumulated. If he indulged himself in luxurious living, he would have that much less with which to support church and society. If he needlessly consumed his substance, either from carelessness or from sensuality, he failed to honor the God who furnished him with it.” (91)
The Puritans “knew that they must be thankful for prosperity, that like everything good in the world it came from God. But they also knew that God could [allow] it as a temptation, that it could lead to idleness, sloth and extravagance… Adversity, on the other hand, though a sign of God’s temporary displeasure, and therefore a cause for worry, was also God’s means of recalling a people to him.” (92)
“Whether they derived their ideas from history thus interpreted or from Puritan tradition or elsewhere, Americans in the Revolutionary period in every colony and state paid tribute to the Puritan Ethic and its injunctions. Although it was probably strongest among Presbyterians and Congregationalists like Benjamin Rush and Samuel Adams, it is evident among Anglicans like Henry Laurens and Richard Henry Lee and even among deists like Franklin and Jefferson. Jefferson’s letters to his daughters sometimes sound as though they had been written by Cotton Mather [popular American Congregational minister and author 1663-1728]: “It is your future happiness which interests me, and nothing can contribute more to it (moral rectitude always excepted) than the contracting a habit of industry and activity.” (94)
“…the major developments, the resistance to Great Britain, independence, the divisions among the successful revolutionists, and the formulation of policies for the new nation, were all discussed and understood by men of the time in terms derived from the Puritan Ethic. And the way men understood and defined the issues before them frequently influenced their decisions.” (95)
“And so it proved in the years that followed [the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, the Townshend Acts and Coercive Acts]: as their Puritan forefathers had met providential disasters with a renewal of virtue that would restore god’s favor, the Revolutionary generation met taxation with self-denial and industry that they hoped would restore their accustomed freedom and enable them to identify with their virtuous ancestors.” (96)
On December 13, 1773, the Newport Mercury (Rhode Island) stated, “The Americans have plentifully enjoyed the delights and comforts, as well as the necessities of life, and it is well known that an increase of wealth and affluence paves the way to an increase of luxury, immorality and profaneness, and here kind providence interposes; as it were, obliges them to forsake the use of their delights, to preserve their liberty.” (97)
“In these appeals for self-denial, the Puritan Ethic acquired a value that had only been loosely associated with it hitherto: it became an essential condition of political liberty. Americans like Englishmen had long associated liberty with property. They now concluded that both rested on virtue.” (97)
The Boston Evening Post, November 16, 1767, asserted that, “by consuming less of what we are not really in want of, and by industriously cultivating and improving the natural advantages of our own country, we might save our substance, even our lands, from becoming the property of others, and we might eventually preserve our virtue and our liberty, to the latest posterity.” (98)
To tax a man without his consent, Samuel Adams wrote in the Boston Gazette (December 19, 1768), was “against the plain and obvious rule of equity, whereby the industrious man is entitled to the fruits of his industry.” (102)
“Students of the American Revolution have often found it difficult to believe that the colonists were willing to fight about an abstract principle and have sometimes dismissed the constitutional arguments of the time as mere rhetoric. But the constitutional principle on which the colonists rested their case was not the product either of abstract political philosophy or the needs of the moment. In the colonists’ view, the principle of no taxation without representation was a means, hallowed in history, of protecting property and of maintaining those virtues, associated with property, without which no people could be free.” (102-03).
“The calling of a ruler, as the colonists and their Puritan forebearers saw it, was like any other calling: it must serve the common good; it must be useful, productive; and it must be assiduously pursued.” (103)
“A principal means of corruption had been the multiplication of officeholders who served no useful purpose but fattened on the labors of those who did the country’s work. Even before the dispute over taxation began, few colonists who undertook trips to England failed to make unflattering comparisons between the simplicity, frugality, and industry that prevailed in the colonies and the extravagance, luxury, idleness, drunkenness, poverty, and crime that they saw in the mother country.” (103)
“By the time the First Continental Congress came together in 1774, large numbers of leading Americans had come to identify Great Britain with vice and America with virtue, yet with the fearful recognition that virtue stands in perennial danger from the onslaughts of vice.” (105-06)
As John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3rd 1776 – the day following the vote of the Continental Congress to adopt Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of Independence – many of the themes of the Puritan Ethic highlighted by Morgan are clearly manifest:
“Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony ‘that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.’ You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impelled Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days.
“When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superior Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprised at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution. Britain has been filled with Folly, and America with Wisdom, at least this is my Judgment.—Time must determine. It is the Will of Heaven, that the two Countries should be sundered forever. It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonor, and destroy Us.—The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings. The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extremely addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great.—I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter. But I must submit all my Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the Faith may be, I firmly believe.” (spelling modernized).
We as Americans would do well to study, ponder and reflect on the principles of faith in God - the Hand of Providence, prayer, work, thrift, frugality, stewardship, self-denial, humility, sacrifice, morality and virtue that guided our Revolutionary forefathers and mothers in establishing this land of liberty.
 Williams Grimes, New York Times, July 9, 2013.
 (Edmund S. Morgan, The Challenge of the American Revolution (W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 1976), pp. 88-138. See also, William and Mary Quarterly, XXIV (Jan., 1967), 3-43).