Why has New England handled the pandemic so well? Thank the Puritans.

Why We Wrote This

How has New England been able to get its coronavirus crisis under control, while other regions struggle? One answer may trace back to the Puritans, who laid the groundwork for strong local governments.

Courtesy of the town of Auburn
Town meeting members gather on a football field in order to maintain social distance in Auburn, Massachusetts, on June 2, 2020. "It was really cool just to see local government functioning in a completely unique manner," says Town Manager Julie Jacobson. "The town meeting we held in June had the highest attendance rate that we've had in 10 years." Auburn approved a 2021 fiscal budget and advanced plans to develop affordable housing.

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As the novel coronavirus continues to rage across the United States, New England is holding up relatively well. For instance, Massachusetts, the New England state hit hardest by the virus, registered 1 new case for every 2,000 or so residents last week, according to CDC data. Over that same period, Florida saw roughly 1 case for every 550 residents.

Compared with other parts of the country, New Englanders from across the political spectrum have been largely willing to wear masks and stay at home, a response that some observers trace back to the political culture of the region’s earliest European settlers.

This “all-in-this-together” attitude is a fundamental part of New England’s political culture, says Wendy Schiller, chair of the political science department at Brown University.

“Governance in New England retained that character, that where you lived and who you lived with would be part of how you were governed,” she says. She compares this viewpoint to the one established by Anglican settlers and slaveholders in the U.S. South, where tradition and deference to authority are emphasized. “You had a hierarchical social structure, a hierarchical religious structure, so they just didn’t really develop the same participatory, community-based way of governing that New England did,” she says.

In June, Auburn High School science teacher Erik Berg found himself at a town meeting like no other.

It took place on Memorial Field, home of the Auburn High School Rockets football team, with chairs spread out across the turf and a lectern set up in the bleachers. Attendees could also participate, drive-in style, by parking along the fence and tuning in with their car radios. To vote, they stuck color-coded paddles out the window, flashing green for “yes” or red for “no.” Other than a 4-minute bout of rain, the meeting ran smoothly, with the Massachusetts town passing a 2021 budget and advancing a senior housing plan. In fact, Mr. Berg says it was one of the most efficient and well-attended town meetings in which he has participated.

To some political scientists, this kind of participatory government is behind New England’s relative success in managing the coronavirus. The region has hardly remained unscathed by the pandemic. Massachusetts, in particular, became an early epicenter and has had the third-highest per capita COVID-19 death rate, after New York and New Jersey. But since that initial peak, the Bay State and Greater New England have largely brought the spread of the virus under control.

Even states that saw a late-summer uptick in reported cases have remained well below their April peaks. Massachusetts, still the New England state hit hardest by the virus, has seen about 3,400 cases in the past week, or 1 for every 2,000 residents. Over that same period, Florida saw roughly 1 case for every 550 residents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Compared with other parts of the country, New Englanders from across the political spectrum have been largely willing to limit travel, wear masks, and practice social distancing.

“There’s some people that might grumble about having to do things in a new way,” says Mr. Berg. “But I haven’t seen or heard of anybody actually just not following the rules.”

Wendy Schiller, chair of the political science department at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, says the “all-in-this-together” attitude is a fundamental part of New England’s political culture, predating party politics. She traces it back nearly 400 years to the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Some charters required colonists to return to England to conduct their business, but King Charles I made Massachusetts Bay a “charter colony,” meaning the administration was elected by colonists, and that government was allowed to reside in the New World. Puritan settlers, who were increasingly persecuted back in England, jumped on the opportunity to create a system that reflected their values.

“Governance in New England retained that character, that where you lived and who you lived with would be part of how you were governed,” she says, adding that the southern colonies were settled by Anglicans and relied more heavily on slavery. “You had a hierarchical social structure, a hierarchical religious structure, so they just didn’t really develop the same participatory, community-based way of governing that New England did.”

A moral political culture

Massachusetts Bay Colony had its charter revoked in 1684, in part for creating several laws that did not align with England’s. But it was too late to turn back the culture of local governance. As borders shifted, forming the modern New England states by 1820, communities held onto the idea that government is an egalitarian institution looking out for the common good.

Daniel Elazar, the political scientist who identified three dominant political subcultures in the United States, called this a moralistic view. Other cultures include individualistic, which sees government as a mechanism for protecting the marketplace, and traditionalistic, which sees government as an elite endeavor to maintain the status quo. Individualistic views originated with Anglican and Protestant settlers from England and Germany, he argued, and are common in states from New York to Wyoming. The traditionalistic culture developed in Virginia and Kentucky before spreading to the Deep South.

Joined by other Northern European immigrants, Puritans carried the moralistic values westward from the Great Lakes to Washington. Throughout the upper U.S., Elazar said people tend to trust government officials and view public service as an honorable profession. 

Critics of Elazar’s theory say it fails to consider the impact of recent immigration patterns, and that defining a state’s political culture is a futile task. Nevertheless, New England – where the moralistic culture originated – remains a hub of strong local government.

Today, major decisions are still made by town meetings. Counties play a minimal role in New England life, unless someone’s heading to court or the DMV. Rhode Island, the smallest state in the nation, has 39 municipalities and no county government.

In this together

Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri, sees a distinction at the state level, too. New England prefers less professional legislatures, with the exception of Massachusetts, which has a full-time legislature but pays members roughly half the salary of New York or California. The other New England states follow a part-time or hybrid model. New Hampshire has 400 representatives – the most per resident than any state in the U.S. – who get paid $100 a year.

Observers say the stubborn belief in good government has helped New Englanders resist anti-government sentiment and extreme polarization, with moderate Republican governors excelling in traditionally blue states like Massachusetts and Vermont.

“The technical term we use in political science is sticky, and these are sticky notions. They don’t change quickly or easily,” says Professor Squire.

It doesn’t mean there’s no objections to state mandates.

On the Rhode Island coast, Narragansett Town Council President Matthew Mannix made headlines with a proposal to defy the governor’s lockdown orders. He quickly dropped the effort due to a lack of support. In June, Gorham, Maine, passed a resolution declaring all businesses “essential,” allowing the town to fast-forward in the state’s reopening plan. In Massachusetts, a lack of compliance led to new virus clusters, prompting Gov. Charlie Baker to delay reopening.

But overall, the nonpartisan, local approach has been essential in getting rural and urban communities on board, says Julie Jacobson, Auburn’s town manager. Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns, each with its own board of health, which adapt state regulations to their own needs. The Baker administration has involved local leaders from the start, she says, meeting with the Massachusetts Municipal Association to discuss new data and challenges every week for the first four months of the crisis.

“The state has been very good about giving local government guidance and not directing us as to how to do our operations specifically,” she says. The main challenges are coordinating with neighboring municipalities and communicating with the public.

“Whether you’re talking about a dog park, or a new school, or in this case, a pandemic, it’s really critical to keep your residents informed and educated on what the issues are, so they feel confident that we are making decisions in their best interest,” she says. “At certain points [information is] changing on an hourly basis. And we all need to be flexible.”

That flexibility requires a deep well of public trust. Mr. Berg, the high school science teacher who grew up in Auburn, says there’s plenty. 

“I guess if I lived in a community where the local officials have historically made a lot of blunders or done things that weren’t in the public’s best interest, I would feel more skepticism,” he says. “But at least in this community, I know that the town [officials have] built up a lot of goodwill.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

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