Abstract:  This paper analyzes features of current American society and its Puritan heritage in light of Ferdinand Toennies' theory of community, which distinguishes between the ideal types of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). In order to determine the Puritan colonies' status as Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft, a comparison with the Lakota tribe is presented; the Lakotas serving as representative of the ideal type of Gemeinschaft. After determining that the Puritans formed a society rather than true community, their influence on contemporary American society is examined using Reagan's 1987 State of the Union Address, as well as his farewell speech. The nature of that Puritan Gesellschaft is evident even to this day, through the heritage our nation has received from those early beginnings.


Title: Puritan Gesellschaft as America's Heritage

2009 SAAP Paper Submission

Consideration for “Original Work in the Spirit of the American Tradition”




Puritan Gesellschaft as America's Heritage

            John Winthrop, in his famous speech upon the Arabella, described the then-upcoming Puritan colony as a “city upon a hill”[1]. He referenced this colony as a community intended by God. His goal was to inspire and comfort the soon-to-be colonists, to prepare the for the travails ahead. Aspects of his speech, however, have proved to be timeless, used by politicians through the centuries to current times. When speaking of early and current American communities, or when discussing if they did indeed exist as communities, it is important to contextualize such discussions. Drawing from Ferdinand Toennies'[2] distinctions between community and society, one can determine the answers to several questions: Was the idea of the Puritan community as described by Winthrop a community in the tradition of Toennies ? Did politicians quoting from Winthrop (such as Ronald Reagan) use Winthrop in the correct context? And, finally, Are there, in some sense, aspects of community in American culture, or has the community become society? Superficially, judging from Winthrop's speech, one can surmise that Winthrop's vision of the Puritan community was a real community, or Gemeinschaft. However, upon examination of political documents, and further thought, it becomes evident that though the community possessed many characteristics of a Gemeinschaft, it was still, in essence, a Gesellschaft. The nature of that Puritan Gesellschaft is evident even to this day, through the heritage our nation has received from those early beginnings.

            In Community and Society, Toennies distinguishes between Gemeinschaft, or community, and Gesellschaft, or society. He says of Gemeinschaft that it is “conceived of...as real and organic life,” and that “All intimate, private, and exclusive living together” takes place in this Gemeinschaft[3]. The Gemeinschaft is the realm of ethics, mores, and beliefs. This “organic life” he refers to is that which takes into account the totality of the community. One can imagine a community in Toennies' sense as a kinship amongst people, even if not by blood; it is a network of relations and emotions, an organic entity that strives together for the good of all. Toennies writes,

            Reciprocal, binding sentiment as a peculiar will of a Gemeinschaft we shall call understanding      (consensus). It represents the special social force and sympathy which keeps human beings       together as members of a totality. [...] Understanding is based upon intimate knowledge of each           other in so far as this is conditioned and advanced by direct interest of one being in the life of            the other, and readiness to take part in his joy and sorrow.[4]


 What makes Gemeinschaft possible is physical proximity, blood relationship, and intellectual proximity. Toennies explicates the main laws of the Gemeinschaft, which are (1) that husband and wife love and easily adjust to one another, (2) that the people who love each other have understanding, and (3) that those who have understanding with one another “remain and dwell together and organize their common life.”[5] Together, these form the will of the Gemeinschaft.

            In contrast, the Gesellschaft, society, operates not out of understanding but out of economics. Rather than organic and real, it is “imaginary and mechanical” in structure[6]. While Gemeinschaft is lasting, the Gesellschaft is transitory. Toennies describes this quite eloquently, stating, “In contrast to Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft is transitory and superficial. Accordingly, Gemeinschaft should be understood as a living organism, Gesellschaft as a mechanical aggregate and artifact.”[7] When thinking of the Gesellschaft, one can think of it, then, as a direct opposite to the Gemeinschaft. It resembles the Gemeinschaft in that, in the Gesellschaft, individuals live together. However, in Gesellschaft, they are living in proximity, but not truly “together”. While the actions of individuals in the Gemeinschaft are for the totality of the Gemeinschaft, in the Gesellschaft, such actions are for the individual acting. Or, in other words, “everybody is by himself and isolated.”[8]  One can imagine the contrast between an interdependent farming community, in which neighbors work together and help one another because what is good for one is good for all, and an industry town, in which individuals live together, and perhaps work at the same factory, but do not have the same level of relation and dependence.

            While in the community, goods and beliefs have common value, in society, no such common value can be had. In some instances, the members of the society ascribe common value to things artificially. That is, one person will give a gift to another, and in that giving a value is ascribed. Toennies writes, “At any rate, during this period the piece which is getting separated from the sphere of 'A'  has not yet begun to be entirely under the dominion of 'B': It is still under the partial dominion of 'A' and already under the partial dominion of 'B'. It is still dependent upon both individuals...”[9] While it is still under the dominion of both “A” and “B”, it is considered in that instance to be a common good. However, this common goodness lasts only so long as this gift-giving lasts. In the Gemeinschaft, in contrast, common goodness pervades independently of a singular act of gift-giving.

            A “case study” can be done to show what a Gemeinschaft would, and should, look like. An ideal example of a community would be the Lakota tribe as described by Ella Deloria in selections from Speaking of Indians[10] and Robert Bunge in An American Urphilosophie: American Philosophy Before Pragmatism.[11] To begin with, kinship is more expansive than present-day Americans would conceptualize it. In the Lakota tribe, all maternal aunts were also referred to as “mother”, and all paternal uncles were referred to as “father”[12]. Including the children of all mothers and fathers, and relatives by marriage, one can well imagine how expansive a family unit was. There was no sense of the nuclear family as there is in today's American culture. Bunge writes, “Thus, the Indian child grew up among many fathers and mothers  in a village wherein everyone was related in some way. Since everyone in his small world was related, it was easy for the child to extend this notion of 'relatedness' beyond his village circle when he grew older...”[13] One can see the parallels in this paradigm of the world to Toennies' idea of community. As previously mentioned,  Toennies stated that the foundation of community and unity was blood relation or kinship.

            To the Lakota, this childhood understanding of the relatedness and expanse of relatives also served to adjust that child to view the rest of the world in a sense of relatedness. Such relatedness lead to adjustment to nature. A woman gathering seeds from a mouse would not take all of them, but leaves some for the mouse, to “pay” for use of the mouse's seeds; the action stems from the view that the mouse, too, shares the world and must live.[14] Adjustment to nature is a value shared by the Lakota peoples[15]. To make another Toennies reference, this value shared affects the way they share their common life; the tribe's shared ethos was that of adjustment to nature, based on an understanding of relationality that grew from specific ideas about kinship. The fluidity and relation of familial views to acts upon the world, and ultimately, shared values, is indicative of the organic Gemeinschaft about which Toennies theorized.

            Bunge quotes Chief Standing Bear's description of the place of the individual within the community (though Bunge uses the term “society”, in deference to Toennies, “community” is more appropriate). The duty of each person was to make sure all were taken care of[16]. While there was a strict set of rules and regulation to preserve peace within the tribe, there were no formal rules. Individuals acted according to the rules because they viewed themselves as individuals, yes, but as individuals within the tribe. Deloria states that the role of a good Sioux member (she refers to them as the Dakota) was to be a good relative. To achieve this, one must follow the kinship rules.[17] Bunge again quotes Chief Standing Bear to describe this; to break the rules was to cut oneself off from the tribe, and to do that would be to lose identity,and possibly die.[18] 

            Both Deloria and Bunge describe that in rare cases such as murder, the offender was made to go through ordeals determined by a council. However, they also both mention the even more rare cases in which through kinship, the offender's loyalty was “won” by the victim's family. Rather than punishment, the murderer was taken in by the family; he was taken in to take the place of the person he murdered. Kinship “trapped” him, in a sense, and anger and resentment were no longer possible, because the murderer was now a relative.[19]

            If the Lakota serves as an example of a true Gemeinschaft, then a comparison of features between Winthrop's “city on a hill” and the Sioux tribes will not be out of order. While Winthrop's speech indicates that the two groups share much in common—so much so that Winthrop's settlement might seem a community—the commonalities are not enough to grant the Puritan settlement the title of Gemeinschaft. Bunge compares “Christian brotherhood” with that of Lakota kinship. He writes,

            The Christian ideal that men who truly believe in the brotherhood of all men would gradually       develop brotherly feelings which, in turn, would generate 'brotherly' actions in their dealings            with their fellow men is closer to the Lakota ideal of relatedness...The only difference might be          that the Lakota would spread this relatedness to the whole universe.[20]


            Winthrop mentions this idea of Christian brotherhood rather extensively. He writes, “Thirdly, that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy...”[21] This, indeed, seems to encompass the Christian brotherhood as described by Bunge. Winthrop uses an analogy of the human body to describe how to regard one another; each person is a ligament to the Christian brotherhood, and without a ligament a body cannot work properly.[22] However, if one reads further, the stress Winthrop puts on worldly earnings becomes apparent. In fact, the previously quoted sentence goes on, and ends with,

            ...out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the     common good of the creature, man... All men being thus (by divine providence) ranked     into       two sorts, rich and poor; under the first are comprehended all such as are able to live          comfortably by their own means duly improved; and all others are poor according to the former             distribution.[23]


Winthrop emphasizes the divisions between the rich and the poor, the rich being those who can live “by their own means”, and the poor being all others. Two features of this are striking; the first is the emphasis on not only rich and poor, but on the rich becoming so by their own means. The second is that the division between rich and poor is divine providence. The emphasis on personal achievement and wealth, even in the context of Christian “brotherhood”, stands in opposition to a true Gemeinschaft, which lacks the emphasis on economy and individual accomplishment.

            Winthrop also devotes some part of his speech to rules governing lending and debtors. If a man cannot give without sacrificing “probably means of his family's comfortable subsistence”[24] then he should not. When lending, one should first determine whether or not the borrower can afford to ever repay the debt. In the case of forgiving a debt, Winthrop orates, “Whether thou didst lend by way of commerce or in mercy, if he hath nothing to pay thee, thou must forgive, (except in cause where thou hast a surety or a lawful pledge).”[25] The very mentioning of a “lawful pledge” denotes dominate traits of a Gesellschaft, rather than a Gemeinschaft. The focus on the divisions between rich and poor, the acknowledgement that the rich became so by their own hands, and that all of this is divinely ordained, might be smaller aspects of a larger Christian brotherhood, but decidedly un-Lakota and Gemeinschaft-like.

            An additional sign that Winthrop's Puritan settlement was not a community was its origination. To begin with, Winthrop and the Puritans believed that their settling of the new country was the product of divine providence. The settlers came together with a purpose, and all others actions were to achieve that goal. However, according to Toennies, the Gesellschaft is that which is formed for a common purpose. One is born into the Gemeinschaft; one forms the Gesellschaft. The society formed by the Puritans was one formed by supposed covenant with God. Toennies addresses contracts―albeit contracts between humans―writing, “...in the purest and most abstract contract relationship the contracting parties are thought of as separate, hitherto and otherwise independent, as strangers to each other, and perhaps even as hitherto and in other respects inimical persons.”[26] This is a feature of the Gesellschaft. One could , however, argue that while the Puritan settlement began as a Gesellschaft, it eventually became a Gemeinschaft.

            This assumption, though logical, is false. The Puritan Gesellschaft's influence can still be seen today, as will be demonstrated in analyzing Reagan's use of Winthrop's speech. Reagan's state of the union address[27] in 1987 focuses on the economy of the nation. He states,

            The unemployment rate -- still too high -- is the lowest in nearly seven years, and our people      have created nearly 13 million new jobs. Over 61 percent of everyone over the age of 16, male                    and female, is employed the highest percentagc on record. Let's roll up our sleeves and go to           work, and put America's economic engine at full throttle.[28]


Also in the address is the statement, “For years I've asked that we stop pushing onto our children the excesses of our government. (Applause.) And what the Congress finally needs to do is pass a constitutional amendment that mandates a balanced budget -- (applause) and forces government to live within its means.”[29]  While a discussion of Reagan's economic policy would be titillating, it is more important in the context of this discussion to examine Toennies, who addresses situations such as these.   Toennies speaks of how the Gesellschaft can arise out of the Gemeinschaft. People in a Gemeinschaft, living together and speaking the same language, will at some point feel an intensity of pride in their togetherness; this will become national pride and consciousness. He writes,

            During this development the original qualities of the Gemeinschaft may be lost because there       takes place a continued change in the original basis upon which living together rests. This         change reaches its consummation in what is frequently designated as individualism. Through this development social life in and of itself is not diminished, but social life of the Gemeinschaft          is impaired and a new phenomenon develops out of the needs, interests, desires, and decisions   of persons who previously worked co-operatively together and are acting and dealing with one      another. This new phenomenon, the 'capitalistic society,' increases in power and gradually retains ascendancy.[30]


This excerpt has several implications for Winthrop's society, and current American society. To begin with, even if one was correct in asserting that Winthrop's Puritan settlement was a community, Toennies would demonstrate it is no longer the case with American today. America has become society, become that ”capitalistic society”.

            Reagan mentions “We the people”[31] in his farewell speech. This does not designate America a Gemeinschaft, but together with previously shown quotations from his State of the Union Address indicates America as a capitalistic Gesellschaft. As before stated, Winthrop's colony was not in fact a Gemeinschaft. It was a society based on trade and on covenant, and if any Gemeinschaft-like characteristics existed, they existed only as utility to keep the society thriving for God.  The societal qualities were inherited by Americans through the centuries, up through the Reagan era and even today. That is not to say that today's America does not contain instances of Gemeinschaft. The Lakota tribe, for instance, could be the archetype of such a community, and other such communities could exist scattered throughout the country. However, the Puritan heritage and inheritance was that of society, as is America as a whole. 


[1]    Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity”. Ed. John Beardsley.     The Winthrop Society Quarterly, 1997.  http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html.

[2]    Toennies, Ferdinand. Community and Society: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Trans. and Ed. Charles P. Loomis.  New York: Dover, 2002.

[3]    Toennies, 33.

[4]    Ibid ., 47.

[5]    Ibid ., 48.

[6]    Ibid. , 33.

[7]    Ibid ., 35.

[8]    Ibid ., 65.

[9]    Ibid ., 66.

[10] Deloria, Ella. Speaking of Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

[11] Bunge, Robert.  An American Urphilosophie: American Philosophy Before Pragmatism. Lauhan, MD: University Press of America, 1984.

[12] Bunge, 93.

[13] Ibid ., 93.

[14] Ibid ., 94.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid ., 102.

[17] Deloria, 25.

[18] Bunge, 103.

[19] Deloria, 34-37; Bunge, 110-112.

[20] Bunge, 94.

[21] Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Toennies, 252.

[27] Reagan, Ronald. “State of the Union Address, 1987.” http://www.presidentreagan.info/speeches/reagan_sotu_1987.cfm.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Toennies, 258.

[31] Reagan, Ronald. “Farewell Speech”. http://www.presidentreagan.info/speeches/farewell.cfm.