Ms. Vowell's latest book is about the Puritan settlements of the 1630's in modern-day Massachusetts, USA. Back then the place was called the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their leader for nearly twenty years was Governor John Winthrop, a Cambridge educated theologian whose word was pretty much the law. They had left England, these couple hundred souls, mainly because they wanted to practice the Christian life their own way, and the squeeze was on back home. King Charles I had disbanded the Parliament in 1629 because the Puritans in the place were the main culprits preventing him from raising money for a ceaseless war with Spain and were ticked off that he was doing things--like arresting MPs--that were in contradiction to the tradition of the Magna Carta. Since a revolution seemed a long way off, around 20,000 people, who were not keen on Charles and the pomp and heavy-handedness of High Anglican officialdom, left England in the time before and during the English Civil War.
The book focuses on Wintrop's achievements--such as the founding of Harvard University--originally a theological institution, in 1635, and the grim things--such as leading the settlers against Native-Americans in lob-sided military affairs that come close to genocide.
This 2008 book is not a formal history, but is rather a tour de force of biting humor, measured with some respect for the better actions of men like Winthrop, who besides being an authoritarian in the Calvinist mode, was also an idealist who believed that God sent him to America to help build a "city on a hill" for the world to admire, a New Jerusalem for a new Chosen People no les. These small bands of English from East Anglia (mainly) helped shape modern American politics in ways we can still see nearly four centuries after they set up shop.
In between dealing ruthlessly with political/religious dissidents, and killing Native-Americans who resented their intrusion into a place already heavily ravaged by European diseases like smallpox, Winthrop and his fellow colonials lay the groundwork for the dicey relationship between Church and State in America. Unlike many of today's modern lay Christian Protestants of the fundamentalist variety, they were well-read and believed that they could fail and God would not give them a break (or a tax cut) if they did fail. American Presidents, especially Ronald Reagan, have used "the city on a hill" motif in their campaigns. Reagan called America "a shining city on a hill" over and over again, adding the word "shiny" to Winthrop's initial remarks (from a 1631 sermon called "A Model of Christian Charity") as a bit of razzmattazz worthy of a former General Electric pitchman. In Vowell's entertaining book, the early colonial past and the modern American colossus of McDonald's, Theme Parks, Native-American casinos and CIA prison camps for alleged terrorists are all woven in to the narrative in a way that might be a bit jarring but never seems too forced or off-the-subject.