17th century America
In honor of the season, we’re re-posting our classic Truth v. Myth post on Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. It’s fitting that President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.
So the First Thanksgiving was in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:
The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.
The truth about the first thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.
Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.
So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in London in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.
And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year, but the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).
That one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.
The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).
The hype around the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving only began after 1863, when historians noted the tradition of impromptu thanksgivings in the 1600s and made an unwarranted and improper connection to the new holiday to make it seem less new and more traditionally American. Before then, their many days of thanksgiving and fasting were completely forgotten. The Pilgrims certainly weren’t the inspiration for the holiday we celebrate today—they were retroactively brought into that in the worst, most ironic way: after the Civil War, southerners resented Thanksgiving as a “Union” holiday celebrating U.S. victories in the war and so the focus was changed from fighting slavery to the Pilgrims. It’s bitterly ironic because now people use Thanksgiving as a time to criticize white treatment of Indians when they should be celebrating our nation’s commitment to winning a war to end slavery.
This year, feel free to enjoy this Thanksgiving and share the truth about the Pilgrims and where the holiday really comes from—the depths of a terrible war fought for the greatest of causes. Let Thanksgiving inspire you to stand up for the founding principles of this nation and re-commit to upholding them in your own daily life of good times and bad.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We watched the latest episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., last night, which featured Sting, Deepak Chopra, and Sally Field. It was going along dependably well when the awful specter of ignorance about the Puritans invaded the last segment on Sally Field’s family tree.
Gates revealed that Field is directly descended from William Bradford, the governor of Plimoth Colony and the man who led the Separatists across the Atlantic to America on the Mayflower in 1620. The narration (done by Gates) described Bradford as a Puritan who was imprisoned in 1607 for non-conformity. We shifted a little uncomfortably, since the Pilgrims led by Bradford were not Puritans (who wanted to reform the Church of England) but Separatists (who abandoned the Church of England as a lost cause), and there was a great deal of tension between the two groups in England and outright hostility in New England once the Puritans arrived in 1630. But in 1607 Bradford had not yet separated, so we accepted it.
Field was told that Bradford sailed with other “Puritans” on the Mayflower and still did not recognize Bradford’s name as that of the governor of the colony, the famous Pilgrim who wrote Of Plimoth Plantation, the history of the colony and a crucially important record of early settlement in New England. We held our breaths as Gates’ narration described the voyage over, hoping against hope that he would not repeat the tired error that the Pilgrims intended to settle in Virginia but were blown off course by storms to Massachusetts, but that hope was lost. The myth was repeated (what really happened was that the ship almost capsized crossing a soon-to-be notoriously dangerous stretch of water south of Long Island and turned back, leaving the settlers on what is now Cape Cod).
Even after Gates told Field that her ancestor Bradford was elected governor, she did not make any connection. She had clearly never heard of him and had no idea that he is a famous figure. All of this was disappointing, but the worst finally came here:
GATES VO: UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF SALLY’S ANCESTOR, AND THE WAMPANOAG, THEIR NATIVE AMERICAN NEIGHBORS, THE PILGRIMS FINALLY GAINED A FOOTHOLD IN THEIR NEW HOME.
AND, INCREDIBLY, WE UNEARTHED THE LETTER DESCRIBING A NOW FAMILIAR EVENT THAT TOOK PLACE IN PLYMOUTH IN THE FALL OF 1621.
FIELD: Many of the Indians coming amongst us whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us yet by the goodness of god we are so far from want.
GATES: And you know what they were describing?
GATES: The very first Thanksgiving.
FIELD: Well there you go. I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. It’s always been a big deal.
GATES: Could you please turn the page? Look at that painting.
FIELD: Oh, yeah.
GATES: Now -
FIELD: Okay are you going to tell me one of those is…
GATES: Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.
FIELD: He hasn’t changed a bit. (Laughs) You’re telling me he presided over the first Thanksgiving?
The errors in this exchange are glaring. First, the account of what we call the “first Thanksgiving” was not in a letter but in the journal of Edward Winslow, which he published in 1622 as Mourt’s Relation. Winslow wrote what became known as Mourt’s Relation (because it was published in London by a man named Mourt) with Bradford, who seems to have written many of the early entries. But the account of the thanksgiving is not in the first half of the book (it’s about 3/4 of the way through), and seems to be Winslow’s work. Second, it is hardly “incredible” that the researchers for the show “unearthed a copy of the letter” because Mourt’s Relation has been in print for centuries—every New England scholar and every college library has a copy. What is incredible is that they pan over a photo of a contemporary edition of Mourt’s Relation that has the chapter title “A letter sent from New England to a friend in these parts…”, which was the literary device used to frame the stories from Winslow’s journal. One expects a professional historian like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to know this—or at least have it fact-checked. Third, this was not the “first Thanksgiving” but the first thanksgiving the Pilgrims had in America. As we explain in our post Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving,
People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came up often, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way.
Fourth, and most unbelievably, Gates shows Field a 19th-century painting of the First Thanksgiving and treats it like a historical artifact by saying “Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.” Of course it is, because it was painted by a 19th-century artist who put him there! As if the 90 Indians and roughly as many colonists all sat at one table “presided over” by Bradford. It is the well-known painting of one long table inexplicably placed in the middle of an empty field with 12-20 very white Pilgrims around it, bowing their heads as they hear grace, and a mother rocks an infant in a cradle (inexplicably brought out to the empty field) and holds her toddler by the hand. No Indians are present. This is the item presented by Gates as a historical artifact depicting the first day of thanksgiving celebrated by the Puritans in North America.
That’s a lot to get wrong. Sadly, shows like this only misinform the American people, if the comments one viewer left on the PBS website for the episode are representative:
I had some uncomfortable feelings hearing the excerpt from a letter written by Sally Field’s distant relative, William Bradford in 1621 describing the feast in such a feel-good manner. Yes, the Pilgrims were praising God because they were finally “so far from want,” but in a 1623 sermon delivered by Mather the Elder, they were thanking God for the gift of smallpox that wiped out the majority of Wampanoag Indians, “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth.” I know the purpose of this episode wasn’t to uncover the “truth” of Thanksgiving but I believe having this awareness will deepen our understanding of how much we of European descent have benefited at the expense of the indigenous New World inhabitants.
You can’t blame the viewer for having these views when this is the quality of information at hand. First, as we said, the account was not in a letter and was not written by Bradford in 1621. Second, and much worse, is that the “Mather the elder sermon” is a complete hoax. Richard Mather (the “elder”) was the patriarch of the family that gave us his son Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather. Richard Mather was a Puritan who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, not Plimoth, in 1635. He was not there in 1623. No one named Mather was in Plimoth in 1623. An intrepid independent scholar has a long account of the scam here. Long story short, the quote about young men and children is borrowed from Puritan “historian” Edward Johnson’s 1653 book The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England, a subjective and lionizing history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here’s the text from Johnson:
Their Disease being a sore Consumption sweeping away whole Families but chiefly yong Men and Children the very seeds of increase. …Howling and much lamentation was heard among the living who being possest with great fear oftimes left their dead unburied their manner being such that they remove their habitations at death of any. …by this means Christ whose great and glorious works the Earth throughout are altogether for the benefit of his Churches and chosen not only made room for his people to plant but also tamed the hard and cruel hearts of these barbarous Indians…
Interestingly, Johnson says he will not talk about the Pilgrims’ relationship with the Wampanoags “particularly being prevented by the honoured Mr Winslow who was an eye witness of the work.” Edward Winslow did not want the unreliable Johnson describing Plimoth because he knew Johnson would depict the Pilgrims there as Indian-haters when they weren’t.
The scam aside, yes the Pilgrims saw smallpox as God’s work, but they didn’t really celebrate it. God constantly struck people down—including Pilgrims. Pilgrims died of infectious diseases, their babies, children, and young men died from disease and accident, often in ways that severely tested their parents’ faith in God. Why did God strike down the young? Why did God torment his most faithful followers by striking down their children? The answer was always that it was part of God’s mysterious plan that no one could understand and everyone had to accept as eventually bringing about a greater good. They often used 17th-century English and called God’s will “God’s pleasure”, but this does not mean that it made God happy to kill people, even Indians. It meant that God fulfilled his will (acted at his pleasure). Johnson says the Indians’ deaths were caused by God (Christ) to make the land safe for pure churches. This had to be done, no matter how horrible it might be or how much howling and lamentation it caused. Unlike Johnson, when the Pilgrims or even other Puritans described Indian deaths from smallpox, they usually did not exult about savages dying; they saw God’s mighty will revealed through the deaths and moved on, hoping their own deaths would not eventually be necessary to further God’s plan.
It would have been nearly impossible for anyone in the 17th century—Wampanoag, Englishman, Egyptian, Japanese—to think outside the clannish box of us v. them and feel pity for people so obviously struck down by God. Humans, like all animals, are clannish; our first and strongest identity is being part of one group as opposed to other groups. It has taken centuries since the Enlightenment for humans to at least pay lip-service to the idea that all men are created equal and all are deserving of equal justice, that, as the bumper sticker says, “God bless the whole world—no exceptions”. So if an English settler in 1623 saw God’s providential hand in Indian deaths, that does not reveal and confirm the Pilgrims to be terrible racists. It confirms them as 17th-century human beings along the same lines as Indians, Asians, Africans, and everyone else who celebrated their enemies’ deaths in battle, sacked cities killing women and children, enslaved rival groups, etc. It is taking us a long time to change our ways.
And so we leave Finding Your Roots with heavy hearts and grave concerns about Americans ever learning their real history. Who will kickstart-fund the HP’s own TV series??Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 4 so far )
Part 5 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution takes us up to the wrangle over whether that proposed document gave the states any real power to check the power of the federal government. As we saw in part 3, the federal government was given unlimited power to tax the states by the draft Constitution, in the name of national security. Anti-Federalists, and even some Federalists, were uncomfortable with this power. The Federalist idea was that the federal government would only tax the states heavily during times of war, and even then it would be forced to put any tax measure up for renewal every two years, so that Congress would have a chance to remove an unfair tax.
But Anti-Federalists argued that relying on a branch of the federal government (Congress) to check the power of the federal government was illogical. Congress would have to vote to check its own power to tax, and why would it? Who gives up their power like that? It would be unlikely that Congress would be that self-disciplined and have that kind of integrity.
The Federalist shot back that Congress was made up of representatives of the states. So if “Congress” was committing a crime, it was really the states committing it, because the people voted for their Representatives, who then voted (at that time) for their Senators. Elect good members of Congress and you won’t have to worry about Congress hurting the states. What happened to your faith in “republican virtue”, Anti-Federalists? The common people you see as so virtuous and protective of liberty will elect their own people to Congress, so there won’t be a problem.
The Anti-Federalists repeated their argument that any representatives who had to travel to a faraway federal government would eventually, inevitably, become corrupt, and put their own power and glory ahead of the people’s liberties. And when that happens, the states are left with no way to check federal power with the Constitution we currently have.
The Federalists tried to swagger through this argument, saying that the state legislatures had many ways to check federal power. Now, this was and is not true—the Constitution does not give the states any power to block federal legislation. It was just another version of the “republican virtue” argument, and the Federalists knew it. When the Anti-Federalists pointed this out, the Federalists responded with a shocking argument, in Paper 46.
First, they said, members of Congress will always put the states first:
“It has been already proved that the members of the federal will be more dependent on the members of the State governments, than the latter will be on the former. It has appeared also, that the [interests] of the people, on whom both will depend, will be more on the side of the State governments, than of the federal government… whilst it will rarely happen, that the members of the State governments will carry into the public councils a bias in favor of the general government. A local spirit will infallibly prevail much more in the members of Congress, than a national spirit will prevail in the legislatures of the particular States. Every one knows that a great proportion of the errors committed by the State legislatures proceeds from the disposition of the members to sacrifice the comprehensive and permanent interest of the State, to the particular and separate views of the counties or districts in which they reside. …For the same reason, [the] members of the federal legislature will be likely to attach themselves too much to local objects. …Measures will too often be decided according to their probable effect, not on the national prosperity and happiness, but on the prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the governments and people of the individual States.”
That is, just as members of state governments care more about getting benefits for their districts than they care about doing things for the good of the whole state, so members of the federal government will always be pushing their individual states’ wants and needs rather than trying to do good for the nation as a whole.
This is an odd argument for a Federalist to make: the Paper is saying that the federal government will never really benefit “national prosperity and happiness, but the prejudices, interests, and pursuits” of the states. So why have a federal government at all?
This question is begged as the Paper goes on:
“…should an [unfair] measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a [fair] measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”
In other words, if the federal government passes a law the states don’t like, they can just refuse to obey it, and embarrass the government. This is hardly an argument that will convince the American people to vote Federalist. Again, why have the federal government if it cannot–even should not–control the states and make them obey federal law?
It only gets worse:
“But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other. But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?”
Yes, the Federalist Paper is saying that if the federal government passed enough laws considered to be assaults on states’ rights and individual liberties, the states can just revolt. There can be a civil war, and the United States government can be overthrown as if it were a “foreign yoke”. (This argument, by the way, would be dredged up in 1860-1 by Southern states to justify secession, saying that it was legalized by the Constitution.)
So the power given to the states by the Constitution to check the federal government is resistance to and war on the federal government. This is hardly a system of checks and balances; it is a system of obedience or war. The Paper wraps up thus:
“The argument… may be put into a very concise form, which appears altogether conclusive. Either the mode in which the federal government is to be constructed will render it sufficiently dependent on the people, or it will not. On the first supposition, it will be restrained by that dependence from forming schemes obnoxious to their constituents. On the other supposition, it will not possess the confidence of the people, and its schemes of usurpation will be easily defeated by the State governments, who will be supported by the people.
On summing up the considerations stated in this and the last paper, they seem to amount to the most convincing evidence, that the powers proposed to be lodged in the federal government are as little formidable to those reserved to the individual States, as they are indispensably necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Union; and that all those alarms which have been sounded, of a meditated and consequential annihilation of the State governments, must, on the most favorable interpretation, be ascribed to the chimerical fears of the authors of them.” [emphasis added]
So the Anti-Federalists’ fears that the federal government will crush the state government is wrong—state governments will actually crush the federal government. How the federal government can be strong enough to hold the states together in a union, and represent them as a nation to the world, while being at the same time too weak to impose its own laws on the states for fear of civil war and disunion is a riddle.
The Federalists knew this. They tried in several Papers to address the problem that the states cannot check the federal government, but the truth was that in our Constitution they cannot, and secession and civil war are not sanctioned by the Constitution, while state obedience to federal law is sanctioned, and despite the protests to the contrary in Paper 46, if the states did try to secede the federal government would use military force to bring them back, as it did in 1861.
The Federalists wanted a strong central government, and they did not believe that it would inevitably become corrupted. They backed the radical experiment of federalism over the morass of confederation, and really did not have any way to prove to the American people that the federal experiment would work and the confederate experiment would not. They asked the American people to take it on faith that they could trust their federal government, and moved on, as we will, to their own vision of republican virtue.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In December we think of Christmas and the ever-evolving forms of celebration of that holiday in America. And being the HP, we think of the very long period over which Christmas was not celebrated in New England.
The Separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans, the two English groups who settled what is now New England, did not celebrate Christmas because they did not celebrate any holidays, because they believed that every day was given by God, and so every day was holy. It was humans who picked and chose certain days to be better than the rest, thus impugning God’s holy creation by identifying some days as unimportant and boring. Holidays were the creation of humans, not God, and an insult to God in more ways than one: not only was the creation of holidays a disparagement of other days, but the usual form of celebrating holidays in England was a disparagement of morality. Religious holidays in Europe were times of drunkenness, gaming, gambling, dancing, and licentiousness, and as a major Christian holiday, Christmas involved high levels of all these things—let’s just say there were a lot of babies born the next September. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas,” wrote the reformist Bishop of Worcester Hugh Latimer in the mid-1500s, “than in all the 12 months besides.”
While they lived in England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans withdrew from Christmas celebrations, conspicuous by their absence from the raucous partying in the streets. When they removed to America, both groups took great pleasure in putting an end to the observance of holidays, Christmas in particular. Both groups observed many special days, either of thanksgiving or fasting. When something particularly good happened, a thanksgiving was held. This involved a church service and then a special dinner at home or in groups (see Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving for more). When danger threatened, or something bad happened, a fast was held. This involved a day of church services preceded by fasting, which meant not eating and even refraining from sex the night before. (Puritans knew that nothing humbled people like hunger and celibacy.) No other special days were observed.
So December 25 was just like any other day for the Pilgrims and Puritans. If it was a Sunday, you’d go to church and perhaps hear a sermon that referenced Jesus’ birth. If it was a Tuesday, you got up and went to work as usual. In Plimoth, where the Separatist Pilgrims were outnumbered by unreformed Anglicans, Governor Bradford had a hard time stopping the Anglicans from celebrating Christmas. The Anglicans would not learn from the example of the Separatists, who were hard at work on Christmas day 1621. Here is Bradford’s good-humored account of a run-in he had with unreformed celebrants that day (he refers to himself in the third person here as “the Governor”):
“And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. One the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of [Christmas a] matter of devotion, let them keep [to] their houses, but there should be no gaming or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.” [Of Plymouth Plantation, 107]
When the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed the Pilgrim Plimoth Colony into itself, and Massachusetts came under direct royal control in 1681 (losing its political independence), the Anglican governor assigned to the colony brought back Christmas celebrations. In 1686, when King James II created the Dominion of New England, composed of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey, and designed specifically to destroy Puritan political independence and religious identity, the royal governor James chose, Edmund Andros, was bitterly resented by all his new subjects. When Andros went to church to celebrate Christmas in Boston in 1686 he needed an armed escort to protect him.
Now Christmas was associated with royal dictatorship and all the grief of the Dominion, and the people of New England and especially Massachusetts continued to boycott the holiday well into the 18th century. When the Revolutionary War began, Christmas boycotts rose in popularity as the day was again tied to royal control and tyranny. After the war, Congress met on Christmas Day, businesses were open, and while private celebrations were not uncommon, there was no official recognition of Christmas in New England. In fact, no state recognized Christmas as an official holiday until Alabama took the plunge in 1836. President Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870, and that was about the time that New England at last gave up the remnants of its ancient resistance. (Readers of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott began to write in Concord, MA in 1868, will remember that while the Marches celebrate Christmas with gusto as well as reverence, Amy March is able to go to a store first thing Christmas morning to exchange a gift, revealing that Christmas was still a day of business in Massachusetts at that late date.)
It’s ironic, given this history, that the winter scenes created by Massachusetts-based lithographers Currier and Ives became the template for “a traditional New England Christmas” in the 1870s, complete with one-horse open sleighs and jingle bells. Sleigh rides, roasting chestnuts, spiced apple cider—all these Christmas traditions originated in New England, but they were not specific to Christmas when New Englanders enjoyed them in the 18th century. They were just part of winter. Even the “traditional” white Christmas relies on a cold northern winter, a defining characteristic of the region.
Today, there are still branches of Protestantism that look down on “the observance of days”, and urge that all days be seen as equally holy and important. But Christmas is here to stay… for the foreseeable future, anyway.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )
Part the last of our short series on the practical whys and wherefores of witchcraft cases in Puritan New England ends with a look at reasons for the decline and disappearance of these cases. Again we are relying on John Demos’ priceless book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many of our specific examples.
As Demos points out, and as we noted in part 1 of this series, one of the exacerbating factors in witchcraft accusations was close proximity: in early New England towns, the entire population lived in small houses crowding the small square, saw each other daily in a variety of roles, socialized together, worshipped and worked together, and basically could not get out of each other’s hair for one minute. If you disliked someone in town, you would not be able to avoid interacting with them every day, and, in their blunt Puritan way the person you disliked would likely barge into your yard and home whenever they wanted, sometimes just to bother you. We have seen that most people accused of witchcraft were difficult people who demanded favors, gifts, and intimacy from those around them, giving nothing back in return. If a neighbor refused a gift or favor, the difficult person might curse or threaten them. Then, if by coincidence some harm befell the neighbor, the difficult person would fall under suspicion of having used witchcraft to make good their threats.
So if witchcraft accusations were provoked in some part by too-close proximity, it makes sense that once New England had expanded enough to conquer its frontier, and it was safer and less laborious to start new towns, two things happened to slow witchcraft accusations: towns began to grow, and people began to move more often. As Demos puts it:
“Eventually witchcraft would disappear as a matter of formal proceedings. This last part of the sequence is extremely hard to analyze from a distance of three centuries; perhaps, however, one key factor was a certain loosening of the social tissues themselves. …The growth and dispersion of the local populace, a somewhat broadened range of economic activity, an increasingly firm system of social stratification: these interlocking trends seem gradually to have modified the tensions amid which witchcraft had flourished.” (371)
If the average town goes from 150 people to 1,000, you are less likely to constantly deal with the same people each day, and your neighbor is less likely to focus his full attention on you 24 hours a day simply because there are more people to be interested in. Your neighbor is also less likely to also be your tax collector, fence inspector, pew-fellow, midwife, cattle-driver, etc. A small number of intensely intimate relationships are replaced by many more casual ones.
When Demos talks about loosening of the social tissues, remember that the Puritans were dedicated to the principle of mutual watch: the loving oversight of their community. This meant playing a role in the spiritual lives of your community, and welcoming your community’s involvement in your own spiritual life. Puritans worshipped, prayed, and debated together on a regular, almost daily basis, and their ideal was to work out all conflicts through loving negotiation. Ideally, no matter would ever have to go to court. Many times, when a problem did go to court—including witchcraft cases—it was sent back to the town by the judge with a recommendation that the problem be solved privately, by the interested parties, through prayer, negotiation, and applied goodwill. Ministers, deacons, and especially godly church members were on constant call to mediate conflicts, and were successful far more often than might be expected.
As towns grew, and people knew each other less well, mutual watch became difficult and then impossible to carry out. Just as a growing population meant less intimate, less frequent contact between townspeople, so too it meant less conviction that the community was bound, or able, to mediate conflicts. And larger, more mobile populations meant fewer personal problems between individuals had the chance to fester and grow. Problems went directly to court and were settled there. This meant that the weeks, months, or even years of private tension over a suspected witch, and the weeks, months, or years of attempted mediation and accumulated anxiety and bad feeling were done away with. Without that long history of conflict, fewer accusations of witchcraft were made. Without that long history of conflict to produce dozens of witnesses for and against the accused, those witchcraft cases that did go to court were weaker and taken less seriously. It was easier to see the case as the result of a personal conflict. The wind was taken out of the sails of witchcraft.
So we see that by the end of the 17th century, a century of intense population growth in New England, witchcraft cases are dwindling to nothing. In fact, after the Salem witch trials in 1692, there were “no more executions, no convictions, indeed no actual indictments” related to witchcraft in any New England court. (Demos 387) We talked in part 2 about why Salem, the largest witch trials, happened as witchcraft trials themselves were dying away. Here we want to focus on its aftermath. The hysteria at Salem deeply shocked and shamed New Englanders, who saw government go off the rails, replaced by accusation and panic, and they were embarrassed to think of how they looked to the outside world. The Age of Reason was influencing how people thought about natural and unnatural phenomena, even New England Puritans.
Thomas Brattle is a good example of this. Brattle lived in the town of Cambridge and wrote a letter to a friend about the events in Salem just as they were ending, in October 1692. Brattle’s account of the way the trials were conducted is a powerful example of a good Puritan completely rejecting the irrationality of the Salem trials:
“First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fit. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, though not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fits. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, though of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft.
…I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion. [This] Salem philosophy, some men may call the new philosophy; but I think it rather deserves the name of Salem superstition and sorcery, and it is not fit to be named in a land of such light as New-England is… In the mean time, I think we must [be] thankful to God for it, that all men are not thus bereft of their senses; but that we have here and there considerate and thinking men, who will not thus be imposed upon…
What will be the issue of these troubles, God only knows; I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land. I pray God pity us, humble us, forgive us, and appear mercifully for us in this our mount of distress.”
Puritans had always treasured reason. They believed it was God’s greatest gift (after saving grace), given to humans to allow them to comprehend God’s creation and to seek to understand God’s will. Their legal code was a model of reason. As the 17th century drew to a close, Puritans began to doubt that their courts should be hearing witchcraft cases. Like Thomas Brattle, they felt there was no way for a judge to ” discover witchcraft” because witchcraft was supernatural—it could not be addressed in a human court: witchcraft was “that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion.” Most Puritans felt the same, and witchcraft accusations were handled privately after Salem.
They were handled privately because witchcraft accusations didn’t disappear after Salem; they dwindled, and they entered the realm of ambiguity. “Witchcraft was hard to square with ‘enlightened’ standards and values, yet it could not be dismissed entirely” [Demos 387], and in this state of limbo witchcraft accusations were reduced to the status of gossip and private fulminations and, eventually, legend. Ministers reported strange cases that alarmed them, but never led them to publicly reveal the suspected culprits. Almost every little town seemed to have a local witch who fueled gossip and folklore but was mostly left in peace. “The figure of the witch was effectively scaled down, so as to shrink the elements of death-dealing power, and to emphasize those of sheer eccentricity. …The harm attributed to witchcraft was confined more and more to routine domestic mishap, nightmares, and simple ‘mischief’… such elements had always been part of the witch’s maleficium, but now they were virtually the whole of it.” [Demos 390]
Puritans had always been skeptical of claims that someone was truly a witch in league with and empowered by the devil, and required many witnesses and much evidence in trials, and even then dismissed most cases. By the 1700s, that skepticism was complete. 1630-1700 is a pretty brief window for witchcraft, and since we see that witchcraft cases really began in Puritan New England in the mid-1640s and ended after 1692, the window is even briefer. It is odd, therefore, that Puritan New England is so identified with witch trials and witch hunts. Poor Thomas Brattle was right, it seems, to fear that “ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land.” Americans love to reproach the Puritans with their “witch mania”, unfair though that accusation may be, given that English colonists throughout North America believed just as firmly in witches. If only there had been a Salem in Virginia, another anomaly that drew attention away from its laser focus on Massachusetts, we might have a better general understanding of the role of witchcraft belief in the early modern western world.
As it is, we will leave off here feeling we’ve done our small part to set the record straight.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Hello and welcome to part 2 of our short series on the Puritans and the factors behind the seeming madness of their accusations of witchcraft. Again we’re referring to John Demos’ book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many keen observations on what caused the Puritans to make these accusations.
One of his most interesting conclusions is that witchcraft accusations came about during times of relative political and social peace. When communities were first founded, people’s time was completely occupied with building homes, clearing fields, putting in crops, and other necessities of life. During the first few years of a new town’s life, there were few or no witchcraft accusations. This was not only because people had little time to pursue such accusations, but because the populations were so new—people did not all know each other well. The core founders may have come over from England together, or a core group may have left one town to start another, but most of the rest were people who joined in from all over, and did not really know each other. We mentioned in part 1 that people lived in very close quarters and had a great deal of daily, often intimate (in the home) contact with each other over the course of years, and when people were difficult neighbors in these circumstances they more likely to be accused of witchcraft. As Demos says, the first tumultuous years of settlement, with high population turnover and few established relationships, “were not conducive to the development of full-blown witchcraft proceedings, which required time and a certain constancy of social relations.” 
After the initial tumult of founding, however, people had time to get to know each other, sometimes all too well, and the accusations would begin—usually about a decade in to the life of the town. At that point, only one thing could disrupt the attention to witchery: outside conflict. War, threats to the town or the colony, dissension in the town’s church; these were all events that devoured the attention of townspeople, putting them back into a life-or-death situation similar to the early founding years. The 1640s were a time of relative peace in New England, and during this decade the colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut experienced a high-water mark of witchcraft trials. But when the Hartford Controversy (a bitter conflict over church leadership) broke out in 1656, the number of witchcraft cases in that colony dropped sharply, and remained down until the controversy was ended.
After a conflict, there was a brief resting period, and then witchcraft accusations would resume, sometimes more vigorously than before, as excess energy and anger left over from the conflict found a vent.
There is an important difference here, as Demos notes, between conflict and “harms” or “signs”. Epidemic disease, insect infestations, comets, hurricanes, and other such events were considered harms or signs from God, warning the people of the need to repent their sins. These harms and signs often triggered witchcraft accusations, as people attempted to harrow (as they would put it) and purify their communities in the face of God’s demonstrated anger. Unusual or inexplicable events fueled fear of witches, but concrete, clearly human conflicts did not. Political fights, wars with or fear of Indians or the French in Canada and Maine, and church divisions were not sent from God but were the result of very human arguments, and these did not provoke quests to uncover witches.
The Puritans arrived in North America in numbers in 1630. For that first decade of settlement in the 1630s, witchcraft cases were few. It was in the 1640s that settled communities began prosecuting witches, and this persisted into the 1650s. By the 1660s, witchcraft cases in Massachusetts Bay Colony had dropped, while harms and signs (a smallpox epidemic and repeated crop failures) in Connecticut led to an increase of cases there. 1660 was a pivotal year: Charles II was restored to the English throne, and the Puritans in America justly feared for their safety and continued political independence with a Stuart back on the throne, since it had been Puritans who had executed his father. When the new king sent commissioners to inspect the colonies in 1664, fear of political takeover choked off witchcraft cases. In the late 1660s, a critical conflict in the mighty First Church Boston also preoccupied the colonists’ attentions, and it was not until the early 1670s that witchcraft cases rose again in Massachusetts, which was suffering through a series of droughts and storms (harms and signs), while almost disappearing in Connecticut, which was still struggling with religious divisions (human conflict).
In the late 1670s, both Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies experienced a very low number of witchcraft cases—almost none—thanks to the turmoil and fear of King Philip’s War: as Demos puts it, “For the time being danger from the invisible world was superseded by combat with a host of quite present and visible Indian enemies.”
After the war, the usual witchcraft cases driven by residual fear and anger cropped up, and a fire in Boston and other “harms and signs” exacerbated the tension. But in the 1680s and 90s cases dropped off again as fears of a royal political takeover grew—the Massachusetts Bay Colony was fighting for its independence as its charter was called into question in London. It was revoked finally in 1691, and the MBC became a royal colony with a royally appointed governor, a calamity that put almost all witchcraft accusations to rest.
But then came the one witchcraft episode that most Americans know about—Salem. Its date gives its motives away. The first accusations were in 1692, a year after the loss of the charter, and were clearly part of the usual post-traumatic stress of a big conflict. Other factors made Salem explode into a witch hunt such as had never been seen before (see our series on Salem here), but the unusually large trouble of losing political independence obviously contributed to an unusually large case of witchcraft accusations.
After Salem, the 1690s saw almost no witchcraft cases in Massachusetts or the Connecticut colonies, and this was likely, in part, a reaction against the Salem mania.
This chronological tour of rises and falls in witchcraft cases in New England shows us some interesting points:
—witchcraft was on people’s minds mostly in the absence of human conflicts
—witchcraft accusations were not constant over time
—Puritans did not blame witchcraft for concrete crises and problems, but for more abstract, hard to explain events like storms, failed crops, and epidemics.
—Witchcraft accusations were often safety valves used to release accumulated tension and anger after a human conflict, and sometimes a way to strike at all-too human enemies who had emerged victorious from a conflict that should have destroyed them, according to the accuser.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
John Demos’ invaluable book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England is a worthy read for anyone seeking scientific analysis of witchcraft amongst the Puritans—not just trials and executions, but the daily lived experience of witchcraft. It is a mark of the book’s soundness, in some ways, that it does not discuss the Salem Witch Trials (they are mentioned in passing a few times). This confirms our opinion that the Salem trials were an anomaly in New England, and tell us about the Puritans’ experience and understanding of witches only by spelling out what they were not.
It is clear from Demos’ study that most 17th-century Puritans did believe that a few people around them practiced witchcraft, but the myth-busting corollary to this is that few people suspected of practicing witchcraft were actually tried, and fewer of those were convicted. It is amazing to read dozens of stories of people who were suspected of practicing witchcraft and repeatedly accused of it over many years—sometimes decades—who were never convicted in court, and who often had many public arguments over their suspected witchcraft before charges were even made against them.
The usual (though not universal) profile of a suspected witch was a middle-aged man or woman (more often a woman) with few or no children and an aggressive personality who made a habit of barging into people’s homes uninvited, demanding jobs or favors from people, and meddling or attempting to meddle with the treatment of the ill. The usual victim was an infant or child, or a woman who had recently given birth. This, Demos argues, could illustrate the difficulties for childless women or women who lived past their childbearing years in early modern society: they had no children to do chores or bring in income for them, and therefore frequently asked for favors from others; and those in menopause had no hope of having (more) children and envied women who were younger and having children, which led them to insistently barge in on women in childbirth or to demand to touch and hold infants. In a society where the average family had 5 children, to be childless or to have only one child was to stand out, and once your only child grew up and perhaps moved away, you were alone, which was difficult in a frontier situation.
The almost universal aggressiveness of suspected witches is interesting. Today we tend to think of the accused as kind and helpless old women singled out for no good reason. But the men and women accused of witchcraft were always difficult people. They complained and took people to court even more frequently than the average litigious Puritan. They called people names and spread malicious gossip. They threatened people’s livestock and livelihoods, predicting death or destruction. They made unreasonable demands on their neighbors for food, goods, and labor, and threatened illness, death, or worse when their demands were not met. Many of the couples accused of witchcraft had difficult marriages that sometimes resulted in physical abuse. A surprising number of accused witches actually boasted about their familiarity with the devil and sorcery, and while one can imagine the thrill of holding an audience spellbound with your stories about what you’ve heard the devil and his consorts do at night, one can’t imagine that this display of intimate knowledge of satanism wouldn’t come back to haunt the teller of the tales.
Demos’ book concludes with some valuable generalizations about Puritans and witchcraft that we will spell out and amplify here and in the next post. But first, we want to make our own claims, which are these:
1. Too often the Puritans of New England are singled out for studies in witchcraft. One can be forgiven for thinking that the Puritans were the only group in North America who believed in or prosecuted witches. But witchcraft was an accepted reality throughout the early modern world, and the settlers in Virginia, Maryland, and New York were just as firm in their belief in witches as the settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut. New Spain was constantly battling against native American witchcraft, and the meager Christian outposts of New France were happy to keep their distance from the witchery of the native Canadians.
Indeed, we posit that the only reason New England is the witchery upon a hill is the notoriety of Salem, and if that anomaly had not taken place the number of people interested in New England witchcraft would be equal to the minuscule number of people studying witchcraft in Jamestown.
2. We tend to cut the New England Puritans far too little slack for being a pioneer people. We somehow block out the fact that most Puritans in the mid-17th century, when witchcraft claims and trials were at their height, were living in mud huts in isolated villages of about 100-150 people, wary of Indian attacks, and suffering all the hunger, fatigue, and strain of founding a frontier settlement. The houses in a new settlement were literally all in one place, lining the road through the village, and everyone was almost astoundingly interconnected: your neighbors next door were also likely sitting next to you at church; serving in the militia with you; plowing the field next to yours; hosting your son or daughter as a live-in worker; performing some task, like weaving or cattle-driving, for you; deciding the borders of your land; having their baby delivered by your wife the midwife; serving on a committee with you; etc. The list goes on and on. Such frequent, intimate contact in an already stressful frontier situation was bound to create arguments, grudges, and other conflicts. If you disliked someone and then had to endure this kind of constant presence in your life, those arguments could grow, over months or years, into more serious accusations of witchcraft. If that hated neighbor was driving your cattle and one was lost, and he didn’t apologize for it, longstanding tension could quickly escalate.
The point here is that most Puritans in the mid-1600s in New England lived in very stressful situations, and they lived in those stressful situations at a time when everyone in the western world believed in witchcraft. It is logical that they would blame witchcraft for the inevitable problems of losing livestock, suffering disease and death, failed crops, and, quite often, just a powerful sense of confusion and uncertainty.
The wonder is not that people were accused, but that so relatively few of the accused were convicted. That means that if you finally accused your neighbor of witchcraft, and testified against him in court, it was most likely that, after spending some weeks or months in prison awaiting trial, that neighbor was returned to your village, to resume life next door to you. Sometimes the neighbor would move away from an unendurable situation. But many other times, the two parties continued to live next to each other, and sometimes renewed accusations would break out.
That’s because, amazingly, people once accused of witchcraft seemed to have no fear of provoking another accusation. Even people who were tried and acquitted, sometimes very narrowly, often returned home and picked up where they left off with their aggressive, argumentative behavior, and even their claims to know all about Satan and his minions.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
One is often struck with the remarkable vividness of everyday Puritan language. Their voluminous court proceedings record disagreements and unacceptable behavior in colloquial terms that ring with life down the centuries. It’s only right to share a few of them here, if only to combat the persistent notion that Puritans of 1600s New England were dour and colorless. We hope to prove that listening to the Puritans speak is a constant source of pleasure and sometimes open laughter. There is a direct quality to the language that is somehow sympathetic, although the topics described are often unsympathetic, and even when the problem being described remains unclear, the language of the complaint stays with you. We are indebted for all our examples here to the critical, indispensable study Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, by John Demos.
Insults: “You laughed and jeered at me, and I went crying away”
Rachel Clinton called one of her neighbors a “whoremasterly rogue”. She herself was accused by people in her church of “hunching them with her elbow” as they passed her in her pew. (One tries to imagine what exactly this was.) Hugh Parsons threatened someone who owed him money that if it was not repaid, the sum would become a liability; specifically, “as a moth in your clothes.” During a fight, Jane Collins called her husband a “girly-gutted devil”. Matthew Farrington told Thomas Wheeler that Wheeler “was the devil’s packhorse, to do the devil’s drudgery.” And when Goody Cole was asked by her neighbor why she was looking at the neighbor’s cattle, Goody Cole replied “What is it to you, sawsbox?” (We have to preserve the original spelling here, as “sawsbox” is a terrific version of “saucebox”, to describe a “saucy” or impertinent person.) Thus we can thank the Puritans for the evergreen retort “What’s it to you?”
Descriptions of illnesses: “It put her in a dropping sweat”
The Puritans often refer to the “bloody flux” (dysentery); like all of their names for diseases or illnesses, this one is disastrously literal, conjuring up an all-too-clear mental image of the problem. Some are more tantalizingly unclear: one woman complained of “a general smiting in the lower parts”. A minister in Barnstable noted with concern that “sundry of our poor flock underwent a smiting in their intellectuals, in a strange and unusual manner”. One could either suffer smiting in their intellectuals or become “bemoidered in their understanding”.
Descriptions of supernatural activities: “She bewitched my heifer”
There were the usual claims of someone causing humans or livestock to suddenly experience fits and/or die, but sometimes people had more mystifying complaints: Thomas Burnham of Springfield claimed that he had heard about “strange doings”, including the “cutting of puddings in the night”. Another pudding “thought to be enchanted” was thrown in a fire to neutralize its evil doings. Witches were accused of enchanting a horse’s bridle, and a Goody Cole was said to have “enchanted our oven” so that the bread the oppressed family made in the oven “would stink and prove loathsome.”
Witches were believed to be able to take on many forms, animal and human and even furniture, and to appear and disappear—often appearing just long enough to insult someone: “a woman with a white cap passed by and struck me on the forehead”; “[the accused witch] came into the house on a moonshining night and took [the victim] by the hand and struck her face as she was in bed with her husband”.
Animal familiars: “I noticed on my right a great turtle that moved as fast as my [horse] rode”
What one realizes fairly quickly about the Puritans’ stories of dangerous animal familiars—witches or evil spirits or even the devil taking the form of animals—is that the stories are often about unfamiliar animals. The Puritans encountered many animals that were new to them in the woods of North America, and they were scared of them. Many Puritans related their experiences of walking home through the woods and encountering strange animals, and their first reaction was one of fear. They might justify that primal reaction later by saying the animal was clearly a witch (for example, if it appeared and disappeared or spoke to them), but it seems clear that fear of wild animals was the real problem.
Cats were familiar animals, but they had been persecuted as spirit familiars for centuries in Europe, so they were bad news if one ran into them in the gathering darkness. White cats, not black, were feared in particular: when Jonathan Woodman “met a white thing like a cat, which did play at my legs”, his reaction to this cute animal was “kicking it hard against a fence, where it stopped with a loud cry.” This childish fear of a white cat was justified on the basis of its connection to a woman suspected of witchcraft, but in general when a Puritan met a cat in the woods he didn’t have to ask himself if it was really a cat or an evil spirit: he knew it was an evil spirit.
Killing a cat is, of course, not charming or endearing, but one man’s hapless, panicky description of encountering a cat is: the unnamed man claimed that a “great white cat” one day “was a-coming up on my left side, and came between my legs, so I could not well go forward”. Anyone who has gotten tripped up by a cat will identify with the experience, if not the claims of witchcraft it provoked.
Furniture attacks: “I saw an andiron leap into the pot and dance and leap about”
Some people reported bewitching of furniture and household items. William Morse claimed that he went to write something, “while I was writing one ear of corn hit me in the face, and firesticks and stones were thrown at me”. Morse kept on, but when “my spectacles were thrown from the table almost into the fire [I]was forced to forebear writing any more for I was so disturbed with so many things constantly thrown at me.” —a superb example of understatement.
Animal afflictions: “There was a great alteration in my cattle”
Often witches were accused of interfering with livestock, most often cattle, hogs, or sheep. Henry Palmer testified that after a run-in with witch John Godfrey all of Palmer’s cattle “vanished quite away”. Mary Johnson claimed that when she was sent to drive hogs out of a field, “a devil would scour the hogs away” by “fazing” them. William Meaker sued for defamation when he was accused of bewitching Thomas Mullener’s hogs. Henry Robie “lost a cow and a sheep very strangely”—too strangely to risk describing. A thirsty mare aroused suspicion: “Seeing a mare drinking a long time” John Long “swore, ‘by God, I think the devil is in that mare.”
We’ll leave the Puritans now to their restless complaints and nagging fears, and their wonderfully expressive language, with one last example which defies any single categorization: John Fosket’s insult/medical description/accusation of witchcraft against Goodwife Mousall: Fosket told her husband “that all that [Mousall] had was the devil’s for he stood by his bedside and caused his members to rise.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 4 so far )
John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in its earliest years (most of the time between 1630 and 1649), kept up a correspondence with many people left behind in England. One of the more interesting of these correspondents was his sister Lucy Winthrop Downing. Lucy was married to Emmanuel Downing, a London lawyer, and she was a lively and intelligent woman whose repeated promises to join her brother in New England were unfulfilled until 1638, when she and her husband made the journey, only to return home when the English Civil War began in 1642. (Oddly, they lived in Salem rather than with John Winthrop in Boston.)
Lucy’s son George Downing is worth mentioning here. His mother wrote to her brother Governor Winthrop in 1636 to say the family was keen to move to New England but she worried that with no college there, her ambitious son George would have to stop his education: “and it would, I think, as we say, grieve me in my grave to know that his mind should be withdrawn from his book… for that were but the way to make him good at nothing.” In a great coincidence, in October 1636 the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded Harvard College, and this may have had something to do with the Downings’ decision to go to America at last in 1638. George was one of the nine graduates of Harvard College’s second class in October 1642, and returned to England with his parents to serve the Parliamentary government under Cromwell, but after the Restoration he neatly changed sides and served as Secretary of the Treasury under Charles II. George Downing was accused of betraying several of his former revolutionary colleagues, one of whom was executed. The jury is still out on Downing’s guilt there. He served both Cromwell and Charles II as Ambassador to the States General, and was recommended for the job by John Milton. He was the author of the Navigation Act of 1660, and served as an untiring diplomat. Downing Street in London, the street where the Prime Minister’s official residence is located, is named after him.
Sir George Downing may have inherited his intelligence from his mother. Lucy Downing’s letters are at once thoughtful, loving, and full of slang (such as “grieve me in my grave”) that reverberates down the centuries to this day with life and humor. She is much more earthy and matter-of-fact than her elder brother John, and one gets the feeling (unverifiable by historical research) that he must have enjoyed her letters a great deal.
We will look here at Lucy’s letter of March 4, 1636, which has several interesting features. It is the letter referenced above, where she expressed her concern for young George having no college if they moved to New England. All spellings and usages are modernized.
“MY DEAR BROTHER I received your most kind Letter dated in October and your dainty fruits which indeed were as good as Old England itself affords in their kind, but coming from New England and from your self they were rarities indeed, and we then being at Graces I sent for them thither and Sir Harry and my Lady were much taken with them. Sir Harry professed it did much satisfy him that things did prosper so well with you.”
—What it is John sent her is unknown; it may have been actual fruit or it may have been some American commodity, but Lucy appreciates them mostly because they came from her brother. Her love for John comes through like this in all her letters. It becomes clear that Lucy lives in the world; she is in London with Sir Harry and my Lady and in most of her letters she makes mention of the passing things of this world that Puritans rejected in a very matter-of-fact way, with little or no judgment. But her love of God and her religion also shine through when she mentions the trials of plague and persecution visiting England, and it becomes clear that Lucy Downing’s faith in God and commitment to her religion never wavered, even as she lived the life of a London lady for the most part.
“Now to give you account of our proceedings since my last [letter] to you. We were in progress from after midsummer till part of January, half of which time we wear at Graces and in the other half at Groton… all well in health …except James [had] a few ague fits. Since my coming home myself and maids have had agues but I bless God for it it hath left me again and God hath hitherto most graciously preserved our family from the arrow of pestilence or any other such sad disasters as for our sins might most deservedly have have embittered our lives or deprived us of life and all comfort ere this and on the contrary hath He blest us with many contents.”
—The family has spent part of its time at their house in Groton (in the summer and fall) and part in London (Graces) over the winter. Her son James had an ague, or fever, and so did Lucy and her maids. How different a world is described here than her brother John was living in New England! Traveling from the summer house to the house in London, having maids, and living the life of a wealthy woman, Lucy is worlds away from life in Boston, which was only six years old when this letter was written and was a warren of mud alleys and 100 square foot wooden houses. But just when it seems that brother and sister have nothing in common, their shared piety is expressed by Lucy saying it is only through God’s grace that her family was not struck with the plague then terrorizing England, which would be what they all deserved for their sins, but God has been merciful to them.
“Now I know you wish us no less good than that these cords of love may unite us to the fountain of love in the firmest bands, but for the great cause most sudden and sad is the change in so short a time. I confess a heart very dead might have been much rapt with the gracious light in those parts all that time and in a way of admiration. God grant that it may prove a gleam before a storm rather than a lightening before the night of death. In this relation might I spend more time and spirits than my condition will now permit but I may spare. Ill news seldom wants messengers (in our climate) and what was then put in execution in those parts is at this instant called upon in Essex and but a month limited for answer which answer is feared will prove a very fearful silence these are days of trial. Pray that our faith fail not.”
—We’ll be honest; this passage is hard to understand. Lucy, like many other correspondents in England, is writing in code about political trouble in case her letter is intercepted by the government. Our interpretation is that she is saying that after a brief flowering of the true faith, persecution has cracked down on Puritans in England. She shouldn’t dwell on bad news, for two reasons: first, her condition (she is pregnant, as we will hear more about later) and she should not work herself into grief for the sake of her health; and second she is sure John is getting more than enough bad news from home (“ill news seldom wants messengers”). Persecution elsewhere is now happening in Essex, and Lucy begs John to pray that the English Puritans will hold firm.
“Now I confess could a wish transport me to you, I think as big as I am I should rather wish to bring an Indian than a Cockney into the world. But I cannot see that God hath yet freed us for that journey, yet I doubt not but if He call us to it we shall discern Providence clearly therein, and I see more probability of the concurrence of things that way now than formerly I ever did, both for generals and particulars, if God please to spare our lives…”
—If she had her way, Lucy would fly to New England this moment, heavily pregnant, and bring an “Indian” into the world rather than a London Cockney. This lighthearted and fairly sassy statement is typical of Lucy, yet so untypical of her brother. For a lady in high circles, Lucy has a pretty relaxed attitude. Yet when it comes to religion, again, she is more serious, and says that God has not yet freed her family to make the journey in reality. When she says “if He call us to it” Lucy reveals a deeply felt worry: that God has not made a way for them to go to New England because God does not (yet) see them as worthy of the journey, worthy to join the saints in America. This is the typical Puritan sense of anxiety about one’s state of grace. Lucy is hopeful, however, that they will be called, for she “sees more probability” of it than before, in the big picture and in the details (details following below in the PS).
“…but may it not be more seasonable for one in my condition to breathe my gratefulness to so faithful a brother as yourself for all your surpassing affections both to me and mine, and to desire the continuance of your brotherly care of their best education, which is a very importunate suit of mine to you, whether I live or die, but especially if God should prevent my endeavors therein.”
—Lucy’s many references to dying are not just about God suddenly swooping in to deliver his judgment on sinners. She is in the last stages of pregnancy at age 35, and in the back of her mind she knows she may not survive this delivery. So she changes tack here, to thank John for his past goodness to her and her children, and to ask him to continue to help them in their education if she dies. Clearly John Winthrop had done something to aid in the education of the Downing children, whether it was giving money or books or using his influence to get the older ones into good schools, perhaps before he left England.
“George and his father comply most cordially for New England, but poor boy, I fear the journey would not be so prosperous for him as I could wish, in respect [that] you have yet no societies [in New England], nor means in that kind for the education of youths in learning, …and it would, I think, as we say, grieve me in my grave to know that his mind should be withdrawn from his book by other sports or employments, for that were but the way to make him good at nothing. It’s true the colleges here are much corrupted, yet not so [much] I hope but good friends may yet find a fitting tutor for him, and if it may be with any hopes of his well doing here.”
—Lucy’s husband and her eldest son George are eager to go to America when it becomes possible, but she worries that if they go to New England, which has no colleges or societies, George’s education will come to an abrupt end. It is odd that Lucy fears George might waste his time in sports if that happens (the Puritans having banned all sports); that is referenced again below. Staying in corrupt England isn’t great, but her Puritan friends could find George a reliably religious and learned tutor, both of which she fears are lacking in New England.
“Knowing your prevalence with my husband and the hazard the boy is in by reason both of his father’s and his own strong inclination to the plantation sports, I am bold to present this solicitous suit of mine with all earnestness to you and my nephew Winthrop that you will not condescend to his going over till he hath either attained to perfection in the arts here or that there be sufficient means for to perfect him therein with you, which I should be most glad to hear of. It would make me go far nimbler to New England if God should call me to it than otherwise I should, and I believe a college would put no small life into the plantation.”
—Lucy asks that her brother and her nephew, John Winthrop, Jr., already a leader in New England and governor of the Saybrook settlement in Connecticut, use their influence (“prevalence”) with her husband to persuade him that the Downings should not go to America until such time as George Downing has finished his education in England or a college has been founded in New England. She would be much more willing (“far nimbler”) to go if she knew George could get an education there. And she reveals that her husband has a fatal weakness that he has passed on to George: “plantation sports”. Again, we’re not sure exactly what this is referring to, but it could simply mean the distractions of the frontier. Whatever it is, it must be countered by devoting one’s time to school. Plus, a college would “put life” into the colony. We have a sneaking suspicion that by this Mrs. Downing means not only intellectual debate and the life of young minds but the pranks and mischief traditionally associated to college students, another unorthodox affection of this Puritan lady.
“[Were] my [letter-writing] answerable to my desires of discourse with you, I should be as tedious to you as I am to myself. But in good manners I forbear your further trouble at present, and desiring your prosperity and prayers for me and mine and a happy meeting either in this or a better life, [I am]
Your sister to command,
—If writing to her brother satisfied her desire to see him and be with him, Lucy would write so often and so long that she would drive him crazy. She would be “as tedious to you as I am to myself”, a nice piece of self-deprecation and humor. She signs off for now, and her wish for a happy meeting with her brother “either in this or a better life” is, once again, not just a pious catchphrase but indicative of deep affection and some anxiety about her approaching childbearing.
“I forget to tell you how forward we are for New England; George his jointure and mine is sold and but 320 pounds would it afford us and 2 years delay for payment but the truth is I saw them so unwilling to do me right in the assurance that I feared payment would be more hardly drawn from them and something may be better than nothing.”
—Their desire to go to New England is so strong that Lucy sold her jointure, the estate settled on her to provide her an income if she is widowed, and which her eldest son will inherit on her death. This estate was likely provided for her by her father at the time of her marriage. She sold it at a loss (for just £320) to be paid after two years, which is fishy, but whoever “they” are whom she sold it to were so unwilling to give her a better deal that she just took it, hoping to get at least some part of that money to help them pay for the journey to America, as “something may be better than nothing.” This is indeed a sacrifice of her own and her son’s financial security in the name of joining the saints in America. it’s also one of a few examples of phrases we use today appearing in a 17th-century letter (in another she uses the phrase “what can I say?”).
Lucy Downing leaps off the pages of her letters; her vitality shines through and is unexpectedly affecting centuries later. You will be glad to know she survived this pregnancy and lived to an old age. We’ll be hearing more from her in the future, and, like John Winthrop, we will await her letters with great impatience.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
Part the last of our look at the May 1637 anonymous letter to Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop deals with the craven postscript, in which the writer explains why he is writing anonymously. All spellings modernized.
” I have not subscribed hereunto, not knowing whether my letter may not miscarry. The bearer perhaps can tell you of me.”
—Afraid the letter might be seized or, in good English Puritan fashion, read and then circulated thoroughly to everyone in the community and beyond, the writer chooses to remain anonymous, but sends the letter by a messenger who will reveal his identity. This seems dangerous for the messenger; what if royal officials did seize the letter? Right there on the last page it says the messenger knows who wrote it. It would not be unusual for the messenger to be arrested, jailed, and even tortured to reveal the name if the government felt the letter was threatening.
This small section is in the final paragraph of the letter, but the writer feels it necessary to add a postscript underlining the need for Winthrop to keep his name secret…. and underlining all the reasons why Winthrop, if he were a lesser saint, would not have done so.
“Sir, I humbly entreat you to conceal it, that any with us has thus written to you. There is another thing I have noted since I wrote the enclosed letter, that many in your plantations discover much pride, as appears by the letters we receive from them, wherein some of them write over to us for lace [and] cut-work coifs, and other, for deep [fabric] dyes, and some of your own men tell us that many with you go finely clad, though they are free from the fantasticalness of our land.”
—If we hadn’t just spent four posts parsing this writer’s deep comfort with self-righteous haranguing, we would be taken aback by his abrupt shift, from pleading humbly for Winthrop to shield him from attack to attacking Winthrop. Colonists have dared write home for lace and dye and pieces of apparel (a coif is a close-fitting cap that women wore under their hoods or hats to protect their hair). None of these things would have been available in America. They were items of earthly vanity Puritans were supposed to have sworn off. These requests are more proof exploding the myth that the Puritans in America wore black all the time and hated ornament. The writer says that while the colonists are asking for some finer things, at least they are not chasing the extremes of 17th-century fashion (“fantasticalness”) current in England. We might forgive the writer for reproaching the colonists for wearing finery, as it really was something the English Puritans did not do, but then again, the American Puritans no longer had a reason to give it up. In England, they wanted to stand out against the unreformed population, and plain clothing was a visible and striking sign of their faith. In America, there were no unreformed Anglicans to stand out against—all were Puritans, so it did not matter what they wore. Plain clothes were a religious protest. In America, there was no other religion to protest against, and plain clothes were no longer necessary.
“There is likewise another thing which I have not mentioned in the letter enclosed, which I suppose you are not altogether ignorant of, that your Patent is called in and condemned, and the Patentees have renounced, and they are outlawed that have not, till they come in and make their peace. …what the effects of [this] will be we are ignorant, but doubt and fear, only we look up to God.”
—Oh, by the way—your colony is about to be overthrown by the crown and all your liberty taken away. This is a very alarming thing to relay to Winthrop, that the royal patent allowing the MBC to exist and to make its own laws has been condemned by the government, and that the men in England funding the Massachusetts Bay Company (“the Patentees”) are being forced to renounce the patent or be arrested for treason. Winthrop had been threatened with this many times before, as the anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, went to Charles I many times to try to get the patent revoked. Charles actually did agree to revoke it in 1637, but, in an unexpected bit of true justice, this was declared invalid because the government had heard testimony against the MBC but had not given MBC officials a chance to come to London and speak in their own defense.
So what the letter writer is hearing is technically true, but he has clearly never learned the value of breaking bad news gently.
“How earnestly can I pray that you may [all] mind holiness, and the things that are above, and grow up in faith, love, humility, and self-denial… for if once pride, covetousness, opposition and contention etc. destroy the power of holiness among you, or your being cast into a new frame of discipline take you up for the most part, diverting your minds… there will soon grow a strangeness between you and God, who will then surely bring afflictions upon you…”
—One can’t help wondering if one of those afflictions God might send is correspondents like this one. And one might also wonder whether the correspondent takes his own advice about not letting pride, jealousy, opposition and contention destroy to power of holiness that should be binding England and American Puritans together.
“…the Almighty God vouchsafe that both your doctrine and discipline work mightily and effectually upon your hearts and lives, to meeken and sanctify them throughout. if you please to write anything back to me, the bearer hereof can tell you how it may be sent and delivered to me. The Lord be with your spirit. Amen.”
—Again the poor messenger is set up to be killed.
We don’t know if Winthrop wrote back. As usual, his reply does not exist, for while he carefully kept and preserved the letters he received, the people he wrote to were not so careful. But it’s most likely he did. He would have taken the lecturing and hectoring of this writer with great humility, as he always did. But while the governor would have thanked the letter writer for his care, and assured him that the colonists strove to put all earthly conflict and vanity behind them, there are no laws or decrees on the books of the MBC censoring letters home, forbidding women to wear coifs, banning books, or restricting Puritans’ freedom of religious speech, all of which the letter writer urged Winthrop to do. Winthrop knew, though it likely pained him, that American and English Puritans were already growing apart, and that the work to be done in the Old World was very different from the task at hand in the New World, and that no matter how much they longed to remain one community, that would likely be impossible.
One wonders why the letter writer was so afraid to reveal his identity to anyone but Winthrop. At first one thinks maybe he was afraid the English authorities would harass him, but after a little thought it seems there’s nothing in the letter to get the writer into trouble in England. After all, he is denouncing the colonists and deploring the abuse of the Anglican church and its bishops. It seems maybe the writer was actually afraid that his identity would be made known to the colonists, who would not take his criticisms well. If they found out the identity of the man who wanted to curb their liberties, religious and otherwise, and who denounced them so roundly to all, the colonists might well have written to England to complain about him, and then this Saint would have been in hot water.
This letter is interesting to close-read because it reveals so much about the rapid evolution of Puritanism during the fractious decade of the 1630s, both in America and in England. It is a window into the minds of those who stayed behind from the promised land of America, the dangers they faced at home, and their feelings about their brethren far away. It also illuminates the thinking of those who sacrificed everything to leave England and keep the faith in the unknown land of America, the things they missed about home, and the power of their elation over their success in forming a new and pure church doctrine—the whole point of their journey. It is a shame the two sides had to divide so widely and so soon.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 4 so far )
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