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 )
Welcome to part 3 of our look at the anonymous May 1637 letter to John Winthrop from a “friend” in England. We left off with the friend really enjoying his lengthy description of how much everyone in England hates the New England Puritans led by Winthrop; now we move on to his recommendations to remedy the situation. All spellings and usages are modernized:
“Now give me leave to propose some few things, of which some perhaps, if not all, may do you good. 1. You may please in some public meeting to disclaim all such letters tending to the purpose first mentioned, and [also] to establish an order against any that shall ever be known to …send over such letters to us, and against any that shall speak among you to such or the like purpose…”
—So Governor Winthrop should hold a public meeting to officially condemn people who write letters home to England that a) mention anything about the colony’s religious discipline or b) the threats against it from England (these are the “purpose[s] first mentioned”). Winthrop should also make a law against sending that kind of letter ["establish an order"], and even against public speech in Massachusetts itself on the topic of the colony’s religious settlement or political situation. That’s not too draconian, apparently, for the saint in England. But if people who form a colony devoted to free practice of their religion are threatened on pain of law if they discuss their religion, what is the point of that colony? Again, one gets the feeling that the anonymous letter writer is more concerned about his own safety than the success of the Puritan project in America: if Massachusetts Bay colonists can’t write dangerous letters to England, then the letter writer in England is safe, because he will never receive such a letter.
“…so if any question be made… of these things against you, by any in our state, …your order and penalty [on letter writers] may secure you.”
—Here the letter writer covers his tracks to say that Winthrop’s censorship law will keep him safe if a dangerous letter does reach England; he can always say he tried to stamp such letters out. This friend’s complete misjudgment of John Winthrop’s character is glaring here. Winthrop was completely devoted to the mission of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and would never let the colony suffer England’s wrath while protecting himself. He would also never dictate a law censoring expressions of religious fervor by his colonists. These expressions, in letters home, were tools of witness to God’s grace and protection of the colony.
“2. You may please to have further cautions given in every plantation, touching writing over to us about your discipline, [and about being] censorious of us here in their letters to us, not calling any of us, as I understand some have done, dogs and swine, especially those of the [more profane] sort among us, nor questioning our ministry and calling to it, as another with you did in a letter written over to a godly minister and friend of both the parties and mine; for your disclaiming of these and the like odious things shall much advantage you, to the preservation of brotherly affections and peace with your friends in old England.”
—We mentioned last time how the root of the problem here is that almost as soon as Winthrop’s group of Puritans left England, a divide grew up between them and their English fellows. Even before he left England, John Winthrop wrote a long treatise insisting that he and his group were not abandoning the others, would not forget them, and would do everything in their power to make a godly colony in America that every Puritan in England would be welcome in. Puritans believed that God was just about to strike England down for its refusal to follow the true religion, and many sincerely believed that those Puritans left behind in England would have to live through the apocalypse there. While the group was united in its drive to set up an American colony where the true religion could be safe, and carry on after England was destroyed, those who could not afford to emigrate, or could not leave their families, or had any other misgivings or mitigating circumstances that kept them in doomed England did feel abandoned by their luckier colleagues. Resentment and jealousy and fear turned to hostility once American Puritans started sending letters home to England about how well they were doing. All was well in America, while England continued its journey toward doomsday, and the Americans didn’t even seem to care anymore that their correspondents were living out the last days. Cold responses to American letters, and more open criticism of the religious settlement developed in Massachusetts, led colonists to lash out at their former allies, saying English Puritans were tainted by their sinful surroundings and not quite pure anymore.
So the friend here is saying Winthrop should outlaw letters home that make these insults, and gives interestingly frank examples of Massachusetts colonists calling English Puritans dogs and swine, and “questioning our ministry and calling to it”—that is, claiming that the Puritan church in England was no longer doing God’s work and was not a real ministry anymore. These were heavy accusations indeed, and one can see how they would hurt and anger people who received those kinds of letters. Then again, we must wonder what kind of letters from England might have been received by colonists that led them to strike out in this way.
Again, the letter writer knows about these accusations because the English Puritans lose no time in distributing the letters widely, sharing them with everyone they know. The letter writer heard about one letter from a friend of a friend who got the letter. Yet somehow it is Winthrop’s fault that these letters are traveling all over England, and Winthrop is the one who must enforce censorship.
“3. That any of you be advised how they do answer the letters of their friends sent over from us to you; for we hear of a letter that Mr. Cotton should write (how true the report is, I know not yet) in answer to a letter written to him by one Mr. Bernard in Somersetshire, a man though upright in the main, yet of very great weakness; wherein, as we hear, Mr. Cotton should write that we are [not really a true church], which if it be so (as you may soon understand) will do not a little hurt among us…”
—Again, the rumor mill is working overtime in England, and the letter writer feels free to complain about a letter that Boston minister John Cotton may or may not have written; indeed, the writer even says he has no idea if this letter really exists but he’s going to go ahead and complain about it anyway. The mafia-type threat in the parentheses (“as you may soon understand”) gives Winthrop to know that English Puritans basically believe that if they experience any internal dissension (“hurt among us”), they will blame the MBC for it.Rather than blame themselves for blabbing about letters that may or may not exist and may or may not insult them.
“4. That your ministers… be persuaded to please to write over their kind letters to their friends with us, especially to the chiefest of the ministers with us…”
—Winthrop here should also instruct his ministers to write nice letters praising the English ministers, and to make sure they write the nicest things to the highest-ranking Puritan ministers. The sincerity of such forced correspondence would have to be suspect, but not to the letter writer.
“…be wary how [you] receive some such books as have of late been written in our land, which have more stirred the state than ever I knew it…”
—The letter writer then goes into a lengthy description of such books that takes up two pages. Two books in particular have provoked the fury of the English government: one that condemns people who don’t observe the Sabbath; and one that says the unreformed Anglican Church is in league with the devil. The letter writer has a wonderful description of this second book, saying the author “speaks of the bishops that which the Arch-angel would not speak to the Devil”.
The English Puritans had to be careful not to condemn the Anglican church or, by implication, the King who was the head of it. They had to maintain that they wanted to improve the church, not destroy it, and they had to make the case that the church was holy enough to be capable of this improvement. But in their drive to be careful and cautious and not bring down more state persecution on themselves, the English Puritans came to undermine the purpose of their colony in America, which was to be a beacon of God’s light and the true religion. Of course American Puritans were sending to England for these books that made strong arguments for things they believed in; they had crossed an ocean to have the freedom to worship as they saw fit and to make a clear and unflinching stand against untrue religion. They did not believe the unreformed Anglican Church was holy. They did not believe bishops did God’s work, and they had no bishops in New England. Intoxicated by their relative freedom, American Puritans eagerly supported strong condemnations of the religious status quo in England, which they saw as hastening God’s judgment on that kingdom. The hesitating, over-cautious attitude of their colleagues in England baffled and then angered some Americans. If English Puritans really hated fallen England, they should make the sacrifices necessary to leave England for America. If they didn’t do this, American Puritans began to suspect that English Puritans were more okay with the status quo than they let on.
Thousands of English Puritans did leave England during the 1630s, in what we call the Great Migration. But most of them went to the West Indies rather than New England. Part of the reason for this is the animosity built up between England and Massachusetts in the early days of that colony.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
“A Wonderful disaffection in very many towards you” – the letter from John Winthrop’s anonymous “friend”
Part 2 of our look at Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s anonymous letter from a friend in England gets deeper into the “loving” complaints this correspondent makes against the colony and, by implication, Winthrop’s leadership. All spellings modernized:
“…there came over not long since a letter from you to a friend with us which, I fear, through indiscretion, the eyes and ears of many have been made privy to, to this effect, that whereas it is reported there will be a Governor and a Bishop sent over unto you, he hopes [that] God will give you grace to stand for his truth; which words will carry a strange construction with our state… and redound to the prejudice of you all.”
—We left off with the writer telling Winthrop to watch the letters coming from the MBC to England, which were often full of “weak & dangerous passages”. Here the writer says that someone in the colony wrote to England that the people in Massachusetts have heard the threats that the king is going to take over the colony and send a royal governor and bishops. This would mean the people’s elected governor, Winthrop, and their independent religious establishment would both be destroyed. The person writing from MBC says that if that happens, he hopes that God will give the people of the colony the strength to “stand for his truth”—that is, to resist. This is wrong in the eyes of Winthrop’s correspondent; no one in the MBC should be writing about how they would launch a rebellion against the crown. It’s true that this would anger the king and his government (“carry a strange construction with our state”), but on the other hand, what else should the people of the MBC say they would do if the whole basis of their colony, of their holy mission from God, was attacked? One would think that English Puritans would support a holy rebellion. And if the whole problem is that the MBC letter was widely circulated and copied, whose fault is that? The fault here seems to lie with the people in England who took a private letter and made it public, not with the colonist who confided his thoughts to friend or family.
“Another among you writes… that you are like to have wars the next year with old England!”
—It’s not surprising that people in the MBC believed they would be at war with England when they heard several reports from people in the know that England was going to wage war with them by taking over their colony. We don’t know how the colonist writing the letter in question meant this statement—he may have been grieving and terrified at the prospect. But the statement here is represented as boasting, and the MBC takes the blame for once again stirring up trouble by talking rebellion.
“Others have written as freely and unadvisedly about your discipline, [and] the opinions and tenets you hold, whether all of them as they relate, or not, we know not; which hath caused a wonderful disaffection in very many towards you, [which] if it be not maturely healed, [will cause] a great rent in affection between you and them, that though we are like to see sad times, yet there are, till they be otherwise informed, who are resolved to undergo much misery here, rather than ever remove hence.”
—Many colonists are writing home describing the church discipline they have set up in the MBC—that is, the laws governing religious practice. The whole point of going to America was to establish a state where purified Anglicanism could be practiced freely, and that practice could be clearly thought out and described and a pure church law could be written. But many English Puritans did not like the church doctrines being developed in America. The divide between American and English Puritans developed almost instantly, and only grew as the decades passed. English Puritans, persecuted by their government and trying to keep the faith alive, were more cautious and less willing to make bold statements than American Puritans. English Puritans never developed a church doctrine; for them, there were always other things to do, and they used their persecuted state to paper over the fact that they could never come to any agreement on how their church should be structured. The MBC Puritans were a smaller group, they had sacrificed everything to start a new, godly state, they were in agreement about their purpose, and they lost no time in coming to agreements about how they would worship and codifying that worship in a church doctrine called the New England Way.
This drive and achievement grated on English Puritans, who felt shown up by their erstwhile brethren. Jealous of the American group’s unity and courage, English Puritans turned their achievement into an accusation and used it to give those who were reluctant to suffer privations and cold in New England a good excuse not to emigrate. As the letter writer says, the alarming religious doctrines expressed in the MBC have caused such distaste amongst English Puritans that they find themselves kind of hating the American brethren (“disaffection”), and they would rather stay in England and be persecuted than go to America to join them (“though we are like to see sad times here, [some] are resolved to undergo much misery here rather than ever remove hence”). Winthrop was no stranger to friends and family members claiming every winter that they would be with him in America come the spring, then writing every spring to say they weren’t coming. “Just wait til next year” was the common cry of those who, while rejecting all that sinful England represented, were not so disdainful of living in a civilized nation with a big modern city and all the comforts of home. Those foot-dragging saints now had an excuse for failing to jump ship from doomed England, and they would use it often.
“And one of not mean rank, and of long approved holiness, hearing of your renouncing us to be a church… contrary to your declaration at your first going over, professed secretly to one that told it to me, that he could scarce tell how to pray for you.”
—This is particularly cold. The writer is saying that a high-ranking Puritan saint has heard rumors that the Puritans in America have separated from the English church—that they have rejected Anglicanism. This would have made the American Puritans no longer Puritans but Separatists, like the hated Pilgrims in Plymouth. Now that saint in England doesn’t even believe that he can pray for the people of the MBC, because they are no longer Christians but tools of Satan (as was everyone who was not a Puritan). These are very cruel attacks to relay to Winthrop. First, if a high-ranking Puritan, perhaps someone in the government, turns his back on the colony, the danger of its being taken over by the crown grows exponentially. Second, for someone of John Winthrop’s great devoutness to hear that people he considers to be friends and religious leaders no longer think they can mention his name to God without offending God would have been a terrible blow. It would have really made Winthrop doubt himself. Third, how does the letter writer know of this high-ranking person’s hatred? The high-ranking person told someone about it and that person gossiped it to the letter writer. Again, mean-spirited gossip and skulduggery are flourishing amongst the godly in England, and the Puritans in New England are blamed for it. Last, the letter writer has absolutely no proof that the Puritans in America have rejected Puritanism or separated; it’s just a piece of malevolent gossip. But he gives it full credit and passes it on to Winthrop as chastisement.
“…my intention is to show what a rent and alienation there is like to be, [not] a little fearing the consequences that will come hereby, both to you and us, from others… that, if possible, as much as in you lies, you may endeavor a prevention of them.”
—Here the weaselly nature of the writer really comes clear: he is only telling Winthrop all these things because he doesn’t want the MBC to be hurt… or for himself to be in danger. The consequences that will come “both to you and us” seem to appear to this writer as mostly dangers to “us”—that is, the Puritans in England. And he puts the onus completely on Winthrop to stop this danger from coming, as if it were a) all New England’s fault, or b) Winthrop’s duty to fix things in England, or c) within Winthrop’s power to censor all letters leaving Massachusetts for England. What about the English Puritans’ responsibility to a) stop spreading gossip, b) keep private letters private, c) stand up for themselves to their government, or, failing that, d) emigrate to New England and be free of England’s persecution?
“[The] whole kingdom begins… to be full of prejudice against you, and you are spoken of disgracefully and with bitterness, in the greatest meetings of the kingdom. The pulpits sound of you, and the judges begin to mention you in their charges [A circuit judge in London said] that they should take notice of such as inclined towards New England, for they were the causes of error and faction in Church and State.”
—What we notice here is that the letter writer seems at this point to take a malicious pleasure in telling Winthrop about the hatred his group in America inspires in England. The tone is most decidedly not mournful or outraged here, but is more Iago-like, as the letter writer fills Winthrop’s head with threats and problems then disappears, once the letter is read, into the safety of England to leave Winthrop to try to figure out what is true and what is not and what he should do. The letter writer is tacitly blaming the MBC for heightened persecution of English Puritans by saying that the colonists’ religious doctrine and supposed heresy against Anglicanism has led the government (in the shape of this circuit court judge) to put the clampdown on Puritans trying to emigrate to America. But this seems to be just another excuse for English Puritans not making the journey to America. Of course English Puritans were persecuted by people in the government; that’s the whole reason there was an MBC. To blame the colonists for making this worse is just an indictment of the timidity of Puritans remaining at home.
We’ll see as we continue that this tension between American and English Puritans is the underlying, mostly unspoken theme of this letter and many others at the time. It’s a sad but not unusual truth that despite the best efforts of those who left England for America, those who stayed behind felt abandoned and disdained, and this suspicion that American Puritans were glad to be rid of England and their English brethren, that they had run out on their English brethren, leaving them to face the apocalypse that was coming when God destroyed England, would poison relations between New England and Old England swiftly and surely over the coming decades.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Part 5 of our series on the 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony leads us to the rights, or liberties, of minority populations—women, children, servants, “foreigners and strangers”, and “brute creatures”. As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the fact that there are special sections for these categories within the Body does not mean that the other liberties described in the document do not apply to women, children, etc. It means that while some of the laws in the Body were about men only (such as the laws about military service), women, servants, and others had recourse to the law—they could bring law suits and defend themselves in court, they could be banished and fined just like men, and so laws about those things applied equally to all people. In these special sections, however, the Puritans addressed issues that could only apply to the groups mentioned, issues they wanted to call out and make clear within the law.
We can actually look at each of the laws in these sections, because there aren’t many. This is a sign that the Puritans of Massachusetts saw all its people as covered by the Body in general, with only a few occasions where special populations needed special protections. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.
Modern spellings are used throughout.
Liberties of Women
79: “If any man at his death shall not leave his wife a competent portion of his estate, upon just complaint made to the General Court she shall be relieved.”
—Men have to provide for their widows. Some men would leave all their estate to their children—their sons or sons-in-law—in order to pass down the estate intact to their line, reckoning that their widows would remarry and benefit from some other man’s property and goods. But the Body shows an understanding that this may not be the case, and that every husband has a duty to provide for his wife, and thus allows wills to be contested in the widow’s favor.
80. “Every married woman shall be free from bodily correction or stripes by her husband, unless it be in his own defense upon her assault. If there be any just cause of correction complaint shall be made to authority assembled in some Court, from which only she shall receive it.”
—No husband can beat his wife (“stripes” meaning whipping). A man bodily attacked by his wife can defend himself, but in all other cases, if a husband has a complaint against his wife (a “just cause of correction”) he can go to court and present his case. If the court finds a wife guilty of an offense—of breaking a law in the Body—the court will fine or otherwise punish her. Domestic disputes are the domain of the law, not the whip.
Liberties of Children
81. “When parents die intestate, the elder son shall have a double portion of his whole estate real and personal, unless the General Court upon just cause alledged shall judge otherwise.”
—This is fairly clear: an estate will be broken out amongst the surviving children, with the eldest son, if there is one, receiving a double share. The chances of a law- and lawsuit-loving Puritan dying without a will were likely small, but it could happen.
82. “When parents die intestate having no heirs male of their bodies, their daughters shall inherit as co-partners, unless the General Court upon just reason shall judge otherwise.”
—Women, even girls, can inherit land and estate from their parents. As we’ve mentioned before, it was rare for the Court to overturn a legal will, so women who inherited land and estate generally kept it.
83. “If any parents shall willfully and unreasonably deny any child timely or convenient marriage, or shall exercise any unnatural severity toward them, such children shall have free liberty to complain to authority for redress.”
—The old image of the stern, horrid Puritan father refusing to let his child marry—or forcing her to—is undone here, along with the image of the Puritan constantly beating his child. While children were not allowed to bring suit to or testify in court, they could be represented in court by an adult, and could give their testimony to that representative.
84. “No orphan during their minority which was not committed to tuition or service by the parents in their lifetime shall afterwards be absolutely disposed of by any kindred, friend, executor, township, or church, not by themselves without the consent of some court, wherein two Assistants at least shall be present.”
—A child whose parents die can’t be abandoned to a life of indentured service by uncaring relatives, their town government, or even their church. Unless a parent arranged for a child to go into service, that child had to be taken in and cared for by some family. This was so important that we see that not even a court could send an orphan into service without at least two Assistants—members of the governor’s council—hearing the case and agreeing. The Puritans believed in the necessity of nurture to raise up a godly child, and did not want extended families shirking their duty to orphaned nieces, cousins, grandchildren, etc.
Liberties of Servants
85. ”If any servants shall flee from the tyranny and cruelty of their masters to the house of any freeman in the same town, they shall be there protected and sustained til due order be taken for their relief. Provided due notice thereof be speedily given to their masters from whom they fled. And the next Assistant or constable where the party flying is harbored.”
—No servant has to endure harsh treatment, and all servants, male and female, have the right to leave a house where they are physcially harmed. Masters have to be told where the servant fled to, and the town constable (or, if in Boston, an Assistant) has to be told about the situation as well. Liberty 87 is also about violence against servants, specifically stating that a servant who is maimed or disfigured by a master’s abuse is immediately free from that master’s service and may be entitled to a cash settlement.
Liberties 86 and 88 deal with fair treatment of servants. 88 says diligent servants who have served for at least seven years can’t be dismissed without pay (“shall not be sent away empty”), and, conversely, bad servants can’t be dismissed until they have “made satisfaction” to their masters.
Liberties of Foreigners and Strangers
Liberty 89 protects religious and other refugees (“any people of other nations professing the true Christian religion [who] flee to us from the tyranny or oppression of their persecutors, or from famine, war, or the like… they shall be entertained and succored amongst us”); and Liberty 90 states that shipwrecks or foreign ships will not be looted but the goods “preserved in safety”.
Liberty 91 states that “there shall never be any bond slavery, villainage, or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons does morally require…” This allows prisoners of war and Africans to be enslaved. The boggling clause in this liberty is “such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold”—thus equating voluntary entry into slavery and being forcibly sold as a slave. This is the first liberty in the Body to contain such a bald, disturbing contradiction, and keeps this liberty from truly limiting slavery to those, like enemy soldiers, who might possibly “deserve” it.
Of the Brute Creature
92. “No man shall exercise any tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creature which are usually kept for man’s use.”
—The same phrase used in the liberties concerning servants, “tyranny or cruelty”, is used here to prevent cruelty to animals.
93. “If any man shall have occasion to lead or drive cattle from place to place that is far off, so that they be weary, or hungry, or fall sick, or lame, it shall be lawful to rest or refresh them, for a competent time, in any open place that is not [a corn field], meadow, or enclosed for some particular use.”
—Land ownership was the be-all and end-all of the Puritans. Disputes over land were unending, as borders were disputed and people fought over who had rights to use common land (which was not purely common; people paid to use it). There were many disputes over livestock, as people sued for crop damage and destruction of property caused by animals allowed to stray off their own land. So to have a liberty here that says any animals who are being exhausted and endangered by a long journey have the right to graze and drink water on land that is not being used is a big deal. People at this time did not see any land as totally free—if land was not being used, it was fair game to be claimed. Travelers who rested animals on open land ran the risk of someone suing them because he had informally claimed that land. So long as animals did not trespass onto land that was clearly being tilled, they had the right to use the land themselves.
Thus end the special sections of the Body. We see that these sections do not represent every law or the only laws that applied to these categories of people and creatures, but are special cases that could only apply to these categories. There are many instances in the Body’s other sections where it is stated that the liberties being described apply to all inhabitants, be they strangers or servants or women or children. These sections, then, are like a little Bill of Rights for the minority populations, expressly stating liberties that are not made explicit within the other, general sections.
In the next post we’ll look at a very short section on capital crimes—one might expect that to be the longest section of a Puritan body of law, but it is not. It does, however, at last provide us with the single mention of witchcraft in the Body… which applies to men and women equally.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Welcome to part 4 of our series on the 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last time we looked at judicial laws; this time we focus on freemen’s liberties. One of the first things John Winthrop did, at the second Court in May 1631, was expand the definition of “freeman” in the colony to include almost all adult males—there were no property-ownership requirements. So the liberties we’re about to examine applied to 99% of the adult males in the colony.
Did they apply to the women of the colony? As we pointed out in part 2, there is a short section in the Body devoted to the liberties of women. That section, which we’ll cover later in this series, specifies a woman’s treatment by her husband, disallowing abuse and mandating that a wife be fairly treated in her husband’s will. Otherwise, it’s all about “men” in the Body. This does not mean that none of the laws applied to women. It means two things: “man” was used to mean people; and some of the laws were about men only (such as the laws about military service). Women could be banished and fined just like men, so laws about those things applied equally to both sexes. In this section, however, we are dealing with voting rights and jury rights, and so these apply strictly to men.
We won’t look at each of the laws in this section, for time’s sake, but pull out the laws that are most indicative of the nature or gist of the Body. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.
Modern spellings are used throughout.
Liberty 58: “Civil authority has power and liberty to see the peace, ordinances, and rules of Christ observed in every church according to his word, so it be done in a civil and not in an ecclesiastical way.”
—This reminds us of Liberty 1, in that it seems to blur the line between church and state, but in reality it is once again mandating that separation by saying that the civil government does not have authority to govern the churches—it can’t exercise power “in an ecclesiastical way”. This means that the civil government can intervene if a problem in a congregation is causing civil disturbance, but it can’t step in to meddle with or dictate how a church operates. On the other hand, church disputes will not be allowed to interfere with civil government or the peace of the colony. This is most likely hearkening back to the Antinomian crisis of the 1630s involving Anne Hutchinson, where problems in the Boston church led to near civil war, as the elections for governor were disrupted and rioting broke out.
Liberty 59: “Civil authority has power and liberty to deal with any church member in a way of civil justice, notwithstanding any church relation, office, or interest.”
—Another separation of church and state, this one saying no one can be above the law, no matter how high a position they may hold in a church. Church officials, ministers, and pastors are under civil authority…
Liberty 60: “No church censure shall degrade or depose any man from any civil dignity, office, or authority he shall have in the Commonwealth.”
—…and vice-versa: if a church member or official is removed from his church office, or is censured for a religious matter, he will not also be removed from any government position he may hold. Remember that ministers and pastors were not allowed to hold political office; this would apply only to church members or men serving as deacons.
Liberty 66: “The Freemen of every township shall have power to make such by-laws and constitutions as may concern the welfare of their town, provided they be not of a criminal, but only of a prudential nature, and that their penalties [shall not exceed] 20 shillings for one offence. And that they be not repugnant to the public laws and orders of the country. And if any inhabitant shall neglect or refuse to observe them, they sall have the power to levy the appointed penalties by distress.”
—Towns are semi-independent: each makes its own laws, so long as they do not assess unfairly high fines and so long as they don’t go against the laws of the colony. This tradition of town meeting, where each town made its own laws and public comments on colony affairs, was a powerful galvanizing force during the run-up to the revolution, and continues in Massachusetts today.
Liberty 67: “It is the constant liberty of the free men of this plantation to choose yearly at the court of election out of the freemen all the general officers of this jurisdiction. If they please to discharge [these officers] at the day of election by way of vote they may do it without showing cause. But if at any other General Court we hold it due justice that the reasons thereof be alleged and proved. By general officers we mean our governor, deputy governor, assistants, treasurer, [and military] general. And our admiral at sea, and such as are or hereafter may be of the like general nature.”
—Freemen elect all civil officers; this is a liberty found in very few places in the world at this time. Elections were annual, held each spring at the General Court (the Court in October was for writing laws). This liberty says that anyone can be voted out of office without explanation, but once someone is elected they can’t be removed from office without some cause; they have to be accused and then proved of some wrongdoing. So you can’t be elected in May, show up for duty in October and suddenly be told you’re out.
Liberty 69: “No General Court shall be dissolved or adjourned without the consent of the major part thereof.”
—England in 1641 was about to collapse into civil war, in large part because King Charles I refused to allow Parliament to meet. He had dismissed Parliament in 1629 and refused to call it until 1640. This “Eleven Years’ Tyranny” was unpopular amongst the small but growing number of English people who believed Parliament should be a permanent partner—and counterweight—to monarchical rule. In Massachusetts in 1641, the people took the step of making their Parliament, the General Court, incapable of dissolution without its consent. No governor could ever exercise “personal rule” by shutting out the freemen from their government, as Charles did.
Liberty 70: “All freemen called to give any advice, vote, verdict, or sentence in any court, council, or civil assembly shall have full freedom to do it according to their true judgments and consciences, so it be done orderly and inoffensively for the manner.”
—The participation of freemen in their government was not figurehead. They were meant to truly advise and shape their government without any pressure, and their only obligation was to act honestly and according to their own judgment, and to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion.
Liberty 75 is quite lengthy, so we’ll paraphrase here to say that it states that if a Court makes any laws that concern religion, lead to war, or result in a public Article, and there are members of the Court who disagree with the majority vote, they are to publish their dissenting decision (their “contra remonstrance”) and have it recorded in the records of the Court.
—This is a voice for the minority that makes governing by precedent more informed, and makes the members of the public aware of the dissenting opinions in the Court.
The section on the liberties of the freemen, then, secures separation of church and state, the right of freemen to vote for their politicians, the independence of town governments, a voice for dissent, and the right of the legislature (General Court) to exist, thus preventing tyranny by the governor and his assistants. The rights and duties of juries are also covered in this section.
We’ll look next at the sections on women, children, “foreigners and strangers”, and brute creatures. As we shall see, these are positive laws and are called out in separate sections only to emphasize that these populations had rights as well.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
I just finished my Delbanco book and it strikes me that most historians who write about the Puritans just don’t like them, deep down inside, and this colors their history.
Of course, it’s not as if liking a group makes your history better than disliking a group. Ideally, you try to be as objective as possible.
But that objectivity is hard to come by when you’re reading about the Puritans. A schadenfreude creeps in and eventually sets the overall tone fast in a kind of head-shaking ruing of the Puritans and their crazy ways. Almost any book you read about the Massachusetts Bay Colony gives you the feeling that it was an immediate failure, that the moment those people set foot on shore in America they started betraying their own values. Blame is laid at the door of their religion, inevitably; a religion that crazy was just bound to fail.
It’s funny, because MBC was very successful. It established dominance over all New England, Boston was the major American port for decades, and overpopulation was almost immediately a problem. The MBC Puritans finally codified their religion in writing (the New England Way), something that had eluded or been deemed impossible by English Puritans, they settled two strong challenges to their Way (Antinomianism and the Halfway Covenant), created a representative legislature and judiciary, and wrote down a code of civil law (something the English Parliament tried to force the king to do to no avail).
But in most religious histories of the Puritans of the MBC, they are portrayed as psychologically tortured, religiously intolerant, crippled by self-doubt, paralyzed by uncertainty and fear of eternal punishment. You’d never know this was the place that invented flip, the fun rum drink with sizzling cream.
Meanwhile, the other crazy zealots in America, the Quakers, come off as lovely and wonderful, and full of success, when in fact their single colony immediately and completely betrayed its founder’s principles as soon as he died, and the Quaker faith henceforth had nothing to do with the government of Pennsylvania.
Because the later, 18th and especially 19th century Quakers were antislavery pacifists, we like them. We’re in sympathy with them. We ignore that fact that in the 17th century, they were as unpleasant and dictatorial about religion as any Puritan might be. I am greatly indebted to Tom Van Dyke at American Creation for this description of 17th-century Quakers in America:
[Roger] Williams spent much of his final decades in protracted debates with Quaker missionaries and refugees to Rhode Island, and what caused him to be so exasperated with his Quaker opponents was primarily their violation of [the] aspect of civility, the need to conduct public conversation respectfully. …Williams was taken aback by his Quaker opponents’ boisterous behavior and abandonment of common courtesy during the debates. He vehemently objected to their habit of interrupting his arguments, shouting him down, attempting to humiliate him personally with name-calling and ridicule, misrepresenting his convictions, and displaying a noted lack of truthfulness in their own arguments. …[To Williams] this behavior was not, as the Quakers insisted, an acceptable exercise of free conscience. Instead it was a moral violation of the basic requirements of civility, a signal of deep disrespect and a transgression of the procedural rules for public deliberation that Williams held with the highest esteem, so much so that he was willing to entertain the possibility that violators of civility like the Quakers should be subject to legal restrictions.
If you could get Roger Williams so far on your bad side that he was willing to restrict your liberties, you know you’re pretty extreme.
So while of course you can never completely erase your own biases when studying anything, including history, we need to at least be upfront about them. If only Puritan historians would just include a Foreword saying, “Look, I hate these people, but they’re an important part of American history, so we need to study them, but frankly I’m glad they got what they deserved in the long run–oblivion.”
My foreword would be different… as you can guess!
(For more on the battle between Puritans and Quakers, see The Puritans and Freedom of Religion.)Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
Welcome to part three of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. Here we will see how the ambitious Puritan political platform played out in England and was then transplanted to the New World.
We’ve seen that the English Puritans wanted to wipe out poverty, encourage private enterprise, and vigorously embrace the newly emergent capitalist system. Their religion spurred them to achieve these goals, but they did not rely on God to work a miracle for them. The Puritans had many converts from the nobility, powerful men who sat in the House of Lords, and most Puritans of common birth were politically active. The Puritans had members in both houses of Parliament and agitated constantly at court and in the popular press for the changes they desired.
Unfortunately, the Puritans would not abandon their insistence that the Anglican Church (or Church of England), the state church, be radically “purified” (hence their name) and stripped of its remaining Catholic qualities. Elizabeth I and James I after her took a firm hand in stopping such religious agitation, which invariably led to bloodshed and public turmoil, and seemed to promise eventual civil war. (These fears would be realized in the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War.) England had gone through extremely divisive religious conflict during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, and had landed as a unique Protestant nation: the original Catholic church in England was taken over by the English government, completely separate from the Roman Catholic Church governed by Rome. The Anglican church was sort of neutral or Protestant-by-default, but it was not Lutheran or Calvinist. Anglicanism avoided both submission to Rome and affiliation with European Lutherans or Calvinists.
This policy had maintained a fragile peace in England since 1558, when Elizabeth I took the throne. Puritans who agitated for further reformation, with a Calvinist bent, were not looked upon with kindness. James I particularly loathed the Puritans and their near-relations, the Separatists, who decided Anglicanism could not be purified, and therefore separated from it, leaving the church. Puritans and Separatists were persecuted in England as traitors.
By refusing to drop their demands for religious change, the Puritans sabotaged their efforts to get their social reforms passed. By the 1620s, many Puritans were beginning to fear that God had abandoned England, and was about to punish it, perhaps destroy it. When William Laud, a pro-Catholic Puritan hater, was made Archbishop of Canterbury–head of the Anglican church–in 1630, he launched a Puritan eradication campaign that made life very dangerous for Puritans of all walks of life.
In that year, a small group of influential Puritans left England. Led by John Winthrop, a well-known royal lawyer and property owner, they left to establish a safe space in America where Puritans could wait out God’s wrath on England. While England was punished, America would thrive, regenerating a holy people to lead England back to God’s grace. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, with its seat of government in Boston.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 12 so far )
Welcome to the conclusion of my series on the Pequot War. Here we ask ourselves just why this conflict took place.
I’ve already said, in part 1, that in 1637 the Massachusetts Bay Colony felt the threat it faced from “Indians” was equal to threats from the French, Dutch, and Spanish, and far less significant than the threat represented by its own English king . A handful of tiny settlements in Connecticut were all that was at stake, and MBC ended up sending fewer than 120 men to fight in just one battle. The Pequots were not particularly aggressive toward the Puritans, and only attacked after they had been provoked.
So why did it happen? To answer this question, I think we have to look at MBC and the colonies in Connecticut as part of a larger world. We have to see them as they saw themselves: soldiers in God’s army, fighting against the forces of evil. In short, they were part of the Thirty Years’ War.
From 1618-1648, brutal war was fought in Europe, mostly in Germany, between Catholic and Protestant forces. Each side engaged in incomprehensible atrocities, killing civilians and soldiers, burning towns, praising God for destroying their enemies… exactly the things the Puritans did to the Pequots in New England. For the Puritans saw themselves as the westernmost outpost of Protestantism in the world, and hoped to actually lead European Protestantism by its pure example—and its freedom from opposition. The Puritans were the only Protestants who were not surrounded by hostile or undecided fellow-Christians, and they hoped to use that lack of threat to be bold, and go far in their reformation.
So anyone who menaced them was threatening the whole future of Christianity, and, like their fellow-soldiers in Europe, New England Puritans reacted with merciless violence when heretics threatened them. To the Puritans, any non-Calvinist was a heretic, including Catholics and all other varieties of Protestants. Native Americans were really no more heretical or pagan than harlot-of-Rome papists.
When the Puritans were primed to spring with violence on anyone who threatened them, they had several potential enemies in mind (again, the Dutch, French, Native Americans, and England itself). The Pequots merely sprung the trap first. By making the first attack, they unleashed the full force of Puritan war upon themselves.
It was just the luck of the draw, in a way: if the Dutch had sprung the trap first, there would have been a bloody war with Manhattan instead, that would have involved thousands of Puritans rather than dozens.
For many decades historians have been certain that Puritans hated Native Americans above all others, considered only Native Americans to be heretics/pagans, and were dying to have an “Indian war.” I believe this is untrue. In 1637 New England, at least, all threats were equal, all foes were pagans, and war with Indians was seen as maybe just a foretaste of the war that would come with England itself.
Not even 40 years after the Pequot War ended, another, far more terrible war would be fought with Native Americans: King Phillip’s War (1675-6). It was fought for different reasons than the Pequot War. KPW was about land, and restricting New England to white settlement. It was the classic “Indian war” that would be fought over and over, hundreds of times, as English settlement and then the United States expanded.
But the Pequot War was a far-flung battle in a European war of religion, and while it set a bad precedent for relations between English settlers and (Native) Americans, in a perverse way, for the Puritans it was not about America at all.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In part 2 of my series on the Pequot War, we look at the condition of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the settlements in Connecticut and New Haven on the eve of war.
The MBC was founded in 1630 by Puritans led by John Winthrop. They had left England because persecution of Puritans was being stepped up by King Charles I’s new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. The Puritans who founded the MBC were determined to be self-ruling. But they faced many threats to their security.
To the north, in today’s Maine, were the Catholic French, stretching out from Canada. To the west, in Manhattan and western Connecticut, were the Dutch, whose government claimed the land the Puritans settled on. In Europe, the Thirty Years’ War was being fought against the Spanish; if the Spanish won, Catholicism would triumph in Europe, and the Dutch possessions in New York would become Spanish (since Spain was fighting in part to resume control over Holland). And at home in England, Laud was urging King Charles to take direct control of Massachusetts and bring it in line by outlawing its Puritanism.
These threats were immediate and real. You notice there is no mention of Native Americans. To most Puritans, Native Americans were the least of the threats facing the colony. The Native Americans were few, and unarmed, and frankly, off the radar for the Puritans, whose focus was completely on fellow Europeans, both in Europe and in America.
As early as 1633, just three years after settlement, the MBC found out that a group of English men, some former American settlers, had presented a petition to the king saying the Puritans in America were traitors, and ought to be destroyed. Friends of the colony still in England stepped in to deny this claim, and the king was persuaded not to act. But the next year, news came that the Commission for Regulating Plantations run by Archbishop (and Puritan-hater) Laud had been granted authority over the colony. Months later, the commission demanded that the Puritans send back their patent to England for “revisions.”
The patent was the grant signed by the king that allowed the Puritans to settle in Massachusetts and to govern themselves as they saw fit, so long as they did not make laws contrary to English law. If it was sent back to Laud, it would be destroyed, and Laud would write a new patent making Massachusetts a royal colony, under the king’s control.
Several times over the next few years the colony refused to surrender its patent. It began arming itself for war with England, fortifying Castle Island and other positions. During this stressful time, the French attacked and destroyed a trading post set up in Maine by Plymouth Colony, and the Dutch refused to abandon a trading post they set up on the Connecticut River.
So the Massachusetts Bay Colony was alarmed and preparing for war well before trouble with the Pequots arose in late 1634. When it did, the Pequots were seen as just one more threat to the colony. Contemporary historians often describe the Puritans as chomping at the bit to have an Indian war, but in reality, the Puritans were certain that at least one war was coming to them, and when it turned out to be an Indian war, they must have been a little surprised.
Next time: What caused the Pequot War?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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