The End of Witchcraft Trials in New England

Posted on October 1, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

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.

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The Chronology of Witchcraft in Puritan New England

Posted on September 24, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

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.” [371]

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.

Next time we’ll see how demographic and geographic growth ended witchcraft cases altogether in Puritan New England by the early 1700s.

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Puritans and Witchcraft: more method, less madness

Posted on September 18, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

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.

Next time, we’ll go further into the patterns and logic of witchcraft accusations outlined by Demos.

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Henry VIII v. Wikipedia

Posted on June 12, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.

We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.

Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic,  the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.

But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant. It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established… but that long string of events stretching  from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.”  Most resources sum up the long story as “Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church to get a divorce.”

So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history. That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with  the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?

We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass. Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.

The power of the erroneous consensus is most evident on Wikipedia; many historians have told their stories of trying to correct common-knowledge errors on the site and being reprimanded or banned for their efforts because Wikipedia honors consensus over fact: if a thousand people say the Pilgrims were Puritans, that’s what Wikipedia will go with, even though it’s wrong. 1001 people have to say they were Separatists for them to allow their entry on the founders of Plimoth Plantation to be corrected. Ironically for our argument here, the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII is completely accurate: “Besides his six marriages, Henry VIII is known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry’s struggles with Rome led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his own establishment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Yet he remained a believer in core Catholic theological teachings, even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.” Somehow the truth has been allowed to stand on the site, and we hope our article here won’t mess with that. But too often, resources beyond Wikipedia—would-be educational materials—follow its policy of accepting common knowledge and, what’s worse, resisting correction when its fallacy is pointed out to them, as the dictatorship of consensus makes its power felt.

It’s hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable book by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.

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“A Wonderful disaffection in very many towards you” – the letter from John Winthrop’s anonymous “friend”

Posted on January 8, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

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.

Next time: censorship, censorship, censorship

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Puritan myth-busting: an interview with David D. Hall

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

There is a great, if short, interview with Dr. David D. Hall from the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts (in four parts) that every student of the Puritans should see. Here’s the bio from his web page at Harvard:

“David D. Hall has taught at HDS since 1989, and was Bartlett Professor of New England Church History until 2008, when he became Bartlett Research Professor. He writes extensively on religion and society in seventeenth-century New England and England; his books include The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century; Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England; Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology and, most recently, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (2011). He has edited two key collections of documents: The Antinomian Controversy of 1636-1638: A Documentary History and Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History, 1638-1693. Another interest is the “history of the book,” especially the history of literacy and reading in early America. He edited, with Hugh Amory, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, the first of a five-volume series of which he was the general editor. He continues to study and write about religion and culture in early America, with particular attention to “lived religion,” and is presently writing a general history of Puritanism in England, Scotland, and New England c. 1550 to 1700, to be published by Princeton University Press.”

A Reforming People is one of the HP’s favorite resources, easy to read and transformative for the new student of Puritanism, informative and surprising for the experienced scholar. Unfortunately, YouTube videos will not embed here, so we can only send you to the site indirectly. Enjoy!

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Puritan law, oligarchy, and the Body of Liberties

Posted on September 11, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first codification of law in Puritan New England, in which we wrap up our look at this groundbreaking American political document with some thoughts on its meaning in its own time, and in ours.

This first codification of Massachusetts law was, as we saw in part 1, not easily drafted, as the people of the colony resisted doing so for two reasons: first, they felt a body of laws should develop naturally over time, as it had done in England, allowing precedent rather than law-makers to rule the day; and second because their colonial charter forbid them to create any laws “repugnant” to the laws of England, and they were not certain whether the laws they drafted would violate that tenet.

The uncertainty sprang, of course, from the fact that there was no written code of law in England at that time—its famously unwritten constitution was composed of centuries of local custom. But the Puritan leaders, and a growing number of freemen, in Massachusetts were worried about following that tradition in the New World. They worried that legal and court decisions would be made based on opinion, prejudice, or personal agenda rather than an objective striving toward justice. Just four years after landing in America, the Puritans began the lengthy process of drafting a code of laws with input from all the towns, and after six years of canvassing, drafting, reviewing, and revising, the Body of Liberties was published, with copies sent to all the towns to be read aloud and voted on.

The Body was only the first of many Massachusetts codes of law. In 1660 the Body was updated and enlarged (and renamed “Laws and Liberties”), with addenda added each year from 1662-6, and again in 1668. The Laws were revised and rewritten again in 1672, and would evolve over the decades into the state law of Massachusetts.

In its own time, the Body of Liberties was daring and innovative. Daring in that it established an independent government for the colony, with laws clearly not part of English law. The Puritans broke their charter to create their laws, and this is just one example of the commitment the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made to independence almost from the moment of their arrival. As we’ve seen elsewhere in Puritan New England on the Edge, 1637, the people of the MBC feared a royal takeover of their colony, expecting warships from England to arrive in Boston harbor at any moment. Their response was to build forts overlooking the harbor and arm them with cannon, making the decision to fight to the death to preserve their religion, their laws, and their liberty.

The Body was innovative in that it set out a relatively brief yet comprehensive set of laws that reinforce a) the rights of freemen; b) the principle that no one is above the law; c) the right to a fair day in court; and d) the need for buy-in from the people themselves, who  first helped draft and then voted to approve and accept these laws. This was proto-democracy, and it was not being practiced in any other American colony—or many other places anywhere else in the world.

Today, the Body is mostly unknown to Americans. Most Americans, if asked what they think Puritan laws were like, would come up with the most repressive, draconian, irrational suggestions imaginable. (One example: on a recent tour of sites along the Freedom Trail in Boston, an acquaintance was told by the tour guide that Puritans put people in the stocks for sneezing on a Sunday. The Body, as readers of this series will note, contains no references to sneezing.) Modern-day Americans think of Puritans as witch-crazy religious nuts whose only goal was to oppress people. But we see from our study of the Body that to say this image is unfair is an understatement.

Why the Puritans continue to get such a bad rap is fairly clear: very few people actually read their documents. They read The Scarlet Letter in high school, hear the term “city upon a hill” used to refer to smug arrogance, and learn that Anne Hutchinson was persecuted, along with Quakers, for trying to spread religious tolerance. The overall effect is a rejection of the Puritans as unpleasant and even evil people, a fleeting example of intolerance that was stamped out by later Americans who created a fair Constitution.

Those who actually read what the Puritans wrote, and know what their beliefs and ideals and goals were, may not always come away happy and approving, but they have a much more accurate understanding of these revolutionary people, whose laws, and ideas of justice, in having shaped the political consciousness of Massachusetts, played an important role on the road to American independence and the Constitution we revere today.

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The rights of minority populations in Puritan Massachusetts

Posted on August 29, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, The Founders, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

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.

Next time: capital offenses

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Puritan justice—a fair day in court

Posted on August 20, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

Part 3 of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties takes us to section 2, which focuses on judicial proceedings. It’s the longest section of the Body: 40 of the 100 laws in the Body are contained here. As Puritans enjoyed leisurely writing, we’ll paraphrase each of the laws, but 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.

Liberty 18 allows people to post bail so they don’t have to stay in prison while they await trial.

Liberties 19 and 20 address midconduct by judges, establishing fines for “miscarriage” by a justice and censure for those who demonstrate misconduct in court (“demean themselves offensively in the Court”).

Liberty 22 sets fines for false claims and nuisance lawsuits. This ties in with Liberty 24, which states that if you bring a suit against someone and then are found to be at fault yourself, your suit will be dismissed, and with Liberty 37, which reiterates fines for false claims (“false complaint or clamor”).

Liberty 26 is interesting because it says that if you are unfit to plead your own case in court you can ask someone to represent you. When you study the Puritans you quickly learn that they were a litigious people, constantly bringing suits to court, and often very complex ones, but you might fail to register that there were no lawyers in Puritan Massachusetts. Many of the Puritans, including founder and governor John Winthrop himself, had been lawyers in England. But in their new world, they did not have lawyers. Everyone argued their own case in court. The Puritans had seen and bewailed the corruption of the English court system, and protested the use of legalese that average people could not understand. In Massachusetts, they rid themselves of both problems by getting rid of lawyers. Liberty 26 allows people to have someone else plead a case for them—with one significant detail: that person can’t be paid for his service (“Provided he give him no fee or reward for his pains”). There would be no professional lawyer class in Massachusetts if the original settlers had their way.

Liberty 30 says jurors can be challenged by both plaintiff and defendant in any case. “And if his challenge be found just and reasonable by the bench, or the rest of the jury, as the challenger shall choose it shall be allowed him [to have a new jury called].” This is a liberty no one had in England.

Liberties 32-35 are protections of individual liberty. The first allows a defendant whose goods have been seized to recover them, and the last forbids a court to seize crops that would be spoiled and ruined by the time a defendant is able to recover them. The other two make imprisonment a last resort (“no man [shall be] arrested or imprisoned upon execution of a judgment… if the law can find competent means of satisfaction otherwise from his estate”) and punish constant nuisance litigation (“vexing others with unjust frequent and endless suits”). The image many people have of scores of Puritans languishing in prison, victims of irrational laws or charges of witchcraft, are unfounded.

In fact, you may be noting that we are a good way into the Body without one mention of witchcraft, which many Americans today take to be the only crime Puritans acknowledged or cared about. We will see that there is only one mention of witchcraft in the entire body, and it is a passing mention. The Puritans, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, believed in witchcraft but very rarely believed someone was a witch. Their courts were scenes of countless arguments over land, boundaries, and livestock, but rarely over witchcraft.

Liberty 36 allows for appeals by defendants found guilty in court, Liberty 41 demands a speedy trial (“…cases shall be heard and determined at the next Court”), and Liberty 42 says no one may be tried twice for the same offense—a pillar of our own justice system.

Liberties 43, 45, and 46 forbid cruel and unusual punishment—no whippings of more than 40 stripes, and no torture to force a confession… in most cases. If someone was found guilty of a capital crime, and it seemed clear he had partners in that crime, then that person might be tortured to give up the names of his partners, “yet not with such tortures as be barbarous and inhumane.” It’s not clear what a humane torture may be, but it is clear that the Puritans knew what they meant, and drew a line between humane and inhumane torture, for they reiterate in the next Liberty, 46, “For bodily punishments we allow amongst us one that are inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.”

Liberty 48 established a Sunshine policy, stating that every inhabitant of the colony had the right to “search and view” all court records, and to request written transcripts for a small fee.

Jury duty is covered in Liberties 49 and 50, saying no one can be forced to serve for more than two years in a row, and that all jurors will be chosen by the freemen of their towns (and not by the government in Boston).

The section wraps up with Liberty 57 saying that if there is a suspicious sudden death in a town, the constables of the town will summon a 12-person jury to carry out an inquiry, and present their findings and conclusions at the next Court.

Judicial proceedings were so important to the Puritans for a few reasons. As we’ve mentioned above, they chafed at the inefficiency and corruption of the legal system in England, and they wanted to create a truly just system in their own society in America. They also had a practical necessity for a clear, fast-moving legal process because they were constantly embroiled in lawsuits over land. As new settlers came in, people moved from place to place, bought land, left land in wills, etc., disputes over borders and plots, who had rights to use common land and wood lots, and a plethora of other issues came up continually. If justice did not move swiftly, violence could break out, as people took the law into their own hands. That’s why the Body sets up clear laws and clear procedures for bringing cases to court, and enforces swfit justice—every case being heard at the next Court session being held.

Note the practicality of these judicial liberties and you’ll find the myth of the rigid, all-powerful, and unjust Puritan court is exploded. These Puritan courts had juries elected by freemen, whose members could be challenged and dismissed by defendants in court. The judges could be fined and removed for miscarriage of justice. People had the right to appeal. People’s goods could be seized, but had to be returned to them if they were found innocent, and imprisonment was to be a last resort, not the norm. Many of the liberties of 1641 were new to the western world, and many clearly influenced the Founders of the United States, and are tenets of our own judicial system today.

We’ll turn next to “Liberties more particularly concerning the freemen”, or, more protections of individual liberty, as well as the divisions between church and state.

Next time: more liberties of the freemen

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Were Puritan laws harsh? A look at individual rights

Posted on August 15, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our series on Puritan law—specifically  the 1641 Body of Liberties created by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last time we looked at the proto-democratic process by which these laws were created; here we focus on the first section of this body of 100 laws, which covers individual rights. We won’t look at each of the 17 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.

We should note here that “man” is used pretty consistently, except in the short section 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 the laws that follow did not apply 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.

(All spelling has been modernized in the following excerpts.)

1. “No man’s life shall be taken away, no man’s honor or good name shall be stained, no man’s person shall be arrested, restrained, banished, dismembered, nor any ways punished, no man shall be deprived of his wife or children, no man’s goods or estate shall be taken away from him, nor any way indemnified under color of law or countenance of authority, unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the country warranting the same, established by a General Court and sufficiently published, or in the case of the defect of a law in any particular case by the word of God. And in capital cases, or in cases concerning dismembering or banishment, according to that word to be judged by the General Court.”

—This is the heart of the Body of Liberties; as discussed in part 1 of this series, the whole purpose of creating the Body was to have a set of laws to go by. No one is going to be sentenced to anything unless he has broken an actual law that has been made publicly known. Judgments will not be made according to some magistrate’s whim or personal feelings. People will know what the law is, and what the penalties are for breaking laws. The last part, regarding “the defect of a law in any particular case”, means that if there is some problem for which no law has been written as yet, the magistrates will turn to the Bible for guidance; however, if someone does something that seems to call for capital punishment in the Bible, the General Court will step in and “that word [of God] will be judged”. Here we see that when push comes to shove, human reason ranks above the word of God for the Puritans.

2. “Every person within this Jurisdiction, whether inhabitant or foreigner, shall enjoy the same justice and law that is general for the plantation [the colony], which we constitute and execute one towards another without particularity or delay.”

—One law for all, no one above the law, and an early expression of the idea that justice delayed is justice deferred.

…12. “Every man whether inhabitant or foreigner, free or not free, shall have liberty to come to any public court, council, or town meeting, and either by speech or writing to move any lawful, seasonable, and material question, or to present any necessary motion, complaint, petition, bill, or information, whereof that meeting has proper cognizance, so it be done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner.”

—The law is open to all, no matter their status, and all men have the right to attend public meetings and participate in them, so long as their participation is respectful and the ideas or complaints they have are relevant to the body they’re addressing—that is, if you are in town meeting, you bring up town business and not colony-level business, and vice-versa.

14. “Any conveyance or alienation of land or other estate whatsoever, made by any woman that is married, any child under age, idiot or distracted person, shall be good if it be passed and ratified by the consent of a General Court.”

—While it is distressing to see women, children, and “idiots” lumped together as one category, this law actually states that it is not only men who may buy and sell land or goods (“estate”), and that is crucially important in a colony where land is the chief source of wealth. A woman may do what she sees fit with land she is left by her husband. (Women can also make their own wills, as guaranteed in liberty 11.) Underage children may make decisions about land left to them. The clause on “idiot or distracted persons” likely refers to people who made out wills when they were of sound mind but did not die of sound mind; those wills and the decisions in them will be upheld. All this is contingent on the General Court looking the decisions over and confirming them, but looking through the records of the colony shows that in most cases decisions made by this group were upheld.

We skipped laws in this section that prevent people from being fined for not responding to a court summons if they are incapable of getting to court, outlaw mandatory military service, ensure that no one can be forced to work on a government project, ban estate taxes, keep the government from seizing goods, and give people the right to move out of the colony whenever they like. Basically section 1 limits the power of the colonial government and secures individual liberties, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, that line comes from a later document and another time, but we see here in section 1 of the Body of Liberties of Massachusetts early forerunners of those guarantees in our Declaration of Independence.

In section 2, we’ll look at Rights, Rules, and Liberties concerning Judicial Proceedings.

Next time: the longest section

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