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Puritan Laws and Character

Introduction; New England Confederation | King Philip's War
Edmund Andros | Puritan Laws and Character
Also see: New England Colonization


During the seventeenth century the combined New England colonies formed practically, if we except Rhode Island, one great Puritan commonwealth. They were under separate governments; but their aims and hopes, their laws, for the most part, and their past history were the same.

The people as a whole were liberty-loving in the extreme, but the individual was restrained at every step by laws that no free people of today would tolerate for an hour. Paternalism in government was the rule in the other colonies and in Europe, but nowhere was it carried to such an extreme as in New England.

Here the civil law laid its hand upon the citizen in his business and social relations; it regulated his religious affairs, it dictated his dress, and even invaded the home circle and directed his family relations. One law forbade the wearing of lace, another of "slashed cloaths other than one slash in each sleeve and another in the back." The length and width of a lady's sleeve was solemnly decided by law. It was a penal offense for a man to wear long hair, or to smoke in the street, or for a youth to court a maid without the consent of her parents. A man was not permitted to kiss his wife in public. Captain Kimble, returning from a three-years' ocean voyage, kissed his wife on his own doorstep and spent two hours in the stocks for his "lewed and unseemly behavior."

In the matter of education the Puritans stood in the forefront. Many of the clergy were men of classical education, and through their efforts Harvard College was founded but six years after the great exodus began. Before the middle of the century Massachusetts required every township of fifty families to employ a teacher to educate the young in reading and writing, while every township of one hundred families must maintain a grammar school. The other colonies soon followed with similar requirements.

But the most striking feature in the life of New England is found in its religion. The State was founded on religion, and religion was its life. The entire political, social, and industrial fabric was built on religion. Puritanism was painfully stern and somber; it was founded on the strictest, unmollified Calvinism; it breathed the air of legalism rather than of free grace, and received its inspiration from the Old Testament rather than the New.1

There was a gleam of truth in the charge of Mrs. Hutchinson that the Puritans lived under a covenant of works. This was because they had not yet fully grasped the whole truth of divine revelation. No further proof of the legalistic tendencies of Puritan worship is needed than a glance at their own laws. A man, for example, was fined, imprisoned, or whipped for non-attendance at church services. He was dealt with still more harshly if he spoke against religion or denied the divine origin of any book of the Bible.2 Laws were made that tended to force the conscience, to curb the freedom of the will, and to suppress the natural exuberance of youth -- laws that could not have been enacted and enforced by a people who comprehended the full meaning of Gospel liberty, or had caught that keynote of religious freedom sounded by the ancient prophet and resounded by St. Paul and Luther, "The just shall live by faith."

Nevertheless there is no more admirable character in history than the New England Puritan of the seventeenth century. His unswerving devotion to duty, his unlimited courage based on the fear of God, his love of liberty and hatred of tyranny -- these are the qualities that have enthroned him in the memory of the American people. We deplore the narrowness and intolerance of the puritans; but they were less narrow and intolerant than the English and most of the Europeans of that day. They committed errors, but they were willing to confess them when they saw them. They banished Roger Williams as a disturber of the peace, not for his opinions; but they bore witness to his spotless character. They executed a few Quakers, but confessed their error by repealing their own law. They fell into the witchcraft delusion, which was prevalent throughout Christendom at the time; but they were first to see the dreadful blunder they had made and they were not too proud to publicly confess it. Judge Sewall made, before a large congregation, a confession of his error as only a hero could have done; and he begged the people to pray "that God might not visit his sin upon him, his family, or upon the land." Such was a trait of the Puritan character that leads us to forget his faults and to admire rather than censure him.

New England developed steadily throughout the colonial era. The people were chiefly of the stanch yeomanry, the great middle class, of England. Many of them were men of fortune and standing in their native land. The people of Massachusetts were slow in reaching out from the seaboard; not till about 1725 did they begin to colonize the Berkshire Hills. The Connecticut Valley was more productive than other parts of New England, and the people of Connecticut were more purely agricultural in their pursuits than were those of any other portion, except New Hampshire. The chief industry of Rhode Island was trade, while Massachusetts was divided, agriculture and commerce holding about equal sway. Six hundred vessels plied between Boston and foreign ports, while the number of coasting vessels was still greater.

Manufacturing was carried on, but not on any great scale. Sawmills and gristmills were numerous along the rivers, and they did a large business in preparing timber and grain for transportation. Hats and paper and other commodities were made on a small scale; but the most extensive manufacturing was carried on by the farmers and their families, who made many of the utensils for their own home use, as will be noticed in a subsequent chapter.

The stern Puritan customs were gradually softened, more rapidly in Massachusetts than in Connecticut, owing to the many Crown officers residing in Boston. The first attempts to introduce the Episcopal form of religion were sternly resisted, but at length it found a footing, though not in Connecticut till well into the eighteenth century. About 1734 a religious revival, started by Jonathan Edwards and carried on by George Whitefield, the evangelist, spread over parts of New England, and to some extent revived the waning Puritan religious fervor.

The population at the opening of the Revolution reached nearly 700,000, about 300,000 of which was in Massachusetts, including Maine. Connecticut contained about 200,000 people, New Hampshire some 75,000 and Rhode Island some 50,000.3

All colonies had negro slaves, but very few in comparison with the southern colonies. Probably there were not more than 15,000 slaves in all New England, of whom Massachusetts and Connecticut had the majority. Indentured servants were slow in coming to New England, and when they came, their rights were guarded by salutary laws.


Footnotes

1The Puritan conscience was painfully overwrought. Nathan Mather wrote that in his youth he went astray from God and did dreadful things, such as whittling behind the door on Sunday. Sometimes a child would weep and wail in the fear that it was not one of the elect and would go to hell. [return]

2But such laws were not peculiar to New England. [return]

3See Lodge, p. 408.[return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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