Coercing Morality in Puritan Massachusetts
[Conceived in Liberty (1975)]
Perhaps the bluntest expression of the Puritan ideal of theocracy was the Rev. Nathaniel Ward’s The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam in America (1647). Returning to England to take part in the Puritan ferment there, this Massachusetts divine was horrified to find the English Puritans too soft and tolerant, too willing to allow a diversity of opinion in society. The objective of both church and state, Ward declaimed, was to coerce virtue, to “preserve unity of spirit, faith and ordinances, to be all like-minded, of one accord; every man to take his brother into his Christian care … and by no means to permit heresies or erroneous opinions.” Ward continued:
God does nowhere in His word tolerate Christian States to give toleration to such adversaries of His truth, if they have power in their hands to suppress them … He that willingly assents to toleration of varieties of religion … his conscience will tell him he is either an atheist or a heretic or a hypocrite, or at best captive to some lust. Poly-piety is the greatest impiety in the world.… To authorize an untruth by a toleration of State is to build a sconce against the walls of heaven, to batter God out of His chair.
And so the Puritan ministry stood at the apex of rule in Massachusetts, ever ready to use the secular arm to enforce its beliefs against critics and false prophets, or even against simple lapses from conformity.
To enforce purity of doctrine upon society, the Puritans needed a network of schools throughout the colony to indoctrinate the younger generation. The Southern colonies’ individualistic attitude toward education was not to be tolerated. Also, the clusters of town settlements made schools far more feasible than it did among the widely scattered rural population of the Southern colonies. The first task was a college, to graduate suitably rigorous ministers, and to train schoolmasters for lower schools. And so the Massachusetts General Court established a college in Cambridge in 1636 (named Harvard College the following year), appropriating 400 pounds for its support. In a few years, after schoolmasters had been trained, a network of grammar schools was established throughout the colony. In 1647, the government required every town to create and keep in operation a grammar school. Thus, Massachusetts forged a network of governmental schools to indoctrinate the younger generation in Puritan orthodoxy. The master was chosen, and his salary paid, by the town government, and, of course, crucial to selecting a master was the minister’s intensive inquiry into his doctrinal and behavioral purity. Indeed, in 1654 Massachusetts made it illegal for any town to continue in their posts any teachers “that have manifested themselves unsound in the faith or scandalous in their lives.” To feed the network of grammar schools, the colony, in 1645, compelled each town to provide a schoolmaster to teach reading and writing.
There would be no point to government schools for indoctrinating the masses, if there were no masses to be indoctrinated. Vital to the system, therefore, was a law compelling every child in the colony to be educated. This was put through in 1642 — the first compulsory education law in America — and was in contrast to the system of voluntary education then prevailing in England and in the Southern colonies. Parents ignoring the law were fined, and wherever government officials judged the parents or guardians to be unfit to have the children educated properly, the government was empowered to seize the children and apprentice them out to others.
One of the essential goals of Puritan rule was strict and rigorous enforcement of the ascetic Puritan conception of moral behavior. But since men’s actions, given freedom to express their choices, are determined by their inner convictions and values, compulsory moral rules only serve to manufacture hypocrites and not to advance genuine morality. Coercion only forces people to change their actions; it does not persuade people to change their underlying values and convictions. And since those already convinced of the moral rules would abide by them without coercion, the only real impact of compulsory morality is to engender hypocrites, those whose actions no longer reflect their inner convictions. The Puritans, however, did not boggle at this consequence. A leading Puritan divine, the Rev. John Cotton, went so far as to maintain that hypocrites who merely conform to the church rules without inner conviction could still be useful church members. As to the production of hypocrites, Cotton complacently declared: “If it did so, yet better to be hypocrites than profane persons. Hypocrites give God part of his due, the outward man, but the profane persons giveth God neither outward nor inward man.”
One requisite for the efficient enforcement of any code of behavior is always an effective espionage apparatus of informers. This apparatus was supplied in Massachusetts, informally but no less effectively, by the dedicated snooping of friends and neighbors upon one another, with detailed reports sent to the minister on all deviations, including the sin of idleness. The clustering of towns around central villages aided the network, and the fund of personal information collected by each minister added to his great political power. Moreover, the menace of excommunication was redoubled by the threat of corollary secular punishment.
Informal snooping, however, was felt by some of the towns to be too haphazard, and these set up a regular snooping officialdom. These officers were called “tithing men,” as each one had supervision over the private affairs of his ten nearest neighbors.
One Puritan moral imperative was strict observance of the Sabbath: any worldly pleasures indulged in on the Sabbath were a grave offense against both church and state. The General Court was shocked to learn, in the late 1650s, that some people, residents as well as strangers, persisted in “uncivilly walking in the streets and fields” on Sunday, and even “travelling from town to town” and drinking at inns. And so the General Court duly passed a law prohibiting the crimes of “playing, uncivil walking, drinking and travelling from town to town” on Sunday. If these criminals could not pay the fine imposed, they were to be whipped by the constable at a maximum rate of five lashes per ten-shilling fine. To enforce the regulations and prevent the crimes, the gates of the towns were closed on Sunday and no one permitted to leave. And if two or more people met accidentally on the street on a Sunday, they were quickly dispersed by the police. Nor was the Sabbath in any sense a hasty period. Under the inspiration of the Rev. John Cotton, the New England Sabbath began rigorously at sunset Saturday evening and continued through Sunday night, thus ensuring that no part of the weekend could be spent in enjoyment. Indeed, enjoyment at any time, while not legally prohibited, was definitely frowned upon, levity being condemned as “inconsistent with the gravity to be always preserved by a serious Christian.”
Kissing one’s wife in public on a Sunday was also outlawed. A sea captain, returning home on a Sunday morning from a three-year voyage, was indiscreet enough to kiss his wife on the doorstep. For this he was forced to sit in the stocks for two hours for this “lewd and unseemly behavior on the Sabbath Day.”
Not only were nonreligious activities outlawed on Sundays, but attendance at a Puritan church was compulsory as well. Fines were levied for absence from church, and the police were ordered to search through the towns for absentees and forcibly haul them to church. Falling asleep in church was also outlawed and whipping was the punishment for repeated offenses.
Gambling of any kind was strictly forbidden. The law declared: “Nor shall any person at any time play or game for any money … upon penalty of forfeiting treble the value thereof, one half to the party informing and the other half to the treasury.” Yet, as so often happens in this world, what was so sternly prohibited to private individuals was permitted to government. Thus, government was permitted to raise revenue for itself by running lotteries. To government, in short, was given the compulsory monopoly of the gambling and lottery business. Cards and dice were, of course, prohibited as gambling. Also prohibited, however, were games of skill at public houses, such as bowling and shuffleboard, such activities being considered a waste of time by the people’s self-appointed moral guardians in the government.
Idleness, in fact, was not just a sin, but also a punishable misdemeanor — at any time, not only on Sunday. If the constable discovered anyone, singly or in groups, engaged in such heinous behavior as coasting on the ice, swimming, or sneaking a quiet smoke, he was ordered to report to the magistrate. Time, it seems, was God’s gift and therefore always to be used in His service. A sin against God’s time was a crime against the church and state.
Drinking, oddly enough, was not completely outlawed, but drunkenness was, and subject to a fine. The practice of drinking toasts was outlawed in 1639, because of its supposedly pagan origin and because, once a man has begun to drink a toast, he is on the road to perdition; “drunkenness, uncleanness, and other sins quickly follow.” And yet the stern guardians of the public morality had their troubles, for decades later we find ministerial complaints that the “heathenish and idolatrous practice of health-drinking is too frequent.”
Women and children, as might be expected, were treated extremely harshly by the Puritan commonwealth. Children were regarded as the virtually absolute property of their parents, and this property claim was rigorously enforced by the state. If any child be disobedient to his parents, any magistrate could haul him into court, and punish the little criminal with a maximum of ten lashes for each offense. Should the pattern of disobedience persist into adolescence, the parents, as provided by the law of 1646, were supposed to bring the youth to the magistrate. If convicted of the high crime of stubbornness and rebelliousness, the son was to be duly executed. Happily, it is likely that this particular law, on the books for over 30 years, was rarely, if ever, put into effect by the parents.
Women were viewed as instruments of Satan by the Puritans, and severe laws were passed outlawing women’s apparel that was either immodest or so showy as to indicate the sin of “pride of raiment.” “Immodesty” included the wearing of short-sleeved dresses, “whereby the nakedness of the arm may be discovered” — a practice duly outlawed in 1656.
In outlawing “pride of raiment,” women were not discriminated against by the Puritans; men too felt the heavy arm of the state. In 1634 the General Court began the practice of outlawing finery of dress for either sex, including “immodest fashions … with any lace on it, silver, gold or thread,” hat bands, belts, ruffs, beaver hats, and many other items of adornment. In 1639 more items of sin were added: for example, ribbons, shoulder bands, and cuffs — these nonutilitarian items being of “little use or benefit, but to the nourishment of pride.” Excessive finery was subject to heavy fines, and the law was extensively enforced. Thus, in one year, Hampshire County hauled 38 women and 30 men into court for illegal finery, silk being an especially popular sin. One woman was punished “for wearing silk in a flaunting garb, to the great offense of several sober persons.”
Even the wearing of one’s hair long — an old Cavalier practice condemned by the Puritans, who were therefore called Roundheads — was placed under interdict. The General Court repeatedly condemned flowing hair as dangerous vanity. Many Puritan divines ranked “pride in long hair” fully as sinful as gambling, drinking, or idleness. One citizen, fined for daring to build upon unused government land, was offered a remission of half the amount if he would only “cut off the long hair off his head into a civil frame.” Hair righteousness, however, never had much of a chance even in godly Massachusetts, for some of the major leaders of the colony, including Governor Winthrop and John Endecott, persisted in the sin of long hair.
Mixed dancing only came to the colony late in the century, but was promptly condemned as frivolous, immoral and a waste of time. Boston, upon hearing complaints, closed down a dancing school.
The measures of the fanatical Puritan theocracy were not solely motivated by religious zeal. Part of the motivation had an economic-class basis. As the century progressed, the lowly laborers and indentured servants formed an increasing minority of the populace; since they were not admitted to the political and social privileges of church membership, they were naturally the most disaffected members of the social body. The above measures were partly designed to keep the lower classes in their place. Thus, the authorities were particularly angered to see servants or the families of laborers having the gall to wear fine apparel. The General Court, in 1658, severely announced “our utter detestation … that men or women of mean condition should take upon them the garb of gentlemen, by wearing gold or silk lace, or buttons or silk of taffeta hoods, or scarves, which though allowable to persons of greater estates or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge intolerable in persons of such like condition.” In short, the lower orders must know their place, and the stringent requirements of a fanatical moral code could bend for the upper strata of society.
Similarly, the requirement of compulsory education was enforced particularly upon the indentured servants, as many masters believed that their servants would be less inclined to be independent or “give trouble” if imbued with Puritan teachings.
Indeed, the leaders of the colony did not hesitate to justify the oligarchic rule by the rich over the poor. As Governor Winthrop expressed it in his A Model of Christian Charity (1630): “God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.”
Generally, then, it was the lower orders who had to bear the main brunt of the severely enforced “moral” rules of the Puritan code. Indeed, Massachusetts imposed maximum ceilings on wage rates in order to lower wage costs to employers. The temporarily enslaved indentured servants were particularly oppressed by Puritans trying to maintain them as the efficient property of their masters; they therefore tried to suppress all deviant tendencies from the norm. Many servants were branded like cattle with their initials and the date of purchase, so as to assure their rapid identification in case of flight. When found unsatisfactory or troublesome, servants were generally punished, whipped, and imprisoned, or had their tenure of servitude extended. Orphan boys were bound out as servants by the state until they reached the age of 20, while illegitimate boys were especially punished by being bound out until the age of 30. In addition, indentured servants could, like slaves, be sold by their masters to other masters, and thus be forcibly separated from their families. Servants caught escaping were often punished by having their ears cut off.
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Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School. He was an economist, economic historian, and libertarian political philosopher. See Murray N. Rothbard’s article archives.
This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty (1975), chapter 18.
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