HST 296A: Reading Notes, 9-Feb-2005

Wall, Helena M. Fierce Communion: Family and Community in Early America. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

(But first, a basic question: they seemed a litigious lot, but how often were court cases heard, how many people attended, was this a community activity, was this community entertainment, was this community building like church-going was?)


Colonial society was based on community. This later shifted to a focus on the individual. "This book examines the conduct of private life in a culture dominated, in every, region, by community values and expectations; it ends by sketching the shift to a culture based instead on the rights and values of individuals and autonomous families." But, building on the community studies of Powell, Demos, Lockridge, etc. we should not consider colonial society a monolith. However, to "give the field greater synthetic coherence" Wall proposes that basic assumptions and attitudes were similar overall--the differences are variations on a theme.

Much of the work rests on court cases, with the caveat that court cases show deviance, not necessarily norm.


Colonists looked for order and looked to community to provide it in the face of a new and "forbidding" continent.

(2 curiosity questions that probably have no b/w answers: she mentions use of the words order and well-ordered as being frequent: were these words frequent among legal proceedings and sermons, i.e. did they reflect the desires of those interested in the law anyway, or were they used by other members of society? Do they appear in letters, diaries, etc.?
2) Is it the nature of agrarian societies to organize themselves as communities, do agrarian societies usually privilege ideas of community/family?)

A highly proscriptive society, even in south. Moral turpitude reflected on the individual, the community, and could become a drain on the community as well as providing bad examples.

Bring up a child in the way he (or she) should go...and blame less than sterling results on the parents. Marriage: authority and hierarchy, but reciprocity and partnership as well. "family disorder or disharmony of any sort rippled through the rest of society." (p. 11)

1) The Force of Community

Neighbors live in each other's pockets. Good opinion of neighbors is valued.
Live close to your neighbors, not alone or off by yourself.
Take your neighbor's advice graciously.
Do not be contentious (though this is where the "strain of neighborliness seems to find its easiest outlet--lots of court cases reflect this.)
Often, in Puritan communities esp. but also in Anglican Virginia, disagreements centered around church issues. Witchcraft accusations were one symptom (New England), malicious lawsuits another (barrators, barratry).

Disputes were settled through court or often, in more trivial or vexing cases, through (anti-lawyer/antilegalistic) arbitration, with arbitrators interviewing witnesses and determining settlements/fines (arbitrators got free lunch, later were paid).

"Arbitration was expected not only to settle the immediate disagreement but also to restore genuine peace. . .Arbitration sought to resolve conflict without acknowledging its presence, to bridge irreconcilable differences with fragile compromises and conciliatory rhetoric, and to cement conclusions through friendly and informal methods. Arbitration worked best when the courts formalized and enforced it--in other words, arbitration was most likely to succeed when it abandoned its own assumptions and strategies." (pp 27, 29)

2) The Tyranny of Neighbors

Manglestick: "Only a culture that placed an extraordinary high value on a good name would encourage a plaintiff to take legal action against an insult no one understood." (p. 30)

Order of common legal actions: Accomack Co., debt, slander; Mass., fornication, slander

Slander might also be tacked on to other lawsuits for good measure. or to forestall prosecution from someone for a criminal action.

Not only one's good name was involved: one's rep affected one's livelihood (miller, doctor, etc.)

Sticks and stones...but words...not in Colonial America: sue, baby, sue. And the more people who witness the slander, the more disturbing it is to the plaintiff. If they won their case, a public apology was more important than punishing one's accuser.

"The view that women are more likely to gossip and that their gossip is generally more destructive is common in other cultures as well." (p.47) (I note this one because of how women's writing is viewed, how women's discourse online is viewed, blogs, etc.)

3) The Contradictions of Family: Marriage

Marriage bound by community: goal: protect stable marriages, aid victims of love gone awry. "Community influence tended to give greater weight to social obligations than to emotional needs, to the reinforcement of expected roles within marriage, and to maintaining the appearance of a happy marriage while sacrificing hopes for its achievement." (p. 49)

Parent's influence: consent, inheritance

(Chesapeake: parents likely to die before children of marriageable age!)

Banns - "smoke out irregular engagements"

(Virginia is for lovers? Maybe, but they elope to Maryland if they want to marry!)

Community intervention in unsuccessful marriages was common and accepted. Couples were also encouraged to ask for advice of the community. Grey, publicly admits adultery as a way of asking public forgiveness and perhaps enlisting public support in negotiations with her husband. (p. 60)

"Community...exerted its influence even when its goals were contradictory or when they ran contrary to the needs and desires of couples." (p. 61) Belief that disorder in personal affairs threatens whole community
 - formal engagements, hard to break
 - prenuptial pregnancy made community hasten marriage
 - courts punished those who conducted or abetted illegal (no banns, etc.) marriages
 - premarital fornication punished even when couple marries, though not as severely than if they do not

Community enjoins couple to fulfill their duties to each other (p. 66)
 - CT and MA actually have divorce laws, though other colonies do not
 - women compelled to live with husbands (defer)
 - legally dead eventually enacted
 - official intervention requested for non-support
 - adultery a capital crime in Mass bay until 1692
 - husbands should protect their wives
 - courts could proscribe amicable behavior to couples
 - sometimes court agreed to separations: abuse, impotence
 - sometimes punish abusers ("courts served the cause of patriarchy more forcefully than the cause of justice or compassion" p. 78)
Carol Karlson, Salem witchcraft: often focused on more powerful independent women, not marginal, as these were more threat to patriarchal dominance

Sometimes private obligations supersede public duties, but mostly decisions were to coerce couples to heal troubled marriages. "Community was less interested in the happiness of couples than in ensuring that couples discharged their responsibilities as if their marriage was intact." (p. 83) If reconciliation meant community disharmony, than separation is OK.

4) The Ambiguities of Family: Childrearing

"The community helped define parental responsibilities, upheld parental authority, reinforced and often provided parental care. Childrearing responsibilities were dispersed...The practice of "putting out" children, rather than being exceptional or abnormal, reveals starkly the assumptions--and limits-- of colonial childrearing." (p. 86)

Orphans: rare in NE, common in Chesapeake
 - family disagreements often centered on stepchildren
 - special orphan courts for abuse and mismanagement

Neighbors, as might be expected, often intervene in childrearing, interfering in abuse (though other forms of interference were not acceptable: parents first, then interfere p. 95)

Custody was often formalized as an economic arrangement, both for child's inheritance and for worth of child's labor. Set up rather like an indenture contract. (p. 96)

Putting out (a common response to a host of family disruptions: death, poverty, abandonment p. 100), for apprenticeship or service, sometimes as a form of adoption, but sometimes for short terms of service. (p. 98) Courts would sometimes put out to reform a family or redirect behavior of child. (p. 104) compulsorily in case of poverty (which was expected, accepted, as long as it was not "idle poverty"). Children were expected to produce. "an economic arrangement clothed in familial terms (p. 118)

Guarantees for master, protections for child, financial advantage for all complicated the process of placing a child: much negotiation (p. 107) Official involvement could sometimes hasten the event, maintaining an orderly community. (p. 109)

Common provisions of indenture: some form of education, craft training, women not to work in fields, moving children from original jurisdiction

Common problems: fraud, misunderstood terms, coercion. Non-performance of masters (fail to train, fail to educate), inadequate care, neglect, cruelty (difference between proper punishment and cruel and unusual). Courts could intervene, as might neighbors and family. Parents could repossess their children for the cost to date or if the master died.

Blurring the family definition: in cases of parents against masters, masters had more rights

Afterward: Transformations

Conflicts between community and personal relationships

Complaints about them both failed to "carry weight" and point out how entrenched they were.

In the second half of the 18th century "developments eroded the practical bases of traditional community life." (p. 128):
Do not suggest that the 19th century was better (not evolution), watch out for assumptions because nature of records changed, do not assume cause and effect.

affective individualism (Lawrence Stone) a change in mentalite: compounded by Locke, disintegration of patriarchy (population, division of land for sons means less and less control over sons)

17th cent: familial paradigm for political authority
18th cent: filial disobedience is justified in face of parental tyranny

18th cent: force parents hands: premarital pregnancy rates rise; divorce rates rise;

18th cent: slander suits no longer as common: population growth and movement affect reputation concerns

New family: affectionate, voluntaristic, private, union of hearts, importance of mother ("advice to mothers" books),  republican motherhood, children "from useful to useless", voluntary apprenticeship declines among middle class, rises among poor (as a form of poor relief) (if a family can't attain a newly defined ideal middle-class life the child must be removed for its own protection); growing reliance on law instead of arbitration;