Category Archives: 17th Century

The Pilgrims’ Bible

All of America’s great historical men of letters wrote in a style that owed much to the King James Bible. That book was, for many pious early American families, the only book from which children were taught to read and write, the only one from which children were read to on dark winter evenings. Its soaring, yet earthy prose helped to shape the sound of American rhetoric back in the days when public figures were expected to speak and write with intelligence, clarity and precision.

So it is a surprise to find that the Pilgrim Fathers themselves did not use the King James Bible.

King James’ Authorized Version, completed in 1611, was that monarch’s attempt to reconcile the various factions that existed within the English church, each of which was passionately devoted to its own special translation of the Bible. By including in his translating committee representatives of the various religious groups, he hoped to create a translation that all English Christians could use and love. In this he was more than successful.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. And it was particularly difficult to please the Puritan Separatists. Their Bible was the Geneva Bible, a massive encyclopedia of Calvinist thought that included extensive notes, maps and diagrams. Many of its explanatory notes were contentious and explicitly anti-royalist: for example, the word “tyrant,” which does not appear in the King James Bible, occurs over 400 times in the Geneva Bible.

When the pilgrims left the distastefully liberal religious atmosphere of England for the Netherlands and thence to Plymouth Rock, it was the massive Geneva Bible they toted along.

Interestingly, some Puritans believed that Biblical names should not be translated; the name Adam should read “Red Earth,” and Timothy, “Fear-God.” The Geneva Bible included a list of the meanings of all those ancient signifying names at the back. In imitation of the great figures of scripture, the Puritans took to naming their children after moral qualities, such as Lament, Eschew-evil, Fear-not, and the very popular name Sin-deny. Among William Brewster’s own children were Fear, Love, Patience and Wrestling Brewster.

(Nicolson 74-75)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century, Uncategorized

Division of Household Labor in Pre-Industrial America

The question of which member of a household performed each particular task of housework was, in pre-Industrial America, strictly determined according to gender, age, and social status.

Although some household tasks, such as milking cows, carrying water, and peeling potatoes, were shared by both men and women, many more jobs were considered either “men’s work” or “women’s work.” We might assume that men were expected to perform tasks requiring brute strength, while women did the jobs that required finesse, but this is not quite the case. In fact, this particular division of labor seems to have been determined more by custom, in a way that looks almost arbitrary today. For example, the making of cider and mead was a man’s job, while women made beer and wine. Men repaired the clothing that was made of leather, while women mended clothing made of fabric. Women had small side jobs to fill in the slow times of their day (sewing, spinning) and so did men (whittling, chopping wood). Men had jobs requiring physical strength (hauling wood), and so did women (doing laundry).

These customary rules were broken only in times of extreme necessity. Men and women were simply not well trained to do the jobs that belonged to the other gender. A man could, in time of need, make his own shirts, or a woman repair her own shoes without fear of disgrace, but he or she would inevitably do a clumsy job owing to the fact that these jobs required skills neither would have had the opportunity of developing.

Therefore, whenever possible, the more usual solution in case of emergency was to simply hire the work done by someone else of the appropriate gender. Since children began learning gender-appropriate tasks at a young age, it was extremely common to “loan” children to other households to perform the necessary work. Although there were always many young immigrant men and women who could well perform household labor, the easy availability of land meant that most of these eventually chose to set up their own households rather than go into service in the home of another. This was the “servant problem,” and it was partially solved by the institution of slavery. Still, slaves were expensive, while borrowing a young niece or nephew to help with childcare or harvesting cost only a little room and board. This custom allowed households to function smoothly while keeping the sexual division of labor intact.

When children, relatives or servants were present in a home to help with the housework, labor was divided not only according to gender, but age and class as well. It is important to remember that in most households, the housewife worked side-by-side with the lowliest slaves; only the extremely rich could afford to leave all the work to others. Hierarchies were maintained through the specific tasks performed by each member of the household. In general, children were expected to perform the tasks that required the least skill or organizational ability, such as fetching water and milking cows. Servants did the most physically arduous jobs, like scrubbing floors or doing laundry. Jobs which required creativity, judgment, experience and organization, like preparing meals or making clothes, were reserved for the housewife herself. Each task carried an implied social status.

Although housework has been traditionally considered “women’s work,” the daily reality of agrarian life meant that men as well as women were required to contribute to the efficient running of a household. The reciprocal nature of the contributions of each member of a household meant, among other things, that for most adults marriage was nearly indispensable, and certainly a very different institution than it would become as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

(Cowan 26-31)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century

Benjamin Franklin and Electricity

Most of us grew up with a general idea that Benjamin Franklin “discovered” electricity. As adults we realize that can’t be entirely true. So just what does Benjamin Franklin have to do with electricity? And what’s with the kite?

In Franklin’s day, electricity was understood no better than it had been in ancient times. Entertainers and pranksters used static electricity to shock people for laughs, and that was about it.

In 1747, Franklin received from a fellow tinkerer a device for generating static electricity. Entranced by the object, Franklin commissioned a local glassblower and silversmith to make more such gadgets. He used them to collect electric charges and conduct experiments.

His first great discovery was that the generation of a positive charge is accompanied by the generation of an equal negative charge. This concept, known as the law of conservation of charge, was a major scientific breakthrough. Before Franklin’s discovery, scientists believed that electricity involved two independently-created fluids, known as vitreous and resinous; Franklin’s findings instead demonstrated the single-fluid theory of electricity.

Franklin’s single-fluid theory and his law of conservation of charge have now withstood over 250 years of practical application.

Franklin needed to invent some new terms in order to explain his findings to the scientific community. In a letter to a colleague he wrote: “We say B is electrised positively; A negatively: or rather B is electrised plus and A minus… These terms we may use until your philosophers give us better.” In fact, no better terms were needed; we use Franklin’s to this day. His other neologisms include neutral, condense, and conductor.

Franklin experimented with capturing and storing electrical charges using a device called a Leyden jar, which was a primitive form of capacitor. These experiments led to his invention of a new device, also still in use today, which he named the electrical battery.

Another important Franklin discovery was the fact that metal points draw electrical charges more readily than do blunt pieces of metal. This led to his most famous experiment and one of his most indispensable inventions.

More background is needed here. In Franklin’s day, lightning was feared as one of the most destructive of natural forces. Scientists did not understand the phenomenon; it was generally explained as a supernatural occurrence, an expression of God’s wrath. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas had declared that the sound of church bells would repel lightning strikes; 500 years later, church bells were still being rung at the approach of a thunderstorm.

This was a singularly bad idea. During one 35-year period in Germany, 386 churches were struck and more than 100 bell ringers killed. In Venice, lightning struck a church where gunpowder was being stored, and three thousand people lost their lives.

Franklin believed it was time to try another solution.

In November of 1749 he recorded in his journal the strange similarities he had noticed between lightning and electrical sparks. Both gave off the same color of light; both were swift and had the same crooked shape, and made the same type of noise; both were conducted by metals, could kill animals, and were accompanied by a sulfurous smell.

Since there were so many similarities between lightning and electricity, might there not be yet another similarity? Might not lightning, like electricity, be drawn to a metal point?

If this supposition were true, then it might be possible to tame one of the greatest natural dangers known to mankind.

This is what he set out to prove by his famous experiment.Using a silk kite with a sharp wire attached to the top and a metal key suspended near the end of the string, he was able to draw off sparks from a passing storm cloud. It is remarkable that he did not kill himself in the process. But by this means he proved that lightning could indeed be deliberately drawn off by the use of a lightning rod.

Few scientific discoveries have provided such an immediate practical benefit to humanity. By proving that electricity and lightning were the same thing, Franklin transformed a deadly supernatural force into a scientific phenomenon that could be controlled. Within the year, lightning rods were being installed all over Europe and the colonies, and Franklin was suddenly a famous man.

(Isaacson 133-145)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century

The Miserable Voyage of the “Mayflower”

By 1620 the Pilgrims, those religious separatists who had fled persecution in England for the relative freedom of Holland, had become disgusted with the too-tolerant atmosphere they found there. So they decided instead to try their luck in the New World.

Around the same time, a group of Dutch fur traders called the New Netherland Company was looking for colonizers to populate New Netherland and challenge the English hegemony in the area of Jamestown and points north. The company petitioned the States General to allow the Pilgrims to colonize New Netherland under the Dutch flag.

But the scheme failed. The States General were in the process of going to war against Spain, and had no desire to antagonize England just when they might need her as an ally.

So the Pilgrims instead accepted a land patent from a group of English investors, who called themselves the Merchant Adventurers.

Their agreement with the Merchant Adventurers seemed fair. It obligated the Pilgrims to work for the company four days out of every week, for seven years . Two days each week they could work for themselves, with one day set aside for worship. Each colonist over the age of sixteen would be given one free share in the company, and all costs and supplies of the venture would be provided out of the company’s joint stock. At the end of the seven years, the shareholders would split the profits, and the colonists would own their houses and the land on which they stood.

On the eve of the Pilgrims’ departure from Holland, they discovered that the Merchant Adventurers had neglected to secure them a ship for the voyage. They were forced to purchase the Speedwell to make  the trip from Holland to England, where they were to pick up supplies for their longer voyage to the New World.

Then at the very last minute, the Merchant Adventurers unilaterally changed the terms of the agreement. Instead of working for the company four days out of every week, the Pilgrims were to devote all their time to turning a profit for the company. Furthermore, the land and houses would become common property rather than the private property of individual families.

Although the Pilgrims’ representative hastily signed the revised agreement, the majority of the group would not go along with the new terms. The company’s representative was so offended that he stormed off, refusing to even make the final payment owed for the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Pilgrims were forced to sell off some of their already inadequate supplies to make the payment.

Due to uncertainty regarding the terms of the contract, many Pilgrims backed out of the project. So the company decided to make up the difference by adding fifty-two non-separatists to the passenger list; having these strangers in their midst contributed even more to the discomfort of the remaining Pilgrims in the group.

The first attempt to leave England had to be aborted; the Speedwell leaked so badly that she could not even be repaired. The entire group would have to crowd onto the already overcrowded Mayflower. By September, the would-be colonists had already eaten almost half their provisions, and they hadn’t yet left Southampton.

When they finally did sail, they immediately ran into miserable weather. They discovered that the Mayflower was hardly any more sound than the Speedwell had been. Performing makeshift repairs to their leaky vessel, they continued their voyage and finally sighted Cape Cod after two months at sea.

Their troubles were still not over, for they spent another two days sailing up and down the coast, looking for a safe place to land. It took them another month to find a suitable place to settle, but they finally arrived, tired and sickly, at Plymouth, just as winter was beginning.

The area had recently been all but depopulated of Indians by a plague, and the skulls and bones of plague victims lay scattered all over the ground.

(Dolin 31-40)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century

Roger Williams and the Separation of Church and State

It is often said that when the Puritans first settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were seeking religious freedom. It should more properly be said that they were seeking freedom from religious freedom.

The stated purpose of these Puritans was to establish a City on a Hill, dedicated to their particular vision of God and the performance of what they regarded as God’s laws. They allowed no room for individual interpretation. Puritan ministers were compelled to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, or face imprisonment. Everyone was compelled to attend approved church services, or suffer painful consequences. The colony’s leaders believed that it was the responsibility of the State to prevent error in religion; they believed the success of the colony depended on it.

Roger Williams was a young English clergyman, and a graduate of Cambridge. He brought his family to Massachusetts Bay Colony a few months after its establishment, and the Boston church immediately offered him a post.

At first he turned it down. Williams was convinced that preventing error in religion was not the responsibility of the State. He did not believe preventing such error was even possible, for when people interpreted God’s law, they would inevitably err. It was his belief that a society such as the Puritan leaders envisioned would corrupt the church.

Yet he eventually accepted a position at a church in Salem. Soon he had gathered about him a like-minded congregation. The authorities continued to keep a wary eye on him, and eventually his free-thinking interpretations of Scripture became too much for them. In October 1635, the General Court banished him and gave him six weeks to leave the colony.

Because Williams was ill, and winter was coming, they agreed to extend his stay in the colony until spring, provided he did not speak publicly during that time. He complied, yet continued to promote his views privately, among his friends and family. The authorities considered this a violation of their terms, and in January they sent soldiers to arrest him and have him shipped off to England. Warned of the impending arrest, Williams quickly put on his warmest clothes, stuffed his pockets with provisions, and fled into the snow.

For 14 weeks he survived in the wilderness, helped only by some Indians with whom he had previously traded. Eventually he found his way to a likely spot for settlement, and purchased it from the Narragansett Indians. He called the place Providence.

His family and a dozen or so others soon joined him, and quickly he realized they would need some form of government. He drafted up a political contract, a remarkable document that showed just how free-thinking he had become.

Although all English and colonial precedent gave him complete political control over the settlement on the land he had purchased, he relinquished almost all the land to the common stock of the town, and with the land any special political rights to which it would entitle him. He reserved for himself only a vote equal to that of the others. And in stark contrast to the founding documents of every other European settlement in the New World, the compact made no mention of God’s kingdom, God’s will, or God’s blessing. It didn’t mention God at all.

This omission was no accidental oversight. Even Williams’ worst enemies knew how pious he was. Devotion to God informed everything he did, or wrote, or said. By leaving God out of the compact, he was intentionally limiting the government of Providence to matters purely civil. Unlike every other English settlement, this one would neither set up a church nor require church attendance. All this was completely revolutionary.

Massachusetts did not take kindly to having this godless colony at its borders. The authorities began to claim more and more land in an attempt to swallow up the new colony. So Williams sailed to England to convince Parliament to grant him a legal charter.

At first, Parliament was no more receptive than Massachusetts to the idea of divorcing church from state. Tradition and universal public opinion still demanded the death penalty for heretics. But Williams was relentless, promoting his views tirelessly wherever he could get an audience. In February 1644 he published a pamphlet in which he used for the first time a phrase which continues to echo through public debate in America today: “(the) wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”

His efforts paid off. Since Rhode Island was a tiny settlement, safely separated from England by a vast ocean, Parliament agreed to let him perform his revolutionary experiment. His charter was granted in March of 1644. The charter gave the colonists complete self-rule, as long as their tiny government conformed, more or less, to English law. Amazingly, it left religious decisions up to the majority of Rhode Island settlers.

Williams had created freest society the Western world had yet seen.

(Barry 72-90)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century

Mercantilism and the American Colonies

Mercantilism was the organizing principle of the entire British Empire. It was a philosophy whose sole purpose was to enrich the home country through the accumulation of precious metals. The three rules of mercantilism were these:

1. The home country must export more than it imported, so it could accumulate more gold and silver than its trading partners.

2. Manufacturing in the home country must be encouraged, since manufactured goods could fetch a higher price than the imported raw materials.

3. Foreign competitors must not be allowed to threaten domestic industries.

Basically, mercantilism meant that Britain developed colonies for the sole purpose of milking them dry. In the early 17th century, Virginia Company agents could buy tobacco in Virginia for 3 schillings a pound and sell it at home for 8 schillings. Codfish could be bought for 12 schillings per quintal and sold for 36 in Spain. Beaver pelts cost 12 schillings and fetched 45 in London.

At the same time, Americans were not allowed to sell their products (cotton, tobacco, timber, furs, fish, etc.) to anyone besides British merchants, and they were discouraged from starting their own manufacturing plants that might compete with British factories. They were only allowed to sell raw materials to Britain at low cost, then buy back manufactured goods at high prices.

Also available at artificially high prices were African slaves, which were purchased in West Africa and sold to Americans at a 300 percent markup.

(Sass 17-18)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century

Plymouth Colony as Failed Experiment

The story of the pilgrim fathers began in 1593, when a band of radical Protestant Separatists fled religious persecution in England, emigrating to the more tolerant religious atmosphere of Holland. But the Dutch people went too far in the other direction. They tolerated all kinds of religions, as well as atheism, and allowed a lot of secular behavior – drinking, gambling, dancing, etc. – that the Puritans found offensive. Fearing for the spiritual development of their children in this pagan setting, the Puritans fled again, this time to the New World.

Despite the loss of half the first Puritan band during the disastrous winter of 1620-21, two more boatloads of Separatists followed them to Plymouth. These were in turn followed by about 20,000 non-Separatist Puritans, who settled at Boston. These two groups of religious ideologues hoped to found a theocracy far from Europe’s godless influence.

They were disappointed. It turned out that new immigrants as well as their own children took a dim view of their narrow-minded doctrine. In 1691, King Charles II amended the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the new version, religious dissenters were to be protected, rather than banished or worse. Men’s voting rights would be based, not on Puritan church membership, but on ownership of property.

(Sass 9-10)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century

Early Slavery in Virginia

Although slavery existed in Virginia from 1619, when the first Africans were brought to Jamestown, the outlines of the system took shape very slowly. Race-based slavery and racial prejudice seem to have evolved concurrently, in a chicken-and-egg relationship; neither was a factor at the beginning of Virginia’s slave system. In the earliest days, many “slaves” were white indentured servants, and as many as one-third of the black population was free.

The earliest African slaves had been baptized by the Spanish, and bore Christian names; the Jamestown colonists certainly put them to work, yet were reluctant to enslave these fellow Christians for life. Many of the early blacks therefore became “Christian servants” only for a limited period of time, or were set free for having accepted Christianity.

Eventually the Virginia Assembly began cracking down on this rampant application of Christian piety. In 1667 it ruled that the conferring of baptism had no bearing on whether someone was enslaved or free, and in 1682 it passed a law that any “negroes, moors, mulattoes, or Indians” imported to Virginia would automatically be considered slaves.

Many whites and blacks continued to resist these laws; masters persisted in freeing slaves. Moreover, whites and blacks persisted in marrying each other. After all, in seventeenth-century Virginia white indentured servants greatly outnumbered black slaves; these two disadvantaged groups naturally came into close contact with one another.

So in 1691 the Assembly passed a law that any master who freed a slave must pay to transport that freed slave out of the colony; in the same session it forbade white people to marry blacks, on pain of banishment.

One reason Virginia had so many white indentured servants was the British government’s policy of exporting surplus indigent, unemployed, and incarcerated Englishmen to America. This changed around 1700, when England began to require more cheap labor at home. As the supply of white laborers dwindled, Virginia had to make up the difference with slaves.

More and more Africans were imported to the colony, and laws regarding slavery became more and more strict. Low-caste white people became anxious to distinguish themselves socially from the rank of slaves, and began to disdain manual labor. By the mid-eighteenth century, Virginia society had changed to the extent that labor could no longer be hired; it needed to be purchased. By that time, it had become impossible to operate a plantation without the use of African slaves.

(Wiencek 41-45)

Leave a comment

Filed under 17th Century