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THE PILGRIM PATRIARCHS
The Puritan view of the family was remarkably well suited to founding a new society under adverse conditions. The Jamestown settlers had gone down before the assault of carelessness and contrariness, but the efficient, humorless, cantankerous Puritans of New England prided themselves on their foresight and were prepared to go to extreme lengths to impose the discipline they knew the circumstances demanded. Inevitably, they overdid it.
Their views were to a large extent partly conditioned by the certainty that all God's creatures, even the Chosen, were born to an inheritance of sin. They were as full of it "as a toad is of poison. Thy heart," said the Reverend Thomas Shepard, preaching at Cambridge, Massachusetts, "is a foul sink of all atheism, sodomy, blasphemy, murder, whoredom, adultery, witchcraft, buggery [unaccountably, he left out cannibalism and incest]; so that if thou hast any good thing in thee, it is but as a drop of rose water in a bowl of poison." 8 It was a heavy burden, and one that could not, for Protestants, be shrugged off in the confessional. Thus it was the duty of the strong-in-faith to help their weaker brethren—whether they liked it or not—to fight temptation.
The fight began within the ruthlessly disciplined family, presided over by a father whose role was stand-in for Jehovah. Obedience, solidarity, and fruitfulness had all been enjoined on the children of Israel, and these were the rocks on which Puritan families—and America itself—were built. Right from the start, of course, there were problems. Although the Fathers who sailed on the Mayflower had providently taken their wives and children with them, 13 of the 18 wives died during the first winter, and for several decades afterward men seriously outnumbered women.
Where men were deprived of women, and where many women were suspect, sexual sin was rife, and the Puritan assessment of human weakness seemed to be justified. In the tradition of the time, punishment was harsh. Fornicators were flogged, and then had to make public confession in church; adulterers were similarly treated, and sometimes branded as well; the pillory or the stocks were the penalty for parents whose first child was born too soon after the wedding day; an infant born on a Sunday was often refused baptism because it was believed that it must have been conceived on a Sunday. The weak-minded might be burned as witches, or hanged—like the teenage servant, Thomas Granger of Duxbury—for having carnally abused a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey. And a petty criminal, innocent for once but harried beyond the bounds of reason, might be put to death because one piglet in a sow's litter had a human look about it, as well as "one eye blemished just like [his] ... which occasioning him to be suspected, he confessed." 9
In a society where the word of the elders was law—and law in a way it had never been in Catholic Europe, where Church and state had never, quite, been one—sensible women stayed out of sight. But too many changes had taken place since the days of the first patriarchs for them to accept the role of cipher. Puritan morality had three direct effects on the American future. It produced a mental state of Victorianism fifty years before Victoria herself mounted the throne on the other side of the Atlantic. It taught American women how to control their menfolk by sickly-sweet virtue and purity that sometimes reached caricature proportions, while yet appearing to submit to them like good Old Testament wives. And it gave extraordinary importance to the concept of "the family."
The Puritans' fight to maintain their own dour moral standards was bound to be a losing one. But they were the firstcomers in effective, if not in factual terms, and they were forceful enough and bigoted enough, and possessed of a sense of self-preservation powerful enough to enable them to impose their ways on several generations of later colonists, even those of milder faith. For a long time they were assisted by the fact that new immigrants were predominantly Protestant. A traveler in 1700, making his way from Boston to the Carolinas, would have encountered assorted Congregationalists and Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, a variety of Puritan radicals, Dutch, German and French reformed church followers, Swedish, Finnish, and German Lutherans, Mennonites and radical pietists, Anglicans, a few Rosicrucians—and some Roman Catholics and a handful of Jews.10 Because of this, the Puritan ethic had a disproportionate influence on the whole future of the United States. Senators and Congressmen today, struggling (whatever the state of their faith and/or marital relationships) to project an image of dedicated family men, at work, at rest, at church, at play, owe this particular electoral hazard to the early New England settlers who wove the public demonstration of family solidarity into the American ethos. In no other country in the world is a politician expected to drag his wife and children onto the public podium with him. SOURCE: Sex in History Reay Tannahill A Scarborough Book , Stein and Day Publishers , NY (1980, 1982) pp. 328-330
Refer back to previous installments in this series to note that New England had a good deal of evidence of premarital sex as well.
CONTINUE ON TO EARLY AMERICA SEX, MARRIAGE, CHILDREN, GAYS, LESBIANS, BOYS AS GIRLS, ABORTION, BREECHING, FAMILY AND OTHER MYTHS. PART 19