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A Bountiful Harvest of Early American History

ISSUE:  Autumn 1986
Law in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630—1800. Edited by David R. Coquillette. Boston. $30.00.
Printing and Society in Early America. Edited by William L. Joyce, David D. Hall, Richard D. Brown, and John B. Hench. Worcester. $32.50.
Seventeenth-Century New England. Edited by David D. Hall and David Grayson Allen. Boston. $30.00.

Although it has been some years since the eminent historian Edmund S. Morgan quipped that we already know more about the New England Puritans than any sane person would want to know, these new books indicate how much more there in fact is to know about the colonial period generally. Indeed, I do not exaggerate when I say that whole new areas of study will be opened by some of the essays in these collections. And because we in fact already do know so much about colonial New England when someone opens a new area of inquiry, he already has around him so much cleared territory that vista upon vista unfolds when one views the terrain from the new vantage.

The most substantial, and perhaps ultimately useful, volume is Law in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630—1800, edited by Daniel R. Coquillette, new dean of the Boston College Law School. Divided into three sections—papers delivered at a conference on the subject held in Boston in 1981 and sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, essays on the sources for the study and the uses for the records of the colonial Massachusetts judicial system, and descriptions of relevant materials in other major repositories of colonial documents—this weighty volume quickly should establish itself as indispensable to scholars of colonial America who seek a clearly marked trail through the tangle of legal records from colonial Massachusetts.

In the final section, for example, we have detailed descriptions of the holdings of interest to legal historians in the libraries of the American Antiquarian Society, the Essex Institute, the Harvard Law School, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. But even more important to the uninitiated are the essays in the second section. Therein Robert J. Brink offers an overview of Massachusetts colonial court records, detailing, to take just one example, what one can find in the various minute books, record books, and file papers of the Massachusetts court system. William E. Nelson discusses the court records as sources for historical writing and outlines such seemingly Byzantine subjects as the common law rules of pleading and procedure during the colonial period. Michael S. Hindus provides a detailed chronological guide to the trial and court records of the colony, and includes both a valuable glossary of legal terms in use during the period as well as a breakdown of the records by county. To the historian or interested layman who always has been interested in the subject of legal history but has not known how to gain a handhold, these few hundred pages are invaluable.

If the sections just described teach us what sources for the study of Massachusetts legal history there are and how to gain access (literally and figuratively) to them, the first eleven essays indicate what sophisticated students of legal history do with them. These offerings range from splendid biographical portraits of both well-known lawyers like Thomas Lechford (the first to practice law in the colony) and John Adams, as well as others not widely known among colonial historians—Nathaniel Byfield and John Clark, for example— to group portraits like George L. Haskins’s of “Lay Judges” and Neal W. Allen’s on magistrates and lawyers in the present-day region of Maine, to sophisticated studies of particular aspects of colonial law. In this latter category, Douglas Lamar Jones’ “The Transformation of the Law of Poverty in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts” and William E. Nelson’s “The American Revolution and the Emergence of a Modern Doctrine of Federalism and Conflict of Laws” stand out as powerful examples.

Reading these essays makes one both wonder how we went so long without knowing such things and realize that what legal discourse reveals about the relationship of law to society in the colonial period represents one of the final frontiers where intellectual and social historians still are likely to meet with any degree of amicability. Indicative of the finest work now being done in a new area of research, Law in Colonial Massachusetts is path-breaking in a good, old-fashioned sense. Here are no invocations of models from currently fashionable modes of thought; instead, these essays come straight from the archives, smelling of the scholar’s lamp and the dusty corners where invaluable historical resources still await diligent and imaginative researchers.

The other two volumes are much more self-consciously “new” and at least as provocative. Printing and Society in Early America, for example, collects essays from an international conference sponsored in 1980 by the American Antiquarian Society and which took inspiration from practioners of what in Europe is called livre et société or l’histoire du livre. As one of the volume’s editors, David D. Hall, points out in his introduction, American historians have lagged behind their European counterparts in integrating social history with the history of the book; now the American Antiquarian Society is attempting to play catchup by sponsoring an ongoing “Program on the History of the Book in America.” If the essays in this collection are any indication of the quality of research being carried out in part under the Society’s auspices, scholars of early American culture should eagerly await further results of the effort, for herein we find a challenging synthesis of bibliography, social history, and the role of oral culture in what the French are fond of calling mentalité. Perry Miller’s magisterial work in the New England mind, these scholars would claim, was restricted too much to a study of elite culture; what we sorely need are studies of how the medium of print affected rank-and-file Americans in the colonial and National periods.

Much broader in scope than Law in Colonial Massachusetts, this volume, too, is divided into three parts (“The Book Trade,” “Bibliocultural Studies,” and “The Impact of Printing”), each of which has something very different to offer. In the first section, for example, Stephen Botein discusses “The Anglo-American Book Trade before 1776.” He points out how the transatlantic book trade served as a mechanism of cultural transmission and offers a succinct overview of the entrepreneurial trends in the late 17th- and early 18th-centurypublishing world. Based on letters and other manuscript materials of London publishers and exporters, as well as of colonial agents, Botein’s essay, like Elizabeth Carroll Reilly’s on the Boston book trade of erstwhile Baptist minister Jeremiah Condy, clarifies why and how books reached the general reading public. And in this same section, Cynthia Z. and Gregory A. Stiverson provide a comparable study for Colonial Virginia. Using two detailed day-books from the Williamsburg printing office, they elaborately reconstruct the trade of the colony’s largest retail bookstore and conclude, among other things, that the purchase of books in the tobacco colonies was very much a privilege of the elite planter class.

In the second section, the gem is Richard Crawford and D. W. Krummel’s “Early American Music Printing and Publishing, ” in which the authors explore both the distinctively native expression of sacred music, published in tunebooks, and the “characteristically European” forms of secular music, issued primarily as sheet music. Anyone interested in music as a cultural artifact should find the discussion of value, and a fine complement to two pieces in the final section, one by Nathan O. Hatch on “Elias Smith and the Rise of Religious Journalism,” the other, Donald M. Scott’s “Print and the Public Lecture System, 1840—1860.” All of these efforts enlarge our notion of how the medium of print was used to shape the cultural values of the new nation and indicate as well how little we yet know about the singularly important transformation of the early 19th-century economy as it affected the creation of popular taste. As Hatch points out, for example, in a mere four years William Miller and his Adventist followers, who eagerly awaited what they believed the imminent Last Judgment, “blitzed the nation with an estimated four million pieces of literature” announcing their views! Clearly, once any man who rode his hobbyhorse hard enough could muster such support for his opinions, the era of mass communication had arrived.

In his summary statement to the volume, Richard D. Brown observes that the essays herein “testify to an emerging awareness that the question of who reads what and why lies at the heart of understanding our history,” a fact no one who reads this book will deny. If Printing and Society in Early America did nothing else but impress upon people how important a tool bibliography is for our study of the past, it would serve a noble purpose. But it accomplishes much more, particularly as it forces us to confront an obvious though unsavory fact: in many cases intellectual historians have seized upon the wrong books as those which typify an age; that is, those they find most challenging and interesting are more often than not not those which contemporary readers judged most significant to their lives. Challenging us to reexamine our preconceptions about the intellectual life of early Americans, this volume is a significant reminder of the treasures buried not only in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, the foremost repository of examples of early American printing, but in the hundreds of local libraries which still hoard the books and records of their citizens’ earliest years.

The final volume under review, Seventeenth-Century New England, is a horn of plenty filled with delectable yet hearty fare, examples of the best work being done in various fields on colonial New England. Like those in Law in Colonial Massachusetts, the essays herein are culled from papers given at a conference sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, this time in 1982, and the editors, themselves distinguished contributors to the book, are to be congratulated for offering a well-balanced collection which in almost every essay enlarges our conception, as well as our understanding, of 17th-century New England. In this book Puritanism is only one of many subjects—though it is particularly well-served by Stephen Foster’s “The Godly in Transit: Popular Protestantism and the Creation of the Puritan Establishment in America”—and it is satisfying to note the high degree of independence (and sophistication) which now characterizes a field which once was almost exclusively the province of religious and intellectual historians.

Take the first essay, for example, Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s “Climate and Mastery of the Wilderness in Seventeenth-Century New England.” Using letters, diaries, and histories, the traditional sources of colonial historians, she convincingly reconstructs the 17th-century New England climate and analyzes how the colonists both perceived and explained the vagaries of weather they encountered in the New World. This provides her with a novel entry to various promotional and settlement literature, but, perhaps more important, also allows us to see as never before how climate affected the imagination of a people we have too long thought of as concerned almost exclusively with religious matters. Indeed, read with the other essays in this book, Kupperman’s fits a key piece to the still-challenging puzzle of that elusive entry called “the New England mind.”

Two other particularly striking pieces, though for different reasons, are Daniel Vickers’ “Work and Life on the Fishing Periphery of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630—1675” and Robert St. George’s ” “Heated” Speech and Literacy in Seventeenth-Century New England.” Vickers studies a group of individuals whose “spirit of license and undisguised self-interest . . .truly disturbed the Puritan leadership” and yet who were indispensable to the economic success of the colonial venture. Clearly not part of the city on a hill, the fisherman who ventured off Cape Ann and up to Maine served King Cod rather than King Jesus, and thus when ashore had little patience for the Puritans’ inquiries into the state of their souls. Studying these hardy individuals’ origins and life style, Vickers has produced a fine piece of social history, illuminating a group of New Englanders about whom almost nothing hitherto was known yet without whom the Puritan colonies could not have maintained themselves nor their support from English investors in their enterprise.

St. George brings us face to face with another little-known group, the men and women known to us only through court records as we read about their arraignment for the use of violent and offensive speech against others. Using trial accounts as a starting point, he investigates how “offensive speech was crucial in defining the respective gender domains of men and women,” and then proposes that “recognition of the rules underlying these expressive domains in turn helps lead to a systematic and unified conception of literacy in past life by suggesting connections between the social meanings of spoken and written communication.” A stunningly imaginative piece of work, St. George’s essay epitomizes the fact that for the student who asks the right questions and has the intelligence to find ways to answer them, colonial history remains a wide-open field.

There are other fine essays in the collection—David Hall’s on “The Mentality of the Supernatural in Seventeenth-Century New England,” for example—and the best advice I can give is to read the book straight through for a taste of the various approaches now used to study the colonial period. There is nary a disappointing piece in the lot, and the reader will be delighted as well by the numerous illustrations. In fact, I should say right here that both Colonial Society volumes are beautifully produced: Fredric S. Allis, Editor of Publications for the Society, is to be congratulated for adhering to such consistently high standards in both content and design. Indeed, because the Colonial Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and their fellow-institution in the South, the Institute of Early American History and Culture (in Williamsburg, Virginia) continue to sponsor what amount to the most sophisticated and important studies of the early years of the European settlement of North America, they have made themselves indispensable to the community of historians who find colonial America a vital field of inquiry. And if the books under review are any indication of the richness of the fields overseen by these institutions and through their various conferences made ready to be plowed, we can expect more such full harvests in the near future.


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