Sumptuary Laws and Taxes, Colonial

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SUMPTUARY LAWS AND TAXES, COLONIAL. The term "sumptuary laws" usually refers to regulations of food, clothing, morals, amusements, church attendance, and Sabbath observance. Sumptuary laws existed in all of the colonies. They included general colonial statutes, local regulations, applications of common law to local situations, and fixed customs of the people in different colonies. Custom and practice were as much a part of the total laws of a community as were the formal statutes, although their enforcement was different.

The blue laws of Connecticut were the best known of the sumptuary laws. They were originally compiled by the Loyalist and Anglican clergyman Samuel A. Peters and published in England in his General History of Connecticut (1781). For many years people accepted or denounced this account of the Connecticut colonial code. In 1898 Walter F. Prince published in the Report of the American Historical Association for 1898, a detailed analysis of the Peters laws based on careful research. He found that one-half did exist in New Haven and more than four-fifths existed in one or more of the New England colonies. Others, however, were inventions, exaggerations, misunderstandings, or the result of copying from other erroneous writers on New England history.

Different kinds of sumptuary laws predominated in different times and places. Some laws prohibited wearing gold decorations, lace, hatbands, ruffles, silks, and similar materials when one's station in life did not warrant such expensive clothing. These were most common during the seventeenth century and prevailed in many colonies. In 1621, for example, authorities sent directives to Virginia reserving for council members the right to wear fine apparel. Massachusetts also had very detailed laws regulating dress. Many colonies enforced such laws by fine, although in Massachusetts the wearer might have his assessed valuation raised to £300 in addition to a fine. Laws against sexual immorality were also similar in all the colonies, although in the southern colonies they were directed particularly against relations between whites and blacks.

The most widespread sumptuary laws governed religious life. Laws against Sabbath breaking were common to all colonies, and most colonies mandated church attendance by law. Enforcement was probably stricter in New England than elsewhere, mainly because of the structure of government in each town, which depended upon cooperation between ecclesiastical and secular authorities to enforce both religious and civil regulations. Whereas most colonies taxed residents to support the local church and its minister, New England colonies (except Rhode Island) went even further to regulate religious life by prescribing doctrinal uniformity by law. In the seventeenth century, Massachusetts punished Quakers and drove them from the colony, and four were hanged for persistent return. Authorities also punished Baptists with beatings and imprisonment, and many alleged witches were sentenced to imprisonment or hanging in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Yet with all this reputation for harshness, there were far fewer death penalties provided by law in New England than in the English statutes of the same time. Further, after the implementation of religious toleration following the Glorious Revolution (1688), even the strictest colonists could no longer ban other religious groups from their midst.


Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Gildrie, Richard P. The Profane, the Civil and the Godly: The Reformation of Manners in Orthodox New England, 1679–1749. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Law and People in Colonial America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

O. M.Dickerson/s. b.

See alsoBlue Laws ; Colonial Society ; Manners and Etiquette ; Massachusetts Bay Colony ; Religious Liberty ; Virginia ; Witchcraft .