Social and Political Issues

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Social and Political Issues

By the mid-1600s, less than half a century after the English had opened the way for full-scale European settlement, serious crises were brewing in the American colonies. At first tensions were caused by a steadily increasing population: massive numbers of settlers required more land, additional dwellings and other accommodations, greater food supplies, and expanded trade and transportation networks. The immediate victims were Native Americans, who suffered mistreatment at the hands of colonists scrambling to grab land and natural resources. A demand for more laborers also created the institution of slavery, as millions of Africans were transported into the colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the colonists themselves, religious differences were escalating into confrontations, land squabbles were causing rebellions, and class divisions were breeding unrest.

A major issue was the way the colonies were governed. This problem had emerged in the first few years of the settlement period and quickly gained momentum in the seventeenth century. By the late 1600s all thirteen colonies had come under English control. Governing bodies therefore consisted either of proprietors (individuals granted ownership of a colony and full authority to establish a government and distribute land) hired by wealthy investors, or councils, controlled by the monarchy (king or queen) and the aristocracy (elite social class) in England. Many of the investors and aristocrats, who came from the upper classes, remained in England, while others took positions of power in colonial governments. Trade, treaties, and taxation were legislated for the benefit of England. The colonial population, however, was highly diverse, consisting of a complex mixture of ethnic, religious, and social groups. During the eighteenth century a unique "American spirit" began to take shape. Colonists were not only questioning English rule but also rebelling against various forms of local authority. Demanding the rights and freedoms—religious, political, economic, and individual—symbolized by the New World (a European term for North and South America), Americans were setting the stage for revolution.

The Pequot War

The first American rebels were the Native Americans. They initially welcomed the European settlers, with whom they willingly shared their land and resources. However, they slowly came to realize that the foreign settlers, by clearing vast territories for towns and farms, were violating native traditions. Native Americans believed that a Great Spirit had created a plentiful and harmonious world in which human beings are no more important than other creatures. Therefore they placed great emphasis on paying proper respect to nature. Native Americans managed their land so that it would accommodate all living creatures, changing it little and taking only what they needed to survive. They thanked a tree for dying and providing them with wood for a fire. They thanked an animal they had killed for giving up its flesh to feed them and its skin to clothe them. Native Americans were shocked to discover that the Europeans viewed humans as the dominant creatures in nature and thus felt free to change the world for their own advantage.

Native Americans were equally troubled by being forced to convert to Christianity and accept European customs. During the early colonial period they regarded the Christian God as simply another name for the Great Spirit. They saw no real need to change their own religious practices. Yet after being nearly annihilated (wiped out) by smallpox (a highly contagious viral disease) and other European diseases, they accepted the European view that believing in the Christian God was the only way they could save themselves. Moreover, they had become dependent on the European-made goods—weapons, cooking utensils, and tools—they received in exchange for jewelry, furs, and other trade items. Consequently they had no choice but to cooperate with the Europeans. After several decades of European domination, however, Native Americans throughout North America began raising concerns about the disappearance of their land and traditional culture.

During the seventeenth century trouble began brewing along the frontiers of most colonies, as European settlers expanded onto Native American land. In New England tensions between settlers and Native Americans resulted in the Pequot War (1637). As a result of the "great migration," theNew England population was rising rapidly (it was four thousand in 1634 and would reach eleven thousand in 1638). The Puritans had begun moving west onto land that was controlled by the Pequots. For instance, the Hartford settlement (in present-day Connecticut) was established by Baptist minister Thomas Hooker (1586?–1647), and nearby Fort Saybrook was built by the English Saybrook Company near the Pequot village of Mystic. The Pequots were not friendly toward the English, who were allies of their enemies, the Narraganset.

"Thus the Lord was pleased"

John Mason, one of the leaders of the war against the Pequots, gave the following account of the Puritan victory:

Thus were they now at their wits end, who not many hours before exalted themselves in their great pride, threatening and resolving the utter ruin of all the English, exulting and rejoicing with songs and dances. But God was above them, who laughed his enemies and the enemies of his people to scorn, making them as a fiery oven. Thus were the stout-hearted spoiled, having slept their last sleep . . . Thus did the Lord judge among the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies.

And here we may see the just judgment of God, in sending (even the very night before this assault) 150 men from their other fort, to join with them of that place; who were designed—as some of themselves reported—to go forth against the English at that very instant when this heavy stroke came upon them, where they perished with their fellows. So that the mischief they intended came upon their own pate [head]. They were taken in their own snare, and we through mercy escaped. And thus in little more than an hour's space was their impregnable [impossible to capture] fort with themselves utterly destroyed, to the number of six or seven hundred, as some of themselves confessed. There were only seven taken captive and about seven escaped.

Thus the Lord was pleased to smite [destroy] our enemies in the hinder parts and to give us their land for an inheritance; who remembered us in our low estate, and redeemed us out of our enemies' hands. Let us therefore praise the Lord for his goodness and his wonderful works to the Children of men!

Source: Mason, John. A Brief History of the Pequot War. Boston, Mass.: S. Kneeland & T. Green, 1736, pp. 9–10, 21.

The Puritans' real goal was to rid the area of all Native Americans. Even though the colonists had signed a treaty with the Pequots, they hoped to provoke the Native Americans into breaking the agreement. The desired provocation came when Native Americans from an unknown tribe killed two English colonists, John Stone and John Oldham. The Puritans accused the Pequots of committing the murders, but the Pequots denied any involvement and even offered to negotiate with the colonists. The Puritans responded by demanding that the Pequots turn over the killers to prove they were not doing the work of the devil. (The Puritans believed that any disaster or misfortune was caused by the devil, or Satan, against whom they were constantly waging war.) The Pequots could not produce the killers, so in September 1636, John Endecott (1588–1665), the military commander in Massachusetts (see Chapter 4), led an attack on the Pequots and their allies on Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island), thus beginning the Pequot War. After the Pequots retaliated by laying siege to Fort Saybrook, the conflict remained low-key for some time. When western settlers became worried that the Pequots would be victorious, however, the fighting soon escalated. The war finally ended at Mystic in 1637, after the settlers burned the village and exterminated nearly all the Pequots. The few survivors were either killed later by Puritans or fled to other parts of the country. (In 1638 the Treaty of Hartford declared the Pequot nation to be dissolved.)

King Philip's War

One of the most famous conflicts in New England took place between the Puritans and the Wampanoag, who resented efforts to Europeanize them. They came to believe that they were offending the Great Spirit by converting to Christianity and by needlessly slaughtering animals for the fur trade. The heavy emphasis on furs in particular disrupted their traditional culture and economy by fostering wars with neighboring tribes over trapping grounds. By 1675 Wampanoag leaders were ready to push the Puritans off their land and reclaim their own religion and culture.

At the forefront was Metacom (also Metacomet; c. 1639–1676), a sachem (chief) the colonists knew as King Philip. Metacom was one of five children of Chief Massasoit (1580–1661), who had helped the Plymouth colonists (see Chapter 4). Massasoit died in 1661, and a year later Metacom, then in his mid-twenties, assumed leadership of the Wampanoag. He dedicated himself to maintaining the Wampanoag Confederacy, which consisted of many villages and families. As the English population and power continued to grow, the confederacy began to splinter. This was due in part to the influence of colonial authorities and missionaries (people who do religious work in foreign countries). Metacom's land formed a border zone between Plymouth Colony, Rhode Island, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony capital in Boston, each of which wanted to claim the territory. In order to hold on to his political influence, the sachem sold tracts of land to various colonists. Resulting conflicts over the borders of these lands, however, were rarely settled to his satisfaction. Colonial courts seemed biased and insensitive to the Native Americans' concerns. The tribes were also angered by colonists' efforts to shape native politics.

Puritans violate treaty

The conflict over land reached its crisis point in 1667. In violation of an agreement with Metacom, the Plymouth Colony authorized the purchase of land inside Wampanoag borders for the town of Swansea. Tribal war parties, possibly led by Metacom, began to gather around Swansea to intimidate the colonists. In 1671 Plymouth officials demanded a meeting with the chief. When he arrived they forced him at gunpoint to surrender his warriors' firearms and challenged Metacom's previous land sales to other colonies. When Metacom complained to the Massachusetts Bay Colony he was summoned to Boston, but received no support. Instead, both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which had formed the United Colonies several years earlier (see "New England Confederation" in Chapter 6), forced him to sign a new treaty placing the Wampanoag under the colonists' rule.

Metacom wages war

Around this time Metacom started planning the uprising that came to be known as King Philip's War. Although he had the backing of Wampanoag leaders, Metacom knew his tribe was too small to fight the English alone. Therefore, he sought support from other Native American groups. He managed to win over the Nipmuck, who were also bitter toward the colonists. He had difficulty, however, in forming an alliance with the Narraganset, the most powerful tribe in the region and enemies of the Wampanoag. Metacom was now in a difficult position: he had not gained enough support to launch a full-scale uprising, so he had to prevent his angry warriors from raiding colonial villages while keeping their loyalty. Rumors of Metacom's efforts reached colonial authorities in 1674. Soon afterward the body of John Sassamon, a Christianized Native American, was found in a pond. It turned out that Sassamon had told the English about Metacom's plan. The colonists tried and hanged three Wampanoag for committing the murder. On the scaffold (platform where criminals are hanged) one of the three men supposedly confessed that Metacom had ordered Sassamon's murder.

Metacom now had no choice except to declare war on the Puritans. Colonial officials commanded him to disarm his warriors, but he remained defiant. In July 1675 Metacom's men again assembled outside Swansea, triggering King Philip's War. The uprising was apparently touched off more by the rage of Metacom's people than by any organized plan. When a colonial army tried to besiege the sachem near his home on Mount Hope, he escaped with his warriors and their families. Then, joining forces with his Nipmuck allies, he attacked and burned villages west and south of Boston. Native American groups in the Connecticut River valley also rose in revolt when anxious colonists overreacted to the violence. Finally, in late December, the Narraganset joined the uprising after English forces attacked their village. During the ensuing winter, joint tribal raiding parties burned several colonial towns, sending English refugees streaming into Boston.

Native culture destroyed

While Metacom was seeking new alliances in the Hudson River valley, Mohawk warriors and New York colonists attacked his party. All but forty of his men were killed, and his prestige was shattered. The Mohawk continued their attacks from the west and, joined by other Native Americans and colonists, finally defeated Metacom. As the uprising dissolved, some of the sachem's former supporters organized a squad and began to track him down. The chief's wife and son were captured and apparently sold in the West Indies as slaves. Finally, on August 12, Metacom's dwindling band was surrounded, and a Native American serving with the colonial forces shot him. Metacom's head was cut off and hacked into quarters. The pieces were sent to the colonial capitals, where they were placed on public display for more than twenty years.

"land is everlasting"

Conflicts occurred between Native Americans and settlers throughout the colonial period. In 1742 Cannassatego, an Iroquois chief, made the following speech to Pennsylvania colonists while negotiating a new land and trade treaty. Note that he apologized for not bringing a bigger gift, pointing out that colonists had reduced his people to poverty and thus he could not afford any more skins.

We know our lands are now become more valuable: the white people think we do not know their value; but we are sensible that the land is everlasting, and the few goods we receive for it are soon worn out and gone. For the future we will sell no lands but when Brother Onas [one of the Pennsylvania proprietors] is in the country; and we will know beforehand the quantity of the goods we are to receive. Besides, we are not well used with respect to the lands still unsold by us. Your people daily settle on these lands, and spoil our hunting. . . .

It is customary with us to make a present of skins whenever we renew our treaties. We are ashamed to offer our brethren [brothers (the colonists)] so few; but your horses and cows have eaten the grass our deer used to feed on. This has made them scarce, and will, we hope, plead in excuse for our not bringing a larger quantity: if we could have spared more we would have given more; but we are really poor; and desire you'll not consider the quantity, but, few as they are, accept them in testimony of our regard.

Reprinted in: Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 407–08.

Metacom's defeat had disastrous consequences for the New England native groups. The Wampanoag and their allies were helpless against the colonists, who numbered seventy thousand and had large supplies of food and ammunition. The war had destroyed the Wampanoag's habitat, so they were not prepared for the upcoming winter. Colonial authorities pursued surviving tribes and either killed them or sold them into slavery. Any remaining native peoples were forced into isolated settlements. Within a brief period the Native American way of life had completely disappeared from New England.

King Philip's War not only broke the power of New England native peoples but also had a devastating impact on the English colonies. Before the yearlong conflict was over, twelve towns were destroyed and half of the remaining seventy-eight were seriously damaged. The colonies accumulated huge debts, which produced lasting economic hardship. About 10 percent of the adult males in New England were killed—making it the costliest war in American history (measured by the proportion of casualties to total population).

Bacon's Rebellion

Similar conflicts between colonists and Native Americans had been taking place in Virginia since the 1640s, but the situation there was complicated by internal problems among the colonists. These problems could be traced back to the founding of Jamestown in 1607 (see Chapter 4). The original leaders at Jamestown were English gentlemen (members of the nobility) of high social, economic, and educational standing. Within twenty years, however, this group had either gone back to England or died without leaving descendants to take their place. By the 1630s more rugged, self-made families had risen to positions of authority in Virginia. But, like the earlier leaders, they failed to pass their power on to the next generation. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, a third aristocracy began to emerge in Virginia: around 1650 sons of influential English merchants and government officials began to settle in the colony.

This new wave of settlers was sent by the king of England, who wanted to gain more control of the colony. They were aristocrats whose families owned property or had made investments in the colony. Virginia had originally been owned by the Virginia Company (a group of investors based in London, England), but the colony had been controlled by the British government since 1624, when the Virginia Company declared bankruptcy (went out of business because of lack of funds). Although Virginia was not yet under a royal charter (direct rule of the English king), various monarchs had been trying to take advantage of the huge profits that could be made in Virginia, which was in the midst of a tobacco boom. (Tobacco was the principal crop in Virginia. A broadleaf plant grown in warm climates, tobacco was processed and then sold in Europe, where it was in great demand for smoking in pipes.) Tobacco planters had become quite prosperous and owned large tracts of land that produced high tax revenues for England. Within ten years the king's plan had succeeded, and a new elite that was favorable to the monarchy now dominated Virginia politics.

Berkeley causes crisis

But a crisis began building in 1670 when William Berkeley (1606–1677), the royal governor (the highest colonial official, appointed by the king), initiated the Franchise Act. This law gave voting rights only to landowners and people who owned houses. It also enabled Berkeley to appoint a royal council that would move to place the colony's wealth in the hands of a few well-to-do property owners. (The royal council was a committee appointed by the governor, with the approval of the king, that helped administer the colony.) He named this group the Green Spring faction, after his Virginia plantation. Before Berkeley had taken office ten years earlier, the Virginia assembly (House of Burgesses; the first representative government in America) and the royal council had formed a unified government. Now there was a deep division between social classes. Council members, who came from ruling families, were the governor's inner circle and exercised central authority. On the other side of the divide stood the majority of colonists, who were not part of the elite class. In an effort to maintain local representation, leaders from settlements throughout Virginia began to take seats in the House of Burgesses. This alarmed the Green Spring faction, who protested that the socially inferior assemblymen were unfit for governing.

Freed servants challenge social order

In the meantime, unrest had been developing on another level. By the mid-1600s a high percentage of Virginia's population was composed of male indentured servants (immigrants who signed a contract to work for a specific length of time) or former servants (see "Wage laborers" in Chapter 7). Most of them had no families—male servants outnumbered female servants by four or six to one. In addition, they were worked extremely hard by masters who were driven by the quest for wealth in a thriving tobacco industry (the death rate among servants was reportedly higher than 40 percent). Servants' lives generally did not change for the better if they survived long enough to gain freedom from their indenture contracts. They could rarely afford to buy farms, even though land was inexpensive, because they did not have enough money for surveyor's fees (payment for measuring and dividing the land), livestock, and equipment. As a result, only 6 percent of exservants became successful planters who employed their own workers. The majority were tenant farmers (farmers who rented land), overseers (supervisors), or laborers. Many lived on the frontier, and they had no role in Virginia society because they did not have the right to vote. They lived an aimless existence, spending their time drinking and having wild parties. Most colonists looked down on these people as socially inferior and a source of trouble, even danger, in the colony.

Conflicts arise on frontier

Despite these problems, the colony continued to grow (the population reached thirty thousand in 1670), and soon the borders of the settlement were encroaching on Native American territory. The rough, unruly frontier settlers did not get along with the native peoples, whom they often accused of stealing from their farms. One of the first serious incidents occurred in 1675, when members of the Doeg group killed an overseer. Afterward, Native American raids become more intense and frequent, often resulting in the death of colonists. The Virginia government responded by forming a militia (citizens' army) led by Colonel George Mason and Captain John Brent. When the militia attacked two Native American cabins, they did not realize that Susquehannock were inside, not Doegs. After killing fourteen Susquehannock, the militia continued their advance. Five Susquehannock chiefs immediately protested that the colonists had been killed by a Seneca war party, not by Susquehannock. The Virginians refused to believe them, claiming Susquehannock had recently been seen in the area, wearing the clothes of the white victims. The Virginians then executed the chiefs. In retaliation, the Native Americans launched more attacks. To avoid an outright war, Berkeley told Virginians not to cross the borders of the colony.

However, this measure was completely ineffective because colonists had already begun moving west onto native land. The fighting simply escalated, and raiding warrior parties killed many frontier colonists, including women and children. At this point Berkeley tried to end the conflict by declining to retaliate. But many Virginians protested, accusing him of trying to protect the fur trade with Native Americans. They contended that the fur trade was more important to Berkeley because it ensured his support among local wealthy merchants. Berkeley actually had another motive for keeping peace with Native Americans: English authorities wanted to Christianize them so that they could eventually obtain land in an orderly manner. The complicated situation only served to distance Berkeley even further from settlers, especially in Charles and Henrico counties. Frontiersmen in these outlying areas wanted to continue fighting to protect their property. Since they could get no support from Berkeley, they turned to Nathaniel Bacon (1647–1676).

Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon was an unusual figure on the Virginia frontier. He was born into the English aristocracy and attended Cambridge University and Gray's Inn, a law school in London. After graduating he traveled throughout Europe. In 1673 he married Elizabeth Duke, daughter of nobleman Edward Duke. They emigrated to Virginia and settled at Curl's Neck in Henrico County, on the James River near the border of Native American territory. Because of Bacon's abilities and connections, he quickly gained influence in the colony. His uncle was a member of the royal council, which made it easy for the younger Bacon to gain a seat on the council as well. Being of a rebellious nature, Bacon set out to change the system as soon as he took office.

Bacon becomes opposition leader

Bacon was one of the new settlers who belonged to the English upper class. Through his uncle, who was a member of the royal council, he had gained a council seat. He lived on the frontier, however, and he allied himself with the common people. He charged Berkeley with taking the side of Native Americans against Virginia farmers in the conflicts that were increasing at an alarming rate in outlying regions. Bacon then organized a group of frontiersmen, with reinforcements from the Ocaneechee tribe, to go against the Susquehannock in defiance of Berkeley. The newly formed militia immediately tracked down a group of Susquehannock and defeated them. Berkeley was furious with Bacon and declared him a traitor (one who betrays his government).

By now Berkeley had realized his government was in trouble. Therefore, in May 1676 he ordered new elections and issued a declaration defending his actions as governor and suggesting several measures to resolve the crisis. The assembly met in Jamestown on June 5 to act on Berkeley's proposals, which included three important features. First, he planned to pardon Bacon and give him a commission to raise a militia against Native Americans (see "The militia" in Chapter 6). Next, Berkeley wanted to draft a measure that permitted Virginians to trade only with "friendly Indians." Finally, he planned to abolish the Franchise Act of 1670, thus restoring the vote to all freemen (former indentured servants who had gained their freedom), not just landowners.

Bacon organizes militia

The Virginia legislators approved all of Berkeley's proposals. Nevertheless, Bacon was dissatisfied because they planned to draw militia members from the entire colony, whereas Bacon wanted to use only men from the border territories. He felt they had a greater stake in the conflict and would be more willing to fight because they had farms in the area. Bacon also demanded that the militia be formed immediately, instead of waiting for three months until enough taxes had been collected to fund the operation. On June 23, 1676, Bacon led four hundred armed men up the steps of the Jamestown assembly hall. Bacon's Rebellion had begun. There was an immediate confrontation between the legislators and the militia, and Bacon threatened violence. After forcing the assembly to exempt (free or release from liability) him and his men from arrest for causing a disturbance, Bacon and the demonstrators eventually left the assembly hall. Berkeley was humiliated because the legislature had given in to Bacon's demands, so he once again declared Bacon a traitor. Berkeley also called up the colonial militia to oppose Bacon's men.

When Bacon and his men returned on July 30, they easily overcame the colonial militia and drove Berkeley out of Jamestown to his plantation on the eastern coast. This time Bacon carried with him a manifesto (statement) titled "In the Name of the People of Virginia," which accused Berkeley of committing numerous injustices. With Berkeley absent, Bacon controlled Jamestown. The governor sneaked back into town, however, while Bacon was leading his men out into the country to attack the Pamunkeys, another troublesome Native American tribe. On September 18, Bacon launched a final assault on Jamestown, burning the settlement to the ground. By now lawlessness reigned, and Berkeley fled once again as looters (robbers) ransacked his plantation at Green Spring.

Virginians hold divided opinions

Although Bacon claimed he had unanimous support for his actions, many Virginians denounced him. Among the most vocal critics of Bacon were colonists who lived on plantations along the coast, away from the frontier regions. They accused Bacon and his men of being troublemakers who were deliberately violating the law and provoking Native Americans so they could seize more land. And while Bacon did have widespread support, many Virginians continued to ally themselves with Berkeley. In 1676 the citizens of Gloucester County sent a letter to Berkeley pledging their continued support. They praised the governor "for securing our neighbors the frontiers of this country from the incursions of the barbarous Indians." Even though Bacon had also raised a militia to fight Native Americans, these citizens cited his lawlessness in requesting more resources from the county with orders "grounded, as he pretends, upon a commission from your Honor to be general of all the forces in Virginia against the Indians." They were most disturbed by the behavior of Bacon and his men, who "did in many places behave themselves very rudely both in words and actions." The crisis threatened to shake the foundations of Virginia government, as colonists were not only trying to fend off the Native Americans but were also pitted against one another in a struggle for power.

Bacon's Rebellion might have lasted longer if Bacon had not become ill and died the following October. After his death, Berkeley put down the insurrection, executing twenty-three of Bacon's men—in spite of a royal order pardoning all participants except Bacon. Berkeley finally gave up his position as governor to Colonel Herbert Jeffreys, who appointed a commission to investigate the uprising. The commission members mostly blamed Bacon and his ability to influence the leaderless frontiersmen.

Historians have long debated the impact of Bacon's Rebellion on colonial American life. In the nineteenth century many thought the insurrection was a bid for American independence from England and that Bacon was nearly equal in importance to George Washington, a revered leader in the American Revolution (1775–83; a conflict in which American colonists gained independence from British rule). Other scholars point out, however, that Bacon had no clear philosophy of liberation and was not fighting the English. They also suggest that the rebellion was mainly fueled by Bacon's desire for personal revenge against Berkeley. Therefore, because Bacon considered his own motives a priority over the interests of the colony, he is considered less of a hero. Some historians have even linked Bacon's Rebellion to the full-scale use of slavery in America. They note that after the insurrection, many plantation owners decided African slaves were easier to control than indentured servants.


Slavery in North America began simply as a way to fill a labor shortage. In the early seventeenth century, African slaves were working on European plantations in the Caribbean, but slavery had existed in Africa long before Europeans started an international slave trade off the west coast of the continent in the fifteenth century. For hundreds of years Africans had taken members of other groups into slavery during wars or used slavery as punishment for crimes within their own groups. There were also enslaved craftsmen, warriors, and advisers to tribal chiefs and kings. While a small slave trade was conducted between Africa and Europe prior to the discovery of the Americas, it increased significantly when the Spaniards discovered that marketable products such as sugar could be grown on the Caribbean islands. Initially the Europeans used Native Americans as workers on sugar plantations, but they quickly died from European diseases. As a result, plantation owners turned to Africa for slaves. Even at its height, the slave trade was not well organized, nor was it controlled by Europeans, who found the African coast too unhealthy to settle. Instead, African traders sold other Africans. They took their captives from an area that stretched 3,000 miles south along the Senegambia River to the Congo River—a distance greater than that between present-day New York and California.

The first slaves in North America arrived at Jamestown in 1619 when a Dutch trader exchanged twenty slaves for provisions (a stock of food). Soon Africans were essential to the American plantation economy, and the slave trade became a booming business (see Chapter 7). After the mid-1600s slavery was legalized through a series of laws called slave codes (see "Slave codes" in Chapter 6). Soon slaves were worth large sums of money, so even harsher laws gave owners the right to demand the return of runaways, who were considered "property." By 1720 a majority of slaves in the Chesapeake region (Virginia and Maryland) were American-born. Some slaves had even gained their freedom. In 1760, for instance, there were two thousand freed slaves (2 to 3 percent of the African American population) in Virginia, and in the northern colonies about 10 percent of the total African American population were freedmen.

All colonies use slaves

Although most slaves worked on southern tobacco and rice plantations, all of the colonies used slave laborers. Whether slavery caused racism (prejudice because of race) or racism caused slavery may never be fully determined, but Africans were generally considered inferior to white people. At first owners made an effort to keep slave families together. Gradually Africans lost these rights and, as slaves were routinely bought and sold, families were torn apart (see Chapter 9). Husbands and wives tended not to live together, and children were often sold at a young age since they decreased the amount of time their mothers could spend working. By the 1740s the majority of African slaves remained in bondage throughout their lives. The number of slaves in a colony depended on economic factors. In areas where slavery was most profitable, there were more Africans—for instance, they made up the majority of the population of South Carolina as early as 1708. Slaves had their own cabins in the South, whereas in the northern colonies they lived in cellars, attics, and sheds. Africans were frequently mistreated by white masters and overseers, who beat them for such infractions (violations) as not working hard enough or trying to run away.

Growing opposition to slavery

By the late 1600s European colonists were interacting with Africans on a daily basis, and many masters even regarded their slaves as part of their own families. Historians have noted some improvements in the quality of life for slaves during this period. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a religious organization in New England, advocated the education of blacks (see "Church of England" in Chapter 11). Colonial leaders such as Massachusetts preacher Cotton Mather (1663–1728) taught Africans to read (see "Education of Africans" in Chapter 12). There were also a few isolated protests against slavery. The first was voiced in 1688 by Francis Pastorius (1651–c. 1720), a German-born Quaker (a member of a Christian Protestant group that advocated direct communication with God through an "inner light") who founded Germantown, Pennsylvania. In 1700 Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), a Massachusetts merchant and judge, published a pamphlet titled The Selling of Joseph in which he attacked slavery as being un-Christian. Yet racism and mistreatment of blacks was still prevalent throughout the colonies, and whites rarely questioned the morality of slavery—it was too essential to the economy.

Woolman starts abolitionist campaign

The movement against slavery did not gain momentum until nearly half a century later, when Quaker pastor John Woolman (1720–1772) set out on the first of thirty annual excursions to attend Quaker meetings (religious services). From his home in Mount Holly, New Jersey, he journeyed around New England and down to the Carolinas. Wherever he went—in both the South and the North—he encountered slavery, and he was deeply troubled by the sight of people being owned as property. Woolman therefore resolved to mount a vigorous abolitionist (antislavery) campaign as he made his annual trips. When he traveled in the South, he carried his message to slaveholders. In Rhode Island he tried to persuade shipowners not to transport slaves from Africa to North America. He refused to buy any products connected with the slave trade, and he would not accept hospitality from slave owners. Frequently he made payment for lodging directly to slaves rather than to their masters.

Especially disturbing to Woolman was the fact that Christians, and even Quakers, held Africans as slaves. In fact, in the 1720s, the Society of Friends (the official name of the Quaker group) had expelled at least one member who opposed the keeping of slaves. Finally he decided to limit his abolitionist efforts to the Quaker community, writing essays on social injustices for Quaker publications. One of those essays was Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, which was published in 1754. It is considered the first published abolitionist statement in America.

Anti-Puritanism: The maypole of Merry Mount

The Puritans dominated all aspects of life in the New England colonies. Religious leaders controlled the government, establishing laws that all citizens had to observe. For instance, Puritans did not observe the holy days traditionally celebrated by the Catholic Church and the Church of England—not even Christmas (the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth) and Easter (the commemoration of Jesus's resurrection, or rising from the dead). They thought the Catholic Church had simply made up religious holidays to fit the dates of pagan (non-Christian) rituals so it would be easier to convert nonbelievers to Christianity. They also considered popular holidays such as May Day to be mere superstitions. (May Day was a celebration held in England on May 1, in the tradition of the spring fertility rites of Egypt and India.)

From New English Caanan

The following is an excerpt from Thomas Morton's New English Caanan describing a May Day celebration in Merry Mount. (May Day was a celebration held in England on May 1, in the tradition of the spring fertility rites of Egypt and India.)

They prepared to set up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and Jacob [saints in the Roman Catholic Church]; and brewed a barrel of excellent beer, and provided a case of bottles to be spent [drunk], with other good cheer, for all comers of that day. And because they would have it in a complete form, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose; and there erected it with the help of Savages [Native Americans], that came there to see the manner of our revels [festivities]. A goodly pine tree, eighty feet long, was reared up, with a pair of buck's horns nailed on, somewhat near unto the top of it: where it stood as a fair sea mark for directions; how to find out the way to my host of Merry-Mount [Morton was referring to himself].

The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable [regrettable] spectacle to the precise separatists that lived at new Plymouth. . . .

Reprinted in: Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 25–26.

Morton enrages Puritans

Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay officials passed laws that prohibited any special observances of Christmas, Easter, and other holidays. They strictly enforced these laws by imposing stiff fines and other punishments on violators. As a result there were frequent conflicts between the Puritans and colonists who did not share their beliefs. The most famous was an incident at the town of Merry Mount in Massachusetts Bay. In 1627 Plymouth governor William Bradford (1590–1657; see Chapter 4) led a small party of Puritans into Merry Mount and disrupted a May Day celebration. The festivities had been organized by Thomas Morton (c. 1590–c. 1647), the leader of the town. Morton had long been a nuisance to the Puritans because he not only ridiculed their way of life but also encouraged rowdy behavior at a trading post he operated in Merry Mount.

Morton was an Englishman who arrived in New England in 1625 with a company headed by a Captain Wollaston. Wollaston founded a settlement called Mount Wollaston (now the city of Quincy, Massachusetts), and Morton set up a trading post, which he named Merry Mount. After Wollaston moved to Virginia, Morton took control of Mount Wollaston and renamed the town Merry Mount. He immediately had problems with the Puritans, particularly the Plymouth settlers, who lived nearby. Morton and his companions were Anglicans (members of the Church of England opposed by the Puritans) who engaged in all of the "sinful" activities prohibited by the Puritans. Plymouth citizens objected to Morton's trading post, where he sold whiskey, weapons, and ammunition to Native Americans in exchange for furs. Moreover, in violation of the law, he showed Native Americans how to use firearms. But the Puritans were especially troubled because he had interfered with their own fur trading. For instance, when the Plymouth settlers opened their first trade route in Maine in 1625, Morton followed them and established his own contacts with Native American traders.

Plymouth authorities claimed that Merry Mount undermined morality in New England. Bradford later wrote in his history of Plymouth, Of Plymouth Plantation (first published in 1857), that Merry Mount was a "den of iniquity [sin]." Morton's establishment attracted drunken carousers (people who drink liquor and engage in rowdy behavior) and men of questionable character—historians say it was a favorite meeting place for pirates (bandits who robbed ships at sea). Even worse, upright Christians came there to drink rum and often socialized with Native Americans.

Morton sets up maypole

Morton's troubles reached a peak on May Day 1627 when he built an eighty-foot maypole (a flowerwreathed pole that is the center of dancing and games) at Merry Mount and hosted a noisy celebration. Colonists and Native Americans enjoyed a day of drinking and dancing. The Puritans were furious because Morton was violating their law against the celebration of holidays.

Resolving to shut down Merry Mount, Puritan officials tried unsuccessfully to reason with Morton over the next several months. In 1628 a company of men led by Plymouth colonist Myles Standish (c. 1584–1656) arrested Morton, who managed to escape. He was soon recaptured and charged with selling guns to Native Americans. He was then deported (forced to leave a country) to England for trial. After Morton's departure John Endecott (1588–1665), the extremely stern governor of Massachusetts Bay (see Chapter 4), took over Merry Mount, chopped down the maypole, and changed the name of the town to Mount Dagon.

Morton was finally acquitted (found innocent) of the charges in England, so he returned to Massachusetts. He resumed trading with the Native Americans and stirred up opposition to Endecott. In 1630 Morton was again arrested, more or less for being a public nuisance. Historians speculate that he may also have been a spy for Ferdinando Gorges (c. 1566–1647), head of the Council of New England (a private organization that promoted trade and settlement in New England), who wanted to make Massachusetts a royal colony. (A royal colony would be under the direct control of the English king. The Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Company had been given private charters, or grants of land. They were permitted to form their own governments without interference from the king.)

New English Canaan becomes a classic

Before deporting Morton to England for the second time, Massachusetts authorities placed him in stocks (a device used for public punishment; see Chapter 6), took all of his property, and burned down his house. Morton was acquitted once again and remained in England for more than a decade. He worked as a legal counsel for Gorges, who was trying to revoke the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. In the mid-1630s Morton wrote New English Canaan, in which he encouraged others to seek their fortune in New England. ("Canaan" in the title refers to the Promised Land, or destined home, of the Israelites in the Christian Bible. Likewise, New England was the promised land of the Puritans, who sought religious and political freedom.) Yet he also ridiculed Puritan manners and narrow-mindedness, depicting the Native Americans as being more Christian than the Puritans. Morton was unknown at the time of his death in 1647, but New English Canaan became a classic work of literature that influenced several American writers. Among them was Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), an author who was harshly critical of the Puritans. In addition to such tales as The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne wrote "The Maypole of Merrymount," which was based on Morton's celebration.

The Salem witch trials

During the colonial period most people had little understanding of the natural environment, so they looked to supernatural forces (spirits) for explanations. To Native Americans, Africans, and some Europeans, magic and religion were inseparable. They believed that people with special powers (called priests, shamans, and witches by various groups) could control good and evil spirits with prayer and rituals. Shamans, priests, and witches used special objects called charms—bags of herbs, magical stones, crucifixes—to ward off evil spirits. One of their rituals was fortune-telling, predicting future events by "reading" the pattern of tea leaves in a cup, the shape of a raw egg dropped into a bowl, or the arrangement of special pebbles thrown onto the ground.

Shamans, priests, and witches also used their powers to ward off diseases. Before the introduction of modern medicine, people understandably dreaded sickness and injury. Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans alike believed illness and death came from spiritual as well as natural causes. Thus they called upon healers, or "white" (good) witches, who combined charms with medicinal roots, barks, and herbs to produce cures. Yet other rituals were also called into play. If a cow was going dry (producing less milk), for instance, a European might pour milk over a red-hot iron poker while repeating the names of the Trinity (a Christian concept of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Freckles might be removed by washing one's face with cobwebs.

Witchcraft practices feared

Good spirits were relied upon to influence events. Native American priests were believed to instill the spirits of animals into young warriors to protect them in battle. Africans conjured up the spirits of gods who guided them in their religious ceremonies. On the other hand, evil spirits were greatly feared. Europeans believed that a "black" witch could control the thoughts and actions of others for evil purposes. In fact, to most believers in magic the word "witch" usually meant an evil sorcerer (a person who uses power gained from the assistance or control of evil spirits) or sorceress. Native Americans were more apt to blame evil spirits in general or an enemy in particular for their problems. Africans believed that the spirits of evil witches left them while they were asleep and entered the bodies of animals. The bewitched animals then fled to a meeting with other witches and consumed a human soul, thus killing the soul's owner.

Europeans tended to single out a particular person, usually an old woman, and accused her of making a covenant with the devil to cause all manner of trouble among good people. They believed that witches flew through the air to engage in orgies (sexual encounters involving many people) with the devil. American colonists believed that a witch (again, usually a woman) signed a pact with the devil in order to seek revenge on a neighbor or an enemy. For example, a witch could cause the death of a child, produce crop failures, or prevent cream from being turned into butter. It was also believed that witches could enter the bodies of animals and prowl around undetected.

Hysteria reaches peak in Salem

People were convinced that witches could be detected. One way was to make a "witch's cake" from grain mixed with a substance from a bewitched victim's body, such as urine, and bake it in ashes. The cake could then be fed to a familiar, which would reveal the name of the witch who had cast the spell. Another way to identify a witch was to find out whether the suspect poked pins into a rag doll or a clay model of a victim to work her magic. People suspected of practicing witchcraft would be given the chance to confess their sins and renounce (give up) their covenant with the Devil. By thus opening themselves to God, they could rejoin the community.

The glaring exception was the witchcraft hysteria that erupted in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During the winter of 1691 to 1692, a group of young girls got together to read their fortunes. Most of them worked as servants, but one was Elizabeth Parris, the daughter of the local Puritan minister. She knew that Puritans strictly forbade trying to predict God's will through magic. Nevertheless she participated in the ritual, which involved dropping a raw egg white into a bowl and then "reading" the future from its shape. As the girls watched in horror, the egg white took the form of a coffin (a sign of death). Elizabeth instantly felt as if someone was pinching and suffocating her; she then began to hallucinate (see things or people that do not exist). The other girls were seized by the same sensations, so doctors were called to examine them. Finding nothing physically wrong, the doctors suggested the symptoms had been caused by witchcraft.

"A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning"

In 1692 Cotton Mather wrote an essay titled "A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning," in which he described the possession of a young woman named Mercy Short. After taking her into his home, Mather observed one of her fits and conversations with evil spirits:

Her Discourses [conversations] to Them [evil spirits] were some of the most Surprising Things imaginable, and incredibly beyond what might have been expected, from one of her small Education or Experience. In the Times of her Tortures, Little came from her, besides direful [desperate] Shrieks, which were indeed so frightful, as to make many people Quitt [leave] the Room. Only now and then any Expressions of marvellous Constancy [steadiness] would bee heard from her; [for instance] "Tho' you kill mee, I'll never do what you would have mee.—Do what you will, yett with the Help of Christ, I'll never touch your Book.—Do, Burn mee then, if you will; Better Burn here, than Burn in Hell." But when her Torturer went off, Then t'was that her senses being still detained in a Captivity to the Spectres [spirits], as the only object of them. Wee were Earwitnesses to Disputacions [disputations; arguments] that amazed us. Indeed Wee could not hear what They said unto her; nor could shee herself hear them ordinarily without causing them to say over again: But Wee could Hear Her Answers, and from her Answers Wee could usually gather the Tenour [tenor; meaning] of Their Assaults.

Reprinted in: Burr, George Lincoln, ed. Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases: 1648–1706. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1946.

Puritans seek culprits

In an effort to track down the witch who had cast a spell on the girls, a concerned neighbor asked the Parris' Caribbean slave, Tituba, to bake a witch cake. Yet the cake did not reveal the culprit. Finally the girls "confessed" that they had been bewitched by Tituba and two old women in the village. By April the girls were identifying others as witches, including a former minister, and soon accusations were flying around the colony. By the time the hysteria finally died down, 156 suspected witches were in prison. Thus began one of the most infamous events in American history: the Salem witch trials. The trials violated many proper legal procedures. For instance, the judges were not trained lawyers, and suspects were not allowed to have attorneys. The court also accepted "spectral evidence"—that is, an accuser's claim that a specter (spirit) resembling the "witch" had committed evil deeds. Since the Puritans believed such a specter could be seen only by the victim, other witnesses could not prove whether the accusations were true or false.

Leaders hold trials

In June 1692 Puritan leaders decided to appoint a special court to try the suspected witches. By this time witch hysteria had been sweeping Europe for more than 250 years, and fear of witches had been mounting in New England for several decades. In 1684 Increase Mather (1639–1723), a Puritan clergyman and well-known intellectual, had published Remarkable Providences. The book was a collection of "proofs of witchcraft," which Mather had found in works by other writers. Mather and his son Cotton actively promoted the Salem witch trials. In 1689 Cotton Mather published Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possession, which stirred up antiwitch mania. Four years later he wrote Wonders of the Invisible World, in which he defended the trials as the only way to rid the colony of the devil's influence.

Judges plagued by doubts

The Salem witch trials resulted in hundreds of accusations, more than one hundred guilty verdicts, and the executions of twenty persons, mostly women. Nineteen people were hanged for refusing to give confessions, four died in prison, and, as judge Samuel Sewall noted, one man was crushed to death with stones during questioning. Within a year Puritan ministers were expressing grave doubts about the trials. Foremost among them was Increase Mather, who wrote Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693), in which he attacked the use of spectral evidence. Cotton Mather also changed his mind, eventually supporting his father's view that the witch hunts had been unjustified. By 1697 Massachusetts officials concluded that the trials had been a terrible mistake. The governor pardoned all condemned prisoners, and the legislature designated January 14 as a special day of atonement (expression of regret and request for forgiveness). Sewall had also begun to regret the role he played in the tragedy, so he wrote an admission of error and guilt. On January 14, 1697, he stood in front of the congregation in the Old South Church in Boston as the Reverend Samuel Willard read the statement aloud.

Why did it happen?

Historians suggest that the Salem witch furor was unleashed because the Puritans were afraid their way of life was coming to an end. In 1684 the Massachusetts Bay Colony lost its charter (see Chapter 4), which had allowed the Puritans to wield absolute power through self-government. The new charter of 1691 brought the colony under the control of the English monarchy. It required Puritans to share votes and public offices with Anglicans (members of the Church of England), whom they hated and feared. Since Puritans genuinely believed that good and evil spirits fought for human souls, they thought witches were moving among them and causing evil events, such as the loss of the charter.

Scholars have analyzed the Salem community for patterns of witchcraft accusations. They found that the majority of accusers were social outsiders. Many came from rural Salem Village, and a third of the accusations originated from members of a single family, named Putnam. Suspected witches were generally prosperous older women who were unmarried and childless and who lived in Salem Town, the commercial center of the area. Many of the young girls who made accusations had lost a parent in Native American raids and worked as servants around Salem. Superstitions about evil spirits did not disappear in the American colonies after the miscarriage of justice at Salem. Accusations of witchcraft continued to surface until the early eighteenth century.

"the blame and shame of it"

Samuel Sewall regretted his participation as a judge in the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693. On January 14, 1697—a special day of atonement set aside by the Massachusetts legislature—Sewall stood and faced the congregation in the Old South Church in Boston. The Reverend Samuel Willard then read aloud this statement Sewall had written:

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated [repeated] strokes of God upon himself and his family; and being sensible, that as to the guilt contracted, upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminator [the court that conducted the witchcraft trials] at Salem (to which the order for this day relates), he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all his other sins; personal and relative: And according to his infinite benignity [kindness], and sovereignty [supreme power], not visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the land: But that He [God] would powerfully defend him against all temptations to sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him the efficacious [having the power to produce a desired effect], saving conduct of his word and spirit.

Reprinted in: Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 246–47.

Religious dissent: The Anne Hutchinson trial

Massachusetts Bay was founded as an ideal Puritan community, yet the colony was soon torn apart by religious dissension (opposition to the church). Although religion and government were supposedly separate, only men who were members of the church could vote or hold office. The Puritans expected some debate, but they would not tolerate views that threatened the religious harmony of the colony. A few years after the initial settlement of Massachusetts Bay, several dissidents (those who oppose established authority) engaged in activities that undermined Puritan society. One of the most prominent was Puritan minister Roger Williams (1603?–1683), who advocated the complete separation of church and state. He argued that religion was corrupted by any government interference in spiritual affairs. In his view, magistrates (officials who administer laws) should have no power to enforce church doctrine (system of belief).

Williams went even further by challenging the legal basis of the colony itself. He claimed that the English king, Charles I (1600–1649), had had no right to grant a charter for the founding of Salem in 1629 because the land belonged to the Native Americans who lived there. After a prolonged struggle with Puritan officials, Williams was banished from (forced to leave) Massachusetts Bay. He then founded and governed Rhode Island, the first American colony to be based on the separation of church and state. Williams also left the Puritan church and started the first Baptist church in the American colonies. (Baptist is a shortened form of Anabaptists, a Christian group that believed infants should not be baptized, or inducted into the Christian faith through immersion in water; see "Baptists" in Chapter 11).

Hutchinson accepts covenant of grace

Another famous dissident was Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591–1643), who moved to Massachusetts Bay in 1636. Before emigrating to America she attended St. Botolph's Church, where John Cotton (1585–1652) was the minister. Cotton was attempting to modify Puritan teachings, mainly the belief that salvation (being saved from sin) could be earned only through good works (moral behavior). This was known to many as the covenant of works, one of many covenants that Puritans used as the basis of their society (see "Puritanism" in Chapter 11). Hutchinson was especially inspired by Cotton's emphasis on the covenant of grace rather than the covenant of works. According to the covenant of grace, a Christian believer could gain salvation through revelation (direct communication with God). This doctrine became popular because it freed people from having to conduct good works in order to be saved from sin. Cotton insisted, however, that his followers continue doing good works whether or not they had received revelations from God. Hutchinson took the idea much further.

Hutchinson believed that Christians who had achieved grace actually became the spirit of God. Therefore, according to Hutchinson, the covenant of grace made the covenant of works unnecessary. That is, if people had this special connection with God, they did not have to do good works to show that they had been saved. Hutchinson embraced the covenant of grace after the deaths of two of her daughters in 1630 and the later death of her father. She claimed to have received revelations from God during these experiences. Therefore, according to the covenant of grace, she was still saved despite the tragedies in her life. (Puritans believed that if they suffered misfortune they had done something to offend God and had to gain his forgiveness by doing good works. Hutchinson believed that if they had already been saved, however, they could not be held responsible for misfortunes that befell them.)

Anne Marbury Hutchinson

Anne Marbury Hutchinson was born in Alford, England, the oldest of thirteen children of Anglican clergyman Francis Marbury and his second wife, Bridget Dryden Marbury. Before Anne's birth Francis Marbury was imprisoned twice for rejecting church doctrine. Anne was baptized in the Anglican faith and received an education far superior to that provided to most young women in the seventeenth century. From an early age she was exposed to religious discussions in her home, and she became familiar with church doctrine and Scripture (passages from the Bible). She was also influenced by her father's rebellious spirit and his contempt for authority. In 1605 the family moved from Alford to London. Anne lived in London until 1612, when she married William Hutchinson, an affluent businessman.

Holds religious meetings

In 1633 Cotton was forced out of his ministry because of his views. He then fled to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and took a position at the Puritan church in Boston. Soon afterward Hutchinson announced to her family that God had instructed her to follow Cotton to Massachusetts. Her husband had always supported her religious beliefs, so a year later the Hutchinsons left England onboard the ship Griffin. In September 1634 they arrived in Boston, where William Hutchinson entered into the textile (fabric) trade. He eventually became quite successful, and the family occupied a prominent position in the community. Anne Hutchinson's kind manner and her skills as a midwife (a person who assists women in childbirth) made her popular with affluent Boston women. During this time she became aware of the Massachusetts Puritans' belief in the covenant of works.

Determined to promote the covenant of grace, Hutchinson held private meetings for both men and women in her home. These gatherings usually began with a calm discussion of Cotton's sermons. Then, because Hutchinson possessed an intense intellect, people asked her to explain some of the more confusing aspects of Puritan doctrine. Finally, her religious fervor would take over, and she often became careless in advancing her own ideas and labeling them as Cotton's. Before long, Hutchinson had many followers who believed in her version of the covenant of grace.

Opposes Puritan ministers

Hutchinson conducted her meetings without interruption until 1635, when the prominent Puritan clergyman John Wilson returned to Boston from England. Hutchinson became increasingly troubled by Wilson's sermons, so she informed her followers that he was simply preaching another version of the covenant of works. Then she announced that most Massachusetts clergymen were promoting this doctrine. The only exceptions, she said, were Cotton and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright (1592?–1679), who both preached the covenant of grace. Soon Hutchinson had created a division between her followers and traditional Puritans, who charged that she was committing a form of heresy (a religious opinion contrary to church teachings) called antinomianism. Antinomianism was the belief that God had predetermined who would be saved from sin, so all people—including ministers—were powerless to change the situation by doing good works. Puritan leaders were especially angry because Hutchinson was challenging their authority to decide who was worthy of salvation. The rift rapidly spread throughout the entire colony, becoming a serious threat in 1637, when her male followers refused to fight in the Pequot War.

Put on trial

Although Hutchinson was the principal agitator (one who stirs up public feeling) in the Puritan conflict, she was not the first to be punished. In March 1637 Wheelwright was brought before the Massachusetts General Court and charged with sedition (resistance to lawful authority). It was not until September 1637 that a church synod (advisory council) finally condemned Hutchinson for her religious beliefs. By this time, she had lost much of her support. After John Winthrop (1588–1649), an especially stern Puritan, was reelected governor, several of Hutchinson's followers were removed from public office. Cotton even sided with church officials after making sure he would not be in trouble himself for teaching the covenant of grace. Wheelwright, Hutchinson's only remaining ally, was banished from the colony in November 1637.

From the Heresy Trial of Anne Hutchinson

Court: . . . what say you to your weekly public meetings? Can you show a warrant for them?

Hutchinson: I will show you how I took it up, there were such meetings in use before I came, and because I went to none of them, this was the special reason of my taking up this course, we began it but with five or six, and though it grew to more in future time, yet being tolerated at the first, I knew not why it might not continue.

Court: There were private meetings indeed, and are still in many places, of some few neighbours, but not so public and frequent as yours, and are of use for increase of love, and mutual edification [learning], but yours are of another nature, if they had been such as yours they had been evil, and therefore no good warrant to justify yours; but answer by what authority, or rule, you uphold them.

Hutchinson: . . . where the elder women are to teach the younger.

Court: So we allow you to do . . . privately, and upon occasion, but that gives no warrant of such set meetings for that purpose; and besides, you take upon you to teach many that are elder than yourself, neither do you teach them that which the Apostle commands [namely] to keep at home.

Hutchinson: Will you please to give me a rule against it, and I will yield?

Court: You must have a rule for it, or else you cannot do it in faith, yet you have a plain rule against it; I permit not a woman to teach.

Hutchinson: That is meant of teaching men.

Court: If a man in distress of conscience or other temptation . . . should come and ask your counsel in private, might you not teach him?

Hutchinson: Yes.

Court: Then it is clear, that it is not meant of teaching men, but of teaching in public.

Hutchinson: It is said, I will pour my Spirit upon your Daughters, and they shall prophesie . . . If God give me a gift of Prophecy, I may use it.

Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993, pp. 159–61.

Soon after Wheelwright was banished, Hutchinson was brought before the General Court and accused of defying the teachings of Puritan ministers. She was also charged with violating laws that forbade her, as a woman, to speak in public and to teach men or people older than herself. At one point during the trial, Hutchinson was nearly cleared of all charges. Then she announced that she had received a direct revelation from God. This was clearly a heretical claim because Puritan leaders believed that God spoke to humans only through the Bible. The frightened judges immediately ruled that Hutchinson was to be banished from the colony. She would be allowed to remain through the winter, but she was to be placed in the custody of deputy Joseph Weld of Roxbury. Despite Weld's attempts to persuade her to repent (express regret for her behavior), Hutchinson continued to speak out against the church.

Banished from colony

When Hutchinson was brought to trial again in March 1638, she failed to convince the judges that she had genuinely repented. She was therefore formally excommunicated (banished) from the church. Hutchinson left Massachusetts with her family and joined her husband at a settlement on the island of Aquidneck in Narragansett Bay, off the coast of Roger Williams's Rhode Island colony. She was followed by more than eighty families of supporters who had also been excommunicated. After William Hutchinson died in 1642, Anne Hutchinson moved with her six youngest children to the Dutch colony of New Netherland (now New York). They settled in Pelham Bay Park (now the Bronx section of New York City, near the Hutchinson River, which was named for Anne Hutchinson). The following year Hutchinson and five of her children were attacked and killed by Native Americans.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great nineteenth-century American writer—and a harsh critic of Puritan society—used Hutchinson as the model for the character Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Now a classic in American literature, The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Prynne, a woman who has a child without being married and is forced to wear the red letter "A" at all times as a sign of her sin.

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