- Historic Sites
The Secret Life Of A Developing Country
September/october 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Over the first four decades of the nineteenth century the American people increasingly made churchgoing an obligatory ritual. The proportion of families affiliated with a local church or Methodist circuit rose dramatically, particularly after 1820, and there were fewer stretches of the wholly pagan, unchurched territory that travelers had noted around 1800. “Since 1830,” maintained Emerson Davis in his retrospect of America, The Half Century , “… the friends of the Sabbath have been gaining ground…. In 1800, good men slumbered over the desecration of the Sabbath. They have since awoke. …” The number of Sunday mails declined, and the campaign to eliminate the delivery of mail on the Sabbath entirely grew stronger. “In the smaller cities and towns,” wrote Mrs. Trollope in 1832, worship and “prayer meetings” had come to “take the place of almost all other amusements.” There were still communities near the edge of settlement where a traveler would “rarely find either churches or chapels, prayer or preacher,” but it was the workingclass neighborhoods of America’s larger cities that were increasingly the chief strongholds of “Sunday dissipation” and "Sabbath-breaking.”
Whipping and the pillory, with their attentive audiences, began to disappear from the statute book, to be replaced by terms of imprisonment in another new American institution, the state penitentiary. Beginning with Pennsylvania’s abolition of flogging in 1790 and Massachusetts’s elimination of mutilating punishments in 1805, several American states gradually accepted John Hancock’s view of 1796 that “mutilating or lacerating the body” was less an effective punishment than “an indignity to human nature.” Connecticut’s town constables whipped petty criminals for the last time in 1828.
Slaveholding states were far slower to change their provisions for public punishment. The whipping and mutilation of blacks may have become a little less ferocious over the decades, but the whip remained the essential instrument of punishment and discipline. “The secret of our success,” thought a slave owner, looking back after emancipation, had been “the great motive power contained in that little instrument.” Delaware achieved notoriety by keeping flogging on the books for whites and blacks alike through most of the twentieth century.
Although there were important stirrings of sentiment against capital punishment, all American states continued to execute convicted murders before the mid-1840s. Public hangings never lost their drawing power. But a number of American public officials began to abandon the long-standing view of executions as instructive communal rituals. They saw the crowd’s holiday mood and eager participation as sharing too much in the condemned killer’s own brutality. Starting with Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts in the mid-1830s, several state legislatures voted to take executions away from the crowd, out of the public realm. Sheriffs began to carry out death sentences behind the walls of the jailyard, before a small assembly of representative onlookers. Other states clung much longer to tradition and continued public executions into the twentieth century.
Early-nineteenth-century Americans were more licentious than we ordinarily imagine them to be.
“On the 20th day of July” in 1830, Harriet Winter, a young woman working as a domestic in Joseph Dunham’s household in Brimfield, Massachusetts, “was gathering raspberries” in a field west of the house. “Near the close of day,” Charles Phelps, a farm laborer then living in the town, “came to the field where she was,” and in the gathering dusk they made love —and, Justice of the Peace Asa Lincoln added in his account, “it was the Sabbath.” American communities did not usually document their inhabitants’ amorous rendezvous, and Harriet’s tryst with Charles was a commonplace event in early-nineteenth-century America. It escaped historical oblivion because she was unlucky, less in becoming pregnant than in Charles’s refusal to marry her. Asa Lincoln did not approve of Sabbath evening indiscretions, but he was not pursuing Harriet for immorality. He was concerned instead with economic responsibility for the child. Thus he interrogated Harriet about the baby’s father—while she was in labor, as was I the long-customary practice—in order to force Charles to contribute to the maintenance of the child, who was going to be “born a bastard and chargeable to the town.”
Some foreign travelers found that the Americans they met were reluctant to admit that such things happened in the United States. They were remarkably straitlaced about sexual matters in public and eager to insist upon the “purity” of their manners. But to take such protestations at face value, the unusually candid Englishman Frederick Marryat thought, would be “to suppose that human nature is not the same everywhere.”