May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Three Hundred and Fifty Years Ago
In late May, New England’s colonial legislatures passed laws to guard against a variety of menaces within and without. On May 25 the legislature of Connecticut addressed a pair of vices that had recently been causing much trouble: tobacco and alcohol. In a convoluted set of regulations, it restricted tobacco smoking to those “allreddy accustomed … to the use thereof,” although a non-addict could qualify by procuring a doctor’s certificate “that it is vsefull for him.” Smokers could not indulge in the streets, nor in the fields or woods unless they were on a journey of at least ten miles or it was dinnertime. They could puff away freely in their homes, but only if no more than one other person “who vseth and drinketh the same weed” was present. And to fight “that great abuse which is creepeing in by excesse in Wyne and strong waters,” the legislators made it illegal to drink in a tavern for more than half an hour at a time—leading, no doubt, to increases in pub-crawling.
The next day, the Puritans of Massachusetts took firm action to combat something they viewed as an even greater threat: Catholicism. Blaming “the great warrs and combustions which are this day in Europe” on “the secrit practices of those of the Jesuiticall order,” the colony decreed that “no Jesuit or eclesiasticall person ordayned by the authoritie of the pope shall henceforth come within our jurisdiction.” Anyone convicted of violating the law would be banished; those who came back a second time would be put to death. The ordinance mercifully excepted Jesuits cast ashore by shipwrecks and those who came on commercial or diplomatic business, provided that they would leave as soon as possible and “behaue themselves inoffenciuely during their abode here.”
And finally, the new colony of Rhode Island took steps to protect itself against Connecticut and Massachusetts. Over the previous decade, four settlements had sprung up around Narragansett Bay, peopled mostly by religious exiles from the adjoining colonies. With their legal status unclear, these settlements were being claimed by their larger neighbors, including the still independent colony of Plymouth. In 1644 Roger Williams, who had founded Providence eight years before, went to England and obtained a charter to merge the settlements under a central authority. After some grumbling—not surprising from a group of committed dissenters—they finally agreed to unite.
On May 21 Rhode Island’s General Court met for the first time in Portsmouth and established the mechanism of a colonial government. It also passed a number of specific measures, such as banning witchcraft and selecting an anchor as the state seal. Burglary was made a capital crime except when committed by children, the insane, or “poore persons that steale for Hunger.” Game playing in taverns was prohibited, and archery practice was mandated (“Forasmuch, as we are cast among the Archers, and know not how soone we may be deprived of Powder and Shott, without which our guns will advantage us nothing …”). The law of slander was set out in great detail, with an eloquent preamble (“Forasmuch as a good name is better than precious ointment, and Slaunderers are worser than dead flies to corrupt and alter the savour thereof …”) and then a long list of particulars, from calling someone a criminal or a prostitute to saying “that a Tradesman maketh nothing but bad wares.” The law for nagging wives, by contrast, was brief and to the point, reading in its entirety: “It is ordered, Common Scoulds shall be punished with the Ducking Stoole.”