The Puritan Experiment with Sumptuary Legislation
JUNE 01, 1974 by GARY NORTH
Dr. North, economist, lecturer, author, currently is an associate of Chalcedon, an educational organization dedicated to Christian research and writing. His latest book is An Introduction to Christian Economics, Craig Press, 1973. He is the editor-publisher of the Remnant Review, a fortnightly economic newsletter.
Sumptuary laws, as defined by one dictionary, are "laws regulating extravagance in food, dress, etc. on religious or moral grounds." No other aspect of Puritan social legislation during the first half century of
The early Puritan communities were organic, tightly knit structures. The inhabitants were convinced that all men need direction in life. No single institution on earth was seen as possessing absolute sovereignty, of course; their intensely Protestant outlook forbade placing total trust in any human organization. Nevertheless, they believed that the various levels of the civil government did have basic responsibilities in regulating prices, the purchase of land, public utilities, and personal fashion. The ministers might advise the public officials on such matters, but it was the political authorities who were seen as being ultimately responsible for their enforcement.
The Question of Status
In the mid-nineteenth century, the British scholar, Sir Henry Maine, characterized the coming of the modern world in terms of the concept, "from status to contract." Seventeenth-century
The essence of the Puritan idea of status is found in the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that comprehensive body of theology hammered out by the Puritan scholars of Cromwell’s
By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth…. The general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals.1
There is nothing innately reprehensible in the idea that men should observe distinctions among each other; "civility" and basic etiquette have always required as much. The idea that superiors ("parents") have duties to inferiors ("children"), and vice versa, is common enough. When the
The Larger Catechism summarized the accepted status ethic of Puritan culture. Both superiors and inferiors were given positive injunctions and negative warnings about respecting the duties and obligations of authority and submission. Leaders are to expect the following from inferiors: reverence, respect, prayer, obedience, love, and honor. Inferiors are not to neglect their duties, rebel, curse, or mock their superiors. Superiors, on the other hand, owe their inferiors the following: love, prayer, counsel, rewards, chastening, protection. The sins of superiors are also listed "an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure," and "inordinate" is understandably but unfortunately left undefined. Superiors are not to command anything unlawful from their inferiors, or correct them unduly, or to lead them into temptation, "or any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behaviour."2
In a family, church, or voluntary society, these injunctions can be more easily applied. But the medieval perspective of the Puritans can be seen in their unwillingness to limit the locus of the term "family." They were intent upon transferring the status requirements of the family to the civil government.
The Familistic State
A family is a limited entity. Members are born into it and grow to maturity; eventually they die. Sons and daughters leave to form new families, and this alters the relationship between parents and children. Parents grow old and sometimes feeble, so they have an incentive to rear children competently; their own future survival may depend upon the maturity and faithfulness of the children. The parents therefore have an incentive to avoid keeping offspring in perpetual childhood. The relationships are intensely personal, and therefore bounded by feelings of love, honor, loyalty, and directly threatened by feelings of jealousy, disrespect, or hatred.
The civil government, however, is a completely different institution, established for different ends, and governed by different rules. Its function is not to father children, rear them, promote their maturity, or care for them. The state’s function is to protect men against violence, both domestic and foreign. Invasions are to be repelled; thieves and bullies are to be restrained. The state is to be ruled by formal laws that are predictable, applying to all members of society.3 By its very nature, it is an impersonal structure; it is not to respect persons in the administration of justice. Ideally, men are to be ruled by formal civil law, not by capricious men. Formal law is to restrain the activities of the state itself, limiting its arbitrariness.
A Hopeless Conflict of Interests and Lack of Harmony
In retrospect, it is not difficult for us to understand why the New England Puritans, no less than their English cousins, would find it difficult to assign limits to a familistic state. It is rather like children setting limits on fathers, especially when fathers confront their children not merely with the threat of violence, but also with the moral obligation of submission. Yet from the 1630′s through the 1670′s, this is precisely what Puritan leaders attempted to do. They wanted to permit godly men sufficient freedom to exercise their personal callings, for they well understood that if a man is personally responsible before God for his acts, he must be given wide latitude in exercising his personal talents without interference from other men, including leaders. Nevertheless, they also wanted to insure that the "family of God’s people" would preserve its inherited status distinctions, and that peace and harmony would prevail as a testimony to the whole world. As the seventeenth century progressed, they were to find that the two goals were very frequently in opposition, and harmony was not maintained.
Modern commentators must be extremely careful not to read our contemporary views about status back into the seventeenth century — or at least not back into the first three quarters. There was no public outcry from "oppressed" inferiors, no colony-wide movement to redress grievances. There is little, if any, evidence that the "inferior sort" and their elected representatives, the deputies, were in fundamental opposition to the medieval view of status obligations. Puritan society was in reality a society made up of people who in
The Sumptuary Codes
The Puritan magistrates concluded, as had leaders in European society for centuries, that it is not always easy to identify members of various classes. In New England, for all intents and purposes, there were three levels — higher, middle, lower — but the law codes only recognized two. Puritan legislation borrowed a practice of the most familistic of all state structures, the military: uniforms. The Larger Catechism listed as one of the duties of inferiors the "imitation of their (superiors’) virtues and graces," but no Puritan leader was so naive as to believe that such a requirement allowed the "inferior sort" to imitate their superiors’ tastes in fashion. Thus, in 1651, both the magistrates and deputies of
Although several declarations and orders have been made by this Court against excess in apparel, both of men and of women, which have not yet taken that effect which were to be desired, but on the contrary we cannot but to our grief take notice that intolerable excesses and bravery have crept in upon us, and especially amongst the people of mean condition, to the dishonor of God, the scandal of our profession [i.e., profession of faith], the consumption of estates, and altogether we acknowledge it to be a matter of great difficulty, in regard to the blindness of men’s minds and the stubbornness of their wills, to set down exact rules to confine all sorts of persons, yet we cannot but account it our duty to commend unto all sorts of persons a sober and moderate use of those blessings which, beyond our expectation, the Lord has been pleased to afford unto us in this wilderness, and also declare our utter detestation and dislike that men or women of mean condition, educations, and callings should take upon them the garb of gentlemen, by the wearing of gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, to walk in great boots; or women of the same rank to wear tiffany hoods or scarves, which though allowable to persons of greater estates, or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intollerable in persons of such like condition….4
Unless a citizen was of a good education, or a military officer, or a civil officer, he could not wear such clothing unless his estate could be valued at £200 or more, according to a "true and indifferent value." For a violation of this statute, a ten shilling fine was imposed.
A similar, though shorter, statute had been passed by the
Tobacco consumption, which was regarded by Puritan leaders as another unnecessary excess, had been under fire [I couldn't resist] from some of the directors of the Massachusetts Bay Company right from its inception.8 All four of the Puritan commonwealths — Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, and Plymouth — passed numerous provisions placing restrictions on the sale and consumption of the "noxious weed." These prohibitions were not really status oriented; they were motivated by a number of fears. One, understandably, was fire.
Taverns, brewers, and liquor retailers were under restrictions throughout the century. Indeed, some of these controls are as common today as they were in the
Although it seems incredible today, shuffleboard was regarded as a prime danger. There were not to be scenes of elderly men spending a leisurely afternoon in the park playing this Devil’s game. Such games were a sign of idling — a waste of God’s most precious resource, time — and they were especially prohibited in taverns and when practiced by servants and youths. The magistrates were willing to go to real extremes to stamp out games of chance and shuffleboard.¹³ These regulations extended throughout the century, unlike virtually all other sumptuary laws, indicating a continuity of opinion against "vain pursuits." (It might be said that at least in
As in so many other cases, one colony did not participate in the sumptuary mania: Rhode Island.14 But Rhode Island was not a Puritan commonwealth. Its founder, Roger Williams, had argued for the separation of church and state — not primarily to protect the state, but to protect the church!
The Problem of Social Mobility
The Puritans’ emphasis on personal responsibility, thrift, hard work, the moral righteousness of all lawful occupations, careful accounting (moral and financial), honest dealing, the fulfillment of contracts (covenants), and their concern with the future, both heavenly and (especially from 1630-60) earthly, all combined to provide an atmosphere conducive to economic growth and personal wealth. Another important feature of Puritan thought that has seldom been recognized is the antipathy of Puritan preachers to the sin of envy. Samuel Willard, whose two decades of Sunday evening sermons on the Larger Catechism, A Compleat Body of Divinity (1726), stands as the Summa of Puritan theology, saw envy as a direct violation of the law of God. He set forth this standard to his congregation: they "ought not to envy, but to rejoice in the prosperity of their neighbors."15 Willard’s lengthy attack on the sin of envy stood as one of the longest expositions on the subject in English until the publication, in 1969, of Prof. Helmut Schoeck’s crucial study, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. Cotton Mather agreed entirely with Willard’s analysis: "It will have no good aspect upon us, if it should be so, that a leveling spirit gets so much head among us, that no man shall be in anything superior to his neighbors, but his very superiority shall make him obnoxious to envious indignities….”16
Envy, as Schoeck has argued so incisively, restricts the incentives for and impetus to economic development. First, it discourages the free discussion among members of a society of a basic fact of life: time. Men do not discuss their personal futures if their goal is to conceal their aspirations, fortunes, and plans. Yet they must conceal such matters in a society motivated by feelings of envy. Second, under such restraints, innovations are unlikely, since no one wants to let his neighbors see how much better off a person is as a result of some advance.17 Cut off discussion of the future, compromise men’s orientation toward the future, penalize advancement technologically and personally, and the society in question will show few signs of economic growth.18
Personal and Social Growth
Puritan preaching, therefore, served as a stimulus to both personal wealth in one’s calling and economic development for the community. Men were to be moderate in all things, and they were not to pursue wealth for its own sake. This was made clear by a century of preaching, from John Cotton to Cotton Mather to Benjamin Franklin. Nevertheless, there was nothing innately wrong with wealth in the Puritan view, however much a spiritual snare and delusion great wealth might become. So when men began to follow the tenets of the Puritan faith, they found themselves steadily increasing in wealth, both personally and culturally. This was to raise an absolutely baffling dilemma: how was the fact of social mobility to be reconciled with medieval categories of fixed status, implying defined place and function?
The Puritans were hardly the first people to face this dilemma. The millennium of institutional struggles over monastic reform in the Roman Catholic Church testifies to the traditional nature of the problem. From the day that St. Benedict set forth his eminently practical monastic rules —humility, hard work, thrift, patience, self-help, discipline — the monasteries that followed his guide faced the problem of economic growth. The monasteries had a tendency to get richer and richer. Then the original ideal of personal poverty was abandoned by certain abbots and monks, and pressures for reform came from the outside.¹º This pattern prevailed right down into the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII confiscated monastic property in the name of a higher morality.
In 1632, it was one thing for Gov. John Winthrop to challenge Thomas Dudley with respect to the latter’s ostentation in adorning his home with wainscoting (a wooden paneling on the walls of a house). He had more justification, given Puritan standards, for such an act, for it was, in his words, "the beginning of a plantation."20 Even so, it is not hard to understand Dudley’s anger when
The very success of the Puritans in overcoming the limitations of a wilderness disrupted the received medieval tradition of fixed or semi-fixed status distinctions.
The rapidity of social change and the fluidity of social mobility baffled Puritan ministers. By medieval standards, the social mobility was unprecedented and incomprehensible. This was especially true of
Social status became as much of a problem for the second generation as the administration of a "just price" had been for the first. It was an elusive quality, even as the just price had been an elusive quantity, which refused to be catalogued or defined in written legislation. Yet it seemed as though this very elusiveness hypnotized Puritan preachers. They were certain that a proper definition could be found, but the perverse changes going on in
Puritan Preaching Against Pride and Ambition
By 1674, Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather, was convinced that the continual violation of the Fifth Commandment — the status commandment — was the chief sin of his generation. (That someone named Increase could take this position only serves to emphasize the irony.) Inferiors were rising up against superiors in the commonwealth — in families, schools, churches. It was not an uprising that he feared, but this incessant rising up. "If there be any prevailing iniquity in
The problem, as the Puritan divines saw it, was that men were not satisfied with their lot in life. Daniel Dension’s last sermon, appended by another famous preacher of his day, William Hubbard, to Hubbard’s funeral sermon for Denison, cities ambition as the curse of the land, along with envy:"... Ambition is restless, must raise commotions, that thereby it might have an opportunity of advancement, and employ envy to depress others, that they fancy may stand in their way…."²5 Such ambitious men are unwilling "to abide in the calling, wherein they are set; they cannot stay for the blessing, nor believe when God hath need of their service, he will find them an employment, whatever stands in the way of their design, must give place…”26
The clergy’s practical problem was obvious: assigning explicit guidelines that would help the magistrate to decide in any given case whether a man’s ambition was of the "restless" sort, or whether the individual was simply exercising newly discovered personal talents in some new calling. To argue, as
The Boston Synod of 1679 listed pride in apparel and the unwarranted imitation by servants of the dress of their superiors as early entries in its catalogue of over a dozen social evils that had brought miseries to New England.²7 Five years earlier, Increase Mather himself had announced the difficulty of distinguishing the dress of the regenerate from that of the unregenerate. It is a dark day when "professors of religion fashion themselves according to the world."²8 But given the inescapable and undeniable existence of human sin, what could be done to correct this problem? What are the standards of legitimate fashion for a godly society? Are they subject to change? Like the standards of economic oppression, the just price, and usurious interest, the standards of godly fashion were elusive.
Rev. Urian Oakes struggled mightily with this difficulty. He was convinced that human pride expresses itself in outward garb, "in affected trimmings and adornings of the outward man, that body of clay that is going to the dust and worms." Strange apparel is going to be punished, he said, citing Zephaniah 1:8 as proof. Yet some rich and lovely garments are all right (II Samuel 1:24):
Nor am I so severe, or morose, as to exclaim against this or that fashion, provided it carry nothing of immodesty in it, or contrarily to the rules of moral honesty. The civil custom of the place where we live is that which we must regulate in this case. But when persons spend more time in trimming their bodies than their souls… When they go beyond what their state and condition will allow, that they are necessitated to run into debt, and neglect the works of mercy and charity, or exact upon others in their dealings, that they may maintain their port and garb; or when they exceed their rank and degree (whereas one end of apparel is to distinguish and put a difference between persons according to their places and conditions) and when the sons and daughters of Sion are proud and haughty in their carriage and attire in an humbling time, when the church is brought low, Jerusalem and Judah are in a ruinous condition, and the Lord calls to deep humiliation: This is very displeasing to God, and both Scripture and Reason condemn it.29
Oakes was preaching to the magistrates of the colony, in a 1673 election sermon, that annual ritual that helped to bridge the gap between church and state. But he did not go into specific details concerning the nature of the required legislation — election sermons almost never did — and so nothing was put into operation. Oakes had put most of the Puritan theologians’ opposition to the flux of modern life into one lengthy exposition. Excessive social change breaks down familiar communal standards, which in turn are supposed to help preserve members of differing classes in traditional occupations and in dress reflecting those occupations. The hierarchy of medieval life —a hierarchy reflecting a great chain of being from God to Satan — was being shattered by the winds of change. Men and women were increasingly unwilling in the late seventeenth century to accept the limitations of such arbitrary status concepts on the exercise of their property rights. What was "civil custom"? In a society which had grown from a tiny, rural colony in an uncharted wilderness to a thriving and productive component of a newly developed English trade system, civil custom was indeed the question. Customs were anything but fixed or universal. And after 1680, clerical opinion no longer carried as much weight in establishing or maintaining older customs. The very fluidity of fashion, where new styles could sweep through the community, reflected the lack of fixed standards, and this fact dismayed the preachers.
Status distinctions were supposed to be respected by members of a
The older Puritan standards of social propriety had become the victims, not of Enlightenment rationalism or philosophical skepticism, but of operational Puritanism. Like the medieval monasteries, the Puritan commonwealth had prospered as a direct result of Puritan teachings. But unlike the monasteries, the society of late seventeenth-century
The saints in the churches were as unwilling to abide by the older standards of dress and social status as those outside the churches who had neglected to "own the covenant" of church membership. Puritan sermons had warned of God’s wrath in the face of hardheartedness, but when judgment came — in the shape of an Indian uprising — the Puritan military forces were victorious. Success was the one thing that the pessimistic jeremiad sermons of the second generation simply could not deal with successfully.
Religious pietism was sweeping the Western world after 1660, in
Cultural and economic Puritanism, however, still operated, but on a private level. Individual saints saved, planned, built for the future. The
• FOOTNOTES •
1 Larger Catechism (1647), answers 124, 126. I am using the standard edition published by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1970).
² Ibid., ans. 127-30. Direct quote from -#130.
3 F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of
4 Nathaniel B. Shurtleff (ed.), Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: State Printer, 1853), III, p.243.
I have cited the version approved by the more democratic deputies; the version approved by the full General Court is almost identical: ibid., IV, pt. I, pp. 61-62. [Cited hereafter as MCR.]
5 J. Hammond Trumball and Charles Hoadly (eds.), The Public Records of the Colony of
6 MCR, I (1635), p. 183; (1639), pp. 274-75.
7 MCR, I (1636), p. 186.
8 MCR, I, pp. 387-89, 403.
9 MCR, I (1635), p. 136; (1635), p. 180. ¹º Nathaniel B. Shurtleff (ed.), Records of the Colony of New
1¹ CCR, I (1647), p. 153.
¹2 MCI?, IV, pt. I (1654), p. 287.
¹³ MCR, II, pp. 180, 195; III, p. 102; IV, pt. I, p. 20; CCR, I, p. 289; PCR, XI, p. 66.
¹4 On Rhode Island’s absence of sumptuary legislation, see William B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England, 1620-1789 (1890), I, p. 290. Weeden provides a summary of the various sumptuary statutes: pp. 226ff.
¹5 Samuel Willard, A Compleat Body of Divinity (New York: Johnson Reprints,  1969), p. 644. This was the largest book ever published in the colonies in its day — close to one million words.
¹6 Cotton Mather, Concio ad Populum (1719), p. 18.
¹7 Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), pp. 46-50.
¹8 On the importance of future-orientation to economic and cultural life, see Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1969).
¹9 Cf. Dom Cuthbert
20 James K. Hosmer (ed.),
²¹ Ibid., I, pp. 84-85.
²2 Samuel Eliot Morison, Builders of the Bay Company (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930), ch. 5.
²³ Increase Mather, The Wicked Man’s Portion (1675), p. 17. Preached in 1674.
24 Samuel Willard, Useful Instructions for a professing People in Times of great Security and Degeneracy (1673), p. 75.
26 Ibid., p. 196.
²8 Increase Mather, The Day of Trouble is Near (1674), p. 22.
²9 Urian Oakes, New-England Pleaded with (1673), p. 34. An election sermon delivered in
³¹ William M. Lamont, Godly Rule: Politics and Religion, 1603-60 (London: Macmillan, 1969).