Social Life in Early New England



There is much value in knowing of the past social life of New England. By regarding the ways and manners which were, we are the better prepared for the duties which are. In entering into the labors of others, we should know what those labors were.

At the outset we must regard the singular oneness of purpose in the minds of our New England ancestors. To serve God unmolested was the ruling idea of those who led in the settlement of Boston, Dorchester, Salem, and Plymouth. The hardship of laws and social oppression stimulated many more to join those who came from a religious motive. But those who came, came with a deep purpose to make these parts their home. They brought their families with them. This made the settlers more contented in living amid the new scenes, with privations they had not known. The early settlers in many instances came in such numbers from a given section that they brought their minister with them. There was a great bond of sympathy between those who thus came together. The new communities became as one home. Add to this the fact of the settlers living within a mile of the meeting-house, often meeting with each other on Sunday and at the midweek meetings for town purposes, for the drill of the military companies, and having the same hopes and fears regarding the Indians, we find the common sentiment welded even stronger. The oneness of the New England communities is proverbial. There were rich, there were poor people, and in the meeting-house the people were seated and “dignified” according to title and station; but in spite of these, there was more in the name than in reality. The people were not hedged in by their differences. President John Adams was asked by a southern friend what made New England as it is. His reply is memorable: “The meeting-house, the school-house, the training-green, and the town-meeting.” In these, the people were brought together, their common interests were discussed and acted upon. The youth grew up with each other in the schools. The young men stood shoulder to shoulder on the training-green, drilling themselves to defend their homes. In the councils of the town they debated and conducted the business which would accrue to their weal and benefit, and on the Lord’s Day they would gather in families to hear the words of the town minister, and before the one altar of the community bow in filial reverence to their God. This frequent meeting with one another and mingling in the same social life made the distinctive type of character which grew up in every community.

The minister and his family were in the front rank of social life. To the people’s adviser deference was paid. To the minister, even the smallest of the boys took off their hats. The people of the town may have disagreed with him, still his position in society was acknowledged. He was the educated man of the town. In the early days he was the physician also. The first medical work published in America was by the pastor in Weymouth. It treated of small-pox. Vaccination was met with the strongest of opposition. The clergy opposed what was thought to be a means of intervening the will and providence of God. This discussion had much to do in separating the profession of medicine from the ministerial office. The minister likewise did much of the legal business of the people. Lawyers were rare men until towards the war of the Revolution. There was a dislike towards them—a feeling that they would take advantage of the people’s rights. But America owes a debt of gratitude to the young barristers of the Revolution. They were true to the people and their best interests. When John Adams wished the hand of Abigail Smith, the people were anxious lest the dignity of Parson Smith’s family would suffer. The next Lord’s Day after the marriage he preached from the text, “And John came neither eating nor drinking, and ye say he hath a devil.”

The grade in social life, which was largely a name, was shown most in the meeting-house. The seating of families and the assigning of pews was one of the difficult things. The minister and deacons were nearest the pulpit. The boys and colored people were assigned the back pews or those in the gallery. This idea of “social dignity” was brought from the old country, but gave way in the growing oneness of life in America.

The days of the early New Englander were not all dark. There was much of the austere in them, but there was also a grain of mirth and cheerfulness. We must bear in mind that the clergymen were the early historians of the country; and they put much gloom in their writings. The mirthful side of social life was expressed at the parties and meetings for hilarity; for such they often had. The young delighted themselves in each others company, the same as to-day. The young gent and his lady either walked to the party, or rode on one horse. Parties began in better season than now. The assembly met in the latter part of the afternoon, and the dancing, where dancing was the order, began at about four o’clock. This was truly in good season, but, if our information is correct, they kept even later hours than the parties of to-day.

In Froude’s recent “Life of Thomas Carlyle” is a conversation alluding to Thurtill’s trial: “I have always thought him a respectable man.” “And what do you mean by respectable?” “He kept a gig.” A century ago it evidenced pre-eminent respectability to support such a vehicle. It was a wonderful conveyance in the eyes of the ordinary folk. With the coming-in of gigs and carts, where the element of pleasure was sought as well as service, came not alone improvement in vehicles, but the widening and general improvement of the highways. The New England inn was a place of great resort. In the poverty of newspapers, people came here to gain what news there might be. The inn holder was a leading man in the community. He got the news from the driver and passengers of the stage-coach, and of the travelers who chanced to be passing through the town. The inn holder knew the public men of the country, for they had partaken of his sumptuous dinners, and had lodged at his inn. If the walls of these ancient New England taverns could talk, what stories would they tell; not of debauches alone, but, in the dark and stirring days, of patriotic and loyal sentiments and deeds, whose influence went out for the founding of the nation, and the perpetuity of the blessings of freedom. He who strives to know of early New England, must not look alone to the learning, character and influence of its ministers, but to the manners, life, and influence of the inn holders.

The town meeting was the day of days. The citizens of the town met to consult and devise plans for their common welfare. “Citizen” in the very early time meant “freeman,” and a freeman was a member of the church; but this interpretation was too confined for the growing diversity in colonial and provincial life. It served well for the time, but new conditions demanded that it be superseded. The property qualification has likewise virtue in it, and the educational test of Massachusetts has much strength. This test is quite limited in the nation; nevertheless, if general, it would be for the saving of many of our political troubles. Election or town-meeting day had its treat. Its cake has left a precious memory behind, and many an old-timed family observes the custom until now. The town meeting was opened by prayer by the town minister, and much decorum and orderliness was observed by the citizens. The day was jovial, however, despite the solemnity attending it.

Prudence and economy had to be exercised, even in the more prosperous days. Little was wasted. There was not much money in the market. To trade, barter, and dicker was the custom. For amusements, the game of “fox and geese,” and “three” or “twelve men morris,” served well. The mingling of work and pleasure was common. The husking-bee and the quilting-bee afforded sources of much enjoyment. Prudence and economy hurt no one, but the mingling of these in the life of childhood and manhood aids in developing character which makes men and women hardy for the race of life.

The ever-famous New England Primer, small though it has been, was one of the most influential of publications. It was in every home. From it the children learned their A, B, C’s. In it were pert rhymes expressing the theology of the people, such as “In Adam’s fall, We sinned all”; and the set of biblical questions beginning with “Who was the first man?” The prayer of childhood, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” is in its pages. Of songs, most familiar is the:

“Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber. Holy angels guard thy bed.”

The picture and story of John Rogers’ burning at the stake, with wife and nine small children and one at the breast looking on, beholding the martyrdom of this advocate of the early Protestant church, did much to keep alive the bitterness between the Protestant and Catholic churches. The Catechism, known by all, began with: “What is the chief end of man?” Then followed the words of this conclave of divines, the teachings of Rev. John Cotton, which he named “Spiritual milk for American babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments for their Soul’s Nourishment.” We call New England character hardy, stern, and stalwart. Well it might be, by having the teachings of this Primer enforced in mens lives and labors. We may not admire some of the doctrines, but for the times they made the noblest and strongest of men. A trite statement of the late Dr. Leonard Bacon was: “In determining what kind of men our fathers were, we are to compare their laws not with ours, but with the laws which they renounced.” So with their theological opinions. Compared with the doctrines they renounced, and not with those of our own era, we recognize in them a strength and vigor of thought and character which will stand the severest test and scrutiny. Steel well heated and hammered is most valuable. But steel can be overheated and over-hammered; then it becomes almost useless. The strong doctrines of the earlier New England were too closely enforced, and there came a day—a part of which we live in—which repelled them. The old-time teaching has passed, and a fresher and more potent teaching is supplanting it.

There is something grand in the social life of the good old days. In knowing of it, we better appreciate the blessings of to-day. The ordinary life of the people has in it a fascination which a general knowledge fails to impart. The greatness of New England, however, is not all in the past. New England has given excellent life to the great West, and the far-reaching isles. Its line has gone out through all the earth. The descendants of New England are drawing riches from the prairies, the mines of the mountains, and are creating business thrift in all the rising towns. In all the world, in every commercial center, in the vessels upon the sea, in every mechanical industry at home and abroad, are those whose keenness and brightness of mind, whose sharpness of ingenuity, and whose warmth of heart are to be traced to the natural blood and descent from those we ever delight to honor.

The social life of to-day is not as it has been. The oneness of the early times is disintegrating. The people seem almost mad in their rush after clubs and societies. The ninety per cent of English descent at the beginning of the Revolution is giving way before the incoming of emigrants from every other nation. The rapid reading, thinking, and living has long since passed the life of former generations. But in this new social order is there nothing rich and abiding? Most truly there is. The millennium may be distant, but a brighter day is dawning, when intellectual activity, stimulated by the studies of the sciences and material things, coupled with the fresher faith quickened by the larger conceptions of the mission of the world’s Master, will result in causing the knowledge of the truth and heavenly affection to go to the farthest parts of the earth, and the turning of men to the character which attracteth all.

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