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A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in…

A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970)

by John Demos

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We are all familiar with the national myth of the Pilgrim story: the Mayflower landing on Plymouth Rock, their encounters with Squanto, and Thanksgiving. But how much do we know about the Pilgrims as people, their relationships with each other both within the context of the family and community? John Demos, a professor of history at Yale University, wrote the classic account of Plymouth family life in 1970, and with its' reissue we can examine anew the significance of his scholarship in extending our understanding of this important subject.
The overlaying dynamic of Pilgrim life, according to Demos, was that it was a patriarchal society (82). Like many societies (arguably including our own), the male ruled both the household and the community. "The proper attitude of a wife toward her husband was 'a reverend subjection'" (83). With few exceptions (88-90), husbands had full control over their homes and businesses; indeed they were even able to dispose and assign their children to other households with little to no consultation with their wives (88).
Demos' most interesting argument concerns the dynamic that served to keep the community (and family) together as a cohesive unit: repression. When one thinks of Puritan repression, one thinks of sexual repression; indeed, it is almost an accepted stereotype. But it seems that repression was instead directed at actions committed by members of the community, especially those actions that could be characterized as hostile or aggressive (136-137). Demos uses that psychological framework of Erik Erikson (outlined 138-139) to explain how the repression of impulses (especially individualistic impulses) was institutionalized within the Puritan family, and how its consequence (shame) became a defining characteristic of Pilgrim life (139). Children were "broken," their individuality destroyed, so that they met the expectation of obedience to authority, whether it be obedience to their father or obedience to the government (134-135). A child's "stubbornness" is broken; he is now able to develop into a model God-fearing Pilgrim (135).
While it is difficult for historians to fully understand such a nebulous concept as 'family life' even within the context of the recent past, it is doubly difficult to ascertain relationships that occurred within the distant past. This is because what was considered normal within the community was seldom documented; there was little reason to record what everyone already knew and understood. Demos makes a valiant effort to reconstruct these relationships by examining physical artifacts, wills, court decisions, and estate inventories. While his account of Pilgrim life is necessarily incomplete, his evidence allows us to begin to understand the dynamics at work. While his evidence (especially court cases) might serve merely to show the exceptions to the rule, enough of this evidence exists to demonstrate what the expected norm might be.
It appears that Demos attempted to examine all major dynamics at work within the family—relationships between family members—but by necessity he merely outlined these relations in broad strokes. It might have been desirable to present a case study of one particular family, following its development and changes through time. Enough evidence may exist to provide a more in depth look at one family; such an exercise might serve to increase our understanding of the relations within an 'average' Puritan household.
It appears, however, that Demos has provided us a valuable glimpse into the Pilgrim family life that, while incomplete, gives a sense of how things were. There are few silences in the narrative of family life (such as the daily life and play of children), but these may be unavoidable. In the end, it appears that Pilgrim family life was as complex (if not more so) than family life today.
2 vote cao9415 | Jan 30, 2009 |
Good survey of domestic life in the 17th century Old Colony. Surprisingly, takes a bit of a detour from the documentary record to connect the topic to the psychology of Erikson. ( )
  AsYouKnow_Bob | Dec 10, 2008 |
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For my Mother and For the Memory of my Father
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Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.
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Book description
Foreward.....vii --
Introduction: An historical survey of Plymouth Colony.....1v
Part One: The physical setting.....19 --
Chapter one: Housing.....24 --
Chapter two: Furnishings..... 36 --
Chapter three: Clothing.....52 --
Part Two: The structure of the household.....59 --
Chapter four: Membership.....62 --
Chapter five: Husbands and wives.....82 --
Chapter six: Parents and children.....100 --
Chapter seven: Masters and servants.....107 --
Chapter eight: Wider kin connections.....118 --
Part three: Themes of individual development.....127 --
Chapter nine: Infancy and childhood.....131 --
Chapter ten: Coming of age.....145 --
Chapter eleven: Later years.....171 --
Conclusion: The family in comparative perspective.....179 --
Appendix : Demographic tables.....191 --
Index.....195 --
Illustrations follow page 108.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0195128907, Paperback)

The customary modern image of the New England Puritans is a dark one: the Puritans, religious dissenters who valued propriety and order, are seen as a witch-hunting, suspicious tribe, and their very name carries connotations of grimness and primness.

Thirty years ago, at the outset of his career as a historian, John Demos decided to reexamine that view in light of the evidence. Among the findings that he reports in A Little Commonwealth is the surprising discovery that the Puritans were not so, well, puritanical. They were not, Demos argues, especially consumed by ideology, and in their daily lives, "religion seems to figure in a somewhat haphazard and occasional way." The Puritans, he continues, had no unusual objections to sexuality or fun-seeking, except where such activities endangered social harmony--and the Puritans were indeed fiercely protective of group stability. Demos examines such documents as the transcripts of divorce proceedings to suggest that Puritan women enjoyed, if not equal rights, then better consideration than most women in other English colonies in the New World. He looks closely into the material culture of the Puritans, which shows some odd discrepancies: for instance, although few households possessed more than a single chair (usually reserved for the elderly), many contained elaborate wardrobes--for, Demos writes, "clothing was not only a good investment for a man of some means; it was also a way of demonstrating his standing in the larger community and of confirming his own self-image."

In questioning the view of the Puritans as a plain-dressing, plain-living, haunted, and repressed sect, Demos provides a close and intriguing look at the New England past. Reissued on the 30th anniversary of its first publication, A Little Commonwealth deserves a wide audience today. --Gregory McNamee

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:16 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The year 2000 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of A Little Commonwealth by Bancroft Prize-winning scholar John Demos. This groundbreaking study examines the family in the context of the colony founded by the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. Basing his work on physical artifacts, wills, estate inventories, and a variety of legal and official enactments, Demos portrays the family as a structure of roles and relationships, emphasizing those of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and servant. The book's most startling insights come from a reconsideration of commonly-held views of American Puritans and of the ways in which they dealt with one another. Demos concludes that Puritan "repression" was not as strongly directed against sexuality as against the expression of hostile and aggressive impulses, and he shows how this pattern reflected prevalent modes of family life and child-rearing. The result is an in-depth study of the ordinary life of a colonial community, located in the broader environment of seventeenth-century America. Demos has provided a new foreword and a list of further reading for this second edition, which will offer a new generation of readers access to this classic study.… (more)

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