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Authority in Colonial America: The Relationship between the Individual and Authority in the Northern Colonies “The violence of everyday life seems to have been accompanied by much mutual suspicion and a low general level of emotional interaction and commitment. Alienation and distrust of one’s fellow man are the predominant features of the Elizabethan and early Stuart view of human character and conduct.” Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage As one looks through the pages of time, both intellectual and everyday lives seem to recognize a certain dichotomy. It has been called several things: master/slave, rich/poor, and overseer/seer. This universal dichotomy is a representation of the power relationship between an authority figure and the individual. However, in the Northern colonies of early America we find a more institutional implementation of the dichotomy. The fledgling nation of struggling colonies is ripe with experimentation. Colonists are constantly setting up bodies of power (governments, councils, etc) to defend the individual (as it is understood in terms of the Enlightenment), but they also critique those institutions. Each colony had a different method (or lack thereof) for ruling people. It wouldn’t be fair to compare the English occupied New Amsterdam to the New England Bay colonies, but as the people set up institutions with set objective laws we can see how their subjective freedom is ultimately entwined with resistance. The establishment of the objective/subjective dichotomy is one that is purely institutional: without an institution there is no objective ideological apparatus. Due to the amount of difference between the colonies we are able to see how different individuals reacted to different objective systems and what parallels we can draw from that. The study of authority and the individual in colonial America is very unique. The kind of diversity between people, methods, and goals in colonial America is so vastly different that it provides a multitude of colors for the blank canvas of America. The

people arrived and were thrown into a brutal environment with little certainty. Many died from being unprepared for ocean life, the cold winters, and countless other hazards in the New World. From this nothingness, ideas and orders were formed to cope with a new lifestyle. With all this it would be out of ignorance that one wouldn’t enquire about the development of authority in the New World. Several historians have begun to write on the everyday lives of people instead of simply large political events. This is even more vital when considering the history of colonial America. David F. Hawke explains how the “royal government rarely intruded in *the colonist’s+ everyday life,” however “a host of officials did intrude—constables, well-masters, ale-tasters, clerks of the market, hog-ringers, and so forth—but these were local men concerned with local matters.”1 It is clear that the individual had an intimate relationship with his neighborly colonial authority (no matter what form it came to him in). The “violence of everyday life” that is referred to in the introductory passage is precisely the thing that arose when objective authoritarian restraints attempted to limit the subjectivity of individuals. We find its everyday manifestations to be everything from the child abuse that Stone examined to the religious & political legislations that eliminated difference among individuals. From the dichotomy arises an alienation that wrought destruction on the individuals that endured it. It is hard to ignore the general discontent when the histories are full of revolts, counter-governments, defiance of authority, and suicide.

Puritans, 1630s

John Winthrop began to implement government controls in the Massachusetts Bay colonies around the 1630s. His aim was a noble one, but (like all totalizing ambitions) was met with brutal resistance from all kinds of people ranging from radical theologians to midwives. Despite several years


David Freeman Hawke, Everyday Life in Early America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 8-9.

of skillful politics and well-thought arguments, Winthrop was eventually cast out of government by the people “fearing lest the long continuance of one man in the place should bring it to be for life, and, in time, heredity.”2 After several revisions to the law were made to diminish the absolute authority that Winthrop saw as necessary for ruling, he was allowed to regain office in 1642. Winthrop, being a vocal Puritan, became part of a corporate endeavor with the Massachusetts Bay Company to found a colony in the New World. As a priest he convinced his congregation that the New World was where they could be free from religious persecution. Winthrop also thought it would be a great place of economic opportunity for him and his fellow Puritans. He immediately sought to secure the autonomy of the colony. He proposed to the members of the company that the charter not specify where the annual meetings to discuss the company take place. Through some kind of mishap, the King signed the charter despite the omission of that crucial part. This made it possible for the company to hold the meetings in the New World where the King wouldn’t be able to look over their shoulders. Or, in other words, they had complete control over what they did and how. The first and most important objective of the religious community was to abolish sin— unpunished sin could bring God’s wrath on them. It was impossible for Winthrop to be the judge of every action so he made the Bible the law (everyone was required to know how to read) and the family as the punishers. The father and mother of the house not only disciplined children, but also servants and boarders to the point that “no one *would+ escape this wholesome control, it was forbidden for anyone to live alone.”3 In this manner the whole population became a “police force.” The family was the most important authoritarian control during Winthrop’s age. Stone claims that “more children were being beaten in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, over a longer age span, than ever before.”4 Children were beat at home and in school, by their family and their elders:


Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma; The Story of John Winthrop (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958), 113. Ibid., 63. 4 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 162-164. 3

all to instill a subjection to their superiors. While Hawke saw the Puritans as having a tender love for their children, it is clear that the abuse affected latter generations of the 17th and 18th centuries. The objective restraints of society caused the personal identity of many children to collapse:

The self was dangerous and had to be repressed and denied, sometimes to the edge or even over the edge of suicide, but always to the point where a person’s sense of willfulness, of self-fulfillment, of self-expression, was stifled and extirpated as fully as possible. The quest for submission to divine power and authority was endless and consuming for vast numbers of twice-born Christians.5

The “days ruled by the rod” were an important dynamic of New England culture. Regrettably, the children could offer little resistance to unjust punishments, but many adults did see problems within their society and sought change. Roger Williams was one of the radical theologians that challenged Winthrop. It was clear from the beginning that neither of them saw Liberty or Religion the same way. Winthrop’s liberty was an apologist design for women to be in bondage to men: “*civil] liberty is the proper end and object of authority and cannot subsist without it. . .The woman’s own choice makes such a man her husband; yet being so chosen, he is her lord and she is subject to him.”6 Such a view is mirrored today by sentiments of Mayor Rudy Giuliani when he says, “Freedom is about authority.” Williams, in contrast, saw all people equal before God (not his God, but anyone’s God no matter what religion): “all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor orders, no corrections nor punishments.”7 Williams, too, has a more modern signifier that we find in Walt Whitman when he


Philip Greven, "The Self Shaped and Misshaped: The Protestant Temperament Reconsidered," in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, ed. Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 353-354. 6 Lawrence H Leder, America--1603-1789; Prelude to a Nation (Minneapolis: Burgess Pub. Co, 1972), 61. 7 Ibid., 62.

proclaims in Transpositions that the “idiots and insane” should be the judge and the prison-keepers be locked away by the prisoners.8 That very distrust in authority is what led Williams to form Rhode Island in 1635. Williams was a unique radical. He brought society to chaos by simply questioning the very essence of the Puritans existence. He deeply rejected magisterial power over religious beliefs and believed that religion was more personal. Due to his denouncing of Bay Colony clergy and questions that caused uproars (like doesn’t the land they live on really belong to the Indians?), Williams was banished from the Bay Colony. The clergy (who mainly acted as a governing body) would later do the same to another radical, Anne Hutchinson. Such is the way authority worked in the 1630s: as a machine to destroy difference and dissent. Winthrop’s own despise for Separatism was well noted. A law made in 1647 proves the serious threat that a growing number of different beliefs and people proved since it required the “banishment of Anabaptists, rigid Separatists, Jesuits, and other undesirables.” The mention of “undesirables” is an apparently attack on those who wouldn’t conform to the social mores just as the 20th century eugenics movement forcefully sterilized the feeble-minded because they were “undesirable.”

New England, 1740-1776

The late period of New England represented a time when the colony had reached a perfect socio-economic balance. Society had formed into a cohesive political structure that would rule people from the pulpit, the courthouse, and at home. Just like in the 1630s, family was incredibly important and “guaranteed the permanence, stability, continuity, and orderly development of the community.”9

8 9

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York: Bantam Dell, 1983), 358. Carl Bridenbaugh, Early Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 169.

Although the family was the social glue for communal ideals, it seems a few large institutions were the main contributors to personal identity in New England. John Adams in 1778 gave a simple recipe for a New England town: town meetings, training days, town schools, and town churches.10 These institutions worked in harmony to maintain social mores and a sense of community. Churches especially were social places where people could gather and converse. Bridenbaugh makes this point clear with the story of Thomas Mentor of Ipswich who would grab women by the breasts as they entered the church and talk to “the very little boys” all throughout the sermon “most of the Sabbaths of *the+ year.”11 Whether they liked it or not, it seems individuals became products of the collective. It was widely believed, not only in the legal world but also by the common man, that individual freedom shouldn’t be checked unless it conflicts with the community. Actions that seemed to threaten the social order were dealt with harshly. When one colonist claimed on election day that “the Honorable Governor was a fool, and his friend and counselor . . . a knave” and that they would be voted out, he faced the penalty of loosing his franchise, posting £100 bond for good behavior, and paying of court costs. It is apparent that the community was to be secured at all costs, but by whom? The gentry operated as a kind of mafia in New England who had the power of virtually every institution simply because of their wealth and education:

Members of the gentry made their influence felt in every sphere of town life. At church they sat in choice pews, and more frequently than not controlled the elders and deacons. They ran town meetings, either by continuous occupancy of the key offices of moderator . . . or by

10 11

Ibid., 175. Ibid., 177.

securing the election of townsfolk who saw things their way . . . [T]heir voice in the regulation and disposition of undivided lands was decisive.12

Those that spoke out against the political machine established to maintain the objective status quo were, as we have seen, swiftly silenced. To call this authority would be to neglect the sophistication of power controls that colored the everyday actions of New Englanders. From this we find a three-tier system of separation. The common man was content to find he had “individual freedom,” yet such freedom only extended as far as the community would allow it. All the while that very “community” was controlled by the gentry. The “community” became a necessary illusion for forcing a common set of values on all individuals. This set of objective values has been called in the political sphere the “public opinion.” This was a new idea that developed during the era that could be seen scattered throughout the newspapers by elites and political figures claiming that the “public opinion” is this or that.13 However, such a strict stratification was not addressed passively. Howard Zinn writes that “by 1760, there had been eighteen uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments.”14 It seems that as New England reached “its perfect adjustment as a social and economic unit” 15 the people began to reject it in a multitude of ways. In 1758 several farmers were caught stuffing meat so that it would weigh more on the scale. When one was caught and fined with twenty shillings, he “with Great Humility promised reformation.”16 The promise of reformation was the common excuse of a famed criminal of the day who was caught on several occasions and released each time with the same excuse. The reaction of lawlessness and criminal mischief was not uncommon in colonial America—often we find


Ibid., 171. T.H. Breen, "Making History: The Force of Public Opinion and the Last Years of Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts," in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, ed. Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 72. 14 Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Perennial Classics, 2003), 59. 15 Carl Bridenbaugh, Early Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 187. 16 Ibid., 185. 13

that the commonality of crime was more of an “antidote for boredom” 17 inspired as a response to confining standards of society. All different kinds of people from a vast array of colonies and cultures revolted in their own way against stifling authoritarian controls. Colonial America was a playground for weekend criminals and happy vagabonds.

Against Authority: The Will to Disappear

Men in power tried all kinds of tactics to keep control of people. Regulations, laws, public punishments, shame, propaganda, and “public opinion” were the devices of authority that helped society run smoothly—for the most part. As T.H. Breen points out, “intellectual dreams of pure objectivity were mere fantasy.”18 This meaning that the continual struggle of authority to establish objective rules or even claim an objective “public opinion” was a fantasy reserved for the totalitarians that sought to abolish all difference between people (especially when it was ideological/cultural). While a society of total control was mere hyperbole, several limits did exist and force individuals into terrible positions. Zinn explains that while “rebellion *was+ impractical in an increasingly organized society, servants reacted in individual ways.”19 These actions varied in their intensity, but showed a specific discontent with objective authorities. Thomas Wentworth Bell—the name was everywhere in the colonies from 1738 until 1771, but is not found many places today. Much like the tabloids of our own age, the colonial papers were afire with thousands of eyes watching where the sharper & vagabond Tom Bell would show up next. It is estimated that Bell had read about the adventures of one Bampfylde-Moore Carew while in London


Ibid., 121. T.H. Breen, "Making History: The Force of Public Opinion and the Last Years of Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts," in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, ed. Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 70. 19 Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Perennial Classics, 2003), 45. 18

around 1736. Carew is most famous for his memoirs concerning his travels through the colonies as a dog-stealer and swindler entitled The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew, the noted Devonshire Stroller and Dog-stealer, as noted by himself during his passage to America. It is this that supposedly inspired Harvard educated Tom Bell to impersonate a well-to-do man who knew the wellknown gentry on a personal level. His education was cut short when he was kicked out for stealing on several occasions, but he had learned enough to pretend that he was a well-off person with connections. With this knowledge he was able to gain room and board many nights and take off the next day with pockets full of money toward the next town. Such a man may seem like, to most people, a simple criminal, but upon closer inspection he is a person that openly defied common law yet was never able to break completely from the society he opposed. It was not just a means of operating within the system for Bell, his whole life was a testament to social resistance. Hakim Bey, a contemporary writer, shares a similar view on authority:

Why bother to confront a "power" which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation? Such confrontations will only result in dangerous and ugly spasms of violence by the emptyheaded shit-for-brains who've inherited the keys to all the armories and prisons.20

This indirect method is what Bey refers to as “disappearance.” The point is not to end all interaction with a system (society, in this case), but to use it without supporting it. Bell led a “rambling Life *full+ of giving the Reins to exorbitant Passions and unlawful Desires.”21 Although with these words (written “To the Public” in his later years) he was declaiming his old lifestyle, he could never bring himself to settle in one town for more than a little while before he was back to pretending to be a gentleman. In 1771, he 20

Hakim Bey, “The Will to Power as Disappearance,” in T.A.Z The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Mt. View, Calif: Wiretap, 1990s), (accessed March 13, 2009). [his emphasis] 21 Carl Bridenbaugh, Early Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 144.

pirated a ship for $14,000 with a partner and was caught. His partner was hanged and Bell committed suicide. To the bitter end he chose a life of adventure over authority. The same spirit would be embodied in later generations such as 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud and modern-day Crimethinc anarchists.

While Tom Bell struggled for a good quality of life, another man from the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam fought just to exist as an individual. Adriaen Janse van Ilpendam was a Dutch notary who settled in New Amsterdam in the 17th century. He became well-known and had a good business until the English occupied the colony. His eventual suicide was a surprise to a community that saw very few of that type of thing. (While suicide became common in the 18th century, Janse was the only suicide within his colony in the entire 17th century.) He has been studied by historians both for his reaction/role in the occupied colony and also what he can tell us about everyday life. A. J. F. van Laer, the translator of Janse’s notarial papers, believed that such a study would show us “the effect of the community upon the life of the individual” as well as the “home surroundings, daily occupations, customs and intimate business and family relations of all classes of society.”22 It should be stressed here that while the suicide is the main-event of Janse’s life in our consideration, it was Tom Bell’s life above that was our focus, not his death. Donna Merwick calls Janse’s death a “political event” that preceded a three hundred year erasure within the public memory of such an event.23 It is interesting that Merwick uses the term “erasure” for its double meaning. The common definition is something that is erased and forgotten just as the history of Janse directly after his death (along with Dutch history and culture after the 22

Donna Merwick, "The Suicide of a Notary: Language, Personal Identity, and Conquest in Colonial New York," in Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, ed. Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 151. 23 Ibid., 148-149.

occupation). But the word also has another meaning signifying a concept that is unreliable, but necessary to use. Jacques Derrida, a contemporary continental philosopher, recognizes that some words must always be placed under erasure because they are ill-defined (or not at all), but are necessary in our discourse. One example of this is found in “existence,” specifically when we talk about Being (which, when under erasure, appears as Being). Janse lived a life of being under erasure. Always half there and half not, he was a person of the “old world.” With the English occupation his culture was decimated and subsequent laws prohibiting Dutch language (especially in written documents) and legitimatization of only documents approved by English courts constantly removed Janse from society. It is certain Janse was a notary in New Amsterdam, but exactly how much of him was there? Janse’s suicide is attributed to the overwhelming power of the English occupiers upon the population to “forget.” Merwick explains the foundations of a system we see used often in recent history:

Representations of the vanquished natives as primitives, grotesques, living without the blessing of law, all are constructed alongside those that present the strangers as civilized and purposeful lawgivers. They call up, often inadvertently, the darker and simpler feelings of which the lawgivers’ propositions and statutes on paper, the seemingly neutral paraphernalia of governing, are only shadows.24

However, the method of “forgetting” is more than just a means of discrediting a certain group. It completely ridicules them into the inferiority of non-existence. Even today we see historians stuck in the socially constructed belief that the Dutch were inferior to the English. One illustration that a historian published in a scholarly journal in 1994 involved several drunken Dutch soldiers holding drinks and their


Ibid., 150.

obese captain with a golf-club as a weapon defending New Amsterdam against the confused English.25 Merwick’s telling summation represents the cultural groundwork for the objective/subjective dichotomy: “The power to enforce such stereotyping lay in all the social and cultural systems that postdated Dutch New Netherland and that classified the strange and the familiar, the acceptable and the unacceptable.”26 The story of a man “suicided by society” (to borrow from Artaud’s title concerning Van Gogh) ends with an allusion to the painter Brueghel. His elaborate canvases showed countless individuals within a setting where each attributed to and were part of the overall painting. Much like how authority operated in colonial America, the painting combines individuals, each with their own subjective reality (place on the canvas), amid the objective totality of the painting as a whole. Merwick writes “it is fearful to think how the story of Janse’s response, off to the edge of the painting, would have been made to appear.”27 But if we find it hard to imagine Janse on the edge, it is not a limit of our mind—as an individual under erasure he had no spot on the painting. His suicide was a direct response to the indirect control of the painter.


When studying the relationship of authority on the individual it is not the student’s job to moralize about freedom or immortalize certain people or national heroes. My goal, whether achieved in the reader’s mind or not, has been to examine the relationship alone and the objective/subjective dichotomy that springs from it. The governments and their restricting laws that led to the death or displacement of the few unfortunate souls mentioned here did exist. And if the individuals that refused


Ibid., 152. Ibid. 27 Ibid., 153. 26

to be a part of the tapestry of “acceptable” life and chose the “un-acceptable” were only “partly unconscious but partly conscious”28 of their dissent, they still acted—they still suffered. As long as the authority we face today, both on local and national scales, goes without critique or analysis, we will continue to see the same victims. A few rogue writers and historians have taken on the job themselves, but it is a duty of every individual at every second of the day. It is not a human right or civil liberty that we allow each other our own identity, difference, & subjectivity, but an imperative of existence that assures that no human being must exist as a human being.


Hakim Bey, “The Will to Power as Disappearance,” in T.A.Z The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Mt. View, Calif: Wiretap, 1990s), (accessed March 13, 2009).


Bey, Hakim. “The Will to Power as Disappearance.� In T.A.Z The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Mt. View, Calif: Wiretap, 1990s. Breen, T. H. "Making History: The Force of Public Opinion and the Last Years of Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts." In Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, edited by Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute, 70-95. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Bridenbaugh, Carl. Early Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Greven, Philip. "The Self Shaped and Misshaped: The Protestant Temperament Reconsidered." In Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, edited by Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute, 348-369. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Hawke, David F. Everyday Life in Early America. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Leder, Lawrence H. America--1603-1789; Prelude to a Nation. Minneapolis: Burgess Pub. Co, 1972. Merwick, Donna. "The Suicide of a Notary: Language, Personal Identity, and Conquest in Colonial New York." In Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, edited by Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute, 122-153. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma; The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958. Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam Dell, 1983. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present. New York: Perennial Classics, 2003.

Authority in Colonial America  
Authority in Colonial America  

Starting with the Puritans in the 1630s and moving up until the Revolution, the study traces consistencies in authority and colonial gove...