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  • Under Household Government: Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts by M. Michelle Jarrett Morris
  • Jonathan Beecher Field (bio)
Under Household Government: Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts. M. Michelle Jarrett Morris. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. 310 pp.

Under Household Government: Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts performs important work in undoing the damage Nathaniel Hawthorne did to our understanding of seventeenth-century New England. He did not act alone, but Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter plays an enormous role in shaping our perception of the Puritans as, well, puritanical, in their censoriousness, officiousness, and hatred of the erotic. It was Hawthorne who gave us the townsman who welcomes a stranger to Boston with, "Truly, friend; and methinks it must gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness to find yourself at length in a land where iniquity is searched out and punished in the sight of rulers and people, as here in our godly New England."

It was not necessarily so, as M. Michelle Jarrett Morris demonstrates. Against this familiar model of relentless civic vigilance against deviance, Morris shows that sexual policing was usually a family affair. The most compelling evidence of this pattern comes in the treatment of Daniel Gookin's household, which seems like nothing other than a seventeenth-century version of the kind of family that appears on lesser daytime talk shows.

In this focus on the family, Morris works a popular seam of Puritan studies. In particular she is avowedly in conversation with Edmund Morgan's The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England. She shares Morgan's sense of a culture of Puritan tribalism, but where Morgan considers the family as an institution, she focuses on moments of crisis for this institution. The major reward for this approach is persuasive evidence that "family members, not the community at large, provided the backbone of sexual policing, and their motivation was often less than moralistic, as they worked to prevent their children from conceiving or fathering unwanted babies (who would strain family economies), or tried to protect kinfolk from sexual aggressors" (6).

The most compelling evidence of this pattern is the first case, which [End Page 233] traces fifteen troubled years in the household of the aforementioned Daniel Gookin, a prominent Bay Colony citizen. In 1669, his slave Daniel Warro was "accused, first of impregnating a slave in a neighboring household, and later, of taking part in a series of interracial revels all around the town of Cambridge." Later, "Daniel Warro's brother, Sylvanius . . . impregnated a white servant living in the household where he worked." Still later, one "Hannah Stevenson accused Daniel Gookin's son, Samuel, of fathering her bastard child." And finally we learn of trouble between Daniel Gookin's grandson and Hannah Brackett, a servant in the household (14). Morris elegantly demonstrates that in these four cases, it was family members, motivated by one form or another of self-interest, who brought these instances of sexual malfeasance to the attention of the magistrates, rather than the sort of spiteful and watchful goodwife Hawthorne conjures.

Morris also demonstrates a less surprising point—patriarchal power had a huge impact on how these cases were treated and tried. The following chapter, "The Laws of God and this Jurisdiction," shows this power at work by detailing the ways that aspiring adulterers and people engaging in illegal sex would attempt to use the Bible to justify this course. For instance, in 1663, Elizabeth Holmes, a nineteen-year-old servant in Cambridge, complained that her master pointed out that King "David was a good man and yet committed adultery" (51). Morris cites stories like these to observe that "ironically the willingness of some to reshape or even pervert biblical stories and local laws suggests just how completely even sinners had internalized legal and religious precepts" (72). I might add that beyond demonstrating the power of these norms, these kinds of rationalizations, albeit in the service of predatory sexual desires, humanize the Puritans as a community of people who sometimes struggle with their own legal and religious precepts.

The relation between sex and law takes a different turn in "Lawful Remedies, Diabolical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-147X
Print ISSN
0012-8163
Pages
pp. 233-237
Launched on MUSE
2014-03-09
Open Access
No
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