- Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England
Jane Kamensky’s Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England is a civilized, delightful, and thoughtful study of the rise and fall of the Puritans’ effort to control speech. Like many works today, this is a book full of thrice-told tales, moving from Roger Williams through Anne Hutchinson, Robert Keayne and Ann Hibbens to the familiar lineaments of Salem witchcraft. Yet if we did not treat such cases, how else would we consider the issue of speech in early New England?
The narrative is nicely paced, beginning with the passion for controlling dangerous speech that arose in England in the sixteenth century, and proceeding to the special sources and ambivalencies of the New England Puritans’ effort at once to treasure and to limit popular speech. It handles the well-known and frequently gendered speech episodes of the 1630’s and 1640’s with depth but briskly and without undue theoretical pretension, and then moves on chronologically into some interesting new cases and evidence, before placing Salem witchcraft nicely in this long perspective. An epilogue neatly chronicles the slow disassembly of the more extreme controls on speech in the years from 1697 to 1776. Kamensky is frank that the moral of the tale is familiar as well: “Is my story, then, a kind of Whig speech history: a tale in which the secular conquers the religious, the inexorable logic of freedom trumps the barbarianism of restraint, and then thin, pure air of the modern sweeps the cobwebs from the Puritan mind?” Her answer, of course, is deliciously “yes and no,” though it possibly could have been still more deliciously “no” with a little Tocqueville—who saw no real liberty of thought in the 1830s—thrown in.
Virtues include good language, easy complexity of thought, and a fine ability to synthesize a huge volume of recent work on early New England. Governing of the Tongue is a civilized book because it thoughtfully re-explores the earliest history of a time when speech was not at all free, in a time when we take free speech for granted. If I were having coffee with Jane Kamensky, and telling her much I enjoyed this quiet, sensible book, I would for pleasure raise a few [End Page 192] issues with her. First, she might have emphasized a bit more that the whole concern with dangerous speech may have been the epiphenomenon of an age in which competitive individualism was a new and frightening thing. In an increasingly mobile society without vindicating diplomas, reputation was all. But reputation could not always be attested by lifelong neighbors and so it had to be defended in the courts. If one failed, personal ruin and bankruptcy, new and terrifying possibilities, awaited. The reputation of the new central state was equally fragile, and it, too, had to be defended by control of speech. Declining concern with dangerous speech is a measure of western culture’s slow adaptation to the circumstances of modernity. In this perspective, the Puritans’ panic over similar uncertainties was extreme but understandable. Second, it is possible there was a single, connected crisis of gender in New England in the period 1637—1663? Kamensky’s book, Carol Karlsen’s Devil in the Shape of a Woman and Mary Beth Norton’s Founding Mothers and Fathers certainly suggest this, Karlsen fairly explicitly. First came an astonishing series of challenges by women, from Anne Hutchinson and her followers through Ann Hibbens to the petition of many Bay women defending midwife Alice Tilly. Then, from the very late 1640’s, as the Winthrops and Cottons, who had fought these battles with the legion of women, died away, accusations of witchcraft against troublesome women began to gain unprecedented credibility. It is possible that the gender security offered men by the first generation of patriarchal leaders was replaced, after their deaths, by the first wave of witchcraft persecutions in New England? Together, Karlsen, Norton, and Kamensky tell a rich tale...