Apr 4, 2007

Book Review: A Little Commonwealth - Family Life in Plymouth Colony

A Little Commonwealth - Family Life in Plymouth Colony, John Demos Demos, John

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 (1970), 201 pages

John Demos is a social historian and is the Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University, where he has taught since 1986. Among his many contributions to the field of colonial American history has been his innovative use of demography as a tool to reassess and, in some cases, to rewrite traditional interpretations of the period. A Little Commonwealth is a microhistory of family life in seventeenth century Plymouth Colony, and Demos attempted to unearth vignettes of typical families in that seminal colonial settlement.

The book’s title is a reference to a 1622 quote from William Gouge, who argued that the ideal family is “a little Church, and a little commonwealth” in which the potential leaders of a community hone their skills. Demos, though, also uses the idea of the family as a “little commonwealth” as a metaphor, arguing that the family is both the basic unit of Pilgrim society and a miniature model of the larger society in Plymouth. The Plymouth family acted as a church in the sense that parents provided basic teachings about morality in the home, with daily prayers and meditation an important complement to the local church. The Plymouth family also acted as a “house of correction,” where discipline was meted out and where local idlers and criminals were often sentenced to labor. The family also served in Plymouth as a sort of welfare institution, argued Demos, where orphans were assigned, the elderly rested, and the poor of the community could be housed.

Demos made use of a wide variety of sources for the text, and he began the text with an examination of physical artifacts - such as buildings, tools, clothing, and cooking utensils – to provide several chapters on the physical environment of the typical Plymouth family. The author examined wills, inventories of the possessions of deceased community members, official town records, and church sermons to glean information for his demographic analysis, and often provided excerpts that offered insightful glimpses of everyday life. There are many inferences, for example, that can be drawn about the Plymouth community from the 1679 case of a young man who was brought before the Court facing a charge of disobedience to his parents:
Edward Bumpus for stricking and abusing his parents, was whipt at the post; his punishment was alleviated in regard hee was crasey brained, otherwise he had bine put to death or otherwise sharply punished.
Demos argued that traditional notions of large extended families living under one roof in colonial New England need to be reexamined in light of the demographic evidence he discovered through census records. He noted that the average family size in the town of Bristol in 1689 was six persons, with 47 percent of families containing four, five, or six persons. Social and economic forces worked to keep this nuclear family together, and Demos found that the death of a spouse typically meant an interval of less than a year before the surviving spouse remarried. Demos also found only two Bristol families in 1689 that were headed by a single adult (one widow and one widower).

Map of early New EnglandMap of early New England

The traditional image of Puritan society as one of dominant patriarchy, argued Demos, needs to be modified in light of his research. While women were prohibited from direct participation in public affairs, Demos noted that women in the Plymouth Colony possessed greater rights than they would have experienced under common law in England. Men who made an “unrighteous will,” for example, that denied a widow of her “reasonable allowance for her subsistency,” could have their wills altered. Moreover, women were allowed the right to make certain contracts, such as a sort of pre-nuptial agreement in which a widow and her new husband would specify any future disposition of their respective properties. Women in the Plymouth Colony, noted Demos, also had legal recourse in cases of spousal desertion and domestic abuse, unlike their counterparts in England.

While a scholarly work, A Little Commonwealth is accessible to general readers, and requires little previous familiarity with the history of colonial New England. Readers learn of the unique character of Puritan families, while also discovering the ways in which Puritan households were very much like contemporary American families. Moreover, unlike many of his predecessors - whose depictions of colonial New England relied heavily on the documents produced by social elites - Demos provides a view of everyday life in the homes of the Plymouth middling sort. The result is a book that incorporates demographic analysis with thoughtful interpretations, all woven together with the skillful prose of Demos to produce a work that maintains its vitality thirty-seven years after its publication.


Anonymous said...

In what way has Demos' subjective apprach added insight to his study of the pilgrim family?

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