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Blue Laws: When Puritan Values Were The Law



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Blue Laws: When Puritan Values Were The Law

By Jan Howard

The “blue laws” were the first collection of laws framed by the government of the colony of New Haven, published in 1650. They imposed restrictions upon private life and morals and public conduct, particularly on the Sabbath. The term was later applied to similar restrictions in other New England colonies.

The statutes were so called because the laws (which originated in Virginia in 1624) reputedly were printed on blue paper in the New Haven Colony.

In his satirical A General History of Connecticut, printed in 1781, Tory clergyman Samuel Andrew Peters provided a list of 45 “blue laws” allegedly drawn up by the Puritan authorities. Critics of the publication have characterized it as an unscrupulous, malicious, and lying narrative.

All the Puritan colonies in New England enforced strict observance of the Sabbath; in some colonies, expenditures on clothing and personal adornment also were limited by statute. After the Revolutionary War, blue laws generally fell into abeyance or were repealed. However, many such statutes remained on the books, and during the Prohibition movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several states enacted new types of blue laws governing the sale and use of liquor and tobacco and providing for local censorship.

Other statutes referred to as blue laws included those mandating the closing of retail and other businesses on Sunday, such as existed years ago in Connecticut.

The blue laws revealed the sternness of the Puritan character. Because the Puritans objected to many types of amusement, dancing and card playing were forbidden as much as possible.

The early system of justice included the colonists’ ideas about the courts and their procedures. It included their ideas about right and wrong, what the state should encourage or permit, and what it should forbid and punish.

The Bible was an important source of principles of justice, and Biblical authority is cited for a number of statutes enacted. References to the Bible were continued in the statutes until the revision of 1750. On occasion, members of the General Assembly would consult clergy on which legislation to enact.

Principles of English law were deeply rooted in the early colonists’ hearts so early lawmakers, with slight modifications, preserved most of their heritage of English law.

Roger Ludlow, educated in law in England, was one of the Connecticut Colony leaders who made the transition from the English legal system to a modified one here. Under his guidance, the colony not only used English institutions, but English methods. The General Court tried cases in the English fashion. Mr Ludlow and the commission appointed by the Court of the Massachusetts Colony to hold court in Connecticut for one year began to enact statutes early, the first one on April 26, 1636, forbidding trading of firearms or ammunition with the Indians.

In 1638, Connecticut became a colony separate from Massachusetts. Historians generally have conceded that though the Fundamental Orders, or Constitution of 1639, were probably inspired by Thomas Hooker, it was doubtless framed by Roger Ludlow, since he was familiar with legal terminology. After its adoption, further statutes were adopted.

On April 9, 1646, the General Court asked Roger Ludlow to draw up laws for the colony. It took four years, and in 1650 Connecticut’s first body of statutes was completed and called Ludlow’s Code. The laws were divided into about 80 sections under headings alphabetically arranged. Two of the longest sections were headed “Indians” and “Military Affaires.”

 The capital laws were taken almost literally from the Jewish law of the Old Testament, and Bible references were given for each. Some of them were shocking or extremely harsh. It is believed that probably few of these laws were ever enforced in Connecticut.

In 1655 a code of laws similar to Ludlow’s Code was drawn up for the Colony of New Haven. It was somewhat longer and had several new topic headings, such as “Divorce,” but at least a third of it was made up of sections of the Code of 1650. In it, under “Capital Laws,” was this law: Men-stealers shall suffer death.

Married persons were expected to live together, under penalty of paying twenty pounds fine, for contempt. Elizabeth Way was prosecuted in the New London Court in 1682 for not living with her husband. She was ordered to go to her husband, or be imprisoned. (Caulkin’s History of New London, page 251.) Fornication was punishable by compelling marriage, or as the court decided; adultery was punishable by death.

The New Haven Code also included a section that called for anyone who published a lie to sit in the stocks or be whipped 15 stripes.

Prior to 1673, the statutes of Connecticut appeared in manuscript only. After the Colony of New Haven joined Connecticut, the laws were revised and printed. In May 1671 a committee, consisting of Governor Winthrop, Deputy Governor Leete, and most of the assistants, was appointed to prepare the new revision that was ordered printed in October, 1672. The new revision followed Ludlow’s Code in arrangement, but was twice as long, and had about 70 new titles.

Observing The         Sabbath

An early law not found in Ludlow’s Code read: “Whoever shall prophane the Lord’s day, or any part of it, either by sinful servile work, or by unlawful sport, recreation, or otherwise, whether wilfully, or in a careless neglect, shall be duly punished by fine, imprisonment, or corporally, according to the nature, and measure of the sin, and offence. But if the court upon examination, by clear, and satisfying evidence, find that the sin was proudly, presumtuously, and with a high hand committed against the known command and authority of the blessed God, such a person therein despising and reproaching the Lord, shall be put to death, that all others may feare and shun such provoking rebellious courses.”

There may have been occasions when this statute was enforced. In 1670, in New London, John Lewis and Sarah Chapman were prosecuted for “sitting together on the lord’s Day under an apple tree in Goodman Chapman’s orchard.” (Caulkin’s “History of New London,” page 250.)

Another statute read that the Sabbath began at sunset on Saturday, a custom common in New England. New Haven had a statute, passed in 1648, forbidding all servile work from sunset to sunset.

Violations Of The          Sabbath  And Fast Days     In Newtown

Legislation regarding violations of observance of the Sabbath and days of public fasting continued into the 1800s. In Newtown there were complaints raised against residents for card playing, swimming, raccoon hunting, and cattle driving on Sunday.

In April 1802, the sheriff of Fairfield County or constables of Newtown were commanded to arrest Eli Hard, Daniel Burchand, and Jotham Beers Sherman to appear before Justice of the Peace David Baldwin to answer a complaint that they broke a fast day by unlawful recreation, contrary to a statute entitled “An Act to Enforce the Observance of Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving.” Since the men broke the fast by playing cards at the home of Richard Botsford, they and Mr Botsford were also in violation of “An Act against Gaming.”

In May of 1817, John Beers of Newtown also made the mistake of flaunting the law regarding observance of the Sabbath. Abel Curtis, a grand juror for Newtown, submitted a complaint that on April 13 Mr Beers, “between the morning light and setting sun” of the Sabbath, drove a herd of cattle “in and through that part of Newtown called and known by the name Zoar, that is three cows or cattle (not from necessity, charity, or mercy).” Mr Beers was arrested by Constable Nicholas Curtis to appear before Justice of the Peace Zachariah Ferris.

In March 1807, Ebenezer Beers, a grand juror, complained to Justice of the Peace Ferris that Curtis Tomlinson, John Tomlinson, and William Hall of Oxford profaned the Sabbath by meeting on Main Street and in Ragged Corner in Halfway River District and traveling to the house of Elisha Latin in Newtown for a raccoon hunt.

Levi Booth, Ezra Booth, and John Judson, Jr, of Newtown, aged 14 to 21, met on a Sabbath in September 1805 to go swimming. It appears, according to a complaint by Cyrus Prender, that the boys went to the Housatonic River, and “did then and there in said Newtown strip themselves naked and go into the waters of said river in said Newtown, between the rising of the sun and the setting, on said Sabbath Day, and did then there sport, play, and recreate themselves in the waters of said river.”

Belief that no work should take place on the Sabbath continued into the 20th century. In the July 17, 1903 Newtown Bee, it was noted that the observance of the Sabbath was showing a decline in New England, adding, “Here in Newtown, within sight of the church spires, hay makers were at work in two hay fields.” As late as the mid-1900s, stores were not permitted to be open on Sunday.

The Rev Samuel Peters

There was a great amount of discussion about the blue laws in 1781, following the publication in London of the General History of Connecticut by Rev Peters, who had graduated from Yale College in 1757.

Critics of his book said it contained gross misstatements of the laws. J. Hammond Trumbull in 1876 published a book entitled The True Blue Laws of Connecticut and New Haven, and the False Blue Laws Invented by the Rev Samuel Peters.

Despite the critics, some of the laws were correct as published by Rev Peters, such as “Conspiracy against this Dominion shall be punished with death.” Another correct interpretation was “The judges shall determine controversies without a jury.” In this respect New Haven Colony differed from other colonies of New England.

However, there were gross exaggerations, such as “No priest shall abide in the Dominion: he shall be banished and suffer death on his return. Priests may be seized by anyone without a warrant.” According to Rev Peters’ critics, there was no specific act of this kind.

Also, “If any person turns Quaker, he shall be banished, and not suffered to return but upon pain of death.” This was the law in Massachusetts, passed October 19, 1658. Although the New Haven Colony penalties were severe, it never imposed the death penalty.

Rev Peters was not the first to invent the phrase “blue laws.” Mr Trumbull and other writers furnished instances of the use of the term, and its application to the Colony of New Haven, long before he wrote his book.

(Information for this story was found in History of Connecticut by Osborn, Volume 3; The New Modern Encyclopedia; “Blue Laws,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000 http://encarta.msn.com; and Harpers Encyclopaedia of United States History published in 1905.)

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