A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony, Edition 2

Oxford University Press
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The year 2000 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of A Little Commonwealth by Bancroft Prize-winning scholar John Demos. This groundbreaking study examines the family in the context of the colony founded by the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. Basing his work on physical artifacts, wills, estate inventories, and a variety of legal and official enactments, Demos portrays the family as a structure of roles and relationships, emphasizing those of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and servant. The book's most startling insights come from a reconsideration of commonly-held views of American Puritans and of the ways in which they dealt with one another. Demos concludes that Puritan "repression" was not as strongly directed against sexuality as against the expression of hostile and aggressive impulses, and he shows how this pattern reflected prevalent modes of family life and child-rearing. The result is an in-depth study of the ordinary life of a colonial community, located in the broader environment of seventeenth-century America. Demos has provided a new foreword and a list of further reading for this second edition, which will offer a new generation of readers access to this classic study.
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About the author

John Demos is Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of Entertaining Satan, winner of the Bancroft Prize, and The Unredeemed Capture.
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Oxford University Press
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Published on
Sep 9, 1999
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History / United States / Colonial Period (1600-1775)
Social Science / Sociology / Marriage & Family
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Eligible for Family Library

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Bringing together an extraordinary richness of evidence—from letters, diaries, and other intimate family writing of the 17th and 18th centuries—Philip Greven, the distinguished scholar of colonial history explores the strikingly distinctive ways in which Protestant children were reared, and the Protestant temperament shaped, in America.

Through this cache of remarkable and remarkably immediate and moving material – the family papers of some of America’s most famous theologians, political figures, lawyers, and ministers as well as those of lesser-known contemporaries (farmers, merchants, housewives) who embodied Protestant life and wrote about it most expressively—Philip Greven traces the hidden continuities of religious experience, of attitudes toward God, children, the will, the body, sexuality, achievement, pleasure, virtue, and selfhood among the three Protestant groups of the time. He examines, in turn, the three strains that persisted regardless of denomination. First, the “evangelicals” (their dictum for raising children: “Break their wills that you may save their souls”), ruled by a hostility to the self, a feeling that selfhood is the source of sin, too dangerous to be sought or desired (Jonathan Edwards wrote: “I have been before God and have given myself, all that I am, and have, to God; so that I am not, in any respect, my own . . . I have given myself clear away”). And we hear the products of this upbringing, in their twenties and thirties, speaking of themselves in the harshest tones (“My affections carnal, corrupt, and disordered”), distrusting themselves in the most profound ways (a woman faced with the choice of a husband wrote: “I dare not decide myself and dread nothing more than to be left to the Bent of my own heart”).

In counterpoint, we see the “moderates,” poised between duty and personal desire, preoccupied but not obsessed with morality, more interested in self-control than self-suppression (an eminent Unitarian, the Reverend Theodore Parker of Boston, wrote: “The will needs regulation, not destroying. I should as soon think of breaking the legs of a horse in training him, as a child’s will”).

And, finally, we see the “genteel” in polite society, taking their state of grace for granted, more interested in self-assertion than self-control, completely at ease with ambition and worldliness—music, dancing, games, convivial drinking, hunting, and sports all an integral part of the children’s lives as they grow into maturity; the boys groomed for social responsibility, the girls encouraged to be “steady, studious, docile, with a mild and winning presence, a sweet, obliging temper . . . ”

The Protestant Temperament uncovers the personal experience and the psychological and social effects of religion and piety in the American of the 17th and 18th centuries, the feelings as well as the beliefs of religious people. Fascinating and groundbreaking in its revelations and its radical reassessment of the role of religion in early American life, Philip Greven’s book is a major intellectual event, an important and illuminating interpretation of the American Protestant experience. 
Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award

The astonishing story of a unique missionary project—and the America it embodied—from award-winning historian John Demos.

Near the start of the nineteenth century, as the newly established United States looked outward toward the wider world, a group of eminent Protestant ministers formed a grand scheme for gathering the rest of mankind into the redemptive fold of Christianity and “civilization.” Its core element was a special school for “heathen youth” drawn from all parts of the earth, including the Pacific Islands, China, India, and, increasingly, the native nations of North America. If all went well, graduates would return to join similar projects in their respective homelands. For some years, the school prospered, indeed became quite famous.  However, when two Cherokee students courted and married local women, public resolve—and fundamental ideals—were put to a severe test. 

The Heathen School follows the progress, and the demise, of this first true melting pot through the lives of individual students: among them, Henry Obookiah, a young Hawaiian who ran away from home and worked as a seaman in the China Trade before ending up in New England; John Ridge, son of a powerful Cherokee chief and subsequently a leader in the process of Indian “removal”; and Elias Boudinot, editor of the first newspaper published by and for Native Americans. From its birth as a beacon of hope for universal “salvation,” the heathen school descends into bitter controversy, as American racial attitudes harden and intensify. Instead of encouraging reconciliation, the school exposes the limits of tolerance and sets off a chain of events that will culminate tragically in the Trail of Tears. 

In The Heathen School, John Demos marshals his deep empathy and feel for the textures of history to tell a moving story of families and communities—and to probe the very roots of American identity.  

From the Hardcover edition.
In this intimate, engaging book, John Demos offers an illuminating portrait of how colonial Americans, from the first settlers to the postrevolutionary generation, viewed their life experiences. He also offers an invaluable inside look into the craft of a master social historian as he unearths--in sometimes unexpected places--fragments of evidence that help us probe the interior lives of people from the faraway past.

The earliest settlers lived in a traditional world of natural cycles that shaped their behavior: day and night; seasonal rhythms; the lunar cycle; the life cycle itself. Indeed, so basic were these elements that "almost no one felt a need to comment on them." Yet he finds cyclical patterns--in the seasonal foods they ate, in the spike in marriages following the autumn harvest. Witchcraft cases reveal the different emotional reactions to day versus night, as accidental mishaps in the light become fearful nighttime mysteries. During the transitional world of the American Revolution, people began to see their society in newer terms but seemed unable or unwilling to come to terms with that novelty. Americans became new, Demos points out, before they fully understood what it meant. Their cyclical frame of reference was coming unmoored, giving way to a linear world view in early nineteenth-century America that is neatly captured by Kentucky doctor Daniel Drake's description of the chronography of his life.

In his meditation on these three worlds, Demos brilliantly demonstrates how large historical forces are reflected in individual lives. With the imaginative insights and personable touch that we have come to expect from this fine chronicler of the human condition, "Circles and Lines" is vintage John Demos.

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