Colonial America BookNotesJohn Putnam Demos(1937-)A Little Commonwealth:Family Life in Plymouth ColonyNY: Oxford UP, 1970. xvi + 201 p.
Ill.: 15 photos (btw. 108-09). Appendix: demographic tables (191-94). Bibliographical footnotes, index (195-201). ISBN: 0195128907 (1999 ed.)Thesis:”A familie is a little Church, and a little commonwealth, at least a lively representation thereof, whereby triall may be made of such as are fit for any place of authoritie, or of subjection in Church or commonwealth.
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Or rather it is as a schoole wherein the first principles and grounds of government and subjection are learned: whereby men are fitted to greater matters in Church or commonwealth.” — Epigraph by William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622) BookNotes Reviews:Henretta, James A. “The Morphology of New England Society in the Colonial Period.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2.2 (Autumn 1971): 379-398.The dominant historiographical theme since about 1900 has been the declension of English traditions in the New World “wilderness.
” Frederick Jackson Turner and Perry Miller formulated the declension theory that English customs, institutions, and ideas were disintegrating in America, a theory with nationalist implications. The declension theory proposes that the English colonists were religious peasants who instituted medievalistic communal plantations that were necessarily transformed by the American environment, a social change that culminated in the American Revolution. In A Little Commonwealth, Demos provides “barren artifacts” to demonstrate the transforming social existence of the 1620 Plymouth settlement until its demise in the 1691 Massachusetts charter incorporating Plymouth.
Demos describes the small rustic houses and presents some court cases involving families, then discuss the effects of the crowded conditions on the large families. He suggests that the colonists were forced by these conditions to displace their natural aggression onto their neighbors. Isaac, Rhys. American Historical Review 76.3 (June 1971): 728-37.”We are presently confronted by fundamental questions concerning the nature of order and authority in a traditional society, and these questions have been given added point by researches into the ideological transformations wrought by adaptation to growth and expansion in the New World environment and by the first great secular revolution of our era.” Historical demography reveals the “evolution of basic patterns of everyday life, providing social history with the sense of movement that history at large has lost since the idea of progress was discredited.” John Demos has employed historical demography techniques first developed in France, then transmitted to American historians through the English historians Peter Laslett and E.
A. Wrigley, but adapted to the American perspective transcending demography to encompass “experience,” the values and emotions of the culture studied. Demos merges “micro-observations” gleaned from court records of conflict involving families in Plymouth Colony with “imaginative reconstruction of the spatial arrangement of the Old Colony houses and concludes that hostile impulses within the family, arising inevitably from frequent abrasion in congested conditions, were themselves inhibited but were eventually displaced outward in aggression toward neighbors.” Demos’ study reflects and develops that of Perry Miller, who merged intellectual and social history, but supplemented an intuitive perception for his evaluation.
Bernard Bailyn, in The Origins of American Politics (1968), merged the study of political culture with structure and experience. Both Miller and Bailyn produced works with an elitist bias, which is corrected in community studies such as A Little Commonwealth by Demos. Philip Greven’s Four Generations, a similar 1970 community study, finds unusual stability in Andover, Massachusetts, but Demos finds significant mobility in Plymouth Colony. Macfarlane, Alan. Man 6.
4 (December 1971): 713-14.Demos accomplishes for Plymouth colony what Laslett destroyed some of the myths regarding English marriage and family, and Demos achieves this goal in A Little Commonwealth. He provides data on the typical age of marriage for men and women, and he presents the nuclear family style as typical. However, “the extremely complex psychological and sociological problems of domestic life cannot be satisfactorily answered from odd remarks in wills, an occasional court case or theological essay, and our understanding is not helped by the author’s failure to describe used and potential sources in any detail.” Demos’ “thesis that smallish houses cramped large families and must have caused huge inter-personal tensions, anxieties, and so on, could have been made far less naive by reference to the work of Max Gluckman on the ritualisation of personal relations.” Middlekauff, Robert.
The Journal of American History 57.2 (September 1970): 404-05.Demos has focused on the family in Plymouth colony, but he aspired “ultimately for general answers, for a picture of the family rather than any single instance thereof” (viii). This generalization is tentative, and Demos approaches religion in only a casual fashion. Demos’ evidence regarding patriarchy in Plymouth contrasts with that of Greven’s Andover in that Plymouth documents do not show the manipulation of grown sons by fathers who owned the family property. Demos concludes that Plymouth colony children moved without significant crisis.
Murrin, John M. History and Theory 11.2 (1972): 226-75.Demos’ study of the family and community is among several influenced by sociology of the family and techniques of historical demography that originated in France and migrated through England to the United States.
Benjamin Franklin developed a 1751 model of open land leading to large families, and in The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth Century New England, 1944) Edmund Morgan “humanized” the Puritans but theorized a New England “tribalism.” After examining court records and literary works, Morgan concluded that the Puritans, obsessed with converting their children, had “committed the very sin that they so often admonished themselves to avoid: they had allowed their children to usurp a higher place than God in their affections. . .
. When theology became the handmaid of genealogy, Puritanism no longer deserved its name” (Morgan, 185-86). Bernard Bailyn, in Education in the Forming of American Society: Needs and Opportunities for Study (1960), formulated a thesis that combined Franklin’s model and Morgan’s New England “tribalism” in a historical perspective that established a “social basis for perceived experience.” Bailyn presumed the well established English extended family style to be typical, and he believed the deficiencies in the Puritan families caused the colonial societies to develop a communal educational system.
In The World We Have Lost (1965), the English historian Peter Laslett demonstrated that the English families were typically nuclear; in 1963 Laslett had contributed to the discovery of the often “peripatetic” English family. George Langdon, in Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1691 (1966), found the Pilgrims to be significantly mobile (115-40). Students of Bernard Bailyn, John Demos and Philip J. Greven have contributed to the collapse of Bailyn’s thesis regarding colonial Puritan families.
Demos searched for evidence of patriarchy, but was unable to find anything, a result that contrasts with Philip Greven’s Andover, Massachusetts, where the will of the land-owning patriarch was predominant. Demos demonstrated that this extreme patriarchal family style was not necessarily typical, and he asserted that the family was necessarily and remarkably an all-purpose institution. The Plymouth society was significantly mobile, and the families hardly noticed relatives beyond the nuclear family. Demos shows that the Puritans’ major psychological difficulty was aggression: families “huddled together in a single heated room” projected repressed aggression on their neighbors, and thus the court records display cases of slander and violence. Puritan parents provided a tender environment for their infants during their first year, but at the time of weaning began their efforts to induce conversion from sinful willfulness through severe discipline. The child thus developed a shame neurosis that actually inhibited a conversion experience. Wall, Helena M.
“Notes on Life since A Little Commonwealth: Family Gender History since 1970. William and Mary Quarterly 57.4 (October 2000): 809-25.A Little Commonwealth, an innovative and provocative classic in American colonial history, originated as a graduate seminar paper, which became a William and Mary Quarterly article, developed as a potential Plimouth Plantation pamphlet, but grew to book-length manuscript published by Oxford UP in 1970. Continually in print, Demos’ book is now available in a thirtieth-anniversary edition with a new preface. In this preface, Demos emphasizes historiographical, conceptual, and methodological issues.
He combined historical demography, quantitative statistics, material culture, and social psychology. Influenced by the Annales school and the Cambridge population and social structure studies, he pioneered a new genre in historical studies, the new social history community studies, in which Philip Greven and Kenneth Lockridge also participated. A Little Commonwealth proved a watershed, after which gender history experienced a scholarly “population” explosion. Among these writers are Philip Greven, Barry Levy, Jan Lewis, Nancy Cott, Mary Beth Norton, Linda Kerber, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Cornelia Dayton, Suzanne Lebsock, and Daniel Blake Smith. Demos also influenced the historiographical trend toward diversity in regional and cultural focuses. The “new social history” focuses on the everyday life of the ordinary people. Demos, in A Little Commonwealth, examines the patterns of child rearing in Plymouth colony, not isolating the family, but “joining the family with the community at large” (182).
Demos considered his study of the family as only one piece in the history of Plymouth colony; the Plymouth family “joined to other institutions and other purposes in an intricate web of interconnections. . . . Family and community, private and public life, formed part of the same moral equation. The one supported the other, and they became in a sense indistinguishable” (186).
Indistinguishable in the intricate interaction, but not insignificant: Demos considered the family a dynamic, creative force in society. He points to his epigraph to underscore the complex interrelationship and significance of the family in Plymouth society. Demos applied Erik Erikson’s developmental stages in human development to the Puritan family, identifying a crucial issue for each stage and relating an insitutional principle, “law and order” (139). This framework organized the dynamics of family issues, character development, and Puritan social values. The Puritans were influenced by the Filmerian ideas. Demos was influenced by Peter Laslett and the Cambridge Group for the Study of Population and Social Structure, but Laslett studied the political theory of Sir Robert Filmer.
Note: Helena M. Wall was an undergraduate student of Demos in the 1970s. Waters, John. William and Mary Quarterly 27.
4 (October 1970): 657-62.The French prototype of the American “sixth section” insisted that social history be “rewritten from the bottom up” and incorporating the perspectives of social psychology, historical demography, and cultural anthropology. John Demos pioneered demographic historical studies of New England in “Notes on Plymouth Colony,” William and Mary Quarterly 22 (1965): 264-86. A “localist” focusing on the popular culture of New England, he revised the “high culture” focus of previous historians, preferring to study court records of family documents, land distribution records, tax rolls, estate inventories, and museum artifacts. Demos pursues Pilgrims’ perceptions, ideals, and hopes by studying non-narrative data such as vital statistics, property deeds, and settlement records.
Demos “has combined this data with his remarkable ability to listen to post and sieves and to evoke the living conditions in thosw crowded Puritan households.” He applied Erik Erikson’s “life cycles” model to his study of the Puritan family, which he found to display “essential continuity.” Demos’ most original contribution is his discussion of Puritan child-rearing practices and the traumatic character formation commencing during the second year and culminating in a “tight cluster of anxieties about aggression” (134-37). This study still requires “explication of the political, religious, and socio-economic provincial connections.”