Note: This is the third in four entries about Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. As I mentioned in the first post, since this is a large book (900+ pages) I did not want to write a single review. Instead I am writing about each of the four British American colonies Fischer examines. If you have not read his book, and are interested in the American Colonial Era, I highly recommend it. Click here to access all the posts in this series.
Many politicians — and Americans in general I suppose — love to tell the story of America’s beginning in a largely mythological manner. The myths tend to capitalize on two reoccurring themes: settlers came here in search of religious freedom and secondly, all Americans can ‘make it to the top’ through hard-work and determination. Although the story lines are effective in creating a sense of nationalism — overall, neither are historically true.
But, at least with the Quaker-led British American colony, one of those story lines is fairly accurate for one group of settlers. The Quakers did in fact lay the groundwork for a society built around the idea of religious freedom.
Where They Landed
Although Quakers came from all parts of England, most originated from the North Midlands region. By and large, they landed in present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware. In North America, they were barred, banned and persecuted by the leadership of both the New England Puritan and the Virginia colonies. Being a Quaker in either of these two colonies meant risking being literally branded with a hot iron — often to the face — or execution by hanging.
The hatred levied against them seems somewhat odd since they were pacifist Christians. But it was their inner light theology that caused the hatred. They believed a ‘still small voice’ existed in everyone and if a person listened to that voice they can be saved. Although in many churches today this idea is somewhat accepted, the approach was threatening to established churches of that era because it effectively bypassed the need for the clergy.
Another Christian principle the colony promoted was its acceptance of various religious and ethic groups. The colony was the most diverse of the four British American colonies.
Money. Since the Virginia Colony was a profit-driven business venture, leaders there eventually conquered Indians for their land, but the Quakers felt the more godly approach was to purchase the land (since it belonged to the Indians). It is in the division of this purchased land that best demonstrates how the Quakers viewed the role of material possessions in a society. Their leader, William Penn, who called the colony as a holy experiment, felt the distribution of land should accomplish two tasks:
- Provide a source of capital for the founding of the colony.
- Create a rural society of independent farming families without great extremes of wealth or poverty.
It was because of this approach that Penn was initially successful in creating the most equal society in the Colonial era. Tax lists from the late 1600s show that in Chester County, the wealthiest 10 percent owned less than one-fourth of all the land. For comparison, in the Virginia colony, the wealthiest 10 percent controlled two-thirds of the land.
It was also the Quakers that largely created the concept of charitable organizations to help the poor.
Recreation. Much like their neighbors to the south, the Quakers were opposed to sport-type activities – especially the sports favored by the New England colony (basically forerunners of baseball and football). Sports and other non-pragmatic activities were seen as a waste of time and their courts punished people who participated in any of the forbidden games. Like the Puritans to the north they were also opposed to horse racing or games associated with gambling.
But their strongest aversion was reserved for the blood sport games that were so prevalent to the south in the Virginia colonies. Although they believed killing game for food was justified, they believed no person had the right to take pleasure – or make a game of – the death of an animal. They were very opposed — and believed it was a sin — to participate in the blood sport of gander pulling — an activity popular among Virginia farmers.
This did not mean, though, that they felt all forms of recreation were evil, but they did tend to view pragmatic recreation as the most God-like choice. Because of this belief one of the most popular form of exercise and recreation was gardening. Because of the colony’s obsession with plants they produced a disproportionate number of botanists – and even produced some of England and America’s leading horticulturalists.
Sex. The Quakers’ belief in the purity of the inner light presented a vexing conundrum concerning sexual relations between a husband and wife. Like New England and Virginia, the Quakers had laws outlawing sex between unmarried partners or adultery. A Pennsylvania law of 1683 concerning fornication stated that both the single man and the single women should be punished by being required to get married, to be fined or to be whipped – or all three. The law was overthrown by England sometime after 1700 when the Crown ruled it was unreasonable.
The punishment for adultery was even more severe.
- 1st offense – a year in jail
- 2nd offense – life imprisonment
The law was later revised and those who somehow engaged in a third offense were branded on the forehead with the letter A.
Even in marriage, sex — unless engaged in for procreation — was often considered sinful. Because of the impurity many associated with sex, long periods of abstinence were commonplace in Quaker families. Homes often had separate beds and rooms for the husband and wife. Some couples went so far as to believe that engaging in sex without the intent of propagation was an act of fornication or lust.
One of the unintended byproducts of this approach to marital sex was instituting population control through what amounted to a form of birth control.