QUESTION: I was watching the old movie “The Scarlet Letter,” set in the time of the Pilgrims, and wondered what were the laws like back then?

ANSWER: Pilgrims, from the start, embraced a form of democratic government and recognized basic rights, including the right to a trial by jury, the right to bail, and the right to be free of unlawful search and seizure — but these rights did not extend to everyone. The Pilgrim’s progressive ideas of self-governance and justice differed starkly from our current views, especially in the areas of crime and punishment.

 When the Pilgrims arrived in what would later become Plymouth, Massachusetts in November 1620, one of their first acts was to create an outline of the laws they would follow. Later called the “Mayflower Compact,” this early document recognized the idea of self-government and democracy, binding all the signers together into a “Civil Body Politic” for the purpose of passing “just and equal laws … for the general good of the colony.” In November 1621, when the first Thanksgiving was held, the colonists had established a method for governing the colony, and had already held their first election, choosing a governor.

Just 15 years later, in 1636, the colonists had established a court system, a system of representative government and recognized the right to vote (although limited to freemen, a status that was not granted to women, servants, or indigenous people), methods for enacting laws, an outline of the governmental structure, the duties of the officers of the colony, and a bill of rights which recognized the right to trial by jury. The colonists also established a penal code.

And here’s where the group’s reputation for harsh and inflexible laws — as depicted in the “Scarlet Letter” — originated. The Pilgrims believed that the government should enforce religious beliefs. In fact, the laws of the early colonists often punished heresy and acts of ungodliness more harshly than violations of property! The death penalty was established for treason, murder, witchcraft, arson, sodomy, rape, bestiality, adultery and “cursing or smiting one’s parents.”

Punishments for seemingly innocent behavior or minor infractions could be painful. Whisperers, scolds and liars might have their tongues pinched with a cleft stick. Heresy, which could involve questioning in any way the literal truth of the Bible, could be punished by a public whipping with a knotted cord, coupled with having the letter H for Heresy branded into the skin with a red-hot iron.

The Pilgrims were also big proponents of public shaming: A person who interrupted a preacher might not only be fined, but could be forced to stand on a public block wearing a sign identifying them as a “WANTON GOSPELLER.” Both women and men could be required to wear a scarlet A for Adultery, a D for Drunkenness, or a B for Blasphemy, a punishment often coupled with standing on a block. Failing to attend church, and working or traveling on a Sunday could be punished by a fine — or more.

Being placed in the stocks, or in a device called a bilboe — a sort of handcuff for the feet — were also common punishments.

However, punishments for some sexual offenses were reduced depending on the offenders’ marital status or intentions. The fine for a couple engaging in “fornication” was cut in half if the couple were already engaged, and terms of imprisonment could be waived. A single man who fornicated with a woman to whom he was not contracted for marriage could not only be fined and imprisoned, but also whipped.

This Thanksgiving, we can be grateful to the Pilgrims for helping sow the ideas that would later grow into our Constitution and Bill of Rights — and be equally thankful that their penal laws are a thing of the past!

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By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
901 Wilshire Drive, Suite 550
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 247-3300
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