July 10, 2021 Reading Time: 12 minutes

I recently enjoyed enough leisure to peruse the 1825 James Savage edition of The History of New England from 1630 to 1649 by John Winthrop, the on and off again governor of the corporation/plantation/colony that eventually became Massachusetts. In the tome’s dark depths, I discovered the trailhead of the path of paternalism that wended through history to the “commonwealth” derisively termed Taxachusetts and, more recently, Maskachusetts.

In short, Winthrop and the rest of the ruling Puritan theocrats believed in ‘liberty for me, but not for thee.’

An event in October 1638 exposed their policy hypocrisy. The ruling “court,” led by Winthrop, perceived “great disorder … through the country” due to the “costliness of apparel, and following new fashions.” Cognizant that earlier efforts to ban “costly apparel, and immodest fashions” (140, 143) had failed, the court “sent for the elders of the churches” and told them to fix the problem, “which they promised to do.” But “little was done about it” because “divers of the elders’ wives, &c. [etc.] were in some measure partners in this general disorder” (275).

As the frontispiece of his history showed, Winthrop himself wore a neck ruff, an expensive and fashionable accessory about as useful as the modern necktie. The difference was that Winthrop considered himself a man of substance, and indeed he was one. His letters frequently mention transactions in the hundreds of pounds sterling (£) and the £1,200 he claimed to have expended on behalf of the colony during his various terms in office was a fortune, and not a particularly small one, for the time (396). Winthrop could therefore do as he liked, but woe to the inferior sorts he ruled should they dare cross him.

Early Warning Signs

Winthrop and the other elders, you see, knew better than everyone else about, well, just about everything. It started on the voyage to the New World from Merry Old England, when rulers forced a servant to stand with a basket of stones about his neck for two hours because he exchanged a box worth three pence (There were 12 pence [d.] in a shilling [s.] and 20 shillings in £1, so £.0125.) for three biscuits a day throughout the voyage. This seemed unequal to them, though perhaps the counterparty, a child, liked the box more than the hardtack, which the servant simply sold to others on board who preferred extra calories over extra pocket change (18). Apparently, only a scoundrel would dare to make others happy through voluntary exchange during a long, miserable voyage.

The problem was not with striking a bargain with a child, the problem was that the servant struck what Winthrop considered a hard bargain. That is shown by the early efforts to set price and wage ceilings throughout the colony. Early on, when wealthy and powerful men like Winthrop were getting their houses built, came the decree “that carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, sawyers and thatchers, take no more than two shillings a day, under pain of ten shillings to giver and taker” (30). Note that the “pain” inflicted on both seller and buyer implies the government’s attempt to override mutually agreeable trades, not to reduce market power or redress an unbalanced power relationship. 

Such controls remained in place to varying degrees throughout the colonial and Revolutionary periods (31 n. 3). One was promulgated in 1633 explicitly in response to a “scarcity of workmen,” who had the unmitigated gall to respond to increases in their real wages by working fewer days per week and increasing their consumption of “tobacco and strong waters.” The former meant they “spent much time idly,” which of course led to sinful behaviors, and the latter “was a great waste to the commonwealth” for reasons unexplained but likely tied to the kooky mercantilist national accounting in vogue then, and for the next two centuries (116). 

Mercantilist thinking also led to an order “that all stocks employed in fishing should be free from publick charge for seven years. This was not done to encourage foreigners to set up fishing among us, (for all the gains would be returned to the place where they dwelt,) but to encourage our own people to set upon it” (307) and thus free themselves “from that oppression, which the seamen and others held us under” (173), again through the awful mechanism of voluntary exchange. 

Keaine’s Case

Lest my criticism be judged too harsh because I berate the economically ignorant, keep in mind that Winthrop and other early rulers understood quite a bit about economics because they were all businessmen of one sort of another, even the ministers. Consider the case of Robert Keaine, “who kept a shop in Boston” (313) and was accused of charging his customers too much. Keaine appealed his £200 fine and found much sympathy amongst his fellow businessmen, who all had struck bargains for “cattle, corn, labour … of the like excess in prices” (316). 

Specifically, Keaine had taken “above six-pence in the shilling profit” (i.e., above 50 percent markup [315]), although since 1633 it has been illegal to take more than four pence in the shilling (i.e., a markup of 33.33 percent [116]). It seems almost everyone had convinced themselves that the regulations were true profit caps, not price caps, meaning that if a trader lost on one deal he could lawfully and morally “help himself in the price of another” (316). 

Keaine’s fine was accordingly reduced to £100 but the entire community was subjected to a lecture by Minister John Cotton, who explained that it was unlawful and immoral to charge more than the market price for anything, ever (317). Left unexplained by Cotton was why any buyer would ever consent to pay more than the market price if market prices were as cheaply observable as he presumed. He also failed to explain how a seller could be faulted for charging more than the market price if market prices were not cheaply observable.

Tellingly, Cotton argued against excommunicating Keaine from the church despite his evil practices because “he is otherwise liberal, as in his hospitality, and in church communion, &c.” (emphasis added, 317). While Cotton’s understanding of price theory left much to be desired, he knew who was literally buttering his bread and was content merely making Keaine cry for forgiveness in public.

Cotton’s understanding of other economic concepts was better. He sounded much like Adam Smith (WoN, Book 5, ch. 1, part 3, art. 3 “Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Instruction of People of all Ages”) when he argued “that the ministers’ maintenance should be by voluntary contribution, not by lands or revenues, or tithes, &c.; for these have always been accompanied with pride, contention and sloth, &c.” (295). 

In another instance, Cotton revealed an understanding of Pareto improvement to end a dispute over the location of a new church, which some wanted near the green and others near the market. Cotton “cleared it up to them, that the removing it to the green would be a damage to such as dwelt by the market, who had there purchased and built at great charge, but it would be no damage to the rest to have it by the market” (318). Or maybe Cotton simply stood to benefit from the market location?

Self-Interested Economic Policies

Self-interest definitely colored the economic judgements of the early rulers of the Bay Colony. At one point, they actually tried to justify an order mandating the purchase of goods by just one person from each town by claiming that it would prevent “the loss of time, and drunkenness, which sometimes happened, by people’s running to the ships, and the excessive prices of commodities” (161). They backed away from the regulation, though, because “most of the people would not buy, except they might buy for themselves,” suggesting that the rulers eventually realized that individuals were somehow better able to obtain superior quality-adjusted prices for themselves than government-appointed flunkies could do on their behalf.

When “many men began to inquire after the southern parts; and the great advantages supposed to be had in Virginia and the West Indies, &c. made this country to be disesteemed of many,” the colony’s rulers evinced no sense of the terms of trade or comparative advantage, retorting “yet those countries (for all their great wealth) have sent hither, both this year and formerly, for supply of clothes and other necessaries” (331).

The leaders had tried to stop an earlier exodus back to England by promulgating an order “that no planter within the limits of this jurisdiction, returning for England, shall carry either money or beaver with him, without leave from the governour (for the time being) under pain of forfeiting the money or beaver so intended to be transported” (71 n.1). That showed that the rulers failed to link the exodus to their inability to establish the Rule of Law, although they eventually did recognize that “the people had long desired a body of laws, and thought their condition very unsafe, while so much power rested in the discretion of magistrates” (322). The underlying problem was not that some people thought they would be better off economically further south, it was that the colony’s theocratic elite was always right about everything, as petty tyrants always are.

The Dudley Debacle

When Winthrop called his deputy governor Thomas Dudley to account for “some bargains he had made with some poor men, members of the same congregation, to whom he had sold seven bushels and an half of corn to receive ten for it after harvest,” Dudley fought back, arguing that his dealings were not “oppressing usury” because they involved agricultural goods, not money (73). Winthrop conceded and Savage believed Dudley in the right as well because a usury law passed in 1783 exempted dealings between farmers on the basis of hoary (ancient) precedent (73 n. 2). 

Winthrop also complained about the “adorning” of the deputy governor’s home until Dudley explained “that it was for the warmth of his house, and the charge was little, being but clapboards nailed to the wall” (73).

Rulers allowed colonists to air their views in public court but not with the goal of forging understanding, only to lecture them about their errors. Although wealthy elites like Dudley and Keaine proved they could protect themselves to some extent, the poor and powerless suffered horribly. 

Punishment and Persecution

The court browbeat accused parties until they relented and confessed their alleged crimes, often in tears. Those who refused contrition were fined, confined, disfranchised, reeducated, tortured, banished/excommunicated, or sentenced to death. On several occasions their houses were burned to dissuade their return. (Only under such a system do the infamous witch trials held later in the century make some sense.)

Of course some criminals may have merited punishment. Robert Cole, for instance, had to wear a red letter D on his chest for a year like a real-life drunken version of Hester Prynne (125). Many colonists, though, offended only over doctrinal matters, like whether babies should be dipped or sprinkled when baptized (330). To question accepted opinion on such matters was counted as rank heresy. Followers of popular religious reformer and “Free Grace” antinomian Anne Hutchinson were so obviously insane that the court felt it necessary to strip them of their firearms (246-48).

Other colonists appear to have been persecuted for their political views. In 1631, for example, the court whipped and banished Henry Linne “for writing letters into England full of slander against our government and orders of our churches” (61). Linne and other critics of the regime, though, had ample cause to question their rulers.

Grinding the Faces of the Poor

Many early ordinances had unintended or untoward consequences, especially for the poor. In 1631, “corn” (grain) from England was dear, with a bushel of wheat meal going for 14 shillings (46). (The next year the same sold for only 4s. 6d. [73].) Undernourished, many poor Bostonians died of scurvy until a ship laden with lemons finally appeared (45). During the famine, the court decreed “that no man should discharge a piece after sunset, except by occasion of alarm” (54) despite the fact that many “of the poorer sort of people” (44) hunted deer at night, because it was easier and cheaper to do so than during the day. All the court did, in other words, was to make a bad situation worse.

The excuse for the no night shooting order was that Indians attacked at night and people had to know whether to respond or not. Per an earlier order, colonists were allowed to keep their militia service muskets loaded “for defence of their houses” but not at other times, “upon such penalty as the court shall think meet to inflict,” because one time somebody struck three bystanders with shot from an accidental discharge, an overzealous response especially given that “they all recovered” (80-81). The order hurt the poor because the only way to unload a loaded musket was to fire it, thus wasting the powder and some or all of the shot.

The court was quick to solve other non-problems as well. After some residents allowed their hogs to eat some Indian corn at harvest, the court perceived a “scarcity of corn” and quickly passed two rules in response: “1. That no man shall give his swine any corn, but such as, being viewed by two or three neighbours, shall be judged unfit for man’s meat. 2. Also, that every plantation shall agree how many swine every person may keep, winter and summer, about the plantation; this order to take place ten days hence” (108 n. 1). Tellingly, common colonists, scoundrels that they were, “lived well with fish and the fruit of their gardens,” apparently preferring those foods, and fat pork, to the government’s righteous cornbread (108 n. 1).

Similarly, rulers forbid the colonists to sell firearms to Indians, on penalty of being branded on the cheek and whipped (88). All that policy did, though, was to induce the natives to raid for them instead, and of course they most often went after the poor folks living in frontier settlements (63).

American Indian Affairs

The early colony’s relationship with American Indians was complex. Far from the homogeneous mass of rustic rubes they are sometimes made out to be, Indians were sophisticated traders with their own medium of exchange, a commodity money called wampum made from the white and blue parts of clamshells (112). Some American Indian tribes or bands engaged exclusively in raid and were subject to counterraids that sometimes generated considerable booty for the colonists, including Indians sold into the Atlantic slave trade (233-34). Other bands only engaged in trade (111), while others approached each encounter as an opportunity for either activity depending on the circumstances (89, 112).

Interestingly, some bands paid tribute to Winthrop and the court in return for military and police protection (147-48, 267, 303). In 1631, for example, the court ordered Josias Plaistowe to return twice the amount of corn that he and two of his servants stole from a tributary chief. They also whipped his servants and fined Plaistowe £5 and ordered that he “be degraded from the title of a gentleman” (61), a seventeenth century version of cancel culture. Similarly, the death of a “wicked fellow” named Walter Bagnall was allowed to go unavenged because he “had much wronged the Indians,” apparently by charging them too much for goods or not paying them enough for their beaver skins (63).

Two other groups were also victims of the Bay Colony’s policy hypocrisy, indentured servants and chattel slaves. At least two servants killed themselves, one by drowning and one by hanging, because they had signed up for long terms before realizing that they “might have had greater wages” had they “been at liberty” (106). Sadly, money sufficient to redeem the servant who hung himself arrived just hours too late (181-82).

Chattel slaves from Africa seized by British privateers from “the Spaniard” arrived for sale in Massachusetts as early as 1637/8 (254). Slaves never came to be more than three percent of the population, though, and Massachusetts effectively abolished chattel slavery in 1783. It did not formally abolish slavery until 1865, however, and if you could ask Henry David Thoreau he would say that its famed antebellum abolitionists were not nearly zealous enough in their opposition to the operation of the Fugitive Slave Act within the “commonwealth.”

Fiscal and Monetary Policies

All that great “governing” was of course expensive so the colonial government was often flat broke (169). The court eventually ordered a levy of £60, £8 of which fell on Watertown, the residents of which resisted on the grounds that the precedent would bring “themselves and posterity into bondage” (70). Winthrop explained that the ruling court had full authority to tax, as it was more like a parliament than a “mayor and alderman” (70). Interestingly, editor James Savage, a banker writing during the Early Republic, thought the “gentlemen of Watertown” were right to protest and should not have made “such an extraordinary surrender of power” (70-71 n.1).

Several later attempts to curb the court’s power, Winthrop et al beat back with nice explanations about how necessary it was for them to make decisions without consulting the people because “when the patent was granted, the number of freemen was supposed to be (as in like corporations) so few, as they might well join in making laws; but now they were grown to so great a body, as it was not possible for them to make or execute laws, but they must choose others for that purpose” (128). 

The colony’s growth, in other words, was a veritable emergency, an epidemic of people requiring that absolute power be granted to the governor and other elites. There were no other options, like leaving people at liberty, because that would lead to wrong behaviors and false doctrines. Matters could be much worse, Winthrop advised. Without proper leadership, the King might send over “a general governour” of his own choosing and put the colony “under a common reproach of cutting one another’s throats for beaver” (131).

To stave off further challenges to their power, the colony’s ruling elite raised the needful by “farming” the beaver, wampum, and general Indian trades, meaning that it sold monopoly rights to the trade in exchange for an upfront lump sum or a fixed annuity payment (193, 196).

It was not until almost the turn of the century, however, that Winthrop’s successors in office began to endanger the entire colonial economy by issuing fiat paper money called bills of credit (For details, see Leslie Brock, The Currencies of the American Colonies, 1700-1764: A Study in Colonial Finance and Imperial Relations [New York: Anro Press, 1975], 18). In Winthrop’s time, the government only fiddled with coin ratings, the wampum exchange rate, and the regulation of farthings, of which there were four to a pence (and hence 960 in £1). In 1634, for example, the Dudley administration outlawed brass farthings and made musket bullets tender for a farthing (156). The reason for the ordinance is unclear but perhaps Dudley owned a bunch of musket bullets that he couldn’t unload for a farthing apiece.

Mass Migration from Mass.

Although the population of Massachusetts continued to grow from both immigration and natural increase, large numbers of people left the colony/state beginning, as noted above, in its earliest days. People continue to come and go due to its overbearing government and paternalist social system, but also its sometimes overregulated and overtaxed, and hence sclerotic, economy.

In 2020, more people moved out of Massachusetts than moved in, and it ranked tenth worst overall for net out-migration. Many of those who fled cited work or retirement, both of which were of course directly related to the state’s economic lockdown, school closures, and mandatory masking policies, which lasted until May 2021 and included solitary people exercising outdoors. Massachusetts residents have been fleeing the state for generations, though, invading almost every other state in the Union and infecting them, especially New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, with their “Yankeedom” Puritanical paternalism in the process. 

One cannot lay all of the blame for high taxes, silly regulations, and the Covid policy catastrophes of 2020-21 at the feet of John Winthrop and other Puritans but the concept of path dependence suggests that their role was larger than one might at first suspect. Unfortunately, tearing down the statues of leading Puritans or calling them bad names will not erase their influence on the way that millions of Americans think, which remains ‘liberty for me, but not for thee.’

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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