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Colonial America Book Notes

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Essay title: Colonial America Book Notes

Colonial America BookNotes

John Putnam Demos


A Little Commonwealth:

Family Life in Plymouth Colony

NY: 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.)


"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. 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)



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

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