Masters & Servants
From The Puritan Family
By Edmond S. Morgan 1944
Part 1 of 2
Transcribed By Janice Farnsworth
Chapter 5 p.109 Most of the inhabitants of seventeenth century New Eng- land were or had been "servants." Today the word "ser- vant" usually means a domestic: the cook, the butler, the chambermaid.
In the seventeenth century it meant anyone who worked for another in whatever capacity, in industry, commerce or agriculture, as well as in what we now call domestic economy. For example, Henry Dispaw and his son were known in Lynn, Massachusetts, as the servants of John Gifford, because they ran an iron foundry for him there. They were nevertheless among the richest people in town, for their wages amounted to f 35 per year apiece, besides their lodgings. 1 Essex Court Records, VI, 80-82. On the other hand, Negro and Indian slaves were also known as servants, and so were apprentices. Servants, then, might differ considerably in their economic and social status.
The differed also in serving either voluntarily or invol- untarily. Most servants in New England were voluntary; they had agreed of their own free will to serve someone else, usually for a sum of money. It required capital to set up in business or trade for oneself, and the eas- iest way of acquiring capital, apart from stealing, was to work for wages as a "hired servant." Another reason which led perhaps to a majority of the population into servitude in their youth, was the need for education; a child might agree, with the consent and guidance of parents, to work as an apprentice for seven years or more in order to learn some trade. Still another reason for becoming a servant was to get across the ocean. A man who wished to come to New England but who had no money to pay for passage might agree to serve a master for seven years in return for the cost of the voyage. He thereby became an "indentured" or "covenant" servant. Voluntary servants might be hired, apprenticed, or in- dentured.
Involuntary servants worked for a master as punish- ment for wrongdoing. The Puritans punished several kinds of delinquency in this way. The first kind was making war - on the wrong side. Prisoners taken in a just war, it was held, had forfeited their own lives by their attempt to take the lives of others; their punishment must be either death or slavery. On this ground the Puritans enslaved the Indians whom they captured in the Pequot War and in King Philip's War. Man of these Ind- ians were sold in the West Indies and in return brought back Negroes (captured, presumably, in equal just wars), for Negroes were more docile than Pequots or Mohawks or Narragansetts. 3 For Puritan views on slavery see Willard, Compleat Body of Divinity, p. 614; George H. Moore, Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts (New York, 1866) pp 1-10, 32, 251-256. Cf. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge, 1964, pp. 301-303.
Irishmen and Scotsmen taken by Cromwell's armies were likewise shipped to New England by enterprising dealers, there to expiate the resistance of their nations at Dublin and Dunbar. 4. Peter Ross, The Scot in America (New York 1896) pp 48-49.
The Irish and Scots, however, must have been thought less cuplable than the Indians or the Negroes, for they seem to have served not for life but only for a few years. A bill of sale, dated May 10, 1654, states that George Dell, master of the ship Goodfellow, sold to Samuel Symonds for the sum of twenty-six pounds "two of the Irish youthes I brought over by order of the State of England." They were to serve for nine years. Another paper indicates that Dell, doubtless out of mag- nanimity to Symonds, later extended the time to eleven years. 5. Essex Court Records, II, 295.
The Puritans did not, however, uphold the slavery of all captives. Kidnapers who supplied the Barbadoes and other colonies with servants were less successful in New Eng- land. The Body of Liberties provided that "there shall never be any bond-slavery, villenage or captivate amongst us; unlesse it be lawfull captives, taken in just warrs, and such strangers 6. (this word was omitted in the 1660 and 1672 editions of the Massachusetts codebook. George H. Moore claims that the ommission was made deliberatly in order that the children of slaves might be retained in the same status as their parents. See Notes on the History of Slavery, pp 10-30.) as willingly sell them- selves or are solde to us." 7. Massachusetts Laws of 1648 p. 4.
In accordance with this provision Robert Collins who had been kidnaped and brought to New England in 1672, was upheld by the Suffolk County Court when he refused to serve the man who brought him. 8 Suffolk Court Records, pp 18-20, 43-44. See also the case in which Capt. Smith and Mr. Keser were punished for stealing Negroes in Africa and the Negroes ordered to be returned (John Winthrop The History of New England, II, 243-245 and Appendix M). Slaves were comparatively few in New England homes in the seventeenth century, though the number increased rapidly in the eighteenth. 9. Governor Bradstreet's letter to the Lords of Trade, May 18, 1680 (Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, third series, VIII, 337) reported few salves in Massachusetts, but by 1754 they numbered 4,489 (J.B. Felt, "Statistics of Population in Massachusetts," American Statistical Association Collec- tions, I, 208).
Misdeeds less vicious than that of choosing the wrong side in a war were also occasionally punished by servi- tude. When a man stole from, or otherwise damaged an- other and could not make restitution in cash, he might be sold for a number of years to pay the bill. 10. E.G., Suffolk Court Records, pp 631, 886, 1014, 1015, 1066.
The Courts frequently made him restore double or triple the value of the damage as punishment (the law called for triple restitution). For example: when Owen Jones was convicted "of stealing a rugg and a coate from Phillip Keane valued at twenty six Shillings," the court ordered that he make threefold restitution and "in case hee make not Satisfaction accordingly that hee bee Sold"; ll. Suffolk Court Records, p. 631.
Benjamin Barker, who obtained three pounds from Mrs. Lydia Scottow under false pretences, was sentenced to be sold for a period of not more than four years in order to pay her six pounds as double restition; 12. Ibid., p. 886. and when Henry Stevens, a servant of Mr. John Humphrey set fire to his master's barn, he was ordered to bee servant to Mr. Humphrey for 21 years from this day, to- ward recompencing the losse."13. Massachusetts Records, I, 311. Another kind of damage which could be restored by servitude was debt. According to New England laws, when a man could not pay his debts, the creditor could exact his due (but not double or triple his due) in service. The Essex County Court Records contain copies of several executions delivering debtors to their creditors as servants. 14. Essex Court Records, VI, 393 394, 395; VII, 324-325; VIII, 441.
Obviously these various types of servants worked for their masters on different terms. A hired servant, for example, enjoyed many more advantages than a slave. 15. (doubtless many hired servants worked for their master by day but returned to a home of their own at night. These need not concern us, for they were not members of their master's family, nor were they under his "family government." Yet religion, which guided all human re- lations in the seventeenth century New England, made no distinction between servants. When the Puritan God gave his approbation to servitude, he gave "necessary Rules prescribing and limiting Duties belonging to this Relation," 16. Willard, Compleat Body of Divinity, p. 614. and in those rules he did not assign different duties to differ- ent servants. To all alike he (God) commanded three things: obedience, faithfulness, and reverence, so that in theory all servants had the same duties and bore the same relationship to their masters.
The Puritan ministers never tired of inculcating obed- ience. It made no difference, they said, whether the master was kind or unkind, harsh or lenient; his servants must obey every command, "because the primary ground of this duty is not the merit of Masters but the ordinance of God."17.William Ames, Conscience, p. 160.
Benjamin Wadsworth advised servants that "when your Master or Mistress bids you do this or that, Christ bids you do it, because he bids you obey them; therefore do what's bidden, out of obedience to Christ, as to him and for him." 18 Wadsworth, Well-Ordered Family p. 115. Faithfulness was equally important. Since a servant was employed in his master's interests, not his own, he must consider his master's welfare in every action. Whether he was carrying out a specific command or following his own discretion, he must ask himself, "Which way may my Master become the better for me?" 19. Cotton Mather, A good Master well Served (Boston, 1696, p.46) The remaining duty, reverence, naturally induced obedience and failthfulness. The reverence of a servant was supp- osed to surpass that of wives and children in containing a greater element of fear. All inferiors were expected to fear their superiors, but as Rev. Samuel Willard put it, "this Fear is diversified according to the Nature of the Relation which they stand in; the Apostle there- fore here subjoyns trembling, to express the kind of Fear belonging to Men in this Order, implying a sense of their Subjection, and the Power their Masters have over them. 20. Willard, Compleat Body of Divinity, p. 616.
Servants who feared their masters with a holy fear and tremblin would never dare disobey them or betray their interests. The Puritans did not rely on reverence alone, however, to secure the obedience and faithfulness of servants. Since corrupt human nature inevitably tended agains the fulfillment of these duties, the courts were kept busy asserting and enforcing them, for the courts never failed to support the dectates of religion. The first code of laws in Massachusetts, printed in 1648, made these regulations:
"1. It is ordered by this Court and the Authoritie therof, that no servant, either man or maid shall ever give, sell or truck any commoditie whatsoever without license from their Masters, during the time of their service under pain of Fine, or corporal punishment at the discretion of the Court as the offence shall deserve.
2. And that all workmen shall work the whole day allow- ing convenient time for food and rest.
3. It is ordered that when any servants shall run from their masters, or any other Inhabitants shall privily goe away with suspicion of ill intentions, it shall be law- full for the next Magistrate, or the Constable and two of the chief Inhabitants where no Magistrate is to presse men and boats or pinaces at the publick charge to pursue such persons by Sea or Land and bring them back by force of Arms." 21. Massachusetts Laws of 1648, p. 38.
p.114 Other laws forbade tavern keepers to entertain servants and shipmasters to take them onboard. 22. Massachusetts Laws of 1672 pp 27, 281. The courts went beyond the laws. They punished not only the servants who neglect- ed their duties but also the persons who encouraged servants to do so. 23. E.g., Essex Court Records, VIII 12; IV, 151, 170. and they demanded that masters be given respect as well as obedience. James Morgan was admonished "for his abusive words and carriages to his master," 24. Suffolk Court Records, p. 631. while Elizabeth Iago of Newbury was presented by the grand jury simply "for wishing that the devil had Mary Lad and all the company, in which company was her master." 25. Essex Court Records, VI, 138.
Legislative and judicail action thus gave official support to the authority which masters excercised over their servants. It was not necessary, however, for a master to seek assistance from the government whenever his servants proved unruly, for he himself had the right to chastise any servant who refused to obey his commands both faithfully and reverently.
The life of a servant, therefore, whether he served voluntarily or involuntarily, was anything but pleasant. He must do nothing without his master's consent or comm- and. He must work the whole day at whatever task his master assigned him and even at night he could not count his time as his own. He must be at beck and call during every hour of the twenty-four. If he did his duty, he could have no time for private life, except what his master out of pure magnamity might allow him. And masters who were trying to build a home and earn a liv- ing in the wilderness were not likely to be magnanimous. If the servant were undutiful and tried to steal time for private affairs, he faced punishment, either by his master or by the state. His condition would have been all but insupportable if it had not been mitigated by a number of factors; by the limitations which religion and law placed upon the master's authority, by the comp- ensation which a servant could demand for his services, by the practical power which a servant might weild (as opposed to his theoretical helplessness) to gain some time for himself, and lastly by the fact that most servants could regard their condition as temporary.
God, according to the Puritans, gave masters authority in order that they might use it "in furthering their Servants in a blameless behaviour; and in restraining them from Sin." 26. Wadsworth, Well-Ordered Family, p. 106. Like all authority, a master's was limited and defined by the laws of God. He could not rightfully command of his servants any evil action. If he did, "they must humbly refuse; for both their Masters and they are God's Servants, and they must not disobey Him to please Men." 27. Willard, Compleat Body of Divinity, p.616.
Furthermore, the courts would punish a wicked master just as they punished an undutiful servant. For example, if a master took advantage of his position to force unwanted attentions on a maidservant, he received severe punish- ment. John Harris and his son Joseph were both whipped twenty stripes and imprisoned when John's maid complain- ed to the Middlesex County Court that they had made forcible attempts against her chastity. 28. Middlesex Files, folder 94, group 3.
Because of a master's power to intimidate a servant, the courts seem generally to have favored the servant in cases of this kind. The Middlesex County Court did so when Sarah Lepingwell complained that Thomas Hawes, her master's brother, had violated her, and that she had forborne to call for help because she "was posesed with fear of my master least my master shold think I did it only to bring a scandall on his brother and thinking thay wold all beare witnes agaynst me." Sarah was right in fearing that the rest of the family would bear witness against her; yet, in spite of their testimony, Hawes was found guilty.29. Middlesex Files, folder 47, group 3.
p.116 Even when a master's commands were righteous, he could not enforce them by cruel methods. With servants as with children the Puritans discountenanced harshness where softer means would avail. As Willard put it, "Extreme Rigour here is extream wrong...we are not to make Asses of our Servants, whilst they may be treated as Men." 30. Willard, Compleat Body of Divinity, p. 615.
Cotton Mather pointed out that the punishment of a dis- obedient servant should be so "moderated with Humanity that he may not be thereby Killed, or Maimed; Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth, and Life for Life, will be de- manded, by the Righteous God, the Judge of the Creepled Servant." 31. Cotton Mather, A Good Master well Served, p.16.
And before God demanded justice, the courts might do so. When Philip Fowler was presented to the Essex County Court for abusing his servant, the court affirmed that they "justified any person in giving meet correction to his servant, which the boy deserved, yet they did not approve of the manner of punishment given in hanging him up by the heels as butchers do beasts for the slaughter, and cautioned said Fowler against such kind of punish- ment." 32. Essex Court Records, VIII 302-303.
If a master's punishments maimed or disfigured his ser- vants, the law required that they be set free and many servants were set free when they proved that their masters had beaten them excessively. For example, in December 1640 the General Court of Massachusetts de- clared that "Samuel Hefford haveing bene much misused by his master, Jonathan Wade, hee is freed from the said Mr. Wade, and is put to John Johnson for three yeares and to have f6 wages per annum." 33. Massachusetts Records I, 311.
Sometimes masters were themselves punished for abusing their servants. Edward Messenger was sentenced to be severely whipped "for his unmercifullnes towards his Servant and lying to extenuet his fault." 34. Records of the Particular Court of Connecticut, in CT Historical Society Collections, XXII, 119.
And, Nathaniel Wells was fined simply for "abusive speeches to his servants." The words he used were comparatively mild: "old rogue, old withc and old wizard." 35 Essex Court Records, V, 232.
p.117 All servants shared this right to decent treatment, just as all shared the duties of obedience, faithfulness and reverence. They differed, however, in the rewards re- ceived for their services. A master was required to give a certain basic minimum to all, but beyond that, as al- ready observed, he gave different kinds of compensation to different kinds of servants. The minimum was care for the servant's bodily existence and spiritual welfare. It was a master's duty to provide food, clothing and shelter, (though hired servants usually paid for these out of their wages), and the courts saw to it that he did. For example, in May 1685 Benjamin Mills was ordered to appear at the Middlesex Court to answer for the fact that his Indian boy was not sufficiently clothes. 36. Middlesex Files, folder 114, group 1.
Bodily necessities included, besides food, clothing, shelter, care in sickness. When Hugh March's master failed to take proper care of him during an illness, Hugh's father took him home and later recovered twenty pounds damages from the master. 37. Essex Court Records, V, 417-419.
Much more important than bodily health, however, was spiritual health. A master was expected to take as much care of his servant's souls as he did of his child- ren's. "Do This for your Servants," Cotton Mather urged, "Leave them not Unacquainted with, and Uncatechised in, the Principles of Religion. Let your Servants be able to say of you, as in Math. 22.16. Master, Thou Teachest the Way of God, in Truth; and let them not be Ignorant of any Saving Truth. Again Do This for your Servants; Enquire critically into their Spiritual Estate before God. Be prudently Inquisitive into their Experiences, into their Temptations, into their Behaviors. Further, Do This for your Servants; Reprove every Miscarriage that may be Discerned in the. Show them all the Paths of the Dest- royer, whereto they may be Inclining, and Lovingly, Sol- emnly, Scripturally Chide them out of those Paths." 38. Cotton Mather, A Good Master well Served. pp 17-18.
Every householder, being "a sort of priest in his family," was bound to seek the salvation of the souls under his charge, the souls of servants as well as of children. According to Willard, "All the Members in a Family are therein equal, in that they have Souls equally capable of being saved or lost: And the Soul of a Slave is, in its nature, of as much worth, as the Soul of his Master." 39. Willard, Compleat Body of Divinity, p. 616. The Puritan churches expressed their concurrence with Willard on this point, showing no discrimination between master and servant in admissions to the church. Samuel Sewell recorded on December 16, 1711, "Four persons were taken into the church. Mrs. Frances Bromfield and Marshal's Negro woman, two of them. Their relations very accept- able." 40. Samuel Sewall, "Diary," II, 329. And Cotton Mather was proud to write in his diary on April 21, 1700:
"This day, my Servant, was offered unto the Communion of my Church. But in the Account that she gave to the Church of her Conversion, she Declared her living in my family to have been the Means of it, and that she should for- ever bless God for bringing her under my Roof. Others of my Servants formerly (and almost all that ever lived with me,) have joined unto my Church, while they have lived with mee; and blessed God for their Living in my poor sinful Family." 41. Cotton Mather, "Diary," I 346- 347.
The civil government protected the spiritual welfare of servants by commanding masters to catechise them. It also forbade work on the Sabbath, required that all per- sons attend church, and sometimes even held masters re- sponsible for the attendance of their servants. Walter Fearffield was admonished in 1673 "for detaining or in not requiring his servant John Besoon to attend the public worship of God on the Lord's day." 42. Essex Court Records, V, 221.
The compensation which a servant received beyond the care of his soul and body depended upon what type of servant he was. A slave of course, received nothing more. Neither did a servant who served for debt or for a crime. An indentured servant, however, might expect a set of tools and a suit of clothing at the end of his term. Such was the meaning of the General Court of Massachusetts when it provided that, "all servants that have served diligently and faithfully to the benefit of their Masters seven years shall not be sent away empty." 43. Massachusetts Laws of 1648, p. 39.
Those who got most for their efforts were hired servants and apprentices. The hired servant not only received additional compensation in the form of wages, but he en- joyed a higher rate of compensation than other servants. Wheras an indentured servant worked for seven years to repay a service worth only six pounds (the usual fare for passage to America), 44. George L. Beer, The Origins of the British Colonial System (New York, 1908) p. 49. a hired servant could earn that much in a year, besides his bed and board.
Samuel Sewall noted the wages of a woman domestic servant as two shillings a week, besides board and room, which would make five pounds and four shillings in a single year, while a bill of charges for day labor, preserved in the files of the Middlesex County Court, shows that some laborers received two shillings a day. 45. Samuel Sewall, "Letter-Book," Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, sixth series, I, 270; Middlesex Files, folder 13, group 3.
Other evidence indicates that when a servant continued to live with his master after his period of indenture had elapsed, he could earn in two days a week the charges for his board and room. 46. Essex Court Records, II, 308; Middlesex Files, folder 59, group 4 (case of Thomas Hinshaw).
The rest of the week's work was clear gain over his former condition. The two Irishmen who had been sold to Samuel Symonds easily perceived the difference between this condition of things and their own. After they had served seven years, they rebelled. Another servant narrated in court that one night the pair: "came into the parlor to prayer with the rest of the family, and Philip asked if Goodman Bragg's son was coming to plow tomorrow. Her mistress said she thought so, that he said he would consider it. Philip then asked who would plow with him and her mistress said, "One of you." Philip said, "We will worke with you, or for you, no longer." Then said my mast, "is it soe?" What will you play? Then both of them stood in it and expressed that it was soe, and that they had been with you (speaking to my Master) longe enough, we have served you seaven yeares, we thinke thatis longe enough; Then said my Master, but we must not be our owne Judges; and said my master, you must worke for me still, unles you run away. Then said William, 'we scorne to run away.' Then said Philip, we will goe away, and leave you before your faces. Alsoe they did both speak to this purpose: 'If you will free us, we will plante your corne and mende your fences, and if you will pay us as other men, but we will not worke with you upon the same termes, or conditions as before." 47. Essex Court Records, II, 296-297.
Apprentices received less immediate gain from their labors than did the hired servants but they could count on their training to enhance the value of their labor in the future. They were usually boys under twenty-one and girls under eighteen who had been placed out by their parents accord- ing to the custom discussed already.48. (see chapter III) The work they performed was less valuable than that of an adult but sufficient to repay their masters for main- taining and educating them. The contract by which a child became an apprentice followed a form established in the Middle Ages. The Boston Almanack for 1692 printed a model: The Form of an Indenture for an Apprentice.
Transcribed by Janice Farnsworth
Article put online 10-8-2000