Masters & Servants
From The Puritan Family
By Edmond S. Morgan 1944

Part 1 of 2

Transcribed By Janice Farnsworth

Chapter 5
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
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-
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.
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,
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.
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,
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.
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,
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.
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-
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
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

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