Little Commonwealth by John Demos Essay

Excerpt from Essay :


"a Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony" by John Demos

John Demos' A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony takes place in the New World with the settlement of the Plymouth colony. Although quite a significant portion of the text is dedicated to the material aspects of the settlement, Demos outlines from the beginning of the foreword, his intentions to take an intimate look at the family in an emotional, psychological, and socio-cultural way. Demos maintains that prior history of this time period focused more on an overview of the actual settlement vs. A day-to-day look at the life of the settlers themselves. Demos uses the notion of a little commonwealth as a metaphor for analyzing and addressing the family in the 1600's, as both a foundational component of Pilgrim society and of the larger society as well. As such, what will be outlined in the text to follow is the physical movement of some settlers from the original homestead reflects not just a physical departure but a departure from the ideals of the initial settlement; although formalized, the separation of church and state in the initial settlement failed to manifest itself in daily life; and the historical representation of the patriarchic family failed to acknowledge the realities of the role of women during that time.

Although Demos acknowledges that life in Plymouth colony was not unique in relation to other American colonies; particularly puritan colonies, he was interested in investigation family and the fundamental circumstances in which those of the Plymouth colony operated. He also understood because of the lack of literal references and the scant resources in which he had to surmise his ideas, none could be taken as factual representations; but more as "best possible guesses" from his assemblage.

The core of the original settlement was part of several separatist groups in the area, who fled England because of disagreement with state authority and religiosity. Historically, in the writings of the pilgrimage to the New World, it is frequently described in terms that conjure up the affluent of Old English society selectively choosing to come to the New World to establish and expand the governance and influence of the mother country. In reality, those described in Demos' work were struggling to find themselves a place of refuge and comfort; on the fringes of society as they knew it, with minimal resources for sustenance. As Demos highlights, the Plymouth community was far from homogeneous. They were indeed a group of strangers; not governed by religiosity and the values that ensued like the pilgrims. They were strangers in a strange land (Demos, pg. 6).

This out-group continued to operate in that manner, much to the dismay of the pilgrims and other early settlers. Although there was a concerted effort to establish an analogous community, there was a significant and unwanted amount of change and movement noted during this time period. And as Demos indicates, it was not just those from the out group, but some from the original settlement of pilgrims as well. Individuals, families, and small groups begin to settle outside the principal settlement; locating physically and geographically to other parts of the area. Issues of supply and demand not being met by the primary settlement began to create need in other areas; and more and more townships and settlements were reluctantly officially established.

The dispersion of settlement, however, reflected a larger move within the original community, wherein old ideals of the initial settlers were also being left behind. Needless to say, the establishment of the Colony who wanted to continue to pursue a community reminiscent of what they left behind found the separation and geographic spread to be less than pleasing.

In order for the Colonies goal of maintaining a God fearing community based on collective goals and achievement of the whole could not be successfully continued in this way. Attempts to rein in and limit land accessibility to less than upstanding settlers was becoming less and less successful. These attempts to restrain individual movement were also an attempt to restrain individualized thinking, and the Colony inadvertently acknowledged that they were losing ground with every thwarted attempt. Just as there had been a separation from the authoritative and oppressive nature of the Old World, this same kind of separation was underway in the New World. The physical and geographic move was the physical manifestation of a move away from the collective, mentally, theologically, heretically, and ideologically.

Although the institutions of Church and State were formally separated, they were very much interwoven in life and in practice (Demos, pg. 13). All activities were governed by the moral code as established by the church and the laws of the land seemed to be an established extension of church philosophy; to the extent that attendance in church was required by law, with dissident views being stifled. The reach of the church extended even to the management of the family with parents providing regular instruction on moral teachings, daily prayers and meditation, and children honoring their parents, as a basic tenant of household rule. One poignant example of the church's influence comes from a Plymouth community 1679 case of a boy brought before the court who faced charges of disobedience to his parents. The young man was charged with striking and/or abusing his parents. His punishment? The young man was whipped at the post as an alternative to being more sharply punished or put to death because it was determined he had some level of mental deficiency.

Although there may have been some dissention with regard to changes in geography, each newly established town or community was also regarded as a congregation, and multiple congregations as the communities grew. Although many of these communities had elected leaders and officials, their corporate governance was itself, largely dependent on the foundation teachings and principals of the church. In this way, Puritans and Plymouth settlers were very much alike. They maintained a fundamentalist view of those who were converts to the faith and those who were not. As previously mentioned, these tenants of conversion strongly influenced a person's accessibility to goods, services, and the ability to make a life for themselves through the purchase of land. Separation and segregation existed within the larger congregation; again another reflection of the general theme of separation that has come to characterize this time period. Those who were converts and owners of the covenant were then able to be members of the church (Demos, pg. 8).

Even though there were many similarities between the fundamental ways in which both the Plymouth colony and the Puritans managed church related affairs, there seems to have been a spoken or unspoken collective agreement that each of the churches would manage and maintain their own affairs, and there would be no move to mimic the ways of the Old World by becoming or instituting a system of ecclesiastical control. Governance of the body of the church was reserved to the leadership of that particular church. While on the one hand the church was an extension of the authoritarian system of governance established in the Plymouth colony, with the General Court and the Court of Assistants, there was still movement away from the collective -- harkening back to the Old World, and preserving on a smaller scale, individual (smaller community) roles.

This example serves to bolster Demos metaphor of the little community, the little commonwealth with the church as a basic unit of Pilgrim society, and a miniature model of the larger Plymouth Colony society.

The primary focus of Demos work was to the look at the family; nuclear and extended. One of the first distinctions Demos made was to clarify common misconceptions about extended families and the composition of persons in any given household. He posited a reexamination of the tradition notions of large extended families residing under one roof in colonial New England. Upon review of the various records, he determined that demographically, most families around the late 1680's were comprised of 6 people, with almost 50% of families having on average 4 to 6 persons (Demos, pg. 236). These were nuclear families and several factors, including social, economic, and cultural, kept these families close knit.

According to Demos, the role of husband and wife was very important to Puritan households, and he immediately recognizes the larger questions this purports as to gender roles and sex differentiation. It is historically and traditionally understood that men dominated throughout the seventeenth century in the Western World. Religiously, this notion of male dominance was principled in theological and fundamentalist teaching. The man was the undeniable head of the household. Just as children were required to honor their parents so that their 'days may be long upon the earth', women were required to be submissive to their husbands, as he was submissive to the Church (God) (Demos, pg. 82).

Interestingly enough, public offices were not accessible to women in Plymouth. However, Demos points out that women in the Plymouth Colony did possess…

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