John M. Dixon
The Enlightenment, a complex cultural phenomenon that lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, contained a dynamic mix of contrary beliefs and epistemologies. Its intellectual coherence arguably came from its distinctive historical sensibility, which was rooted in the notion that advances in the natural sciences had gifted humankind with an exceptional opportunity in the eighteenth century for self-improvement and societal progress. That unifying historical outlook was flexible and adaptable. Consequently, many aspects of the Enlightenment were left open to negotiation at local and transnational levels. They were debated by the philosophes who met in Europe’s coffeehouses, salons, and scientific societies. Equally, they were contested outside of Europe through innumerable cross-cultural exchanges as well as via long-distance intellectual interactions.
America—whether it is understood expansively as the two full continents and neighboring islands within the Western Hemisphere or, in a more limited way, as the territory that now constitutes the United States—played an especially prominent role in the Enlightenment. The New World’s abundance of plants, animals, and indigenous peoples fascinated early modern natural historians and social theorists, stimulated scientific activity, and challenged traditional beliefs. By the eighteenth century, the Western Hemisphere was an important site for empirical science and also for the intersection of different cultures of knowledge. At the same time, European conceptions of the New World as an undeveloped region inhabited by primitive savages problematized Enlightenment theories of universal progress. Comparisons of Native Americans to Africans, Asians, and Europeans led to speculation about the existence of separate human species or races. Similarly, the prevalence and profitability of American slavery fueled new and increasingly scientific conceptions of race. Eighteenth-century analyses of human differences complicated contemporary assertions that all men possessed basic natural rights. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution focused international attention on man’s innate entitlement to life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, in a manner that typified the contradictions and paradoxes of the Enlightenment, the founders of the United States opted to preserve slavery and social inequality after winning political freedom from Britain.
The Puritans were a group of people loosely defined through their shared adherence to the reformed theological tradition, largely following the work of John Calvin. Beginning in the 16th century, the Puritan movement took root in specific regional locales throughout Germany, Scotland, the Low Countries, and England. Following Queen Elizabeth’s settlement of 1559, which mandated conformity with the Church of England, the church’s authority splintered further as Protestants clashed with the episcopal polity, or church hierarchy. Religious conflict intensified from the 1580s through the end of James I’s reign, through repeated appeals to antiquity and patristics (writings from early Christian fathers) as pleas for further reform. Religious tension and persecution under the repressive regime of Archbishop Laud caused Puritans to leave England in search of new lands and communities.
When the Pilgrims and Puritans migrated to North America in 1620 and 1630, respectively, they did so with the intention of contesting the power of the crown to mandate religious uniformity. They believed in a Calvinist-based religion that espoused a separation of church and state, but that also privileged the spiritual authority of the individual to such a degree as to leave no clear signposts about how the disparate individuals practicing these faiths should form communities. Puritan congregations in New England allowed laymen as well as women new forms of spiritual self-discovery as they orally translated the evidence of grace recorded upon their souls into communal knowledge and a corporate identity that fashioned itself as a spiritual beacon to the world. Missionary encounters soon redefined Puritan faith, theology, and pious practices. Puritan identity in 17th century North America reconstituted itself through a particular confluence of interaction with foreign landscapes, native tribes, Africans, and new models of community and social interaction.
Susanah Shaw Romney
On the mid-Atlantic coast between 1624 and 1664, the Dutch developed a successful and expansive colony, one that depended on particular interactions among women and men from American, European, and African backgrounds. Unlike some other colonial efforts, such as Jamestown, New Netherland had white women colonists from its inception. In contrast to Plymouth and other English settler colonies, a population of African men and women did the crucial work of establishing the colony’s initial infrastructure in its first years. What is more, a thriving cross-cultural trade between Netherlanders and Munsee, Mahican, and Mohawk residents of the region nurtured the development of the infant colony. Looking at the colony’s establishment and growth reveals that complex interactions among ethnically distinct families gave New Netherland its particular form and character. As European and African populations took root, many households engaged in the frontier trading economy, creating a web of connections reaching into multiple indigenous villages. Women and men cooperated to sustain this trade over long distances by relying on marriage and the economic unit of the household to organize production and exchange. In addition, the colonial government used these households to stake claims to the ground and to define Dutch jurisdiction, just as they recognized that residence by Indian or English households determined where Dutch power ended. Thus ethnic and gender relations shaped not only the colony’s internal hierarchies, but also its economy and its very boundaries.
Emerson W. Baker
The Salem Witch Trials are one of the best known, most studied, and most important events in early American history. The afflictions started in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts, in January 1692, and by the end of the year the outbreak had spread throughout Essex County, and threatened to bring down the newly formed Massachusetts Bay government of Sir William Phips. It may have even helped trigger a witchcraft crisis in Connecticut that same year. The trials are known for their heavy reliance on spectral evidence, and numerous confessions, which helped the accusations grow. A total of 172 people are known to have been formally charged or informally cried out upon for witchcraft in 1692. Usually poor and marginalized members of society were the victims of witchcraft accusations, but in 1692 many of the leading members of the colony were accused. George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem Village, was one of the nineteen people convicted and executed. In addition to these victims, one man, Giles Cory, was pressed to death, and five died in prison. The last executions took place in September 1692, but it was not until May 1693 that the last trial was held and the last of the accused was freed from prison.
The trials would have lasting repercussions in Massachusetts and signaled the beginning of the end of the Puritan City upon a Hill, an image of American exceptionalism still regularly invoked. The publications ban issued by Governor Phips to prevent criticism of the government would last three years, but ultimately this effort only ensured that the failure of the government to protect innocent lives would never be forgotten. Pardons and reparations for some of the victims and their families were granted by the government in the early 18th century, and the legislature would regularly take up petitions, and discuss further reparations until 1749, more than fifty years after the trials. The last victims were formally pardoned by the governor and legislature of Massachusetts in 2001.
Terri L. Snyder
Everywhere across European and Indigenous settlements in 17th- and 18th-century North America and the Caribbean, the law or legal practices shaped women’s status and conditioned their dependency, regardless of race, age, marital status, or place of birth. Historians have focused much of their attention on the legal status, powers, and experiences of women of European origin across the colonies and given great consideration to the law of domestic relations, the legal disabilities of coverture, and women’s experiences as plaintiffs and defendants, both civil and criminal, in colonial courts. Early American legalities, however, differed markedly for women of color—whether free, indentured, or enslaved, and whether Native or African in origin or descent—whose relationships to the legal regimes of early America were manifold and complex. In their status under the law, experiences at the bar, and, as a result, positions in household polities, women of color reckoned with a set of legalities that differed from those of their European counterparts. The diversity of women’s experiences of the law was shaped not only by race but also by region: Indigenous people had what one historian has labeled jurispractices, while Europeans brought and created a jurisprudence of race and status that shaped treatments of women of color across imperial spaces. A widely comparative analysis of women and the law reflects ways in which race shaped women’s status under and experiences of the law as well as the legalities of their marriages in pre-Revolutionary America.