History/Legal Hist. III
Kansas Territory I
Kansas Territory II
Kansas Territory III
Kansas Territory IV
Kansas Territory V
Kansas Territory VI
Kansas Territory VII
Kansas Territory VIII
Cicero Lives! (I)
Cicero Lives! (II)
Cicero Lives! (III)
Cicero's Griefs (I)
Cicero's Griefs (II)
Cicero--On Old Age
Cicero's Letters (I)
Cicero's Letters (II)
Cicero's Letters (III)
Simon Greenleaf I
Greenleaf (new) II
Greenleaf (new) III
Greenleaf (new) IV
Greenleaf (new) V
Greenleaf (new) VI
How to Behave I
How to Behave II
Early Ct. Legal Hist I
Ct. Legal Hist. II
Ct. Legal Hist. III
Ct. Legal Hist. IV
Oregon Wagon Rd I
Oregon Wagon Rd II
The Connecticut Code of Law (1650)
Bill Long 8/1/09
On Capital Crimes and Recording God's Great Acts
I don't mean to connect these two from the perspective of their similarity. Rather, I put them here to show the way the code deals with these significant events. A capital crime is not necessarily a murder; it is a crime for which the penalty of death is assessed. You might be surprised the extent of crimes which fall in this category; indeed, since one of the reasons to teach people to read was so that they would understand capital crimes, it is good for us to know, too, what constituted such a crime.
Fourteen crimes merited death, according to the section on "Capitall Lawes." The laws are framed in a casuistic manner (if...then), and then the law concludes with a citation from the Scripture, usually from the Covenant Code of Exodus 21-24 or the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26. Let's list the fourteen capital crimes here:
1. Worshipping another God than the "Lord God."
2. Being a Witch (either man or woman), that is, having consulted with a "familliar spirit."
3. Blaspheming one of the members of the Holy Trinity.
4. Committing of wilful murder, defined as "manslaughter committed uppon malice, and not in a man's necessary and just defence.."
5. Killing a person through guile, either by poison or other "Devellish practice."
6. Lying with a beast or "bruite creature, by carnall copulation." Either a man or woman that does this is to be put to death.
7. For a man, lying with "mankind as hee lyeth with woman." Both men in this homosexual act shall be put to death.
8. Committing adultery with a married or espoused wife. Both "Adulterer" and the "Adulteress" shall be put to death.
9. "Forcibly, and without consent, Ravish(ing) any maide, or woman that is lawfully married or contracted."
10. "Steal(ing) a man or mankinde."
11. Rising up by false witness to intend to take away another's life.
12. Conspiracy or attempt of any invasion, insurrection or rebellion against the Commonwealth. Notably, this one has no Biblical citation after it, while all the rest have Biblical saction.
The next one is an interesting one, and I indicate the entire flow of it here:
13. If a Child more than 16 years old and of sufficient understanding curses or smites "their naturall father or mother, the person shall be put to death." This is straight out of the Bible (Ex. 21:15, 17), but then there is an extenuating circumstance given which is not given in the Bible. Note the langauge:
"unless it can bee sufficiently testified that the parents have beene very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children, or so provoke them by extreme and cruell correction that they have beene forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death, maiming."
This is a fascinating refinement on the Biblical command, and one might say it is a "liberalization" of the Bible. Just as Jesus took the inherited command that divorce was improper, but added to it (at least in some Gospels) the idea that it is improper, except in cases of adultery, so the leaders of the CT colony saw fit to put in this exception. What had happened to "provoke" it? Had one of the children of an elder been recalcitrant, and parental "tug" was just too strong to see such a child be put to death? Was there a "colonial psychiatrist" who opined that often children are driven to curse their parents by the activity and behavior of the parents, and so should not bear the brunt of the punishment when, in fact, it was the parents who provoked the child's reaction? In any case, this willingness to "bend the Bible" to fit the "modern times" is noteworthy.
14. If a stubborn and rebellious son of sufficient age and understanding will not obey the parents and, when they have chastened him, will not hearken to them, then the parents can bring the son to the Magistrates and testify against him--to the effect that their son is "stubborne and rebellious," and "such a sonne shall be put to death."
Conclusion--Recording God's Great Deeds
One of the more remarkable passages in the laws appears under the category of "Recorder" and relates to the responsibility the society felt to record the great deeds of God in their midst. After all, they thought of themselves as setting up a holy society, where the Holy One of Israel was in their midst. One of the ways to convince themselves that this was the case was in recounting the providences and acts of grace of God. Perhaps it was a law like this that inspired Cotton Mather, at the end of the 17th century, to pen his Magnalia Christi Americana. How long, however, would the following type of language be persuasive to people? Why is it that in so-called Christian cultures this kind of thing would now be looked upon with skepticism and even some disdain, while those raised in Muslim cultures would probably affirm this kind of language? Here follows the text:
"For the better keeping in minde those passages of Gods providence, which have beene remarkable, since our first undertaking of these plantations; Mr. Deputy, Capt. Mason, Mr. Stone with Mr. Goodwyn, are desired to take the paines severally, in theire severall townes, and then jointly together, to gather up the same, and deliver them into the Generall courte in September next, and if it bee judged then fitt, they may be recorded: and for future times, whatsoever remarkable passages shall bee, and if they bee publique, the said parties are desired to deliver in the same to the Generall courte; but if any perticular person doe bring in any thinge, hee shall bring it under the hands of two of the aforementioned parties, that it is true, then present it to the Generall courte, that if it be there judged requisitt, it may be recorded; provided, that any General courte, for the futre, may alter any of the parties before mentioned, or add to them, as they sjall judge meett."
But all attempts to "freeze life" by celebrating the great acts of God eventually failed. What was it in the experience of the people that would have led them, in a little more than a generation, to abandon this notion of a public recording of the great mercies of God? What seemed so evidently true to the grandparents was now not at all clear to the grandchildren. Or, perhaps we ought to look at things differently. Perhaps the majority of those who made the first journey in the 1630s were not necessarily of particularly strong religious commitment, but the powers that be who organized the trip and pulled it off had a strong philsophy of the active work of Divine Providence, so strong in fact that it suffused their literature of the first generation. But to maintain this kind of belief is difficult. Even the law just quoted has some "wiggle-room" in it--allowing the General Court to change or accept narratives, to add or delete them, etc. What kind of criteria would be used by public officials to prove to them that the hand of God was at work in a particular instance, rather than that something that happened could have been explained just as well with another explanation? Why did the power and convincing nature of a "divine" explanation fade in the space of two generations? That, among many other questions, is what these brief studies leave with us...
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long