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Image Massachusetts Work Ways: Puritan and East Anglian Economies

As it was with play, so also with work. The economic history of Massachusetts was not the inexorable product of its material environment. The history of neighboring colonies shows that the ecology of this region was consistent with many different types of economic development. The Dutch in New Netherlands and the French in Quebec created extractive economies which dealt heavily in products of the forest and the sea—timber, furs, and fish. The builders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony also engaged in these activities, but mainly they constructed a different sort of economic system which reflected their East Anglian origins and Puritan purposes.

From the start, the economy of Massachusetts was remarkably similar to that of eastern England. Some interior New England towns resembled the wood-pasture villages of Suffolk and Norfolk. Others on the coast were more like the small outports of Essex and Kent. The strength of these continuities appeared most clearly in a regional exception. The town of Rowley in Massachusetts was founded by an untypical group of English Puritans who came from the East Riding of Yorkshire, and had been drawn into the great migration by the charisma of their East Anglian minister. Their home in the north of England had been a center for the manufacture of coarse linen and hemp textiles by a work force that consisted largely of children. The new settlement of Rowley, Massachusetts, rapidly developed the same sort of industry that had existed in Rowley, Yorkshire. John Winthrop noted in 1643 that the American community’s production of hemp and flax “exceeded all other towns” in New England. Edward Johnson wrote of the Rowley colonists that they “were the first people that set upon the making of cloth in this western world, for which end they built a fulling mill, and caused their little-ones to be very diligent in spinning cotton wool, many of them having been clothiers in England.” About the year 1660, Samuel Maverick described the inhabitants of Rowley as a “very laborious people … making cloth and rugs of cotton wool and also sheep’s wool.”1

Other exceptions which prove the rule were the fishing ports of Gloucester and Marblehead, which also differed from most Massachusetts towns in the English origins of their founders. A large part of their population came from the Channel Islands, and particularly from the island of Jersey. Many had been fishermen in the Old World, and they continued their ancestral occupation in the New. When a Puritan minister came to Marblehead, and gave his congregation the usual East Anglian Puritanism, a grizzled fisherman rebuked him, “You think you are preaching to the people of the Bay. Our main end was to catch fish.”2

Catching fish was not the main purpose of most Bay colonists, in either a literal or a symbolic sense. Despite the gilded cod that hangs on the wall of the Massachusetts State House, the fisheries did not become the foundation of their economy. Eighty percent of the communities in Massachusetts were farm towns, and a large majority of adult males were engaged in agriculture.3

The pattern of farming was in many ways very similar to the wood-pasture communities of East Anglia—a regime of mixed husbandry which combined field crops and farm animals. Most New England towns kept commons for pasture and meadow. Several towns had open fields for tillage as well. But after a transitional period, crops were raised in enclosed fields cultivated by individual families.

The technology of farming was much the same as in England, despite many environmental differences. “The country is very rocky and hilly and some good champion,” one colonist wrote from Watertown in 1631. The Puritans specially prized “champion,” which was their word for flat, open land without trees or hills. They found it in Dedham, Watertown, Sudbury and Concord—pockets of rich alluvial soil that are still farmed profitably today.4 From the start, the Puritans worked their American land with English ploughs—a method unlike the hoe husbandry that prevailed in other parts of British America. As early as 1634, John Winthrop wrote home, “ … our ploughs go on with good success, we are like to have 20 at work next year.”5

Within a few years of the first settlement, their family farms were producing a surplus and selling it in the market. The size of these transactions was not great by later standards, but large enough to encourage even small farmers to think of their activity in commercial terms. When they came together on Sunday, they talked first of God and then of prices. By 1645, the Connecticut Valley towns were shipping thousands of bushels of grain to market. Cattle were driven to Boston in such number that the town in 1648 petitioned the General Court for permission to have two fairs a year, one for cattle alone.6 These markets were closely regulated by rules very similar to those that had prevailed in East Anglian communities. Exports were forbidden in times of scarcity. Unfair market practices such as forestalling and regrating were strictly forbidden. Prices and wages were fixed in difficult periods.


The New England swing plow with its wooden moldboard is a familiar folk artifact, which stands beside the statue of the Minuteman. Folklorist Henry Glassie notes that it was “based on a pattern introduced from Holland into East Anglia probably in the late sixteenth century, and which flourished after 1730 in Scotland and the eastern counties of England. The swing plow was traditional in eighteenth-century New England.” This sketch follows a drawing by Henry Glassie.

Massachusetts markets were largely local. Mostly they consisted of one farmer selling to another. But external trade also developed so rapidly that by 1638 more than a hundred vessels engaged in foreign trade from Massachusetts. The West Indies provided a market for grain, meat, fish, butter and many other products. As early as 1647, according to Edward Johnson:

In a very little space, every thing in the country proved a staple-commodity, wheat, rye, oats, peas, barley, beef, pork, fish, butter, cheese, timber, mast, tar, soap, plankboard, frames of houses, clabboard and pipestaves … they have not only fed their Elder Sisters, Virginia, Barbados and many of the Summer Islands that were preferred before her for their fruitfulness, but also the Grandmother of us all, even the fertile isle of Great Britain, beside Portugal hath had many a mouthful of bread and fish from us, in exchange of their Madeira liquor and also Spain, nor could it be imagined, that this wilderness should turn a mart for merchants in so short a space.7

At an early date in the seventeenth century, returns from the carrying trade sustained the prosperity of small towns from Portsmouth to Plymouth. An economic historian observes that “New Englanders became the Dutch of England’s empire.” They did so in more senses than one. The structure of New England’s carrying trade was similar in its structure and social function to that which developed on the borders of the North Sea, both in the Netherlands and in the East of England. The combination of mixed agriculture, small villages, and a high level of commercial activity were much the same in East Anglia and Massachusetts. So also was the combination of interior farming villages, and very small seaports that sprang up as thickly in New England as in the Thames estuary and the seacoast of East Anglian coast.8

In Massachusetts, this economic system was fully developed by the mid-seventeenth century. Thereafter, for many generations it changed mainly by becoming more elaborately the same. Historian Bernard Bailyn concludes that “the character of the economic system as it emerged in this period remained essentially the same until just before the American Revolution.”9

Even more persistent than the material structure of New

England’s economy was its ethic of work, which the founders of the Bay Colony introduced at an early date. This work ethic was a complex thing. It rested upon an idea that every Christian had two callings—a general calling and a special calling. The first was a Christian’s duty to live a godly life in the world. The second was mainly his vocation. The Puritans did not think that success in one’s calling was an instrument of salvation, but they believed that it was a way of serving God in the world.

The Puritans did not glorify “capitalist enterprise”—two words which they would not have approved or even understood. They condemned the pursuit of wealth for its own sake, as one rich Puritan merchant named Robert Keayne learned the hard way. Keayne was a Berkshire butcher’s boy who became a rich merchant tailor in London, worth “2000 or 3000 pounds in good estate.” He brought this capital to Boston, became a member of the Church, married into the ministerial elite and built a flourishing import business. For a time, he may have been Boston’s richest merchant, and its fourth largest landowner. But he also gained a reputation for “corrupt practice.” John Winthrop noted that “he was wealthy and sold dearer than most other tradesmen.” In 1639, when angry customers complained of being overcharged for a bridle and a bag of nails, Keayne was formally charged in General Court with oppression, for having taken “above six-pence in the shilling profit; in some above eight-pence; and in some small things above two for one.” The magistrates imposed a fine of £100—one of the heaviest in the history of the colony. But many thought the penalty too light, and the deputies voted a fine of £200. Keayne himself wrote that some wished “corporal punishment was added to it, such as … standing openly on a market day with a bridle in his mouth, or at least around his neck.”10

Boston’s Congregational church also made its own investigation of this affair, and found Robert Keayne guilty of “selling his wares at excessive rates.” John Cotton denounced him from the pulpit. Keayne was threatened with excommunication until he came weeping before the congregation and “did with tears acknowledge and bewail his covetous and corrupt heart.”11 Thereafter, this once proud Puritan merchant was a shattered man. He gave away large sums in an effort to clear his name, began to drink heavily, lost his public office, and wrote an obsessive defense of his conduct in his last will and testament which became an apologia of 158 pages.12

John Cotton was moved by this event to proclaim a code of business ethics for New England. These rules were very strict, and went far beyond medieval ideas of just price. John Winthrop entered them in his Journal:

Some false principles are these: 1. That a man might sell as dear as he can, and buy as cheap as he can. 2. If a man lose by casualty at sea, etc., in some of his commodities, he may raise the price of the rest; 3. That he may sell as he bought, though he paid too dear, etc., and though the commodity be fallen, etc. 4. That, as a man may take advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may take advantage of another’s ignorance or necessity. 5. Where one gives time for payment, he is to take like recompense of one as of another.

The rules for trading are these: 1. a man may not sell above the current price. … 2. when a man loseth in his commodity for want of skill, etc., he must look at it as his own fault or cross, and therefore must not lay it upon another. 3. Where a man loseth by casualty of sea, or, etc., it is a loss cast upon himself by providence, and he may not ease himself of it by casting it upon another. … but where there is a scarcity of the commodity, there men may raise their price; for now it is a hand of God upon the commodity and not the person. 4. A man may not ask any more for his commodity than his selling price, as Ephron to Abraham, the land is worth thus much.13

John Cotton forbade merchants to raise prices even to cover their own losses, which they were expected to accept as a judgment upon their sins and not pass on to the consumer. The fact that Boston merchants remained in business tells us that their conduct fell short of John Cotton’s ideal. Even so, the Puritan ethic was very far from the spirit of capitalism. For a man such as Robert

Keayne, who tried to be a good Puritan and a good capitalist at the same time, the conflict ended by destroying him.

Altogether, the economy of early New England was neither a system of village communism nor nascent capitalism. It was an old-fashioned system of agricultural production, domestic industry and commercial exchange which bore the impress of East Anglian customs and Calvinist beliefs. At its heart was a Puritan ethic which persisted for many generations.14

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