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Image Massachusetts Wealth Ways: Puritan Ideas of the Material Order

As it was with time and work, so also with wealth. The distribution of wealth in Massachusetts was determined not by material processes alone, but mainly by the cultural values and historical experiences of the founders. The builders of the Bay Colony deliberately apportioned the productive assets of their province so as to maintain the social distinctions which they thought proper in a

Bible Commonwealth. Leaders of the community were given larger shares of land; so were those who had held more property in England, and families with many children and servants. Distinctions of social rank were carefully respected, but gross disparities were uncommon. In most cases, town proprietors were men of middling status—yeomen and husbandmen who tended to be neither very rich nor very poor. They distributed the land in such a way as to multiply their own class. There was no small elite of great landlords in most Massachusetts towns during the seventeenth century.

The typical size of land grants in the Bay Colony might be observed in the town of Billerica, where 115 men received land by 1651. The median holding was 60 acres; the mean, 96 acres. Similar patterns appeared in most towns. In the town of Springfield, for example, the largest holding (William Pynchon’s) was 237 acres; the smallest, six; the median, near 60. These two towns had very different reputations—Billerica for comparative equality, Springfield for dominance by a single family. But in both communities the distribution of land was much the same. No family was enormously rich; few were entirely landless. Tenancy was uncommon, and in some towns entirely unknown.1

When the proprietors of Wallingford, Connecticut, distributed their lands, they divided the population into three parts. Every “high rank man” received 400 acres; every “middle rank man” was given approximately 300 acres, and men of “lower rank” were assigned 200 acres. Other towns distributed their lands on different principles. The town of Dedham, on the other hand, divided its lands by a more complex method which took into account “rank, quality, deserts and usefulness either in the church or commonwealth.”

These rules varied in detail from one New England town to another. By and large, the more radical the religious principles of any particular town, the more egalitarian its distribution of lands was apt to be. A case in point was the Separatist settlement which is now the city of Providence, Rhode Island. Its founder,

Roger Williams, insisted that he should receive “only unto myself, one single share, equal unto any of the rest of that number. In the intent of Roger Williams, the first division of lands at Providence had a Gini ratio of zero, or perfect equality.2

Other towns diverged in the opposite direction. One of the most inegalitarian and materialist communities in the region was New Haven, which was settled by purse-proud London merchants. From the start, its wealth was heavily concentrated in a few hands.

Differences in wealth distribution derived not only from the religious beliefs of the founders, but also from their English regional origins. Historian David Grayson Allen discovered that the size of the average land holdings in the English community of Rowley, Yorkshire, was almost exactly reproduced in the American settlement called Rowley. He also found that the town of Hingham, Massachusetts, replicated the pattern of wealth distribution that had existed in the town of Hingham, East Anglia. Landholdings tended to be larger in New England, but relative sizes remained much the same.3

These various English patterns—eastern and northern—were not identical. Landholdings tended to be more egalitarian in East Anglia than in the north or west. Massachusetts towns settled by East Anglians tended to be more equal than those founded by Puritans from other parts of England. Two of the most sharply stratified rural communities in Massachusetts were Rowley, which was founded by a small group of Yorkshire families, and New-bury, which had a large contingent from England’s West Country. The builders of the Bay Colony generally followed the model of East Anglian communities, with a few important modifications.4

The overall pattern of wealth distribution in New England was much more equal than in the region of East Anglia as a whole. Outside the towns, there were no great landholders in Massachusetts whose possessions were even remotely comparable to those of the Crown, or the Duke of Norfolk, or other manorial lords who had owned a very large proportion of the manors in the eastern counties of England in the sixteenth century. The large landless proletariat of East Anglia had no counterpart in New England during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But the distribution of wealth in Massachusetts towns was similar to patterns among freeholders and leaseholders within East Anglian villages.5

These cultural factors were not the only determinants of wealth distribution in Massachusetts. Other factors were also involved. Inland farming towns in New England tended to be more equal than coastal commercial communities. Thus, the Massachusetts village of Newtown (now Cambridge) was more equal than Boston; Watertown was more equal than Newtown; Sudbury was more equal than Watertown; and Marlborough was more equal than Sudbury. All of these towns were located on a line that ran due west from Boston.6

These material differences, however, existed within a narrow range. Studies of wealth-distribution have been completed for more than twenty-five Massachusetts towns from 1630 to 1750, and also for at least three counties. In most of these places, throughout that period, the top tenth of wealthholders held only 20 to 30 percent of taxable property, and about 30 to 40 percent of estates in probate. This pattern of wealth distribution was egalitarian by comparison with other colonies. With a few urban exceptions such as Salem and Boston, it was typical of New England—and very different from other parts of British America.7

What is specially interesting in this pattern was its cause. The distribution of wealth in Massachusetts was not determined solely by the organization of the means of production, except in a tautological sense. Neither was it exclusively a function of market relations. It was created largely by a system of value which the founders of Massachusetts drew from their Puritan ideals and East Anglian experiences.

Another major determinant of wealth distribution was the system of inheritance. On this subject, the Bay Colonists had formed strong views while still in England. In 1624, a Puritan list of “grievances groaning for reformation,” drafted in the hand of John Winthrop, included an angry indictment of English inheritance practices in general, and an attack upon primogeniture in particular. “It is against all equity that one [son] should be a gentleman to have all, and the rest as beggars to have nothing,” he wrote, “it breedeth often times much strife and contention betwixt the elder brother and the rest of the children.”8

The Bay Colonists found a model that pleased them better in the book of Deuteronomy, which prescribed that a father should honor “the first born [son], by giving him a double portion of all that he hath.”9 This rule had great weight with English Puritans who found in it a “middle way” of the sort which was so congenial to their thinking. The English Puritan William Gouge argued that “houses and families by this means are upheld and continued from age to age,” while justice was done to all of the other children.10

In Massachusetts this biblical rule was combined with carefully selected East Anglian customs, which had been very mixed.11 Some communities and individuals in eastern England observed the rule of primogeniture.12 Others kept a custom called borough English, in which the homestead sometimes went to the youngest son. Many practiced some form of partible descent, which was so common in the eastern counties that small “morcellements” of land became a serious social problem. Some testators even subdivided a single home among their children. In 1585, for example, Margaret Browne of Colchester (Essex) divided one house into five legacies:

To my son John the hallhouse with the entry coming and going in and from the same; to my son Richard and Joan his wife the chamber over the parlour in which he now dwelleth for the term of their lives; to Anne my daughter now wife of John Glascock of St. Osyth the kitchen and to her heirs for ever; to my son Oliver and his heirs for ever the parlor in which he now dwelleth; to my daughter Katherine now wife of Robert Symon of Colchester weaver the shop with the little buttery in the entry and to his heirsforever. … My garden and backside to be also equally divided between my said five children. …13

The founders of Massachusetts drew selectively upon these various English precedents. At an early date, they totally abolished death heriots, reliefs, primer seizins, escheats, licenses, fines and forfeitures which had weighed heavily upon them. They also abandoned primogeniture and entail. In cases of intestacy, Massachusetts courts at first often ordered estates to be divided more or less equally among children of both sexes. Males commonly received land and females were given “moveables” or personal property. In 1648, Massachusetts formally enacted the biblical rule that gave a double portion to the eldest son. This law made no mention of daughters, but in Massachusetts courts children of both sexes shared more equally than in England.14

These rules applied only in cases of intestacy. But most property holders in Massachusetts left a will, in which they usually divided their land among their sons, and left a large share of personal property to daughters. In Watertown, for example, one study has found that no two wills were the same in the distribution of property, but every testator with more than one child practiced some form of partible inheritance. One-third gave a double portion to the first-born son. About half left the homestead or house furnishings to the youngest son, a highly practical arrangement which became widely popular in New England. Many testators assigned a life interest in their estates to their widows, with residual rights for the children. These partible customs restrained the growth of inequality in New England.15

Material inequalities in Massachusetts existed within a comparatively narrow range, but they loomed large in the consciousness of small communities. At the top of this system of wealth distribution were families of lesser gentry. Their houses were commonly at the center of the town, just as small manor houses were in the center of many farming villages in East Anglia.

In the town of Windsor, Connecticut, for example, the Allyns were the leading family. Their two-story wooden house was not very grand by English standards, but it was the largest home in Windsor. It was also painted a vivid red at the time when most New England houses were not painted at all, but slowly weathered to a mottled brown. The Allyn house was the center of society in Windsor and also the seat of justice, where its builder the first Squire Allyn and then his son and grandson after him held court in the great room. So grand did the Allyn house appear that a small child, passing it for the first time, ran home to tell his parents that he had seen “Heaven, the big house where the angels lived.”

Even so, by comparison with other cultures, New England was remarkably egalitarian. As late as 1765, a British aristocrat named Lord Adam Gordon traveled widely in New England. He observed with an air of disapproval that “the levelling principle here, everywhere, operates strongly and takes the lead. Everybody has property, and everybody knows it.” He was correct both in the fact and the cause. The wealth ways of new England rose in large measure from a “levelling principle” which was embedded in its culture.16

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