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A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony 2nd Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0195128901
ISBN-10: 0195128907
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Editorial Reviews Review

The customary modern image of the New England Puritans is a dark one: the Puritans, religious dissenters who valued propriety and order, are seen as a witch-hunting, suspicious tribe, and their very name carries connotations of grimness and primness.

Thirty years ago, at the outset of his career as a historian, John Demos decided to reexamine that view in light of the evidence. Among the findings that he reports in A Little Commonwealth is the surprising discovery that the Puritans were not so, well, puritanical. They were not, Demos argues, especially consumed by ideology, and in their daily lives, "religion seems to figure in a somewhat haphazard and occasional way." The Puritans, he continues, had no unusual objections to sexuality or fun-seeking, except where such activities endangered social harmony--and the Puritans were indeed fiercely protective of group stability. Demos examines such documents as the transcripts of divorce proceedings to suggest that Puritan women enjoyed, if not equal rights, then better consideration than most women in other English colonies in the New World. He looks closely into the material culture of the Puritans, which shows some odd discrepancies: for instance, although few households possessed more than a single chair (usually reserved for the elderly), many contained elaborate wardrobes--for, Demos writes, "clothing was not only a good investment for a man of some means; it was also a way of demonstrating his standing in the larger community and of confirming his own self-image."

In questioning the view of the Puritans as a plain-dressing, plain-living, haunted, and repressed sect, Demos provides a close and intriguing look at the New England past. Reissued on the 30th anniversary of its first publication, A Little Commonwealth deserves a wide audience today. --Gregory McNamee


"[A Little Commonwealth makes] our forebears come alive, not as cute, little democratic wind-up toys useful for indoctrinating children and Fourth of July speeches, but as irascible, intolerant, undemocratic, but real and fascinating human beings."--Commonweal

"Demos writes with great charm, his easy, relaxed style having much muscle underneath."--National Review

"One of the finest pieces of local history that I have read in years....Because Demos writes clear, terse, flowing prose, his book will be a delight to the general reader as well as the scholar....[His] portrait of family life is captivating."--Saturday Review

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 2 edition (September 9, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195128907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195128901
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.5 x 5.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #352,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By on August 6, 1998
Format: Paperback
A Little Commonwealth starts with a brief history of the Plymouth Colony, beginning in England through to its end in 1691. The author begins by discussing the physical setting in which the colonists lived. He continues with the structure of the household and follows with a look at development of people during this period, from birth to old age. He finishes with the thought that perhaps the colonial family of Plymouth colony is not so different than our own. As the book opens we learn that the Plymouth colonists were from a Puritan community that had left England because of persecution and resettled in Holland. However, after about ten years they decided to move again, this time to the New World. It took a lot of negotiations and work, but they finally struck a deal with Thomas Weston for transportation aboard the Mayflower to form a new colony. The new colonists arrived shortly before Christmas and found life extremely difficult. By spring nearly half of the c! olonists were dead. It was at this time that they were befriended by Indians, who advised them on the ways of the land. During all of this they were setting up their government, which consisted of freemen, a General Court, and a governor. The church was active at this time also, hiring ministers, conducting services and punishing its wayward members. There was also trouble with the Indians, until they were defeated during King Phillip's War. Then there were the sweeping reforms by the British Crown, ending with the annexation of the Plymouth colony by Massachusetts. In short, colonial life was anything but easy. The colonists lived in simple homes, typically one room, with a large fireplace, perhaps a loft for sleeping and a lean too at the rear of the house for storage.Read more ›
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Donald J. Boudreaux on September 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
In this compact book, John Demos paints a superb and informative picture of everyday life in early colonial Massachusetts. I'm delighted to see that a new edition has been issued.
Demos shatters many of our impressions of 17th-century Puritans - for example, the impression that Puritans were sexually repressed. More interesting, though, is Demos's compelling demonstration of just how difficult life was for early Plymouth colonists. An example: privacy within the home, of the sort that we today take for granted, was not enjoyed by Plymouth's settlers. (The reason for this fact is that the houses of the settlers were quite small, their families quite large, and most of each person's life was spent very close to his or her home.) Also, by today's standards, childbirth was incredibly dangerous: it killed one in five women. Infant mortality high, too, at about one in ten. And the wide choice of occupations that we moderns enjoy was unavailable to the Plymouth's settlers.
This book is well-researched and well-written. To read it is to learn more about life in early colonial North America. But reading it also provides important perspective for evaluating the immense material prosperity that the institutions bequeathed to us by these settlers - most importantly, private property - have made possible. We today are indeed fortunate.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on December 29, 2005
Format: Paperback
I first read this book while in graduate school during the late 1970s, and I am glad it has been reissued in this new edition. John Demos was one of a group of "new social historians" in the latter 1960s that made colonial New England his domain and reinterpreted what we know about the Puritans "from the bottom up." Including Kenneth A. Lockridge ("A New England Town," 1970), Philip J. Greven ("Four Generations," 1970), and a few others, these historians employed the analysis of legal documents, especially wills and probate records, to uncover the past of the more "ordinary" New Englanders. Concentrating on small units in their study--Demos on Plymouth, Lockridge on Dedham, and Greven on Andover--they also employed, for the first time, material culture analysis of buildings, the accoutrements of everyday life, and findings from historical archeology and anthropology to understand better the nature of colonial New England.

Previously, historians had relied heavily upon letters, diaries, sermons, autobiographies, and other writings to construct their portrait of the Puritans of the seventeenth century. Almost by definition, this documentary record skewed the account toward telling the story of New England's social and political elites. The use of these new materials transformed our understanding of this time and place in American history. It may be hard to appreciate how exciting this approach to American history seemed at the time. These historians, using both the tools of social science and measured statistical analysis, rescued from obscurity the everyday lives of the rank and file who settled New England. William Bradford, Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, and other elites remained significant, but the story was now so much broader and interesting. It was such a breath of fresh air!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Leach HALL OF FAME on August 31, 2004
Format: Paperback
When the historian Edmund Morgan wrote "The Puritan Family" in 1966, he used as his primary sources the sermons and essays of important clergymen to tell the story of the early American social and political elites. John Demos seeks to complement as well as go beyond Morgan's efforts with "A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in the Plymouth Colony." By examining new sources and employing new methodologies, the author fashions a picture of the Puritan family that embraces a wider cross section of the colony's social classes. His sources-including wills, court records, and physical artifacts such as furniture and architecture-reveal a fuller understanding of America's earliest settler families.

The book explodes myth after myth about the Puritans, arguing that the common conception of dour, maniacally religious zealots dedicated to burning witches and ferreting out religious heresies is at best a fabulous oversimplification and at worst outright incorrect. Demos examines the physical setting of the Plymouth colony, particularly the size of the houses, implements of daily living, and clothing. He looks at the structure of the household, and how the various family members interacted with each other and with the larger community. The book goes further by studying how individual settlers developed psychologically from early childhood to old age. In the Plymouth colony, the family functioned as a school, a business, a church, a vocational training ground for community members, and a welfare institution. The author contrasts the American family of three centuries ago with the institution today, claiming that Plymouth families fused every aspect of life into an inseparable whole rooted in the home.
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