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Dedham: A Model 17th Century New England Town

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Dedham: A Model 17th Century New England Town

        The United States has not always enjoyed the social and political stability that Americans are accustomed to today.  There have been many reformations throughout our nation’s rich history, which have led to the freedom and opportunity we presently benefit from.  Kenneth A. Lockridge demonstrates how a single town can be used to describe life in pre-industrial America with his book, A New England Town.  Dedham, Massachusetts embodies the essence of the political and social structures typically found in 17th century agricultural colonies and is the focus of Lockridge’s book.

        English Puritans seeking to create “godly communities” and  “social harmony” settled many early colonial New England villages (American Horizon page 72).  Puritans did not practice democracy; their only formal political views stemmed from the Bible, in the form of covenants.  Each village had their own covenant that outlined their duties as faithful followers, which were obeyed without question.  They believed that by doing so they were “binding posterity in a continuing testimony to the hunger for social perfection”.  It was required that all people attended church, or paid a fine in their absence. Other laws prohibited sex outside of marriage and working on the Sabbath. The church closely monitored the actions of the colonists, and each man observed the actions of his neighbor. This allowed for little privacy among Puritan families, lessening the occurrence of sin.  Colonists believed that by violating the covenant they would “…invite divine wrath upon themselves” (American Horizons page 72).  Mediators or arbitrators settled local disputes between individuals.  The decisions made by the mediators were seen as final and were considered the highest court.  “The covenants that every member of the towns signed made it clear that such local control of resources, leadership, and the resolution of disputes was intended to keep power over the town within the town.”pg27

        Puritan settlements had, for the most part, unique and defining qualities such as covenants and well-defined gender and age rolls.  It is because of these qualities that Dedham can be used as a model for other villages during the same time period.  Lockridge describes how “The impulses which lead its founders to create that social synthesis were in fact common to the founders of nearly all the towns in the first waves of New England settlement” (Page 167 A New England Town).  Most colonists arrived from England, and therefore social ideals did not vary too much from town to town.  The qualities of the Puritan society described in American Horizons are almost interchangeable with the characteristics of Dedham (pg72).  This is also the case for many other Puritan towns, allowing Dedham’s history to “illuminate the larger history of its times and nation” (Page 165 A New England Town).  

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