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Servitude in New England
Digital History ID 66

Author:   John Winter


In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1690), the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) declared that in the beginning "all the world was America." By this, he meant that freedom was peoples' natural condition and that even after they formed a social compact and subjected themselves to government, they maintained certain fundamental rights. Ironically, despite his philosophy of inalienable rights, Locke was the last major philosopher to justify slavery.

Locke, like many Europeans before and after, associated the New World with freedom and equality. In colonial New England, however, many young people served a term of service prior to marriage. While frequently idealized as a family-like relationship in which a master and a mistress functioned as parents and teachers, service could also involve exploitation and resistance.

In the following selection, John Winter of Richmond Island, Maine, defends his wife against charges that she had cruelly beaten Priscilla, their servant. This selection not informs us about the kinds of work that servants performed and the conditions under which they labored, but also suggests how a shortage of labor in New England made it difficult to regulate servants' lives.


You write me of some yll reports is given of my Wyfe for beatinge the maid; yf a faire waye will not do yt, beatinge must, sometimes, uppon such Idlle girrells as she is. Yf you think yt fitte for my wyfe to do all the worke & the maide sitt still, she must forbeare her hands to strike, for then the worke wll ly undonn. She hath bin now 2 years 1/2 in the house, & I do not thinke she hath risen 20 times before my Wyfe hath bin up to Call her, and many tymes light the fire before she Comes out of her bed. She hath twize [runaway] the woodes, which we have bin faine to send all our Company to seeke. We Cann hardly keep her within doores after we a gonn to beed, except we Carry the key of the doore to beed with us. She never Could melke Cow nor goat since she Came hither.... She Cannot be trusted to serve a few piggs, but my wyfe most Commonly must be with her.

James Pinney Baxter, ed., Trelawny Papers (Portland: Hoyt, Fogg, and Donham, 1884)

Source: James Pinney Baxter, ed., Trelawny Papers (Portland, Me.: Hoyt, Fogg, and Donham, 1884)

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