I would like to know more about crime and punishment in Colonial America.

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Crime and punishment in Colonial America was very different than crime and punishment are in the modern day United States.  The types of actions that were considered to be crimes were, in many cases, different and the punishments were almost always different than they are today.  This was largely due to the differences in attitudes about how a community was to be held together and attitudes about the dignity of individual human beings.

Today, we tend to think that our communities are held together by our respect for our common rights.  We tend to mete out punishments when our behaviors infringe on the rights of others.  By contrast, the colonists tended to think that communities were held together when people all acted in similar ways and believed in similar things.  Therefore, many actions that are innocuous now were held to be crimes in colonial times.  For example, there were many actions that were crimes because they went against prevailing religious beliefs.  In some colonies, it was a crime to refrain from attending church on Sunday.  It was also a crime to commit adultery.  There were also many crimes against public harmony.  These included things like who were “scolds.”  Of course, things like burglary, theft, and murder were also considered to be crimes in those times.  However, there were many actions that were illegal in colonial times that would be acceptable (or, at the most, seen as social improprieties) today.

Punishment was notably different in colonial times.  There were some punishments, such as fines and execution, which would still be acceptable to many today.  However, colonial Americans resorted to corporal punishments in a way that we would not accept today.  There was essentially no incarceration in those days.  Punishments were carried out on the bodies of the offenders.  These included such things as placing people in stocks or pillories or ducking them repeatedly in water.  They also included more brutal punishments such as whipping, branding, and mutilation (for example, cutting off a person’s nose or ears).  Punishments were almost always conducted in public because part of the punishment was the public humiliation of the offenders.  None of these things is considered to be acceptable in our modern society.

Of course, the colonial period lasted for a very long time (1607 to 1781) and there were many different colonies.  This means that crime and punishment were not the same at every time and place in Colonial America.  However, we can generally say that, when compared to today, different actions were seen as crimes in those days and different punishments were used.

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rachellopez's profile pic

rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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As you would expect, their idea of crime and punishment back in the day was way different than it is now. The punishments for crimes were much more cruel and the crimes weren't ones you would expect to be as severe as they were. One huge crime in colonial times was not attending church.

Every Virginia minister was required to read the "Articles, Lawes and Orders" to his congregation every Sunday, and, among other things, parishioners were reminded that failure to attend church twice each day was punishable in the first instance by the loss of a day's food. A second offense was punishable by a whipping and a third by six months of rowing in the colony's galleys. Which underlines the notion of the law as an arm of religious orthodoxy.

In New England they had laws about lying, laziness, vulgarity, and bad behavior. Sexual actions were also frowned upon and punishment for these serious sexual crimes were severe. There were a lot of cruel punishments, some even being execution.

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parama9000's profile pic

parama9000 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Some crimes could be based off religion, whereas in modern day it does not involve the law.

The law then was more based on principles and ethics compared to now.

eli468's profile pic

eli468 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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There were a few typical punishments in Colonial America. One was to be placed into stocks, which is where there were holes in a wooden plank and a person would sit and have their ankles locked in. What many people refer to in movies as "taking them to the stocks" is actually called a pillory. This is where there were holes for a person's head and hands. This was a very cruel punishment because a person had to stand sometimes for a few hours and others for days, trying to uncomfortably support their body weight while people would throw things at them. This would sometimes caused suffocation. The whipping post was also very common. There was also the punishment of the Ducking stool. This was a chair a criminal would be bound to and them put under water. Fines were normal as well. There was also the punishment of binding out. This is where someone would either act as a servant to work off their crime or a child of the family of the criminal was sent to someone to become a servant. They even banished people from the community as punishment depending on the severe crime.

The crimes that were punished ranged from the similar ones we have today of stealing, murder, public intoxication, and treason. You could also be tried for slander and hog theft as major crimes. One of the most known crimes back then that we do not practice today is going against religious beliefs such as missing church on Sunday. Having a bi-racial child was considered a major crime as well as adultery and fornication. There were also minor crimes such as breaking a promise.

Often how harsh the punishment was depended not only on how many times prior the crime was committed by the criminal, but also by the person's hierarchy among society. The higher class normally received a smaller punishment and could easily lend out a servant to do their bidding. Sexism was also a large factor. Women tended to be punished much worse than a man would for the same crime.

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