A review of the laws and records of the courts of colonial New England indicate some ways the early settlers thought about and responded to idiocy. Early Massachusetts laws extended certain rights to idiots: They authorized the transfer of property, exonerated idiots who committed capital crimes, and extended relief to idiots who were impoverished. There is no documentation of the implementation of these laws nor is there direct reference to idiocy in court proceedings. Nevertheless, the court records identify certain individuals with incompetence and atypical behavior suggestive of idiocy. Most of the colonial laws as well as the colonists' ways of thinking about idiocy originated in English common law and custom. The New England colonial laws and records of the courts offer insights into contemporary issues regarding mental retardation.
The laws and court records of colonial New England provide one of the most reliable indications of the ways the early settlers thought about and responded to idiocy. References to idiocy in the New England colonies appear infrequently and primarily within two contexts: Occasional allusions arose in the sermons and writings of Puritan ministers who drew upon the language of idiocy for metaphoric purpose; more commonly, idiocy appeared in colonial laws and court records as a class of vulnerable persons who required protections and relief. In addition, one Puritan sage, Cotton Mather, the author of some of the earliest works of a medical nature in the colonies, remarked on the nature of idiocy in two of his texts (Jones, 1972; Solberg, 1994).
In this paper I explore the legal dimensions of idiocy in Puritan New England because there is considerable material to draw upon that has not been examined by previous researchers and because the legal context of idiocy in colonial New England has important implications for contemporary thought regarding the condition's present-day analog, mental retardation. Such a focus on legal documentation, however, can be misleading if not understood within the larger context of Puritan society. For although Puritans initiated a comprehensive legal system and established offices of authority and courts to oversee its implementation, an analysis of the laws does not explain unequivocally the situation of idiocy in colonial New England. On the contrary, it offers an example of only one of the many approaches to understanding the ways that Puritans may have thought about idiocy in early New England.
The legal heritage of idiocy in colonial New England necessarily originates in the laws and court records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although Plymouth Colony produced the first laws in the New England colonies, it was soon supplanted in volume and importance by the laws of Massachusetts Bay. The laws pertaining to idiocy provide one indication of the distinction of the latter colony's legal system. Massachusetts introduced legal precedents for the other New England colonies in their references to idiocy in both civil and criminal law. As Massachusetts instituted particular provisions regarding idiocy, so, eventually, most of the other colonies followed. Massachusetts' legal precedence was due to the fact that after Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first major settlement to become established in New England. It was led by an unusually purposeful and industrious coterie of gifted men who shared a common vision of God's purpose for the New World. They also shared a heritage of English ways and customs: principles of religion, law, and liberties accorded individuals within an ordered society.
The liberties so valued by the settlers of colonial New England derived from English common law and custom, both as legal principle and as reaction to the practice of law colonists had experienced in England. Fischer (1989) defined four types of liberties held sacrosanct by the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first and most important applied to communities rather than individuals: “Publick liberty” (p. 201) preserved the collective interests at the expense of individual freedoms. Although personal restrictions required legal justification, behavior that threatened the social order was not condoned. Second, liberties were accorded certain individuals who qualified for exemptions from regulations that applied to others. For example, some persons of the upper social ranks were granted liberties to avoid punishment for criminal acts. Third, Puritans espoused liberties to practice their particular faith, a privilege that was denied those of other (or no) faith. Finally, New England colonists believed that individuals should be granted liberties to be relieved of undeserved hardships, not to achieve equity within society but rather simply to protect vulnerable persons. “The Massachusetts poor laws,” wrote Fischer, “however limited they may have been, recognized every individual should be guaranteed a freedom from want in the most fundamental sense” (p. 205), a freedom that was advanced in English as well as colonial law.
The fundamentals of the colonists' interpretations of liberties provide the underlying principles to understand the application of colonial law to idiocy. Significantly, the origins of idiocy in the Massachusetts legal code are found in a document entitled the Body of Liberties, the colony's earliest laws drafted in 1639 and first published in 1641. Many of the principles regarding idiocy in Massachusetts law are expressed in that document. In them we recognize the precedent of contemporary law as it concerns mental retardation. More specifically, the laws regarding idiocy in colonial New England address three central problems: the protection of property owned or inherited by idiots, the exoneration of idiots who commit crimes, and the relief of impoverished idiots. Laws concerned with the first two, regarding property and crime, appeared first in the Body of Liberties. The application of poor relief to idiocy appeared in the Massachusetts laws of 1693. By the turn of the century, the foundation for subsequent legislation regarding idiocy was set in place; there were no significant legal developments until after the Revolution. In the next part of this paper I discuss each of the principles that guided these early laws.
Protection of Property
Any Conveyance or Alienation of land or other estaite what so ever, made by any woman that is married, any childe under age, Ideott or distracted person, shall be good if it be passed and ratified by the consent of a generall Court. (Laws and Liberties, 1976, p. 691)
The inclusion of this law in the Body of Liberties reflected the colonists' concern with several issues. In the first place, the rule delineated a group of individuals who were considered disadvantaged when it came to the transfer of property. In the second place, it drew attention to the importance of land ownership and the transference of real property. Third, it pointed out the colonists' interest in submitting certain civil transactions for court approval and recording. Although each one of these issues had its origins in the practice of English law, each also represented the unique experiences and legal climate of Massachusetts Bay.
In colonial Massachusetts, married women, young children, idiots, and “distracted” persons constituted a class of dependent individuals who required protection, particularly as it concerned the possession, inheritance, and transfer of real property. Married women were included in this class because traditionally they were subordinate to their husband. As defined in English common law, at the time of marriage, a woman's property passed to her husband in return for the husband's material support (Morgan, 1966). In marriage, women retained the rights to one third of their husband's property, but they could not lay claim to that property until after their husband had died. In this regard, the laws of both England and New England agreed (Haskins, 1968; Morgan, 1966). However, Demos (1970) pointed out that married women in Plymouth, on rare occasions, were accorded a share of marital property in the event of separation. Liberty 14 extended additional rights to married women in Massachusetts Bay to inherit and dispose of property without their husband's assent if so approved by the General Court.
A prior law, Liberty 11, granted rights to most individuals to dispose of their property as they wished, with only a few exceptions:
All persons which are of the age of 21 yeares, and of right understanding & meamories, whether excomunicate or condemned shall have full power and libertie to make there wills and testaments, and other lawfull alienations of theire lands and estates. (Laws and Liberties, 1976, p. 691)
Liberty 14 extended Liberty 11 by providing for the lawful transfer of property by those excluded under Liberty 11: children under the age of 21, and those without “right understanding & meamories,” so long as the conveyance was approved and recorded by the General Court. In one important distinction, Liberty 14 required the approval of and recording by the General Court. Such a requirement signified the precedence of English local custom on colony laws in the 1640s. It served to solidify control over land transfers and, thus, stabilized the social order while also guaranteeing title to the individual transfer of the property. With such laws colonists endeavored to avoid the insecurities of land-holding in England, while at the same time they wanted to protect individuals whose interests could easily be taken advantage of (Haskins, 1968).
Neither an Ideott nor a distractid person was defined in Liberty 14. That they are both included in this rule suggests that colonists, like their English countrymen, understood there was a difference between them, a difference that was evident in theory if not necessarily in practice (Andrews, Briggs, Porter, Tucker, & Waddington, 1997). Measures to differentiate between the two are found in English common law as far back as the 13th century. With their origins in Prerogativa Regis, laws of both England and New England recognized the vulnerability of idiots and distracted persons, particularly when it came to the management of property, and acknowledged the threat of exploitation by unscrupulous managers and overseers (Andrews et al., 1997; Neugebauer, 1966).
English law took different approaches to the protection of properties of idiots and to that of distracted persons. Clause 11 of Prerogativa Regis granted the king custody of the inherited lands of “natural fools” and whatever profits they earned above the cost of the fools' maintenance. The likely beneficiary was probably the inheritor of the idiot's estate rather than the idiot him or herself (Andrews et al., 1997). In contrast, Clause 12 granted the king similar custody over the lands of lunatics but returned surplus income to lunatics and their families. In both cases, the king's rights extended to the body as well as personal estate and lands in the 15th century, and the laws provided for the king to transfer his responsibilities to guardians. Incompetency inquisitions were required of both idiots and lunatics in order to confirm the condition (Neugebauer, 1966). Because the English laws represented the king's will, however, it seems likely that they were not vigorously enforced on the local level (Andrews et al., 1997).
This initial law regarding idiocy in 17th century New England, Liberty 14, reflected the Puritan settlers' certainty about their world. They undoubtedly relied on English definitions of idiocy and methods to determine incompetency with which they were familiar (e.g., Brydall, 1700). There would have been no need to reiterate the obvious, any more than there was need to prove the propriety of their religious convictions. To colonists, idiocy existed: Its signs were irrefutable and its effects self-evident, as the laws and the records from the courts attest.
Liberty 14 was not incorporated into the Laws and Liberties of 1648, the first published compilation of the laws of Massachusetts Bay. The traditional reason given is that this particular Liberty was contrary to the laws of England, to which the colonists were beholden (Whitmore, 1889). A central provision of the charters of the original English colonies required conformity with the laws of England: “Noe lawes,” announced the royal charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company, “shall be made contrarie to the laws of this our realme of England” (Haskins, 1968, p. 189).
More specifically, the inclusion of married women in Liberty 14 may have been the offending piece, for there was no legal precedent in England to afford married women the right to transfer property. Similarly, there were no such rights granted children under the age of 21, idiots, or distracted persons, although none of those might indicate as much difficulty as the reference to married women. Black (1976) suggested that Liberty 14 may have been repealed because it was burdensome to administer. She claimed that the provisions of Liberty 14 accounted for a surge in civil cases brought before the General Court in the 1680s, although it seems probable that the law was rescinded earlier than that. Wolford (1948) asserted that the scribe who compiled the Laws and Liberties of 1648 took considerable editorial license with his work; thus, Liberty 14 may have been excluded on a whim. In any event, neither the letter nor the intent of Liberty 14 appeared in the later laws of Massachusetts Bay or in the laws of any of the other New England colonies.
Exoneration in Criminal Cases
No such ambiguity accompanies Liberty 52, an act intended to limit the liability of idiots who may have committed punishable crimes: “Children, Idiots, Distracted persons, and all that are strangers, or new commers to our plantation, shall have such allowances and dispensations in any Cause whether Criminall or other as religion and reason require” (Laws and Liberties, 1976, p. 696). In this case, the protected class—children, idiots, and distracted persons—are joined by strangers and newcomers to the colony.
Whereas later laws sought to curb the settlement of outsiders and monitor their movements and activities, the Liberties responded to the economic climate of the late 1630s with a welcome to newcomers who might bring their skill and strength to augment the labor force. Immigrants all, the first settlers sympathized especially with strangers who might have fled religious oppression, especially if they claimed Puritan convictions. Yet from the very beginning, not all strangers were treated so cordially: Those who threatened the stability of the flegling communities were discouraged from settling down. Only those who shared religious faith and moral standards were encouraged to stay and, presumably only those would have been protected by the laws (Fischer, 1989). Such a distinction would have conformed with English poor laws dating from 1531 that distinguished between various classes of poverty, including the impotent poor; worthy widows and orphans who were traditionally the beneficiaries of charity; the laboring poor, also worthy persons who although employed, earned too little to support their families; and the undeserving, unworthy poor who were accused of idleness and vagrancy (Slack, 1990).
Exoneration from blame for criminal acts extends far back in English legal history. Although practice may have differed from the law, the intent to remove blame from incompetent persons who committed crimes has been an abiding legal principle. Andrews et al. (1997) referred to King Aethelred, who, in the 10th century, considered intentionality when he remarked that “the case is different from that of one who offends of his own free will” (p. 95). Yet in 1212, an idiot required the king's pardon when he was sentenced to prison “because in his witlessness he confessed he is a thief, though in fact he is not to blame” (p. 97). In the reign of Henry III, suicide by idiots and lunatics was not considered a crime as it was for others, nor did idiots and lunatics forfeit their personal or real property as a result of criminal behavior (Andrews et al., 1997).
Such early precedents firmly established what has become known in contemporary law as the “insanity defense.” Today, legal scholars refer to the McNaghten Rules, a set of standards established in mid-1800 England to determine the state of a defendant's mental condition. Although the McNaghten rules are often considered the origins of the insanity defense, the legal lineage goes back to a much earlier time (Boland, 1999). With concern for a criminal's intentions and state of mind, the colonists adopted a firmly established English code that has been maintained in statute and in practice up to the present.
Liberty 52, originally drafted in 1639, was incorporated into the Book of the General Laws and Liberties in 1648 as a provision concerning “Tryalls” held by the General Court. The Colony of Rhode Island adopted similar but even more specific provisions in 1647: In cases of manslaughter
the Penaltie is felonie of death, for which, by divers Lawes of England, no charter of pardon shall be granted; yet this Law extends not to a natural foole that hath not knowledge of good or evill; nor a felonious intent. . . neither doth it concerne a madd man, who is a man, as it were, without a mind; for the saying is: an act makes not a man herein guiltie, unless the mind be guiltie. (Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, 1856, p. 164)
The same law granted leniency to certain individuals who committed burglaries:
When one or more in the night time do breake and enter into a Dwelling house with an intent to robb, or do any other Felonie, where a man, his Wife, Children, or Servants are, be it while they are sleeping or waking, in the same roome or in another, the partie taking or doing something or nothing. This is Felonie of Death, yet it extends not to Infants under fourteen years old, nor to poore persons that steale for Hunger; nor to fooles, nor to madd men, although in the two first we do declare ‘tis Larcenie. Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, 1856, p. 167)
Whereas fools, madmen, and poor persons might be exonerated altogether, children were not so lightly dismissed, presumably because they should have known better.
One might reasonably expect that the records of colonial courts would offer some insights into how the early colonists actually treated idiots and distracted persons who were unfortunate enough to become involved in criminal activities. Rarely, however, is there specific mention of distraction and never of idiocy. The reasons may be twofold: In the first place, individuals thought to be idiots or distracted persons did not appear in court because they were exonerated and dismissed before hearings commenced (McManus, 1993). Second, the language of the records of the courts represents the colloquial usage of the inhabitants rather than the more formal language of the law. We might infer from descriptions of incompetence and peculiar behavior that the colonists may have used ambiguous language to refer to idiots, distracted persons, or others such as older persons afflicted with mental impairments.
Indeed, the differences among these three conditions seem to have been clear to the early New Englanders, as evidenced in these earliest laws. They made exceptions for idiots and distracted persons in Massachusetts and natural fools and madd men in Rhode Island; and although the laws do not explain how the courts should differentiate between idiots and distracted persons, natural fools and mad men, the distinctions may have been obvious to those inhabitants. It also suggests that perhaps there was no need: As McManus (1993) reminded us, those cases rarely reached the courts in the first place.
Even more likely, if one were to be dismissed for criminal prosecution because of incompetence, it did not matter much what one was called. It is tempting, however, to examine the court records with an eye toward making the distinctions between idiocy and distraction and the dementia associated with old age because that has become a consuming task of the human service professions today. For example, in a deposition in 1670, an inhabitant of Massachusetts seems to refer to an idiot rather than a distracted person:
[Deponent] and his sisters took a great deal of care and diligently instructed him in reading and he was also put to school, but he did not gain much of what might have been expected. . . . In his ordenary imployment he was incapashous that I neuar saw one of that age soe unfit for larning & any work in which was needfull to haue discresion used. (Records and Files, 1914, p. 219)
It is also possible that a man who was fined for election fraud in 1647 might have been thought to be an idiot:
It is ordered, yt ye fine of Mighill Smith, for his puting in of three beanes at once for one mans election, it being done in simplicity, & he being pore & of an harmles disposition, it is ordered his fine is suspended till further order from ye Generall Corte. (Records of the Governor and Company, 1853, p. 189)
The fact that Mr. Smith was poor and harmless as well as simple no doubt helped his case.
Another example, taken from testimony given in 1675 on behalf of a man with inexplicable behavior, could refer to either idiocy or distraction:
I haue obserued John Jackson to haue a strang motion upon his spirit that if he be parswaded to ackt at all it is to ouar act ore to overdoe that I haue obserued both in his working and dealing and soe did act at tow seuerall times that I asked him the reason of it why he should not ackt as other men doe for at that time he wrought as if he would destroy himself: . . . the reason of which frame he tould me he could not tell but it came upon him about the time theay took him from school: for he said he had great delight in leaving. (Records and Files, 1917, p. 27)
This testimony depicted a man who found schooling repugnant, an attitude that may have reflected difficulties in learning suggestive of idiocy. But despite the mention of school, the situation better represents the energy and unpredictability of distraction occasioned by the “strong motion upon his spirit” and the fellow's tendency to “ouar act ore to overdoe.”
More ambiguous yet are the entries that read like this one from the Plymouth County in March 1690/1691:
Elizabeth Thomas . . . was ordered by court to “pay a fine of five pound or be publikly whipt and pay Court fees” for fornication as convicted at September court. But the Court considering her weakness both of body and minde at the Request of some of her relations have remitted half said fine. (Plymouth Court Records, 1978, p. 207)
We have no idea what Elizabeth Thomas' “weakness” may have been, other than that it affected both her body and her mind, it was observed by her relatives, and it was significant enough to warrant leniency by the court.
A further note on this topic concerns the victims of serious crimes. Take Mary Phips, for example, the victim of sexual abuse. Mary was not called an idiot by those who testified on her behalf, but they thought her close to it—“a mere naturall”—and she was certainly understood as a person who lacked the essential qualities to protect herself. She was described in the Charlestown Court in 1690 as a girl who was
void of common reason and understanding that is in other children of her age, not capable of discerning between good and evil or any morality . . . but she knows persons and remembers persons. She is next to a mere naturall in her intellectuals. . . . She is incapable of resisting a rape have[ing] one side quite palsied. . . [we] have to help her as a meer child. (Thompson, 1986, p. 138)
This brief description of Mary Phips serves as the most thorough portrayal in New England colonial records of the characteristics of an individual thought to be a “natural,” a “natural fool,” or, most likely, an idiot. It presents three criteria that the girl was unable to meet: First, she lacked the ability to reason and understand that was typical for other children her age; second, she was unable to discern good from evil, thus she lacked the requisite moral qualities; and third, she required the assistance that a young child might need. Furthermore, Mary Phips seems to have had a physical problem that left her disabled on one side. One test she did pass: She could recognize and remember other persons, an accomplishment that, due to the fact that it was noted and recorded, may have been significant.
Finally, before leaving the topic, it is important to note that there are no references to idiocy in the witch trials of Massachusetts Bay; and although witchcraft was a very real and terrifying presence in 17th-century New England, there is also no evidence that witches were afflicted with madness as it was understood at that time (Demos, 1982; Fox, 1968). Certain descriptions of the accused, however, raise the question of idiocy. According to Robert Calef, a contemporary source of dubious reliability (Silverman, 1985), the records of the General Court of Salem that met in 1693 indicated that only 3 of 56 persons indicted for witchcraft were found guilty, “two of which were (as appears by their Behaviour) the most senseless and ignorant Creatures that could be found.” And one of those two was “simplish at the best” (Burr, 1914/1975, p. 382). The suggestion lingers that these two may have been characterized by idiocy, although such slender evidence warrants caution in interpretation.
New England Poor Laws
Early New England colonial law approached the subject of the poor indirectly through statutes intended to control the movement of individuals from one jurisdiction to another and to ensure their productivity once settled. Poverty was a situation to be avoided altogether, for both the moral and the economic costs were greater than the colonies wanted to bear. Many colonists had witnessed firsthand the perils of poverty in England and endeavored to avoid its social and financial costs. Although in England there were resources of private wealth and religious institutions to address the needs of the homeless, unemployed, sick and disabled, widowed and orphaned, in New England the poor who had no family members to care for them were dependent on the public beneficence of the communities in which they lived. Every attempt was made to limit the burden upon the local jurisdiction, most notably in the form of “settlement laws,” which regulated and documented the movement of persons from one community to another. Such control was hardly original to the colonies: England had established similar laws 100 years earlier (Slack, 1995).
I quote in full the first poor law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was originally enacted in 1639, in order to convey the context of social control and to situate poverty within that context:
It is ordered by this [General] Court and Authoritie therof; that any Shire Court, or any two Magistrates out of Court shall have power to determin all differences about lawfull setling, and providing for poor persons: and shall have power to dispose of all unsetled persons into such towns as they shall judge to be most fit for the maintainance, and imployment of such persons and families, for the ease of the Countrie. (Laws and Liberties, 1976, p. 50)
A later expansion of this law in 1658 elaborated on the need for towns to avoid “all future inconveniences referring to the settling of poor People that may need reliefe from the place where they dwell” (Laws and Liberties, 1976, p. 134). Perhaps responding to problems that arose in making these determinations, towns were required to notify poor settlers if they were deemed undesirable inhabitants. If not so warned, towns were obligated to provide the requisite support.
Certain distracted persons were included among those settlers likely to be considered undesirable. The first laws in New England to address such problems appeared in 1676 in Massachusetts Bay:
Whereas there are distracted persons in some Towns that are Unruly, whereby not only the Families wherein they are, but other[s] suffer much [da]mage by them. It is Ordered by this Court and the Authority thereof; That the Select men in all Towns where such persons are, are hereby Impowred and Injoyned to take Care of all such persons that they do not Damnifie others. (Laws and Liberties, 1976, p. 492)
In this way the poor laws of Massachusetts Bay initially addressed the problem of distracted persons to the exclusion of idiots. A subsequent statute extended the provisions of the Act of 1676 and incorporated idiocy into poor relief. Massachusetts Bay established the standard for the other colonies with An Act for the Relief of Ideots and Distracted Persons, passed in 1693 (Massachusetts Province Laws, 1978, pp. 79–80). Its replica can be found in the colonial laws of Connecticut (Acts and Laws, 1702) and New Hampshire (First Laws, 1981). The Massachusetts Act itself is too lengthy to include here, but there are portions that are important enough to excerpt, for the law provides insight into the ways colonists thought about idiots and distracted persons. An idiot, according to the law, was “any person to be naturally wanting of understanding, so as to be uncapable to provide for him or her self,” as differentiated from those that “by the Providence of God, shall fall into Distraction, and become Non compos mentis.” In three places the term impotent is substituted for idiot.
These brief descriptions reinforce the interpretation that colonists thought of idiocy as a life-long, generally nonthreatening yet debilitating condition, whereas distraction was a condition that one could “fall into” and presumably recover from. Indeed, the Act provides for the “relief and safety of such Impotent or Distracted Person . . . as long as such person shall live, or until he or she be restored to be of sound mind.” Absent from the Act of 1693 is any reference to the troublesome qualities of distracted persons, and nowhere in early colonial law is there evidence that idiots shared the opprobrium cast upon distracted persons in the law of 1676.
Family members figured again in the Act of 1693: When “no Relations appear that will undertake the care of providing for them,” Selectmen and Overseers of the Poor were authorized to provide necessary relief for idiots and distracted persons. Deleted from this law is any reference to the need to protect family members who “suffer much” from distracted relatives, although it is clear that families bore the primary responsibility for their care. Within the region where such an individual was considered an inhabitant, the Overseers of the Poor were authorized to
take effectual care, and make necessary provision for the relief, support, and safety of such Impotent or Distracted Person, at the charge of the Town or place whereto he or she of right belongs; if the party has not Estate of his or her own, the incomes whereof may be sufficient to defray the same. (Massachusetts Province Laws, 1978, p. 80)
The method of payment for their care was of paramount concern: Justices of the Peace were authorized to
dispose the Estate of such Impotent or Distracted Person to the best improvement and advantage towards his or her support as also the person to any proper work or service he or she may be capable to be imployed in.
If the property of such a person needed to be sold, the
produce thereof upon sale [is] to be secured, improved and imployed to and for the use, relief and safety of such Impotent or Distracted Person, the over-plus (if any be) to and for the use of the next and right Heirs of such party. (Massachusetts Province Laws, 1978, p. 80)
Whereas in the Act of 1676, town Selectmen and Overseers of the Poor were designated the responsible authorities to supervise the care and property of distracted persons, the Act of 1693 authorized Justices of the Peace within the counties to dispose of personal property if necessary to pay bills for the support of idiots and distracted persons. An order of Justices of the Superior Court was needed to dispose of real property. This judicial system was simplified somewhat with the appointment of guardians to oversee the person and property. Rhode Island took the initiative in 1742 with An Act empowering the several Town Councils of this Colony, to have the Care and Oversight of All Persons who are Delirious, Distracted, or Non Compos Mentis, and their estates. (Laws Made and Pass'd, 1742, pp. 248–249). Connecticut passed a similar act in 1750 (Capen, 1968), and Massachusetts followed with a corresponding law in 1784 (Perpetual Laws of the Commonwealth, 1981, pp. 101–103).
In 1699, threatened with the growing dissolution of the Puritan bonds that originally held the colony together, Massachusetts lawmakers passed An Act for the Suppressing and Punishing of Rogues, Vagabonds, common Beggars, and other leud, idle & disorderly persons; And also for setting the Poor to work (Massachusetts Province Laws, 1978, pp. 166–169). Within this law were rules for establishing a “House of Corrections” intended to punish miscreants and correct their moral turpitude. Over two dozen kinds of corruption and vice were listed in the Act as targets for correction, but neither idiocy nor distraction were among them.
Summary and Conclusion
The laws and court records just discussed offer important insights into the ways the early colonists of New England may have thought about idiocy. In the articulation of their laws, colonists provided cursory definitions of the condition of idiocy, and they differentiated it from distraction. In addition, their extension of certain liberties to idiots indicate that members of the early New England communities perceived idiots as persons who were vulnerable, susceptible to the aggressions of others, capable of committing crimes but free from blame, and worthy recipients of public assistance. To conclude this paper, I summarize these issues briefly in order to demonstrate the meanings of idiocy that extend from colonial New England into the present.
The colonists' laws and court records imply interpretations of idiocy that are notably brief. The language is both ambiguous and inclusive, and, indeed, only the Laws of 1693 provide much indication of the meaning of idiocy. Although that law defines an idiot as “any person to be naturally wanting of understanding, so as to be uncapable to provide for him or her self,” it goes no further. The frequent substitution of the term impotent in the Laws of 1693 further obfuscates the meaning of idiocy, although the title of the Act is clear: An Act for the Relief of Ideots and Distracted Persons. It seems obvious that the colonists drew upon their English heritage to define idiocy, although there is no indication that they ever had to apply a test to determine an individual's competence.
The meaning of idiocy becomes clearer when compared with distraction, a condition that received more attention in the colonial laws and is somewhat less ambiguous. Distraction, in the Act of 1693, is a condition that one might “fall into,” with the possibility of recovery at a later time. The laws of 1676 portray some distracted persons as “unruly,” so disruptive as to bring suffering to their families and others. Unlike distraction, idiocy appears to be neither temporary nor disorderly. Put more positively, one can conclude from these laws and the records of court procedures that colonists thought of idiocy as a permanent condition of dependency that required the oversight and intervention of town and county authorities. Accordingly, such persons were more likely to be pitied and dismissed than feared and rebuked, although we can be sure that the authorities provided relief in only the most dire cases.
Idiocy is further defined by the liberties to which they were entitled. Idiots were identified as members of a vulnerable class and, as such, they were granted rights to protection from unscrupulous caretakers, to claim exemption from punishments for criminal behavior, and to be relieved from the effects of poverty. Thus, it appears that the early colonists viewed idiocy as an affliction that could not be explained by the moral or spiritual deprivation of the individual; they were not necessarily “bad” or “evil” people, and it seems unlikely that they were held accountable for their problems. As such, idiots would have joined the ranks of the “worthy” poor, those persons who, through no fault of their own and without family members and personal estate, were unable to secure a means for living (Foster, 1971).
Legislative acts regarding welfare and crime in effect today throughout the United States have descended directly from these earliest colonial statutes. In comparison with the few laws that were enacted in colonial New England to protect the liberties of idiots and to provide for their relief, there are now innumerable statutes and court decisions on the federal, state, and local levels that promote the rights of persons with mental retardation and provide protection and support. Although present laws and court procedures are regularly criticized for their failures to assure justice and equity, it is unlikely that anyone today would want to return to the spare, enigmatic legal system of colonial New England. Present laws incorporate and expand the purpose of their predecessors: Today's laws are intended to protect people with mental retardation from personal harm and social injustice; they extend allowances in criminal cases for individuals with mental disabilities; and they assure relief from poverty and provide social welfare.
Like colonial law and the situation of idiocy, today's legislation exacts a price from persons with mental retardation. In order to become eligible for benefits, individuals with mental retardation must identify with members of a vulnerable class who are thought to be similar. Today, this class is well-defined and, like its counterpart in the colonial era, it is, on the whole, negatively perceived. Its members are usually considered intellectually and socially incompetent; they are often thought to be incapable of working and earning a living and are, thereby, impoverished; their condition is assumed to be relatively permanent, so there is frequently little hope for personal development; and, in contrast to people with psychiatric disabilities, individuals with mental retardation are usually perceived as less personally and socially threatening. If their behavior conforms with these purported characteristics, and if they abide by the moral and civil codes of society, persons with mental retardation are deemed eligible beneficiaries of public support and protection. Indeed, attributes imputed to participants in today's social programs are not that distant from descriptions of the “worthy poor” in the colonial era. Just as we learn about idiocy from the colonial laws and their implementation, so too we discover insights into the meaning of mental retardation from knowledge of contemporary legal systems. The meanings attributed to mental retardation today may be one of the most persistent legacies of colonial New England law.
Author:Parnel Wickham, PhD, Associate Professor, Special Education, Dowling College. Requests for reprints should be sent to PO Box 999, Cutchogue, NY 11935.