Colonial Village: The Heartbeat of Early America.
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Homelessness in Colonial New England


Since starting this weekly column in June 2022 I’ve covered lots of topics, including homelessness in late medieval England — but I’ve shorted American history. Since today, April 19, is the anniversary of the battles in Lexington and Concord that started the Revolutionary War in 1775, it’s a good day on which to take a rapid ride through the New England countryside and summarize common responses to homelessness in the 17th and 18th centuries.

First, some opened their homes, with local government paying some out-of-pocket costs. Here’s a note from the Fairfield, Connecticut, town council meeting of April 16, 1673: “Seriant Squire and Sam moorhouse to Take care of Roger knaps family in this time of their great weaknes.” Minutes from the Chelmsford, Massachusetts, town meeting in November 1753 speak of a payment to “Mr. W. Parker for taking one Joanna Cory, a poor child of John Cory, deceased, and to take care of her while [until] 18 years old.”

The need to offer personal help and hospitality became a frequent subject of sermons, which in colonial days powerfully shaped community values. Sermons were the major media, so church attenders would pay attention to sermon statements like this one by Boston’s Benjamin Colman in 1725: ”Acts of Compassion and Mercy to our poor and needy Brethren [are] esteemed by the Lord of the Sabbath to be Holiness to himself.” When Colman explained that “compassion and Mercy to the poor is Conformity to God,” it is unlikely that many wanted to be out of conformity.

Second, justices of the peace frequently appointed “overseers of the poor.” Their job was to set up poorhouses that would be maintained by the work of their inhabitants. Even the “most degraded” homeless person would not have to starve — but the existence of the poorhouse also allowed local authorities to decree that no one was entitled to receive any material provision outside the poorhouse. (That’s almost parallel to today’s differentiation of legal or illegal campsites, or to attempts to restrict handing out food in parks.) Typical ordinance: “If any poor person shall refuse to be lodged, kept, maintained and employed in such house or houses, he or she shall not be entitled to receive relief from the overseers during such refusal.”

That was the attempt to keep order in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, which also had strict internal by-laws for running the workhouse. Rule seven: “The master of the workhouse shall have power to reward the faithful and industrious by granting favors and . . . to punish at his discretion the idle, stubborn, disorderly and disobedient by immediate confinement without any food other than bread and water.” Rule eight: “The master of the workhouse shall cause said house and furniture to be kept clean and in good order, and shall cause habits of cleanliness, neatness and decency to be strictly observed by all persons received into said workhouse.”

Part of such tough love grew out of the sense that Americans had to conquer what Pilgrim governor William Bradford called “a hideous and desolate wilderness…. What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and His grace?”  Their understanding about marriage — it was not good for man to be alone — extended, in a looser sense, to their understanding of neighborhood: It was not good for man to be alone in a social wilderness. Through compassion they hatcheted vines and chopped down some of the trees. They used that wood to build good fences with swinging gates — and they left some trees standing for shade and beauty.

Settlers from Europe during colonial times and into the nineteenth century waged a vast war on what they saw as wilderness. The homeless found shelter from storms and starvation: Benevolent societies started up after the Revolution and in the early nineteenth century, first in large cities and then in towns both north and south. French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1820s was amazed by how strongly Americans felt “compassion for the sufferings of one another.”

New Englanders refused to settle for the feed-and-forget principle or its equally depersonalizing but harsher opposite, the forget-and-don’t-feed standard. They saw individuals made in the image of God, and when they saw someone acting disgracefully they responded, “You don’t have to be that way. You’re better than this. We expect more from you than an arm thrust out for food.”

In two weeks, I’ll take you down the coast to New York City, which by 1775 was the largest city in British America, and the biggest experimenter in ways to help the homeless.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.