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The bundled Americans
- Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.
When did it start? Was it with the bundling? Was that the start of the pervasive culture of deception that’s now evolved into the mythic existence often referred to as American exceptionalism or what some would characterize as the American Dream become a nightmare?
Shall we blame the Puritans?
Historian Henry Reed Stiles tells us:
This amazing increase may, indeed, be partly ascribed to a singular custom prevalent among them, commonly known by the name of bundling—a superstitious rite observed by the young people of both sexes, with which they usually terminated their festivities, and which was kept up with religious strictness by the more bigoted and vulgar part of the community. This ceremony was likewise, in those primitive times, considered as an indispensable preliminary to matrimony. . . . To this sagacious custom do I chiefly attribute the unparalleled increase of the Yankee tribe; for it is a certain fact, well authenticated by court records and parish registers, that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats annually born unto the state. (Stiles 1871, p. 50–53)
Writing well after the Civil War about “primitive times,” Stiles already perceives a considerable amount of hypocrisy or self-deception must have been at work to promote the “increase” of the despised Yankees. Whatever the expectation, the opinion of a Reverend Samuel Peters that
It is certainly innocent, virtuous and prudent, or the puritans would not have permitted it to prevail among their offspring. … People who are influenced more by lust, than a serious faith in God, ought never to bundle. . . . I am no advocate for temptation; yet must say, that bundling has prevailed 160 years in New England, and, I verily believe, with ten times more chastity than the sitting on a sofa.
seems not to have been borne out by the facts. But, in concluding with what he “verily” believes, Peters already provides a hint of a wealth of information that turns out not worthy of belief. For, if the histories are correct, then it was this same Samuel Peters, being quoted in 1871, who was responsible for a faux history of Connecticut which he had published in London in 1781, after having been persuaded to depart the colony by the Sons of Liberty in 1774.
“A General History of Connecticut, from its First Settlement under George Fenwick, Esq.,” may well have been an act of revenge, but it’s persistent use as the historical basis for Connecticut’s supposed blue laws , which never actually existed can’t be blamed on him. The Reverend Peters provided the text, but the myth was perpetrated by others.
Though they lead me astray from my purpose in tracing the generation of American myth from the colonial practice of bundling (securing young women in beds, sometimes with a “duffel-like chastity bag,” and professing surprise at the consequent “bundles of joy”) to the present day economic mischief that’s been perpetrated by selling “bundled” paper assets as if they had real value, the particulars of Peters’ story are really too delicious not to detour through a few quotes.
The late Professor J. L. Kingsley, in the notes to his Historical Discourse at New Haven (1838), was at the pains of pointing out “‘ a few of the errors “-as he charitably named them-of “the work which, more than any other, has given currency to various misrepresentations respecting the New Haven colony: ” and in this connection, he quoted a remark made by, the Rev. Dr. Trumbull, the historian, who was a townsman of Peters and had known him from childhood, -that, “of all men with whom he had ever been acquainted , Dr. Peters, he had thought, from his first knowledge of him, the least to be depended upon as to any matter of fact; especially in story-telling.” The best excuse that can be made for him is, that he was a victim of pseudomania; that his abhorrence of truth was in fact a disease, and that he was not morally responsible for its outbreaks.
The perpetrators of myth are “not morally responsible.” Haven’t we heard that recently?
And then where Peters says this of himself,
“In proportion to a man’s goodness, is he persecuted. Mr. Peters’s stile of life in Connecticut was generous and exemplary, and his fortune considerable. It is most likely he would have arrived to the Government of the Colony, had he not forsaken the Republican system of his ancestors, and become an admirer of the English constitution and a convert to the Church of England.”
it is explained that:
To descend to prose: Mr. Peters was born in Hebron in 1735, graduated at Yale College in 1757, went to England for episcopal ordination, and returned in 1760, to take charge of the little episcopal church in his native town, where he continued to reside till the beginning of the revolutionary contest. In 1774, his obstinate and aggressive toryism rendered him very obnoxious to his neighbors and finally provoked the resentment of the Sons of Liberty. A party of two or three hundred men paid him a visit, threatened him (so he averred) with tar and feathers, handled him somewhat roughly when they detected him in falsehood, and drew from him a promise that he would not again meddle in public affairs. After a few weeks, he gave new offence, and was again called to account. This time, he was made to subscribe, “without equivocation or mental reservation,” a pledge to support the “measures taken to obtain redress of our grievances,” etc. He was not much hurt, in person or property, but was badly frightened, and apprehensive of worse to come. He fled from Hebron to Boston, breathing out threatenings and slaughter against his tormentors. “For my telling the Church people not to take up arms, etc., it being high treason, etc.,”-he wrote from his place of refuge, to his friend, the Rev. Dr. Auchmuty, of New York,-” the Sons of Liberty have destroyed my windows, rent my clothes, even my gown, etc., crying out, down with the Church, the rags of Popery, etc.; their rebellion is obvious-treason is common-and robbery is their daily diversion : the Lord deliver us from anarchy.” He found his only comfort in the anticipation that, if his plans of vengeance should succeed, Connecticut might be blotted out: “the bounds of New York may directly extend to Connecticut river, Boston meet them, New Hampshire take the Province of Maine, and Rhode Island be swallowed up as Dathan.” In October 1774, he sailed for England, where he remained until 1805. He obtained a small pension from the crown, and some compensation for the property he professed to have lost in Connecticut: and it was perhaps in the hope of eking out a livelihood, as well as of gratifying his resentment, that he employed his pen in abuse of the colony which gave him birth, and the religion of his fathers. He did not, says Mr. Duykinck, ” carry his point of dismembering Connecticut,-but he punished the natives almost as effectually by writing a book-his History of the State. It was published anonymously, but it was as plainly Peter’s as if every page had been subscribed by him, like the extorted declarations.”
And of the book?
It would have fallen forever into the oblivion it merits, had it not been that its malignant fabrications have supplied so many respectable and reverend authors with facilities for breaking the ninth commandment without incurring personal responsibility.
That’s a wonderful sentence. How many contemporary deceptions does it explain?
Its narrations,” says Duykinck, in his notice of the author, “are independent of time, place, and probability. A sober critic would go mad over an attempt to correct its misstatements.” What could sober criticism do, for instance, with the account of Bellows Falls, where “the water is consolidated by pressure, by swiftness, between the pinching, sturdy rocks, to such a degree of induration that no iron crow can be forced into it and the stream is ”harder than marble ” (p. 127),-or, with the bridge over the Quinebaug, at Norwich, ” under which ships pass with all their sails standing “(p. .130),-or with “the in-famous villainy of [the Rev. Thomas] Hooker, who spread death upon the leaves of his Bible and struck Connecticote (a great Sachem) mad with disease ” (134),-or with the Rev. Mr. Vesey’s exorcism of the devils who came to attend an Indian powwaw at Stratford, and the resulting introduction of episcopacy into Connecticut (215- 217),-or with the statement, that the people of Massachusetts ” sent Mr. John Winthrop privately to Hartford, to promote a petition to Charles II. for a charter, as a security against the ambition of New Haven ” (74),- or with the assertion that Yale College was “originally a school established by the Rev. Thomas Peters at Say-brook ” (199),-or with the story of the alarming incursions of the Windham frogs, or the descriptions of those remarkable quadrupeds “the whappernocker ” and ” the cuba,”-or with the conviction and punishment of an episcopal clergyman in 1750, for breaking the Sabbath by walking too fast from church and combing a lock of his wig on Sunday (p. 305),-or, in fine, with any half-dozen consecutive sentences in this wonderful “History.” Its lies, like Falstaff’s, are ” gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” Indeed, some of the apologists for Peters have insisted that he never intended his book to he believed. Yet-through this slough of mendacity, a Lord Bishop of Oxford (Wilberforce) could wade, to cull specimens of the “Blue Code of Connecticut ” which ” made it criminal in a mother to kiss her infant on the Sabbath-day,” and “which strictly forbids making mince-pies,”etc., etc., *-and the Reverend Henry Caswall, “D. D. of Trinity College, Connecticut, Prebendary of Sarum,” etc., could repeat in his work on ” The American Church and the American Union,” (on the authority of this History of Connecticut, “as quoted by the Bishop of Oxford”} the story of ” the fundamental principles of the New Haven settlement/’ and ” the most remarkable of the laws passed by the New Haven dominion”,-and the Reverend Isaac Taylor, vicar of Holy Trinity, Twickenham, can transfer to the pages of his ” Words and Places ” (4th edition, 1873, p. n,) these same blue laws, “mince-pies, trumpet, drum, Jews’-harp,” and all, as ” a curious picture of life in this Puritan Utopia,” and can retain through several editions of a popular book a statement which he had, to say the least, good reason to suspect to be untrue -that these laws are “given by Hutchinson,”-and the Reverend J. S. M Anderson, Chaplain to the Queen, etc., etc., in a ” History of the Church of England in the Colonies,” can quote, and cite as authority (vol. ii. pp. 353, 354) this “General History of Connecticut ” of 1781. With such teachings is it strange that the average Englishman believes the story of the ‘ Blue Laws ‘ as implicitly as he believes the Thirty-nine Articles-and with much less mental reservation.
How is it that one man’s mischief can spread to far and before the days of television?
When divines, jurists, and learned professors concur in maintaining that fiction is fact, we cannot wonder that so many of the laity are under the “delusion, that they should believe a lie.” Every now and then, the well-worn specimens of “New Haven Blue Laws” go the rounds of the newspaper press-and certain classes of readers swallow them with as much avidity and confidence as they swallow the quack nostrums advertised in the next column. “Thousands,” said Professor Kingsley/’have believed implicitly in the existence of the ‘blue laws’ who could scarcely be said to have any other article of faith.” With such, disproof avails no more than contradiction. He who is predetermined to believe, will believe. Inshallah! In the bitterness of political strife, between 1800 and the triumph of “Democracy and Toleration” in Connecticut in 1817, the “Blue Laws” were much talked of by the opponents of “steady habits” and “the standing order.” During the war of 1812-1814, the “Blue Lights” story came into being, and supplied another taunt at the federalists. In 1817, a poem was published in New York, entitled: “Blue Lights, or The Convention. In four Cantos. By Jonathan M. Scott, Esq.” Of course, the author introduces some allusions to the Blue Laws. Fie tells how the law-students in Yale College are taught to
“Explain old codes, and wisely shew The good effects of statutes Blue, Beneath whose stern control, the swain Might never swear nor drink in Tain ; Whose rule the nuptial kiss restrains On Sabbath day, in legal chains; And should some youth, in daring brunt, Answer with oath the dire affront, Enrich’d by pettifogging toil, The parish battens on the spoil; And should the rash offender fail To pay the fine or find his bail, In cloven stick his tongue must rest, ‘Till ev’ning shades embrown the west.”-(p. 81.)
The adjective in the title of this little essay on an American practice is necessary because not all the peoples of the Americas seem similarly afflicted either by the consequences of historical bundling or the persistent rejection of reality, as evidenced by the failure to appreciate that citizenship, for example, isn’t a privilege or a designation of special status, but rather a bundle of obligations (to vote, to serve on juries, to hold public office, to provide material support, to draft legislation and enforce the laws), which assume active participation, not passive reliance on authority.
Rendering the population passive seems to have been overlooked as a possible motivation for the practice of bundling, wrapping young women up and subjecting them to the attentions of “suitors” under the strict supervision of their parents. Similarly, where “bundled” investments were sold by Wall Street as vehicles to a secure future in retirement, that security implies a tied-down state of immobilization wasn’t realized until those “retirement portfolios” vanished into thin air.
Was there conscious deception? Would it make a difference?
To answer that, let me back-track just a little to the fact that there’s a logical gap between the information based on the experience of creating/producing/selling a good or service and the expectation of the using/consuming/buyer of that good or service. It’s a gap that’s exponentially increased by distance and time and which led, early in the history of trade and exchange, to the development of various methods of accounting to insure, at least, accuracy in weights and measures. In addition, this gap attracted individuals as traders to serve as transmitters and mediators of the commercial relationship — to serve as honest brokers, if you will, and insure, to the best of their ability that expectation and experience would be equalized. But, who would keep the brokers honest seems to have been largely overlooked.
Was it always that way? Was “buyer beware” the commercial excuse for practicing deception from the start? If it has been going on from before the time ships were laden with bundles of Africans, whom their clans were reputed not to want, why were these gross deceptions not exposed and brought to a halt? Is it because without the fictions the American experiment would fall apart? Do we need the myths to bundle up and feel secure?
“Oh what a tangled web we weave.”
Consider just the myth of free enterprise alone. That it is a myth is beyond dispute. Since the crowned heads of Europe issued charters and land grants to explorers and traders, the commercial interests of the day, there hasn’t been a time when commerce hasn’t relied on the protection of the military and the legal protection of the state for back-up. And yet the myth persists, if only, it seems, to deprive the rest of the population of equal rights. Now that the privileges of the commercial class have been exposed, social obligations are to be universally denied.
It’s as if, once Santa has been exposed as a myth, we’re no longer going to get any gifts. I’m reminded of my mother deciding that the grandsons could have no tonic, if they weren’t willing to have some gin. Which, I guess, reminds us that people who deceive shouldn’t be relied on because all they produce is a tangle.
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