The term 'Blue Laws' describes harsh, puritanical laws that regulate public morality. Such laws supposedly existed in colonial America, making it illegal to do such things as kiss a child or shave on Sunday. But in fact, such laws probably never formally existed. The claim that they did was a hoax perpetrated by a writer in the late eighteenth century, the Reverend Samuel Peters.
The phrase 'blue laws' was first used in an anonymous pamphlet published in 1762 titled The Real Advantages Which Ministers and People May Enjoy, Especially in the Colonies, by Conforming to the Church of England
. But Peters was the first person to list examples of such laws in a book he published in 1781 titled A General History of Connecticut
In this work, Peters (who was living in London at the time) described various blue laws that had once existed in Connecticut. He claimed that it had once been the law that "every male should have his hair cut round, according to a cap," that "married persons must live together, or be imprisoned," and that "no one shall run on the Sabbath-day, walk in his garden or elsewhere, except to and from meeting [church]." The punishments for breaking these laws included excommunication, confiscation of property, fines, banishment, whipping, cutting off of the ears, burning of the tongue, or death. Moreover, Peters claimed that many of these laws still remained on the books in Connecticut.
Peters's history caused a sensation in England, where readers felt that his account of these bizarre blue laws confirmed their view that Americans were a backwards, overly fanatical lot. But New Englanders who read the book were outraged, and rightly so. Because Peters had simply made up these blue laws.
Why did Peters invent this fanciful legal history of Connecticut? There are two reasons.
First, he was a wealthy Anglican who had been forced to leave America during the Revolution. Therefore, he had no love for the Connecticut society he had left behind. He wanted to make it look as uptight and repressive as possible.
Second, Peters was dabbling in a literary genre that was only beginning to make its way into print at that time: the tall tale. Sprinkled throughout his history of Connecticut were bizarre claims, such as the assertion that the Connecticut River flowed so fast in places that it could carry a crowbar downstream. He also described a procession of frogs, four miles in length, that once descended upon the town of Windham. Clearly these 'facts' about Connecticut played fast and loose with the truth.
Peters's scheme to darken the history of his former home worked. Even today numerous references can still be found to the infamous Blue Laws of Connecticut.
Links and References
- Wonham, Henry B. "In the Name of Wonder: The Emergence of Tall Narrative in American Writing," American Quarterly, Vol. 41, Issue 2 (June 1989): 284-307.
- Kingsley, William L. "The Blue Laws." The New Englander and Yale Review. April 1871, 243-304.