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Conceptions of idiocy in colonial Massachusetts.

Little is known about idiocy in colonial America. A condition analogous to mental retardation, idiocy has been neglected in studies of the American colonies partly because of the paucity of documentation and partly because of the disinterest of scholars. Those works which do touch on idiocy leave fragmented, incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate impressions of the ways colonists thought about and responded to the condition. In 1983 Richard Scheerenberger, in his history of mental retardation, produced the only text which treats idiocy in the colonial era in depth. (1) According to Scheerenberger, the colonists in America were initially tolerant of idiocy. They extended to idiots the same provisions they did to all others who were destitute and without family members and they imposed the same restrictions upon them. When the colonies were first settled, he wrote, the towns sometimes provided relief for their care. But beneficence toward idiots gradually eroded and generosity changed to hostility. Scheerenberger told the story this way, incorporating the words of Albert Deutsch:

While in the beginning, such efforts may well have been charitable and noble in intent, mentally retarded persons soon were viewed as innately inferior and without rights and dignity and, in general, were treated with contempt rather than sympathy or compassion. Any problems arising from mental retardation were usually handled under laws intended for paupers: the "sick poor, old poor, able-bodied poor, infant poor, insane, and feeble-minded--all were grouped together under the same stigmatizing labels, paupers, and all were treated in very much the same manner." (2)

Contemporary historians of mental retardation tend to adopt this account of idiocy in the colonial era in the absence of revised interpretations, yet it is incomplete at best and inaccurate otherwise.

Scheerenberger's account brings to mind several problems that obscure the meaning of idiocy in colonial America. In the first place, it perpetuates the myth that colonists thought of idiocy as a circumscribed condition with fixed dimensions. It assumes that all colonists had a unitary concept of idiocy. Second, it suggests the colonists' views of idiocy changed over time from benign tolerance to deliberate hostility. Such a transformation, it is alleged, occurred uniformly across the colonies starting in the mid 1600s. Third, idiocy is traditionally identified with all the difficulties poor people experienced; there was no perceptible difference between idiocy and other afflictions. Most notably scholars frequently fail to distinguish mental retardation from mental illness in their studies of colonial America. Fourth, idiocy is portrayed primarily as a problem of social welfare in the evolution of poor relief. Absent are examinations of scientific commentary recorded by colonial scholars or literary allusions provided by Puritan preachers.

Such a singular approach incorporating these multiple myths ignores the complex nature of idiocy in the diverse cultures of colonial America and fails to capture the many factors that contributed to a socially constructed interpretation of idiocy. The problem with this approach is that it presumes more knowledge about idiocy than the scholarship merits. In the absence of documentation, some historians have extrapolated interpretations of idiocy from the more substantial evidence regarding poverty, madness, and physical illness. Moreover, most historians have simply avoided altogether an investigation into idiocy in the colonial era. This study attempts to address some of these problems of scholarship. It questions the long-standing myths and provides a more comprehensive and accurate picture of idiocy in colonial Massachusetts.

It is easy to see why the history of idiocy in colonial America has been neglected: There is little evidence to document conclusively the situation of idiocy, and the evidence that exists is often fragmented and ambiguous. Although records of idiocy are scattered throughout the colonies, some of the most important documentation is found in Massachusetts. I have concentrated this study in the region of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of all the New England colonies, Massachusetts offers the most comprehensive insights into the condition. Furthermore, the religious orientation and the origins of settlement of Massachusetts are sufficiently unique to justify a differentiated approach. Finally, Massachusetts established the cultural patterns, including the laws and approaches to poor relief, that became models for other colonies, particularly those in New England.

The material I consulted for this study includes the laws and records of the courts, the towns, and the colony of Massachusetts Bay, the published sermons and other writings of Puritan preachers, including scientific treatises, and published personal journals, diaries, and letters. In quoting these sources I have adhered to original spellings and grammar except for a few entries that required modifications in order to make their meanings clear. The study of idiocy is complicated by confusing language. The term idiot and its derivatives is found only in colonial laws and in the writings of Puritan preachers: Apparently its application was intended for formal purposes of communication rather than for conversation. Perhaps the term idiot was reserved for persons most seriously afflicted or those who had certain personal characteristics or who held a particularly lowly social status. Sometimes the more informal term natural, or natural fool, is found. While it probably had the same meaning as idiot, natural was u sed in more casual conversation. A natural fool was not to be confused with a fool who adopted mannerisms of idiocy for the amusement of others and compensation for himself, or one who was castigated by the clergy for his spiritual obstinacy. Often I have relied on inference from descriptions of behavior to represent the situation of idiocy. I have avoided altogether references to dementia, which sometimes accompanied old age, and distraction, the condition which most closely resembles contemporary mental illness. The terms weakness and simplicity did not necessarily imply idiocy, for they were used freely to describe many different kinds of personal problems.

The language of idiocy was well suited for Puritan portrayals of human despair and spiritual negation, but if idiocy were only an allusion to the human situation and merely a metaphor, we would fail to capture the complex ways that colonists understood the condition. Apparently there were indeed persons whose behavior corresponded with the collectively constructed definitions of idiocy, and these individuals seem to have influenced the development of colonial laws and aroused the curiosity of early scientists. On the surface the multiple ways to understand idiocy in the colonies might seem incongruous, but this is not the case because they were bound together by the most important element of colonial life: the convictions of Puritanism. More than a religion, Puritanism was a way of life. It was the defining feature of the original settlement as well as the basis for governance, and it influenced the behavior of individuals in their ordinary affairs and shaped their social relationships.

Puritanism was, according to Miller, "the most coherent and most powerful single factor in the early history of America." (3) The strength of the community lay in the focus of its purpose, the order of its society, and the discipline of its members. In colonial Massachusetts the principles of Puritanism regulated both individual and collective behavior in a web of covenanted relationships. Covenant theology derived from Puritans' belief that they were chosen by God for his mission on earth. He promised forgiveness of sins for believers who embraced his ordered universe and satisfied his demands for piety and upright living. God's covenant with the faithful eased the burden of guilt and alleviated their fears for the future, but his bargain was hard: Without compliance they would suffer eternal spiritual alienation. Nevertheless, despite their best intentions, Puritans could never achieve lasting reunion with God due to the enormity of their sins. Indeed, the principles of the covenant provided compelling evid ence of God's ultimate supremacy and mankind's utter failure. (4) It was therefore all the more remarkable to Puritans that God extended to them his promise of reconciliation and the possibility of grace.

God's plan for his people provided the rationale and structure for the governance of Puritan society. Colonial leaders, convinced they were chosen by God for his work on earth, imposed on their fellow settlers the terms of a social contract. For their part, the men who governed promised to fulfill God's purpose for his people in Massachusetts with a strictly ordered, just society based on scriptural interpretation. For those who submitted to the rule of the leaders, the contract required obedience to the laws and satisfaction of personal obligations within families and communities. Facing the uncertainties of settling in the New World, the original inhabitants agreed, by and large, to yield to the discipline imposed by their superiors in exchange for safety and stability. Most settlers found comfort in the responsibilities of social covenant and security in the social order even though the terms were imposed with coercion, the threat of punishment, and entrenched inequality. The authority of leadership, most colonists believed, derived directly from God. These gentlemen embodied material, intellectual and spiritual superiority and they thought that they alone possessed sufficient reason to apprehend God's will and interpret it for those less capable. On earth, as in heaven, a ranked order prevailed which, while dividing society into two parts, assured every individual, from the meanest to the most prestigious, with a place and a purpose. (5) Thomas Hooker employed a familiar metaphor to explain the distinctions between the leaders of the colony and their subordinates:

...So a Christian must take the season to forecast duties, not to hinder one with another, but every dutie must be so performed, that it may further and nor hinder another: as it is with a Wagon, the little Wheeles goe before to make way for the greater that come after them, and the greater follow after, and serve to drive on the former. Thus one is helpfull to the others; so should we doe with duties, so to forecast it, and so to performe it.... (6)

Hooker, like all Puritan believers, justified social inequality as an important manifestation of God's creative hand and an indication of his intention to create on earth a system of social organization that replicated his own ordered universe. Just as God conferred grace on grateful believers, so his elect extended charity to the worthy poor and needy; they in turn were expected to serve their benefactors with gratitude. (7)

It is within this context of social cohesion and religious conviction that idiocy in colonial Massachusetts is best understood. Even as the grip of Puritanism on New England society gradually loosened, the Puritan social ethic remained an influential force. It permeated all aspects of the colonial experience, giving form to the laws and systems of government and church organization, supplying substance and imagery to intellectual discourse and ordinary conversation, and providing inspiration and meaning to the lives of every inhabitant. While it separated superior beings from the inferior, the Puritans' predilection for social sorting fostered the welfare of all individuals deemed worthy who embraced the covenants of family and community. In the remainder of the paper I discuss the ways Puritans' ideas about idiocy were revealed in their written laws and in the few extant records of the courts; I provide examples of the language of idiocy that Puritans employed in verbal and written communication to offend th eir antagonists; and I present Puritans' interpretations of idiocy in emerging concepts of science. In the discussion that follows I speculate on the ways that the colonists' Puritan beliefs probably influenced their interpretations of the condition. I conclude the paper with a review of the changes in thinking about idiocy that began in the mid 1800s and continue in the present day.

Legal Interpretations of Idiocy

The early laws of Massachusetts provide an important example of the extent to which Puritan ideals governed the settlements in the New World. The first code of laws in New England, published in 1648, represented a unique compilation of traditional English law, Biblical mandates and practical regulations that suited the needs of settlers. As Haskins described it,

The [1648] Code was no mere collection of English laws and customs, but was a fresh and considered effort to order men's lives and conduct in accordance with the religious and political ideals of Puritanism. (8)

The heritage of English law consisted of a combination of statutes, decisions handed down by courts of common law, and interpretations of custom law from various regions of the old country. The terms of the colony's original charter required conformance with English law. Yet traditional law did not satisfy the needs of settlers whose purpose was quite different from that of the original investors: Although they shared a common economic interest, they intended to build a religious community rather than merely a commercial outpost. (9)

The legal record of colonial Massachusetts provides some insight into how idiocy was understood in New England and it offers indications of the ways that colonists adopted and modified English law and developed innovative provisions to suit the colonial experience. The indirect influence of Puritanism emerges throughout. By the end of the seventeenth century three laws concerning idiocy had been enacted, although only two were retained: One of these two established rights for idiots in criminal proceedings and the other extended relief in the event of need. No new laws regarding idiocy were written in Massachusetts between 1700 and the Revolution. The law absolving idiots of guilt in capital crimes can be traced directly to English statute, while the other two were unique to colonial Massachusetts. (10) The existence of these three laws signifies that idiocy was an important enough problem to attract the attention of public officials. Unfortunately, however, there are only these three laws plus a scattering o f notations in official records to suggest whom the laws were intended to protect, what problems those individuals presented, and how those problems were actually resolved.

The first reference to idiocy appeared in the Body of Liberties, the earliest draft of Massachusetts laws published in 1641. Libertie 14 granted to "any woman that is married, any childe under age, Ideott or distracted person" the right to convey property with the approval of the General Court. (11) In England, married women, children, idiots and distracted persons were prohibited from transferring property out of their estates. (12) English law specifically conveyed feudal property of an idiot to the king's custody during the lifetime of the person; after death it was returned to the idiot's heirs. (13) The purpose was to prevent interruptions in heritable transfers of wealth as well as to increase the revenues of the king. We have no idea what occasioned the law in Massachusetts and what effect it might have had, because Libertie 14 was omitted from the next edition of the Massachusetts code. The reason commonly given is that Libertie 14 contradicted English law, to which the colonists were subject. (14)

In contrast, the origins of Libertie 52 were deeply embedded in English statute. Libertie 52 provided that

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. (15)

With this accommodation colonists relaxed the standards which governed legal practice when criminals were considered incompetent or unfamiliar with the laws. According to Nigel Walker, English laws have incorporated modifications that take into account a criminal offender's mental state as far back as the tenth century. (16) What might be the earliest record of a case brought before the king was described as "an idiot who [in 1212] is in the prison because in his witlessness he confessed that he is a thief, although in fact he is not to blame." (17) No comparable records exist in Massachusetts Bay; there is no evidence that idiots were brought before the courts of the colony and the constituent towns on criminal charges, so there is no way to know if and how the law was implemented. There are three reasons that might explain this absence of information: First, idiots may have been dismissed by the court before their trials began. (18) Second, it is possible their cases were heard by justices who settled them without the benefit of jury. (19) And third, the ambiguous language of court records might have concealed the presence of idiots before the justices. In a few cases of litigation which will be discussed later, idiots were identified as victims or they were represented in civil actions brought by friends or relatives.

The other significant act regarding idiocy in Massachusetts was incorporated into the colony's poor laws in 1693. An Act for the Relief of Ideots and Distracted Persons extended assistance to idiots and distracted persons when "no Relations appear that will undertake the care of providing for them." (20) Selectmen and Overseers of the Poor were appointed as guardians to determine their needs and make the necessary arrangements. For the first time in Massachusetts law, a definition of idiocy appeared. An idiot, according to the Act, was "any person to be naturally wanting of understanding, so as to be uncapable to provide for him or herself." A distracted person, by contrast, was anyone who "by the Providence of God, shall fall into distraction, and become Non compos mentis." To colonists, then, distraction was a mental disability with possibly temporary effects; it was likely to occur later in life and it could be seriously debilitating, while idiocy was life-long and permanent, a condition of mental inferior ity with material consequences.

Compare this brief definition of idiocy with the summary provided by Brydall, who, writing in England in 1700, gave this description:

... Among the English Jurists, idiot is a Term of Law, and taken for one that is wholly deprived of his Reason and Understanding from his Birth; and with us in our common Speech is called a Fool Natural; of whom there has been given a Description by several of our Law-Authors. Master Fitzherbert describes an Idiot thus: He who shall be said to be an Idiot from his Birth, is such a Person, who cannot account or number twenty pence, or cannot tell who is his Father or Mother, or how old he is, &c. So that it may appear that he hath no understanding of Reason, what shall be for his Profit, or what shall be for his Loss. (21)

Colonists' understanding of idiocy, as represented in the laws of Massachusetts, seemed to conform with this description. However, while the courts in England conducted examinations of persons thought to be idiots, (22) there are no corresponding records in Massachusetts to suggest there was a need for similar tests. Idiocy in Massachusetts was either merely an artifact of the laws, a deliberate attempt to replicate the language of English statutes, or there was simply no need to make determinations of competence in defendants of capital crimes or recipients of public relief. In any event, Massachusetts incorporated idiocy with distraction into the colony's poor laws in 1693, twenty-one years before England did so. (23)

Despite the uncertainties regarding the purpose of the laws, there is some indication that colonists assessed informally the mental capacities of certain individuals who were brought before the courts either as victims or as unwitting defendants in civil procedures. For example, Mary Phips, a victim of sexual abuse, was described in the Charlestown Court in 1690 as one who was

... void of common reason and understanding that is in other children of her age, nor 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 plsied.... [We] have to help her as a meer child. (24)

Mary Phips, "next to a mere naturall in her intellectual," escaped the opprobrium of idiocy. Nevertheless, she failed to measure up to the abilities of other children her age. The extent of her physical and mental disabilities combined with her child-like behavior, left her vulnerable to violence as well as morally deficient.

Samuel Hadley, an older man, was described differently in a deposition given in Essex Court in 1670:

[Deponent] and his sisters took a great deal of care and diligently instructed [Hadley] 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." (25)

Hadley apparently was unable to learn like others and he was incompetent at work. His failures were of a more practical nature than moral. A few other colonists shared his problems; none of them was considered an idiot, nor were they called natural fools. They were deficient, but probably not to the extent that they might be called naturals or idiots. Consider, for example, Michael Smith, who in 1647 had difficulties when it came to voting:

It is ordered, that the 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 the Generall Corte. (26)

"Simplicity" combined with poverty and inoffensive behavior earned Mr. Smith the sympathy of the court. Whereas Mary Phips was thought to be "next to a mere naturall" and Samuel Hadley "incapashous," Michael Smith was only simple. Such descriptions covered a wide range of ability with various measures of competence, yet none of these individuals qualified for the extremities of idiocy.

Idiocy, then, was a term which appeared in the formal laws of Massachusetts but apparently never in the colloquial speech of ordinary inhabitants. Although there were many individuals deemed incompetent, they were not identified in court records as idiots. In fact, aside from the laws mentioned above, colonists used the word idiot in only three other contexts: One was the figure of speech used pejoratively to demonstrate contempt; the second was the metaphor signifying spiritual incompetence; and the third was the rare entry in scientific reports. All are found only in the writings of Massachusetts' Puritan clerics.

Figures of Speech and The Language of Idiocy

The term idiocy appears as a figure of speech and a metaphor in the writings of a few of the clergymen of Massachusetts. Idiocy as a figure of speech expressed one person's disdain for another, much as it does today. For Puritan writers, idiocy was a useful epithet for insult and slander. Cotton Mather, for example, employed images of idiocy in one of his frequent fits of exasperation: In 1720 he called his political opponents "idiots and fuddle-caps and men that love and make a lie." (27) He scorned the citizens of Boston when he wrote that "people are seized with folly, and continue in the fancies and actions of natural fools for several days together." (28) In 1749 Jonathan Mayhew condemned the "enlightened Ideots" caught up in the hysteria of the Great Awakening. (29) Yet as a derogatory figure of speech, idiocy represented an image of human nature that sounds familiar today, for the associations of the language were more than colorful phrases. Indeed, they were intended to insult and humiliate with refer ence to such an abject condition. Furthermore, the pejorative figure of speech defined idiocy as social construct and reinforced the notion that idiots constituted a contemptuous class of incompetent persons worthy only of ridicule.

More significantly, idiocy figured into theological discussions about the ways individuals experienced the mercy of God and achieved salvation. Idiocy represented two contrasting spiritual situations: On the one hand, it stood for the supremely pure and innocent nature of God's chosen people, while on the other hand idiocy symbolized the ignorant and spiritually incompetent who were hopelessly estranged from God's kingdom. In either case, the purpose was to contrast one extreme situation with another in order to make the meanings of sermons clear and emphatic. With all Puritan preachers, Biblical texts provided the fundamental concepts for religious discourse. Two New England Puritan clerics, Thomas Hooker and Samuel Parris, represented idiocy from contrasting points of view. Thomas Hooker found signs of God's grace in the innocence of idiocy. In 1638 he wrote

In a word, take the meanest Saint, that ever breathed on the earth, and the greatest scholar for outward parts, and learning, and reason and policie, the meanest ignorant soule, that is almost a naturall foole, that soule knows and understands more of grace and mercy in Christ, than all the wisest and learnedst in the world.... (30)

Like other Puritan clerics, Hooker was not so much interested in idiocy as he was in the image it promoted. He employed idiocy in analogy to contrast the purity and simplicity of God's grace with the corruption of human nature. In fact, he was expanding on the Biblical reference of I Corinthians 3:18-19: "If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God." (31) In the following passage Hooker extended the image of idiocy as a figure of enlightenment. He reminded his listeners that God, the Master, was present for willing learners, no matter how insignificant they might be:

... The humble are informed, they are nor instructed; therefore the others know not what they cannot conceive. As suppose one dull blocke, and a quicke wit, are both set to one trade, yet if the dullard had an expert master, and did bear into him the will of the trade, and the quicke spirit was with a master that could not teach him his trade; wee see that the dull blocke is more wise in his trade than the other: so it is here, they have the Lord as their master. (32)

Here Hooker contrasted the intelligent but recalcitrant backslider with the ignorant but eager learner in a graphic metaphor based on I Corinthians 1:27: "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." (33) The image of idiocy was well suited for the scriptural style of antithetical positions represented in Hooker's sermon.

Despite the magnanimity of the scriptural lessons and Hooker's explications, other Puritan preachers employed idiocy in far less attractive images. In Puritan New England, where reason and religious regeneration went hand in hand, idiocy also represented a spiritual situation of utter despair. Without the use of intellect, one was not only socially and economically incapable but spiritually hopeless as well. The Congregational churches of Massachusetts required three tests for membership: The first was a demonstration of knowledge of the scriptures and the tenets of the faith; the second was an indication of upright living, and the third required evidence of the personal experience of conversion. (34) Those who passed the tests were likely to achieve salvation; those who failed were excluded forever from the kingdom of Cod. Idiots served as suitable figures for persons deemed spiritual failures. Furthermore, idiots shared a similar fate with infants: Both were tainted by the sins of Adam and ineligible for re demption, yet infants might one day grow into regeneration, while idiots were left hopelessly behind.

Samuel Parris' ministry was marked with dissension which spilled over from his church into the wider community, and helped foment the witchcraft controversy in Salem Village in 1692-93. (35) From the pulpit Parris remonstrated the members of his congregation to forbear evil in the guise of Satan and witches and declare their allegiance to Christ. With graphic depictions Parris separated saints from sinners, and he employed the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to divide church members from non-members. In a sermon prepared in 1693 he denied the sacrament of communion to both children and idiots because they lacked discernment:

Must communicants examine themselves? Why then hince we may learn that there are two sorts of persons altogether unfit for this Ordinance viz: Such as cannot examine themselves, & such as will nor examine themselves (1) Such as cannot examine themselves are altogether unmeet for this Ordinance. As (1) Infants. Infants cannot shew forth the Lords death: Infants cannot examine themselves, & therefore are not meet Subjects for this Ordinance.... (2) Fools & Idiots are not meet subjects for this ordinance. For those being void of Reason cannot examine themselves. There is a degree of knowledge, & a considerable degree of it required in all communicants. So much knowledge as to discerne the Lords body. I. Cor. 11.29. (36)

It seems improbable that Parris cared about either idiots or infants. More likely they served as literary figures to separate people incapable of church membership from those who refused to join. Far worse were those who refused the grace of God than those who were unable to comprehend the meaning. Idiots and infants were exonerated in their exclusion, yet willful sinners suffered endless guilt.

Compare this passage of Parris' with the words of William Bates, English Puritan preacher, who denied the spirituality of both idiots and distracted persons. The passage is important for two reasons: First it provides an indication of the similar ways that English and New England Puritan preachers incorporated images of idiocy into their writings; and second, it offers an etiology for idiocy and distraction that may well have been adopted on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, Bates offered a pessimistic assessment of both idiocy and distraction in religious metaphor when he wrote in 1680:

'Tis observable that Faith is exprest in Scripture, by Prudence, Wisdom, and Knowledg, whereby a Man knows the grounds and motives of his Judgment and Actions. And Sin is called Folly. For as when the understanding Faculty, either from the indisposedness of the Organs, as in Idiots, or from the disorder of Fancy by the inflammation of the Humours, as in distracted persons, cannot weigh and compare, and therefore makes a perverse judgment of things; so the carnal Mind by not due measuring and pondering, judges faisly of Spiritual Things. (37)

Such bleak prospects for mentally incapable persons extended to willfully ignorant souls who failed the basic tests of faith. However, the deficiencies of idiocy and distraction were organic in nature, whereas the deficiencies of degeneration were spiritual.

Literary devices notwithstanding, theological issues concerning the spiritual status of children (and by association, idiots) consumed Puritan clergy on both sides of the Atlantic. Born into sin, children depended on the covenants between God and their parents for the hope of salvation. Children who were brought up by believing parents were more likely than others to be saved. Baptism at birth provided additional assurances of grace. (38) Despite this protection, children remained sinners until they achieved full covenant with God through experiences of faith. Insofar as many children died young in both old and New England, without special dispensation, they died sinners. To correct this bleak possibility, some members of the clergy proposed that infants should be accorded special status in God's kingdom, a view that gained favor in the eighteenth century. (39) In an extended analogy Richard Baxter, English clergyman, defended the practice of baptism for infants and idiots alike and compared them to parts of a body and to members of a nation. In 1676 Baxter wrote:

... The Kingdoms of the World are become the Kingdoms of the Lord, and of his Christ. But Kingdoms and Nations contain Infants; and he Discipleth not a Nation that Discipleth no Infants in the Nation.... I have before land else-where fully] proved Infants capable parts, as Christ was of being Head, and as Infants are of Societies, and of a part in Covenants with men: and Ideots having not the use of reason from the birth, are in the same case with Infants; and the Distracted, after at age, are nothing to our case, but are capable of being Distracted members; and Distraction is not Excommunication, nor Unchurcheth any. (40)

In this passage Baxter not only presented his argument regarding infant baptism, he, like Bates, provided a definition of idiocy: To Baxter, idiocy was a condition that was different from distraction because it was present at birth; it extended throughout one's lifetime; and it resulted in intellectual incompetence. Furthermore, idiocy shared common meanings with infancy; they both represented mankind in its natural state, innocent in terms of intent yet culpable due to inherited sin. Thus for some of the more optimistic clergymen on both sides of the Atlantic, the simplicity of infancy and idiocy assured salvation in God's kingdom while for others of a more pessimistic bent, it gave reason for exclusion. Puritan ministers did not necessarily hold a unitary view of the religious principles that defined their faith any more than they agreed on every aspect of the political situation. Furthermore, theology, like the politics of the day, shifted over time as the growing societies evolved. (41) For most Puritans, however, idiocy had little to do with theology; it served mainly as a colorful, useful figure of speech. Even so, if the clerics agreed that idiocy was a condition analogous to infancy, in-born and permanent, innocent yet sinful, most of the rest of the colonists probably thought of it the same way, for the Puritan ministers in New England were among the most influential writers and speakers of the period. (42)

Scientific Interpretations of Idiocy

Two New England pastors, Charles Morton and Cotton Mather, mentioned idiocy in some of the colony's earliest scientific texts. Morton prepared one of the first scientific references intended for teaching, while Mather produced a number of manuscripts reporting his observations and interpretations of the natural world. Both men explored new dimensions of the physical sciences while remaining firmly ensconced in medieval philosophy and religion. They anticipated the advent of modem science with ideas derived from contemporary writers in England, particularly among the members of the Royal Society; at the same time, they both relied on classic sources, especially the works of Aristotle. Their purpose was to provide descriptions and explanations of the natural world as they perceived it and as it was represented by others. Essentially, however, both Morton and Mather were Puritan preachers, and their aim was to understand God's purpose for mankind and to discover theological truths in His creations. (43)

Despite their attention to scientific matters, neither Morton nor Mather was particularly interested in idiocy. Both mentioned the condition in passing and adopted established interpretations. In Compendium Physicae, a textbook compiled in London and adopted at Harvard between 1687 and 1728 to introduce students to the physical sciences, (44) Morton included idiocy as a deviation from the physical and intellectual superiority of mankind. Mather, a keen observer of natural phenomenon and a prolific writer, wrote numerous accounts of idiocy, including a report for the Royal Society, of which he was a member. (45) However, the absence of idiocy from Mather's Angel of Bethesda, the first medical text in colonial America, (46) suggests that idiocy was a condition more suitable for theological discussion than scientific reports or medical treatment.

Morton's ideas about idiocy originated in the works of Aristotle, as well as more contemporary philosophers and scientists. (47) Morton specifically mentioned idiocy in his discourse on memory in the Compendium. Whereas Aristotle distinguished between retentive memory and the activities of recollection, (48) Morton differentiated between "simple" and "complex" memory. Furthermore, like Aristotle, Morton characterized defects of memory in terms of organic malfunctions, and extended the limitations of memory to the very young. Both were concerned to identify characteristics of mankind that set them apart from lower forms of animals. According to Morton:

The kinds of memory are 2. Simple, and Complex. 1. Simple memory is that which is now Spoken [of] common to man, and beast, yea Idiots have it Sometimes, and that in an admirable manner. The reason may be not only a peculiar temperament in Some part of the brain but that all or most of the brains Spirits are only imployed about this work, and few cal'd of[f] or Spent in the Servise of the Understanding 2. Complex or Intellectuall, Joyn'd with Serviseable to, and Established by the understanding. This is Peculiar to men, and is Eminent in wise men, Especially as to things rather than words. The tr[e]asures of this are not only Phantasms, but also intellectuall Ideas; and it can recal its objects by a Small hint or Circumstance. This by way of distinction from the former common memory is termed Reminiscence, or Recordation.

[Bare] memory in fools, and brutes, is found

Mans Reminiscence hath in reason Ground (49)

Morton explained further the difference between the simple memory of children and fools and the complex memory of scholars:

The Exercise of intellectual memory dos mostly belong to wise men and Scholars. Whereas fools and Children have the more common Use of the other; for that they are unable to form those abstracted Ideas and are less Capable of rationall method.

Memory Intellectual Serves the mind.

Children, and fools use that of th'other kind (50)

Reason, Morton said, was the faculty that differentiated man from brute beasts (and apparently children as well as idiots). Yet the powers of the intellect alone were not sufficient for the Puritan cleric. They found purpose in religious apprehension and devotion:

He that would Sermons profitably hear,

had need to Understand the method Clear. (51)

Puritan themes resonated throughout Morton's Compendium, even as they would a short time later in the sermons of Samuel Parris.

The views of Cotton Mather were not appreciably different; it may be simply because Mather wrote copiously on a great variety of topics that he happened to touch on idiocy a number of times. A keen observer of nature and a witness to the human condition as well as a Puritan cleric, Mather recorded his reflections assiduously. He was a prolific writer of both religious tracts and scientific treatises, and many times he combined the two. His Angel of Bethesda, a compilation of physical afflictions, practical advice and spiritual exhortation, weaves together the most extensive medical text of the colonial period with religious dictum. It is within this conglomerate of physico-spirituality that Mather wrote about idiocy, slipping it into the entry on epilepsy. To Mather, the situation of idiocy provided a reference point to locate the fears of that scourge:

Will the Spectator be perswaded unto Gratitude and Piety, Knowing this Terror of the Lord. But the Patient also, Coming out of his Fitt, will have Opportunity to Entertain some affecting Thoughts upon his own Deplorable Condition. At least, if he be not so far gone, as to become a meer Ideot, which is often the unhappy Consequence of this Distemper, when it has Long Prevailed. Epileptic, Thou are already worse than an Ideot, if thou hast no Religious Thoughts, upon they grievous Calamity. (52)

These were threatening reminders from a leading physician-preacher about the presence of Almighty God in the colonists' afflictions. Epilepsy, "the falling sickness," was one of the most feared and least well understood problems in early New England, as it was throughout the world. (53) Its association with idiocy confirmed the deleterious effects of the disease and contrasted it with the even more reprehensible idiocy. Yet Mather situated idiocy in the order of society above those with "no Religious thoughts." For epileptics, there was at least a modicum of hope if there was faith; not so, for idiots. Neither an illness nor a disease, idiocy, to Mather, was a station in the social order, a useful image to portray the hopeless despair that sinners experienced.

While idiocy served Mather well as a metaphor, he also recognized its practical aspects. He knew, for example, that idiocy could be the outcome of a debilitating case of epilepsy. Boylston, contemporary physician and friend of Mather's, acknowledged that idiocy could be one of many afflictions resulting from another frightening disease, smallpox:

Some who live are Cripples, others Idiots, and many blind all their Days; beside the other Deformities it brings upon many, in their Faces, Limbs, or Body, with many more grievous Symptoms, which the World has had too great Experience of, as being the Attendants of that fatal Distemper called the Confluent Small-Pox. (54)

Not merely a metaphor, idiocy thus assumed a reality in the presence of the diseases that struck colonists. Indeed, these writings confirm that colonists understood that idiocy, a chronic condition, could be acquired later in life as a result of acute illness.

Mather's natural inquisitiveness and his personal ambition to impress the members of the Royal Society are evidenced in his Curiosa Americana, a compilation of letters describing strange and wonderful examples of natural phenomena. Adding his contributions of observations to the collection submitted for publication to the Royal Society, Mather wrote of two daughters, ages nine and three, of a disabled man in Dunstable whom he personally visited in 1713. He offered this description:

[The girls] continued for several months after their nativity in the same circumstances of sensibility that other infants of their age use [sic] to have. But anon they were taken with odd convulsive motions, which carried a little of an epileptical aspect upon them. The fits would be short, and many of them in an hour; but after some while the fits grew seldomer, and lasted longer, and the screeches of the little wretches in them would be very doleful. These fits anon left them wholly deprived of almost everything in the world, but only a little sight, and scent, and hunger. Nothing in the whole brutal world so insensible! They move not their limbs: you may twist them, and bend them to a degree that none else could bear, and they feel it not. They take notice of nothing in the world, only they seem to see and smell victuals, at the approach of which they will gape, and be very restless, and make something of a bray. They are in good health, and ear rather more than other children of their age. But they let th eir excrements pass from them without the least regard. The elder is ever drivelling, the younger never has any salival discharge. They shed no tears. They never sneeze. They have no speech. They have no way to discover any sentiments of their minds. They never use their hands to take hold of anything. Was idiocy ever seen so miserable! (55)

Again Mather made the connection between epilepsy and idiocy; perhaps his observation of the twins provided the material for the oblique entry in Angel of Bethesda, which was completed in 1724. This detailed, albeit pejorative description of idiocy in the Curiosa among Mather's letters provides the only narrative depiction of idiocy as a genuine human condition experienced in colonial Massachusetts.

In contrast, Mather included his theory of idiocy in The Christian Philosopher, the first book written by an American to provide an account of the physical and natural sciences, and a prime example, according to Winton Solberg, of an effort to portray the relation between science and religion. (56) Completed in 1715, The Christian Philosopher represented Mather's version of "physicotheology ... a branch of natural theology that seeks to prove the existence and attributes of God from the evidence of purpose and design in the universe." (57) Here, Mather mentioned idiocy as an aberration of God's purpose and design. His theory, derived from the writings of Nathaniel Grew which were published in London in 1701, found structural deformity in idiocy:

A great Philosopher [Nehemiah Grew] observes and affirms, that the Clearness of our Fancy depends on the regular Structure of the Brain; by which it is fitted for the receiving and compounding of all Impressions with the more Regularity. In Fools the Brain is deformed. The Deformity is not easily noted in other People: But, no doubt, a smaller Difference than can be imagined, may alter the Symmetry of the Brain, and so the Perspecuity of the Fancy. (58)

Never one to pass up an opportunity to teach from the pulpit and to assert his own integrity, Mather exclaimed:

Gracious God! how much ought I to adore the Goodness of thy superintending Providence, which gave my Brain that Conformation, that enables me now to see and write thy Praises. (59)

Mather, like Morton, adopted this physicotheological model to explain that idiocy represented a defect of physical formation that was in-born, permanent, and devastating in its effect. Like his friend Boylston, Mather realized that idiocy could be acquired through serious illness, and that once afflicted, idiocy represented a pitiable yet contemptible human condition. Yet Mather not only feared and deplored the consequences of idiocy, he was truly awed by this manifestation of God's work in the physical creations. Mather's interest in the diverse aspects of idiocy, his deeply personal response, and the spiritual and emotional contradictions he represented portray the varieties of interpretation the condition yielded in colonial Massachusetts.


This account refutes the common myths that portray idiocy in colonial America as a unitary concept and it contradicts the notion that the settlers' views on idiocy changed markedly during the colonial period. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that colonists thought of idiocy as something quite distinct from other afflictions, especially madness, and it was considerably more complex than poverty alone could explain. Indeed, defining idiocy is a complicated matter because it represented both a lived experience and the social construction of a human condition. There were indeed individuals who apparently shared characteristics of ascribed incompetence, but at the same time idiocy took on metaphoric meanings that eclipsed personal experience. These meanings, which had their origins in England, reflected colonists' interpretations of personal defect and social inferiority. In addition, however, the meaning of idiocy in colonial Massachusetts was influenced by the unique features of settlement and the convictions of Puritanism. To colonists, idiocy was a pitiable and vulnerable condition, one more manifestation of God's diverse creations.

Scathing assessments of idiocy, especially by Mather, suggest that colonists had little tolerance for the situation. Such was not the case, however, for although they despised idiocy and its associated images, most colonists adopted a fairly benign attitude. Indeed, the unconditional incompetence of idiocy provided avenues for their spiritual salvation and social acceptance. This paradox is best explained by principles of Puritan belief. The standards for acceptable behavior in Puritan Massachusetts relied on the ability of individuals to achieve regeneration by way of demonstrations of faith. Persons of intellect were thought likely to achieve salvation, while those without reason were relegated to a state of spiritual incompetence. Individuals who willfully refused to comply with Puritan precepts were excluded altogether from the promise of grace. Idiots were not only unable to demonstrate the requisite intellectual capabilities, they also lacked the will to apply the intellect for God's purpose. Thus they were doubly disabled with both intellectual deficiency and spiritual ineptitude. Nevertheless, this double disability provided an element of protection, for Puritans were likely to tolerate persons whose defects were attributable to absence of intellect and will and to castigate those who possessed the faculty of reason but refused to use it.

Apparently idiocy was not only tolerated, it played an essential role in Puritan society. To apply Hooker's metaphor, idiots may have been the littlest "Wheeles" in the social hierarchy. Insignificant yet accounted for, idiocy served multiple purposes in colonial Massachusetts. In the first place, the condition represented God's creative genius and a manifestation of the marvelous diversity of His works. Second, idiocy provided Puritans with the opportunity to practice acts of mercy. Whereas charity represented status within the brotherhood of believers and signified relationships with God, Puritan believers practiced their faith with opportunities to "do good," which meant to Cotton Mather, at least, material assistance as well as moral correction. (60) The most miserable and inferior sort such as idiots were especially well suited recipients. Furthermore, idiocy may have represented the Puritan ideal of affliction, through which God instructed believers and taught them humility. Surely idiocy informed Purit ans of the purpose of affliction and tested their fortitude in its presence; if nothing else, it served as a reminder that things could always be worse. (61)

Idiocy as a spiritual deficiency may have lasted only as long as Puritanism remained a dynamic force in Massachusetts, although many of the meanings attributed to idiocy by the colonists persisted well into the nineteenth century. The first new ideas about idiocy in America were proposed by Samuel Howe, who, in 1846 as head of the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, conducted a survey to determine the extent of the condition in the state of Massachusetts. (62) One year later, inspired by the work of Edouard Seguin at the Bicetre, Howe admitted idiots to his school in the Asylum for the Blind. Additional schools for idiots emerged, first in the northeast, and then in other parts of the country. During this period the image of idiocy retained most of the characteristics ascribed by colonists and accrued additional meanings. According to Trent,

... Americans during the [mid 1800s] emphasized a definition of idiocy that took into account not only its moral and functional dimensions, but also its pathological, typological, and degenerative properties. (63)

No longer was idiocy considered simply a structural defect and an incurable condition. By this time theories of idiocy, reflecting ideas of etiology and treatment originating in the Enlightenment, had crossed the Atlantic from France. Rather than a spiritual defect explained by theology, idiocy took on the definition of disease, both physiological and moral, for which there might be correction if not a cure. Now a medical condition, idiocy was classified and ranked by grades, descending from the most capable to the "incurables." Howe's school and those that followed required improvements in their pupils in order to attract support. Showing little progress and imposing a burden on educators and their resources, the incurables were gradually abandoned in favor of those who showed more promise. Justification for the exclusion of incurables from treatment programs focused not only on physiological characteristics but moral qualities as well. In time, idiocy, defined once again as permanent and untreatable, became identified with degeneracy, willful noncompliance and moral corruption.

By the 1870s the mission of schools for idiots gradually shifted to custodial care from education and treatment. With few services and no hope for their improvement, idiots congregated in increasing numbers in institutional settings or they were isolated in their homes, cared for by families but neglected by professionals. It was nearly one hundred years later when scholars recognized idiocy (or mental retardation as it came to be known) as a construction of society rather than solely a personal attribute. (64) In the 1960s many family members, scholars and politicians adopted conceptions of mental retardation that emphasized possibilities for learning and full participation in society. Medical research and treatment were developed to correct some physical and biochemical problems and to prevent others. Public policies of the 1970s promoted more positive images of mental retardation and established funding for programs. Thus the field of mental retardation expanded into increasingly complex and varied definit ions of the situation. Such contemporary interpretations and approaches to mental retardation, however, have not been free of difficulties: They continue to incorporate many concepts from colonial Puritanism and perpetuate some of the same problems. Most notably, constructed meanings of the situation still portray images of personal failure and social inferiority. Perhaps, today, mental retardation serves the purposes of professionals in health and education systems just as idiocy served the colony's spiritual needs. In both past and present societies, persons with mental retardation have filled roles as worthy recipients of charity and beneficence. More positively, colonists tolerated individuals thought to be idiots and extended basic legal protections that still serve as models. For practical and religious reasons they apparently accepted idiots within their communities. Today community integration for persons with mental retardation is a practical matter, as it was in colonial Massachusetts, but it is also a social goal defined by secular law rather than sacred precept.


(1.) Richard C. Scheerenberger, A History of Mental Retardation (Baltimore, 1983). Histories of mental illness that offer interpretations of mental retardation include, for example, Albert Deutsch, The Mentally Ill in America: A History of Their Care and Treatment from Colonial Times, 2nd ed. (New York, 1949); and more recently, Gerald N. Grob, The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America's Mentally Ill (Cambridge, 1994). See also Philip M. Ferguson, Abandoned to Their Fate: Social Policy and Practice Toward Severely Retarded People in America, 1820-1920 (Philadelphia, 1994).

(2.) Scheerenberger, Mental Retardation, p. 94; the quotation within is from Deutsch, Mentally Ill, p. 116.

(3.) Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1954), p. viii.

(4.) Miller, in The New England Mind, provides a comprehensive analysis of covenant theology.

(5.) Stephen Foster, Their Solitary Way: The Puritan Social Ethic in the First Century of Settlement in New England (New Haven and London, 1971).

(6.) Thomas Hooker, A Godly and Fruitfull Sermon: The Plantation of the Righteous (London, 1639), pp. 124-5.

(7.) See Foster, Their Solitary Way, for a discussion of the Puritan principle of social inequality.

(8.) George Lee Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts: A Study in Tradition and Design (USA, 1968), p. 2.

(9.) Haskins, Law and Authority.

(10.) Parnel Wickham, "Idiocy and the Law in Colonial New England," Mental Retardation, 2001, 39:104-113.

(11.) The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, 1641-1691, with an Introduction by John D. Cushing (Wilmington, DE, 1976), p. 691.

(12.) For information about the status of women in colonial New England see Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth Century New England, rev. ed. (New York, 1966).

(13.) Richard Neugebauer, "Mental Handicap in Medieval and Early Modern England: Criteria, Measurement and Care," in From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency: Historical Perspectives on People With Learning Disabilities, ed. David Wright and Anne Dighy (London, 1996), pp. 22-43.

(14.) William H. Whitmore, "Introduction." The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts, Reprinted from the Edition of 1660, with the Supplements to 1672 (Boston, 1889), pp. 1-28.

(15.) Laws and Liberties, p. 696.

(16.) Nigel Walker, Crime and Insanity in England: Volume One, The Historical Perspective (Edinburgh, 1968).

(17.) Ibid., p. 19.

(18.) Edgar J. McManus, Law and Liberty in Early New England: Criminal Justice and Due Process, 1620-1692. (Amherst, MA, 1993).

(19.) Edwin Powers, Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts 1620-1692: A Documentary History (Boston, 1966).

(20.) Massachusetts Province Laws, 1692-1699. With an Editorial Note by John D. Cushing. (Wilmington, DE, 1978), p. 79.

(21.) John Brydall, Non Compos Mentis: Or, the Law Relating to Natural Fools, Mad-Folks, and Lunatick Persons, Inquisited, and Explained, for Common Benefit (London, 1700), p. 6.

(22.) Neugebauer, "Mental Handicap."

(23.) Jonathan Andrews, "Identifying and Providing for the Mentally Disabled in Early Modern London," in Historical Perspectives on People With Learning Disabilities, ed. David Wright & Anne Digby (London, 1996), pp. 65-92.

(24.) Roger Thompson, Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649-1699 (Amherst, MA, 1986), p. 138.

(25.) Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts: Vol. IV, 1667-1671, ed. George F. Dow (Salem, MA, 1914), p. 219.

(26.) Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: Vol. II, 1642-1649, ed. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff (Boston, 1853), p. 189.

(27.) Kenneth Silverman, Selected Letters of Cotton Mather (New York, 1971), p. 329.

(28.) Ibid., p. 316.

(29.) Jonathan Mayhew, Seven Sermons Upon the Following Subjects ... (Boston, 1749), p. 38.

(30.) Thomas Hooker, The Soules Vocation or Effectual Calling to Christ (London, 1638) p. 108.

(31.) Scriptural passages are quoted from The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments ... Conformable to the Edition of 1611 Commonly Known as the Authorized or King James Version (Saint Louis, MI, n.d.).

(32.) Hooker, Soules Vocation, p. 109.

(33.) The Holy Bible

(34.) David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York and Oxford, 1989).

(35.) The Sermon Notebook of Samuel Parris 1689-1694, ed. James F. Cooper, Jr. and Kenneth P. Minkema (Boston, 1993).

(36.) Ibid., p. 299.

(37.) William Bates, The Soveraign and Final Happiness of Man, with The Effectual Means to Obtain It (London, 1680), p. 268.

(38.) Morgan, The Puritan Family.

(39.) Gerald F. Moran and Mans A.Vosinsky, Religion, Family, and die Life Course: Explorations in the Social History of Early America (Ann Arbor, 1992).

(40.) Richard Baxter, Review of the State of Christian's Infants (London, 1676), p. 18.

(41.) John Spurr, English Puritanism 1603-1689 (New York, 1998).

(42.) Fischer, Albion's Seed.

(43.) Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (New York, 1997).

(44.) Charles Morton's Compendium Physicae, Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 33 (Boston, 1940).

(45.) Silverman, Selected Letters of Cotton Mather.

(46.) Otho T. Beall, Jr. and Richard H. Shryock, Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore, 1954).

(47.) Theodore Hornberger, "Introduction." Charles Morton's Compendium Physicae, Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol.33 (Boston, 1940).

(48.) Aristotle's On the Soul, Parva Naturalia, on Breath, Trans. by W. S. Hett (London, 1986).

(49.) Morton's Compendium, p. 183.

(50.) Ibid., p.202.

(51.) Ibid.

(52.) Gordon W. Jones (ed.), The Angel of Bethesda by Cotton Mother (Barre, MA: 1972), p. 142.

(53.) Owsei Temkin, The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginnings of Modern Neurology (Baltimore, 1971).

(54.) Zabdiel Boylston, Historical Account of the Small-Pox Inoculation in New England ... (London, 1726), p. 38.

(55.) Silverman, Selected Utters of Cotton Mother, p. 139.

(56.) Winton U. Solberg (ed.), Cotton Mother: The Christian Philosopher (Urbana and Chicago, 1994).

(57.) Ibid., p. xliii.

(58.) Ibid., p. 251.

(59.) Ibid.

(60.) Silverman, Life and Times of Cotton Mather.

(61.) For discussion about charity in colonial Massachusetts as well as the nature of affliction, see Foster, Their Solitary Way.

(62.) See Trent, Inventing the Feeble Mind, for a history of idiocy in the nineteenth century.

(63.) Ibid, p.16.

(64.) For a review of literature concerning the social construction of mental retardation, see Robert Bogdan and Steven J. Taylor, The Social Meaning of Mental Retardation: Two Life Stories (New York and London, 1994).
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Author:Wickham, Parnel
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Date:Jun 22, 2002
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