Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England

By Jane Kamensky | Go to book overview

FIVE
SAYING AND UNSAYING

Nathan Webster's neighbors had little respect for his authority and still less regard for his word. Webster was a liar, and worse: a man who spoke in an imperious, domineering manner, using the verbal prerogatives of his office as constable of Bradford, Massachusetts, as a pretext for berating the town's inhabitants. As he himself put it, he often "fell to wording of it." By 1681 (and doubtless long before), many in Bradford had grown weary of the constable's verbal pyrotechnics. Coming together in groups of two, three, or more, standing in the fields or sitting by their hearth fires, they considered how best to salve the wounds Webster's words had inflicted upon "so many honist men." During one such discussion, Webster's sister-in-law assured a neighbor, John Tenney, that her kinsman was "sory" for his conduct-implying, Tenney supposed, that regret alone could undo the damage Webster had done to the common peace. Tenney disagreed. Webster, he argued, had "disgrast" his neighbors "openly in the face of the cuntry." His angry words were the cause of torments that, Tenney said, "we canot beare." Sorrow expressed in the confines of Webster's family could scarcely heal the hurt. To serve as an effective remedy for his wrongs, Webster's remorse would have to manifest itself openly, publicly. Tenney explained: "exept the plaister be as bigg as the sore it will not doo."1

Tenney's proverbial wisdom, pithy and vivid, resonates beyond the tiny circle of Bradford's small politics, beyond the struggle between Na

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Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • A NOTE ON THE TEXT x
  • Contents xi
  • Introduction 3
  • One The Sweetest Meat, the Bitterest Poison 17
  • Two A Most Unquiet Hiding Place 43
  • Three The Misgovernment of Woman's Tongue 71
  • Four "Publick Fathers" and Cursing Sons 99
  • Five Saying and Unsaying 127
  • Six The Tongue is a Witch 150
  • EPILOGUE 181
  • Appendix - Litigation over Speech in Massachusetts, 1630-1692 195
  • Notes 203
  • Index 281
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