Crime and Punishment in the American Colonies Essay

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What crime existed in the colonies? How was this different or the same as in the lands from where colonists came?



Although the early colonists clearly brought with them vestiges of their previous culture and country, living in the New World produced new social and economic factors that gave rise to new worldviews and also new forms of crime. But initially, there was relatively little crime. For many early colonists, religious cohesion, the lack of diversity within their society, and above all a desire for survival meant that crimes such as murder and robbery were scarce, particularly in Puritan New England (p. 39). The most common crimes were so-called vice crimes, or violations of the very strict standards which governed colonial society. Gambling had been very popular in England and existed within the colonies, as did heavy drinking. But while this was tolerated in the Southern colonies, in the Northern and more religiously-based colonies, these crimes were regarded as moral abominations that must be stopped, as they were not in keeping with the true intention of the colony’s founding.



Another unusual form of crime could be considered political crimes, such as rebellions against the dominant order. Bacon’s Rebellion began as a result of what were regarded as pro-Indian policies of the government. Many new settlers wished to encroach upon Indian land far faster than would be allowed by the Crown. Additionally, settler violence against the Native Americans and vice versa was common throughout the colonial period.

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Economic crimes were common as piracy on the high seas was a constant threat to commerce. And economic and social divisiveness, in combination with religious fervor, led to the so-called crimes of the Salem Witch Trials, in which a variety of members of the Massachusetts colony were accused of witchcraft (p.43).

How did the growth of the colonies affect crime?



When societies grow and become more diverse and more economically stratified, crime often increases. The American colonies were no different. Property thefts such as robberies and housebreakings in particular were on the rise, perhaps because certain individuals showed notably greater profits in their enterprises than other individuals, inspiring jealously and dissent between citizens of different means. There had also been an influx of immigration into many of the colonies, resulting in greater diversity. Some of the initial religious fervor that had begun some of the colonies had begun to dissipate, and there were also accounts of “Horse-Riders, Whores, and Thieves” involved in attacks in less savory areas of towns (p.62). Newspapers of the later colonial era contain accounts of more murders than earlier colonial documents. For the first time, effective policing was needed and in the absence of this as well as an absence of effective government….....

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