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The scarcity of workmen had caused them to raise their wages to an excessive rate, so as a carpenter would have three shillings the day, a laborer two shillings and sixpence, etc.; and accordingly those who had commodities to sell advanced their prices sometime double to that they cost in England, so as it grew to a general complaint, which the court, taking knowledge of, as also of some further evils, which were springing out of the excessive rates of wages, they made an order, that carpenters, masons, etc., should take but two shillings the day, and laborers but eighteen pence, and that no commodity should be sold at above four pence in the shilling more than it cost for ready money in England; oil, wine, etc., and cheese, in regard to the hazard of bringing, etc. [excepted].

The evils which were springing, etc., were: 1. Many spent much time idly, etc., because they could get as much in four days as would keep them a week. 2. They spent much in tobacco and strong waters, etc., which was a great waste to the commonwealth, which, by reason of so many foreign commodities expended, could not have subsisted to this time, but that it was supplied by the cattle and corn, which were sold to new comers at very dear rates, viz., corn at six shillings the bushel, a cow at £20,-yea, some at £24, some £26,-a mare at £35, an ewe goat at 3 or £4; and yet many cattle were every year brought out of England, and some from Virginia.

Soon after order was taken for prices of commodities, viz., not to exceed the rate of four pence in the shilling above the price in England, except cheese and liquors, etc.
[1641]

The court having found by experience, that it would not avail by any law to redress the excessive rates of laborers' and workmen's wages, etc. (for being restrained, they would either remove to other places where they might have more, or else being able to live by planting and other employments of their own, they would not be hired at all), it was therefore referred to the several towns to set down rates among themselves. This took better effect, so that in a voluntary way, by the counsel and persuasion of the elders, and example of some who led the way, they were brought to more moderation than they could be by compulsion. But it held not long.

John Winthrop


Historical Summary


TO THE reporter of labor conditions novelty is rare indeed. Labor troubles have always been with us. In America of colonial days land was plentiful; labor, scarce. A worker commanded wages almost double the rate prevailing in the old country. John Winthrop relates the story of one master who had been obliged to sell a pair of oxen to meet his employee's wages. Having done so, he told the workman that he saw no prospect of being able to continue to pay him.

"Sell more cattle," said the workman.

"What shall I do when they are gone?"

"You can serve me and get them back," was the reply.

One business man wrote from Maine in 1639 that if the current high rate of wages were to continue, "the servants wilt be masters and the masters servants." Help remained scarce for a long time. Samuel Sewall sought to solve his household servant problem by paying court to a likely prospect, noting in his diary that it was "hard to find a good one" even in the year 1687. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that employers found labor extremely independent, truculent, and unruly.

The problem was met in those days by putting a ceiling on wages, a practice prevailing in England since the Middle Ages. A number of colonies set maximum wage scales, but the Massachusetts experiment fixing ceilings on both wages and prices was the most far-reaching of its day. While it was enforced sporadically, as Winthrop attests, the central government soon found it necessary to turn regulation over to the towns. In 1670 the legislature considered a bill reviving central wage and price control on the ground that laborers and servants were living extravagantly, wearing clothing unsuitable to their rank, and spending their time in alehouses. But a labor lobby defeated the program, and, save for sporadic instances, it was not revived until the American Revolution.

John Winthrop, the Bay Colony's governor during some of the wage-fixing years, has left us in his Journal a fascinating report of the early days among the Puritans and of the special providences in their favor. The Journal is packed with sensational news-disasters, great court trials, and sex scandals. It is more than a report. It is an able apology for the way of life which the Puritans chose to live in New England.

Winthrop favored religious independence for the Puritans, but denied toleration to others. His Journal records how the court over which he [p.113] presided dealt out justice to the religious dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, a woman "of a haughty and fierce carriage, of nimble wit and active spirit and a very voluble tongue." Winthrop sentenced her to banishment "as being a woman not fit for our society."

"Wherefore am I banished?" she asked.

Winthrop replied: "Say no more, the court knows wherefore, and is satisfied."

Winthrop typified the Puritan oligarchs who strove desperately to keep democracy out of the colony and who employed any and every means within their grasp to establish a commonwealth under "the rule of God's word" and completely independent of English control. He did not live to see that he had fought a good fight for a lost cause.

Source:
Original Sources http://www.originalsources.com

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