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Mayflower, Day by Day - Tuesday, 19 October 1621

19 Oct 2021 3:38 AM | Soule (Administrator)

Fornication (part two)

Single men also were prosecuted for fornication, and a man would be required to support a child he was accused of fathering “if it shall appear to be his.” But many prosecutions encountered difficulties. If a woman failed to prosecute a man, he would be “cleared.” An accused father also was entitled to a trial by jury if he demanded it, and the courts treated men accused of fornication fairly and were careful not to convict the innocent. The judiciary's sympathy for men emerged with special clarity in the weird case of John Uffoote, who, after being divorced from his wife for “insufficiency,” managed to get Martha Nettleton pregnant. Although “he was sorry for his sin,” he was now convinced that he would not have suffered from impotence “if his wife had carried it toward him as she ought”; “finding the need of that help” from Martha, he “was by the power of temptation and corruption in his own heart overcome” and accordingly sought the court's permission to marry Martha. Although the court found “it is a strange thing that after all this he should miscarry in this manner,” it allowed John and Martha to marry after fining both of them. Judges were much less sympathetic to women, as, for example, when Martha Richardson testified that a man unknown to her impregnated her after she had passed out in a fainting fit and the court ruled that it “could not but judge her guilty, both of known fornication and continued impudent lying, believing that no woman can be gotten with child without some knowledge, consent and delight in the acting thereof.”

In the case of the Plymouth colony, one factor always in the background was the need for population growth.  The colony was singularly unsuccessful in attracting immigrants and settlers; there was a need to balance the obligation to punish crime and sin and thus support the civic and moral foundations of society, against the pressing need for more people to survive.

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