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1 - Introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2022

Kristin A. Olbertson
Affiliation:
Alma College
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Summary

In the eighteenth century, the Massachusetts House criminalized speech, and the general sessions courts prosecuted it, for being impolite as well as ungodly. Politeness became a core element of social order and elite white masculine identity. This study identified more than 1,600 criminal speech prosecutions in the records of justices and courts. These include any document that specified verbal threats or abuse; profane cursing or swearing; verbal noise; lying; false reports; defamatory speech; or perjury. Criminal procedure was simple and discretionary, and required widespread community participation in order to effectively prosecute impolite speech. Such prosecutions helped to define elite identity and status around matrices of sensibility, civility, and credibility. Sensibility was a moral and genteel quality not manifested by those prosecuted for noisy or abusive speech. Civility connoted pleasurable sociability that was undermined by contempt, cursing, and defamation. Credibility was the gentlemanly reputation for truthfulness, destroyed by lying, perjury, false news, and mumpers (pretended gentlemen). The Revolution replaced this regime with one based on respectability.

Type
Chapter
Information
The Dreadful Word
Speech Crime and Polite Gentlemen in Massachusetts, 1690–1776
, pp. 1 - 34
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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