John Bernard Learns About The Connecticut Blue Laws

Of all the curious customs of New England that entertained John Bernard during his travels in America from 1797 to 1811, the Connecticut blue laws were among the strangest.

The Connecticut blue laws prohibited many things, including chewing tobacco on a Sunday.

The Connecticut blue laws prohibited many things, including chewing tobacco on a Sunday.

While returning to Boston through Connecticut he found himself marooned in New Haven one Saturday with nothing to do but wait out a silent Sunday, in accordance with the local laws that were holdovers from the Puritan days. Even then, he noted in his Retrospections of America, 1797-1811, not everyone appreciated the strict enforcement of the laws.

“… the next day was Sunday, and, according to the laws of Connecticut, it was criminal to violate Sabbath rest by putting one’s self in motion, we were constrained to abide there until the Monday morning. Our host at the inn was a very communicative and humorous kind of man, not at all of a piece with the inhabitants in general, and, though obliged to submit to the laws of the place in which he lived, by no means backward in expressing his opinion of them to his customers.

“From this oracle I gathered some further information as to the working of the famous Blue Laws. As is well known, they entirely forbade trade or travelling upon the Sabbath; so that by the letter of the law all goods bought or sold upon that day were forfeited to the state, while not, on the most urgent plea of necessity, might an animal be permitted to click his profane hoof upon the Sabbatical stones of New Haven. From the growing spirit of commerce in the country at large, and the unlucky situation of Connecticut, which rendered it the thoroughfare for business, it was found, however, to be every day — or rather every seventh day — a more difficult task to carry these regulations into effect. Accordingly a multitude of peace officers under the various titles of beadles, constables, and street-keepers, were posted all day in the streets and avenues, to enforce strict maintenance of that quietude which the statutes enjoined. It was their business to take care that no person appeared without-doors during “meeting time,” and on the entry of a traveler into the town, immediately to stop him, lead his horse to a stable and himself to the “meeting.”

“Thus a sense of duty induced them to violate the law themselves in order to compel its observance by others. The deathlike dullness and absolute privation of sound which prevailed throughout the day can hardly be imagined. The labor of eating dinners, prepared on the previous Saturday, seemed to be looked on as a lamentable necessity, and though such noises as coughing and sneezing were excused if quite spontaneous, it was directly forbidden to induce them by taking snuff, or carelessly letting your liquor go the wrong way. I know not whether the chattering of a man’s teeth in an ague fit would have been considered reprehensible, but in the case of your hands becoming dirty I am persuaded that it would have been held more correct to let them remain so than to resort to the labor of using soap, water, and towel.

“Under the influence of this mournful contrast to the pleasurable tranquility or the light-hearted, innocent gayety of a European Sunday I really conceived myself abstracted from the world, or, rather, like the personage in one of the Arabian Tales who wandered into a petrified city and in the midst of human habitations beheld no sign of life. But while every noise was totally suppressed in-doors, what does my reader suppose he would hear or observe were he to take his seat with me at one of the inn windows and survey the streets? For the most part he would hear nothing, for when the inhabitants were allowed to issue from their doors they stole about the highways like so many sprites or like the mysterious heroes in Mrs. Radcliff’s romances, so light were their movements and their steps so inaudible. The principal object in sight would be those guardians of the peace already mentioned, looking like a detachment of Cromwell’s body-guard as they march to and fro with the utmost precision and solemnity, arrayed in the square-cut garments which betokened their office. Perhaps, at last, some luckless pig would waddle forth from an avenue upon a muddy research. Alas, his first grunt of triumph, as he lighted upon some spoil, would serve as a signal to his enemies, one of whom would secure him on the instant, drive him ignominiously home to his sty, and there execute retributive justice for his pagan disregard of sacred ordinances by forthwith dispatching him. Or should some careless dog, or even thoughtless puppy, in profligate contempt of the law, begin frolicking and barking in the road, he would be summarily shot upon the spot. Or perhaps some gentleman cat, amorously disposed, would be so unfortunate as to commence an ill-timed feline serenade under the gutter of his adored tabby; the vigilant street-keepers, attracted by the sound, would rush to the place, and at the moment, perhaps, when a tender response was awakening in the bosom and the throat of Grimalkin, and the passionate duet of the hapless pair rising to a climax, both would be assailed with a battery of staff and stones, to the interruption of their loves and great peril of their lives. The plea was manifest that “love’s labor” could no more be permitted than any other worker’s. On the inhabitants proceeding to and from meeting these careful conservators of the public tranquility had to take cognizance of young and old, and prevent any stoppages or chattering on the way, a nod on such occasions being considered indecorous, and a shake of the hand a tangible impropriety.

“In later years, when beginning to find it impossible to restrain altogether the current of intercourse which flowed through their state, these puritanical worthies resolved to convert the restriction into a source of pecuniary profit, and accordingly permitted a man to pursue his journey on payment of a fine, proportioned, I believe, either to the number of his horses or of his family. A sharp-witted Yankee, returning home through Connecticut, was stopped, therefore, at a little village, and requested to pay the fine, which he consented to do if he were taken before the magistrate who was to receive it, and who was a man of great property and extensive mercantile connections. The Yankee, tearing a leaf from his pocket-book, wrote thereon a few words, and presenting it to the magistrate with the money, requested him to sign a receipt for the few shillings, in order that he might not be called on to pay the fine twice over, should he be stopped again before the morrow. So reasonable a request being unhesitatingly complied with, the traveler put the paper in his pocket and departed, apparently in no worse humor for the interruption he had encountered. About ten days afterwards, business calling the magistrate to Boston, he took occasion to step into his banker’s to look over his account, when they informed him that they had duly honored his last week’s draft for one hundred dollars. He stared in surprise. They produced it for him, and he immediately recognized the handwriting of the Yankee, with his signature plainly attached.”

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