Abigail Chandler is Assistant Professor of History at University of Massachusetts at Lowell. This interview is based on her new book, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England 1650-1750: Steering Toward England (Ashgate Pub Co., 2015).
JF: What led you to write Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750?
AC: When I was seventeen, I came across an account of another seventeen year old named Rachel Atkins who purchased much of modern day Small Point, Maine, from three Abenaki in 1675. Several years later, I read that her older sister took their father to court on incest charges in 1668 and that led to my wider research in the colonial New England court records, where I began noticing both changes over time and differences between the individual colonies. If Massachusetts was founded by colonists seeking to rewrite English law and English society, colonists in both Maine and Rhode Island modeled their early legal systems more closely on English common law. Maine colonist Thomas Gorges wrote in 1642 that he wanted Maine's law "to steare as neere as we could to the course of Ingland" and this idea of law steering towards or away from England is what pulled all the different trials together into a larger story about the shifting role of English law in colonial New England’s sexual misconduct prosecutions.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Law and Sexual Misconduct, 1650-1750?
AC: Law and Sexual Misconduct is about the legal process used to prosecute sexual misconduct in the colonies of Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island between 1650 and 1750. It argues that John Murrin’s “Anglicization” thesis, the idea that the English colonies were at their most English on the eve of the American Revolution, is better described as a process of “Alternating Anglicization”
as each colony considered its own relationship with English law differently at different times.
JF: Why do we need to read Law and Sexual Misconduct, 1650-1750?
AC: There have been many books written about growing imperial control over the British North American colonies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and this is a topic we know a great deal about. What we know less about is how this process felt to ordinary colonists experiencing it on the ground in North America. My research demonstrates that both sexual misconduct laws and the resulting courtroom procedures shifted in response to these wider imperial changes. And because sexual misconduct was a crime which was consistently tried over long periods of time and which targeted both men and women, examining sexual misconduct trials in relation to the imperial process provides a window onto the impact these changes had on the daily lives of colonists, particularly women, in the New England colonies.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AC: Finding that account of Rachel Atkins’ land purchase when I was seventeen started me reading colonial New England history in high school and, eventually, drew me to graduate school and my work as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. My first history conference in graduate school was the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture conference, which was held in Boston that year. I gave my paper in a building opposite the street from the Granary Burying Ground where Rachel is buried. After giving my paper, I crossed the street to the Granary to say thank you.
JF: What is your next project?
AC: At first glance, my next project has nothing to do with this first book as it’s a comparative study of the Stamp Act crisis throughout the British North American colonies in 1765 and the Regulator Rebellion in North Carolina in the late 1760s and early 1770s. However, my interests in the shifting role played by English law in the wider Anglo-American world and in the lives of ordinary colonists play an equally large role in this project and so it does feel like something of a sequel to me.
JF: Thanks, Abigail!