The Discovery of the Asylum
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The Discovery of the Asylum

Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic

David J. Rothman

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eBook - ePub

The Discovery of the Asylum

Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic

David J. Rothman

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This is a masterful effort to recognize and place the prison and asylums in their social contexts. Rothman shows that the complexity of their history can be unraveled and usefully interpreted. By identifying the salient influences that converged in the tumultuous 1820s and 1830s that led to a particular ideology in the development of prisons and asylums, Rothman provides a compelling argument that is historically informed and socially instructive. He weaves a comprehensive story that sets forth and portrays a series of interrelated events, influences, and circumstances that are shown to be connected to the development of prisons and asylums. Rothman demonstrates that meaningful historical interpretation must be based upon not one but a series of historical events and circumstances, their connections and ultimate consequences. Thus, the history of prisons and asylums in the youthful United States is revealed to be complex but not so complex that it cannot be disentangled, described, understood, and applied.This reissue of a classic study addresses a core concern of social historians and criminal justice professionals: Why in the early nineteenth century did a single generation of Americans resort for the first time to institutional care for its convicts, mentally ill, juvenile delinquents, orphans, and adult poor? Rothman's compelling analysis links this phenomenon to a desperate effort by democratic society to instill a new social order as it perceived the loosening of family, church, and community bonds. As debate persists on the wisdom and effectiveness of these inherited solutions, The Discovery of the Asylum offers a fascinating reflection on our past as well as a source of inspiration for a new century of students and professionals in criminal justice, corrections, social history, and law enforcement.

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Bibliographic Note



The best beginning point for an exploration of colonial attitudes is with ministers' sermons. Students are especially fortunate to have the pamphlets listed in Charles Evans's American Bibliography readily available in microcard editions, and without difficulty I was able to read the many charity and execution sermons of the period. One of the best examples of this material is Benjamin Colman, The Unspeakable Gift of God: A Right Charitable and Bountiful Spirit to the Poor and Needy Members of Jesus Christ (Boston, 1739) ; a more cautious note is struck by Charles Chauncy, The Idle Poor Secluded from the Bread of Charity by Christian Law (Boston, 1752). Typical of the execution sermons are: John Rogers, Death the Certain Wages of Sin to the Impenitent . . . Occasioned by the Imprisonment, Condemnation, and Execution of a Young Woman who was Guilty of Murdering her Infant begotten out of Whoredom (Boston, 1701), and A Brief Account of the Life and Abominable Thefts of Isaac Frasier (New Haven, Conn., 1768). Reprinted too in this series are the constitutions and descriptions of colonial voluntary associations, giving a sense, albeit limited, of the scope of private philanthropy.
Another critical source for eighteenth-century attitudes and practices is the public law. Practically every colonial code is in print; and although the volumes are not often subject-indexed, or in one cumulative edition, still, legal research in the colonial period is not tedious to conduct. The best starting points for poor laws and criminal codes are with Massachusetts, which influenced New England practices, and with Virginia, which exerted a similar influence among southern colonies. Of course, the laws must not be used alone, and English precedents were of major importance. Still, colonial laws are an excellent indicator of prevailing attitudes, concerns, and procedures.
Town and court records form an indispensable guide to colonial measures to relieve poverty and punish crime. Many town records are reprinted; countless others are available in manuscript form. They are often fragmentary, especially with regard to reports by the overseers of the poor. Nevertheless, these materials shed important light not only on the study of poor relief but on the structure and functioning of the family and the community. As I attempt to demonstrate in Chapter 2, lists of the type, amount, form, and recipients of aid open up considerations that students of colonial society have heretofore neglected. Among the published materials, the records of Virginia parishes, under the editorship of C. G. Chamberlayne, are particularly useful, and so are those of New York City and Boston. More haphazard but still valuable are the town collections of New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
Some manuscript records from the larger settlements have been especially useful. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an unrivaled collection of materials on poor relief in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Boston — one that has hardly been used. Its records on the Boston almshouse are unusually complete. So too, the New York Public Library and the New York Hall of Records have manuscript holdings by overseers of the poor that afford a close look into New York practices. These records exist too in Philadelphia, and a search of county courthouses would undoubtedly bring still others to light.
Finally, the court records setting down the punishments meted out to vagrants and criminals are important to this story. Here too, the records have not been used to their fullest in illuminating personal relations and community structures in the eighteenth century. An exploration of some New York City materials, the records of the Mayor's Court, was especially rewarding.


Many volumes dealing in part with colonial relief practices appeared in the 1930's, under the editorship of Sophonisba Breckinridge of the University of Chicago. Written by social workers, rather than historians, they relied exclusively upon the statutes, making almost no effort to use other materials. The result often is a sterile and unimaginative survey of the laws, without attention to colonial society. Among the better secondary studies of poor relief in the eighteenth century are: David M. Schneider, The History of Public Welfare in New York, 1609-1866 (Chicago, 1938) and Margaret Creech, Three Centuries of Poor Law Administration (Chicago, 1942) ; a valuable and more recent survey with an excellent chapter on the colonial period is James Leiby, Charity and Corrections in New Jersey (New Brunswick, N.J., 1967). A non-interpretive but detailed account of the colonial poor laws is Stefan Riesenfeld, "The Formative Era of American Assistance Law," California Law Review, 43 (1955), 175-223.
Books treating colonial crime are not only in short supply but of low quality. They tend to be descriptive, with little effort at analysis as to why the colonists adopted particular forms of punishment. One exception, however, that stands as a monument to diligence and thoughtful-ness in the use of legal sources is Julius Goebel Jr., and T. Raymond Naughton, Law Enforcement in Colonial New York (New York, 1944). It is only to be regretted that the volume has not spurred others to similar work. Also useful was a brief but interesting examination of religious views and court actions in Massachusetts before and after the Revolution: William E. Nelson, "Emerging Notions of Modern Criminal Law in the Revolutionary Era: An Historical Perspective," New York University Law Review, 42 (1967), 450-582. Our knowledge of legal and social history would increase if more studies of this sort were conducted.
The student of deviancy and dependency in the colonies will want ...

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