Guest Post: Teaching with Legal Sources: The Case of Ann Hibbens

Today’s guest poster is Sara Damiano, a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation is entitled, “Gender, Law, and the Culture of Credit in New England, 1730-1790.”

As we plunge into syllabus-writing season, I would like to contribute to The Junto’s ongoing conversation on teaching with primary sources. (Joseph Adelman and Glenda Goodman have previously written on favorite sources in the survey and on music in the classroom, respectively.)  I’m a historian of gender and law, so I would like to make the argument for including legal sources in our syllabi, even for courses that aren’t explicitly focused on legal history. By way of illustration, I would also like to recommend one of my favorite legal history sources for teaching: the 1640 trial of Ann Hibbens before the First Church of Boston.

First, the case of Ann Hibbens: Ann was the wife of William Hibbens, an elite Bostonian and respected church member. In the late 1630s, acting with her husband’s permission, Ann Hibbens hired some carpenters to work on the family’s home. The carpenters finished the job, but, in Hibbens’s view, they had overcharged her and performed shoddy labor. Hibbens publicly criticized them, and in 1640, church authorities summoned her to answer for her outspoken speech.

The episode’s conclusion is similar to that of Hibbens’s better-known counterpart, Ann Hutchinson. Hibbens refused to recant when questioned before the congregation. Instead she vehemently defended her actions. The church found that she had committed nine offenses, ranging from slandering the carpenters to disobeying her husband. Ann Hibbens, like Ann Hutchinson, was excommunicated. Sixteen years later, Hibbens was convicted of witchcraft and executed.

The Hibbens trial is accessible and readable. A six-page excerpt, taken from the journal of church congregant Robert Keayne, is included in Nancy Cott et al’s primary source reader, Root of Bitterness: Documents in the Social History of American Women. I used this source in an upper-level seminar, but it could work equally well in a survey, where short, punchy sources are in high demand.

Perhaps most obviously, legal sources are valuable because they provide windows onto how the law operated at specific historical moments. The Hibbens trial underscores the importance of local regulation during the early years of English settlement and, by stretching our definition of the legal to include church trials as well as proceedings in colony courts, it demonstrates the interconnections between law and religion.

Teaching with legal sources also helps students to consider how the law structured and buttressed social institutions. As historians including Jane Kamensky and Mary Beth Norton have analyzed, church authorities interpreted Hibbens’s criticism of the carpenters and her subsequent defense of her actions as acts of disobedience against husband, her community, and even God.[1] Hibbens’s trial and excommunication invite discussion of the role of the law in upholding economic institutions (carpenters’ established pricing schemes) and systems of household governance and gender relations. For my students, church member John Cotton’s invocation of the Bible in his admonition to Hibbens that “God hath put another law upon women: wives, be subject to your husbands in all things” offered a striking encapsulation of seventeenth-century Puritan patriarchy.[2]

Legal sources allow us to teach historians’ methodologies as well as historical content, with court cases’ built-in interpretive dilemmas spurring students to formulate their own arguments from primary sources. Like many trials (and, more broadly, like many legal sources about regulation), that of Ann Hibbens can be read optimistically or pessimistically. Does it reflect a harsh clampdown by authorities, or the extent to which individuals can maneuver within and even challenge social institutions? Hibbens was ultimately excommunicated, of course, and this fact initially consumed my students’ attention. But the proceedings also expose the messiness of everyday life, and so I also asked my seminar to evaluate a different argument: ostensibly acting on behalf of their husbands, elite seventeenth-century New England wives like Hibbens exercised a measure of economic and social autonomy, forming contracts and speaking out against members of their community.

At their core, legal sources prompt students to grapple with how we come to know about the past. Even if we set aside the issue of how surviving documents may skew our view of legal proceedings (i.e., the problem of Robert Keayne’s journal), court records can give pause to those used to reading sources for evidence of “what happened.” Trials are by nature adversarial, with different parties advancing conflicting arguments. The resulting records invite students of history to weigh competing shards evidence and to craft their own narratives from these pieces. Ultimately, they ask us formulate our own interpretations even as we acknowledge that some questions of fact remain unsettled.

And so, Junto readers, I now turn to you. How do you incorporate legal sources into your teaching?

[1] Jane Kamensky, Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 71-98; Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 81-83, 161-164, 200-201.

[2] Nancy F. Cott et al, Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women, 2nd ed. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 15.

One response

  1. Excellent post, Sara! You’re absolutely right: the Hibbens trial is a remarkably rich source–so rich, in fact, that in an American history survey course, if an instructor can only manage to devote one day and one reading to Puritan society, this one document might well suffice. Those who are looking to mix up their discussion formats a bit could even divvy up roles and have their students read it like a script, with breaks for questions and debate. (I recently did this with a group of middle- and high-school history teachers. It worked great, and they said that with a bit of editing, or perhaps a glossary of terms, the Hibbens trial would work well for their younger students, too.)

    If anybody is interested in a longer source than the one Cott provides, I’d point you towards REMARKABLE PROVIDENCES, John Demos’s primary-source collection, which contains the bulk of the document; it amounts to something like 25 pages.


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