The Transformation of the Law of Poverty in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts636

    DURING the middle decades of the eighteenth century, people in Massachusetts experienced poverty in a way that they had not known it before. The numbers of poor and dependent people increased sharply both in the countryside and in the seaport towns; transiency became more common as “strolling poor” people moved from town to town in search of work and poor relief; almshouses and workhouses appeared not only in the large seaports of Boston and Salem, but also in some towns in the countryside; and town officials and ministers alike warned of poverty as the economic and social costs of poor relief began to rise.637

    Three factors coincided to contribute to the rise of poverty in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts. First, sustained population growth, especially in the eastern farming towns, led to a decline of land relative to the population; the result was constricted economic opportunities, stratification, migration, and unemployment.638 Second, the series of eighteenth-century wars, especially the French and Indian War, disrupted the Massachusetts economy, displacing soldiers and their families.639 Third, inflation during the early eighteenth century caused prices to rise while wages either declined or remained the same, resulting in both unemployment and a loss of income for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.640 Taken together, these demographic, political, and economic changes posed significant challenges to the system of social welfare, and ultimately to the eighteenth-century legal system.

    English in heritage but American in their social origins, the Massachusetts poor laws underwent a dramatic transformation in the eighteenth century.641 Confronted with a growing class of paupers and transients, selectmen, overseers of the poor, town meetings, and the General Court redefined what I have termed here the “law of poverty.” In the seventeenth century, the law of poverty reflected the fact that relatively few people fell into overt pauperism; with full employment, a generous supply of land, and minimal inflation, poverty simply was not the social problem that it became in the eighteenth century. Private charity through the churches and individuals combined with public relief to meet the needs of the destitute, resulting in a minimal system of poor laws.642 By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, the transformation of the law of poverty began to occur. Social welfare programs in the towns became more common as the number of paupers increased; institutions of welfare appeared throughout Massachusetts; settlement laws began to clarify more specifically those who were entitled to benefits; and the warning-out system became the primary mechanism for detecting the presence of the transient poor. Taken together, these programs of welfare and control comprised the core of the transformation of the law of poverty.

    Yet the law of poverty in eighteenth-century Massachusetts represented a tension between the material needs of the destitute and the needs of the larger society to control the costs of relief as well as the movements of the poor themselves. On the one side, compassion and humanitarianism demanded that the destitute receive at least a minimal level of subsistence; on the other, fears of “great disorder and idleness” and “great Public Expense” prompted the call for containment and control.643 Yet neither compassion nor control, alone, is sufficient explanation for the transformation of the law of poverty in early Massachusetts.644 This essay argues that the transformation was characterized by the gradual emergence of legal limitations on the towns and town officials who provided public relief and on the rights of the poor to social welfare. Rather than portraying the law of poverty as either compassionate or controlling, this essay seeks to demonstrate that welfare and control were intrinsically related parts of the administration and enforcement of the poor laws. Ultimately, the law of poverty in eighteenth-century Massachusetts gained a new legitimacy as the poor laws embraced both the needs of the poor and the economic and social interests of the townspeople who provided public relief.645


    The origins of the laws providing for public poor relief in colonial Massachusetts extend far back into the history of the colony’s early settlement. The seventeenth-century laws continued the English tradition of public poor relief, but reflected in their application a society with relatively little poverty. In 1639, the General Court provided that either the Court itself or any two of its members could resolve any dispute concerning relief for poor inhabitants.646 The General Court did not delineate guidelines or rules for resolving such disputes; rather, it relied on the discretion and wisdom of its members. Only six years later, however, the General Court appointed a committee to reconsider the existing poor law. Apparently two problems existed: one, the towns wanted a more predictable system of poor relief in order to plan their town budgets; and two, the General Court sought to “prevent multiplying of petitions” presented to the Court.647 The General Court responded quickly, giving every town the power to present “idle and unprofitable persons, and all children, who are not diligently [employed] by their parents” to the quarterly courts to be disposed of both for their own welfare and for the common good.648

    While relatively simple in its language, the poor law of 1646 defined the categories of public poor relief in colonial Massachusetts. Moreover, the 1646 law provided for the dual authority of town officials and justices of the quarterly courts, a feature that would become even more important in the eighteenth century. The final cornerstone of the eighteenth-century poor laws was established with the passage of the 1659 poor law. That law, passed after years of discontent over the presence of “strangers,” required a three-month residency for entitlement to poor relief.649

    The relatively simple and straightforward poor laws of colonial Massachusetts gave way in the eighteenth century to more specific statutes regarding the recipients of poor relief, the powers of town officials under the laws, and the duty of care owed to the poor. Under the Second Charter of Massachusetts in 1692, poor relief laws provided that selectmen, overseers of the poor, and county courts of general sessions of the peace focus on three groups of paupers: the destitute, children, and the able but unemployed. Initially, the Provincial poor laws rarely provided for how town officials would care for paupers; the laws usually required only “care” or “effectual care.”650 As with the colonial laws, the Provincial statutes permitted poor relief officials to use their discretion in providing care. Indeed, it is difficult to state with certainty what the duties of selectmen and overseers of the poor actually were in the early eighteenth century. Still, this discretion accorded to public officials made perfect sense; public relief was paternalistic. It was public charity that was given by the towns, so it was assumed that benevolent motives would inform the poor relief decisions of town officials.

    By the 1730’s and 1740’s abuses had crept into the poor relief system to such an extent that the General Court began to define more specifically the rights of the poor and the responsibilities of the selectmen and overseers of the poor. In a law passed in 1743 the preamble to the statute stated that “it has sometimes happened . . . that persons who are poor . . . have and may greatly suffer by reason of the neglect of overseers of the town . . . ,” either because of legal disputes over liability for relief or “supposition or pretence that condition and circumstances of such poor persons are not . . . necessitous . . .” To remedy these abuses the 1743 law provided more precise duties of overseers and selectmen towards the poor. They became subject to a forty-shilling fine if they denied relief to someone entitled to it; towns were required to tax themselves to provide adequate poor relief; and the justices of the courts of general sessions of the peace were empowered to resolve disputed residency cases as well as to collect taxes if the towns failed to do so.651 While the 1743 law did not fully eliminate the element of discretion from poor relief decisions by town officials, it did attempt to limit that power.

    Once the overseers of the poor or selectmen in the towns determined that a pauper needed and was entitled to assistance, they typically turned to local families to provide care. In both seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Massachusetts, the care of paupers generally remained with the family—the basic economic and social unit that could provide housing, food, clothing, education, and nursing in the event of illness.652 But in the eighteenth century, family care began to assume a different quality, becoming more custodial as it was linked legally to the public poor relief system. Town officials employed families to care for the aged, poor widows, and orphans. While the town officials turned naturally to the family to resolve problems of poverty, the custodial families undoubtedly benefitted from the cash paid by the town as well as the labor of the working poor.

    Agreements between town officials and custodial families were remarkably uniform; the towns paid a fee, usually for a year’s duration, for a resident to provide food, housing, and clothing for a pauper. If the pauper was physically able, the agreement would stipulate that he or she would perform labor. Similarly, the town usually agreed to provide the costs of medical care. These contracts for custodial care usually lasted one year. At the end of the year paupers often found themselves placed in another family. Ezekiel Day of Wenham, for example, lived with seven different families between 1757 and 1764.653 But widow Elizabeth McLane, a pauper from Northampton, remained with Samuel Clapp at the town expense between 1746 and 1760.654 Obviously a mutually satisfying relationship existed between Samuel Clapp and widow McLane for the town to continue support for fourteen years. Similarly, the Selectmen of Littleton employed John Bridges to care for John and Margaret Barret, two of the town poor, for nearly ten years. Bridges took the Barrets into his home in 1755, receiving four pounds for one year of care. When Margaret Barret died in 1761, Bridges buried her at a cost of twelve shillings to the town. Two years later, Bridges moved to Groton, and John Barret went with him “at the Desire and Request of the Selectmen of Littleton.” While living in Groton, the Littleton Selectmen paid Bridges ten pounds for Barret’s support. After twelve months, however, the Littleton Selectmen refused to pay maintenance costs for Barret, arguing that both Bridges and Barret had become residents of Groton. The Groton Selectmen, however, refused to support the eighty-five-year-old Barret. The sessions court resolved the dispute, holding that Littleton was legally responsible for Barret.655

    The duration of time in which paupers lived with custodial families indicates that those who cared for the poor did so from a variety of motives. Clearly, there was a financial benefit in taking in a pauper, for the annual supplements paid by the selectmen were welcome cash income for farm families. Becoming a custodial family meant that the family income could be augmented, not only by cash, but also by the casual labor some paupers could perform. Although paupers were often aged men and women, or young mothers with children, not all were bedridden. Richard Dodge, Jr., for example, a Wenham farmer, contracted with the Selectmen “to keep Elisabeth Senie and her youngest Child . . . for the Consideration of twenty shillings and what Labour She can do During the Sd Term.”656 In addition to the economic motives of taking in a pauper, the cases of John Barret and Elizabeth McLane suggest the possibility of strong emotional attachments between some paupers and caretakers. Custodial care of paupers was more than social welfare; it represented a direct extension of family life and the family economy. Just as adults took in their aging parents, so too did custodial families take in the aged, even though unrelated. Similarly, poor children became apprentices, supplementing the labor supply on the farms.657

    Indeed, a persistent arena of tension between town officials and paupers was over the failure of family members to care for their poor relatives. Under the 1692 poor law and its successors a pauper was entitled to poor relief by a town “unless the relations of such poor, impotent person in the line or degree of father or grandfather, mother or grandmother, children or grandchildren be of sufficient ability to provide relief.”658 Relief of the poor was primarily the responsibility of the lineal family, extending through three generations. This responsibility depended on a line of descent (or ascent) which relied on the obligations of parents to children, children to parents, and grandchildren to grandparents. Laterally-extended relatives such as brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles were not legally responsible for their poor kin; it was the lineal family that was the legal link to the pauper. Town officials had an economic interest in maintaining the family responsibilities of relatives of the poor. If children failed to care for their aged parents, then their poor relief costs fell on the town. Town officials typically petitioned the sessions courts to order families to care for their members. For example, the sessions court of Hampshire County ordered the Selectmen of Suffield to care for widow Priscilla Froe; the support, however, was to be provided by the widow’s four grandchildren.659 In addition, aged widows and married couples also petitioned the sessions courts directly to gain support from their children. William King, a yeoman from Great Barrington, with his wife, Esther, petitioned the Berkshire County Sessions Court for relief because their children failed to provide support. King and his wife were both old and indisposed, and unable to support themselves, in part, because King had “conveyed his Estate to his three Eldest Children; relying on their generosity and filial Duty for Support in case he or his Consort should live to want it.”660 Similarly, John Cooper of Cambridge refused to aid his poor parents but was forced to do so by the Middlesex County Sessions Court.661 Generally, the sessions courts held in favor of the aged in their petitions against their children, upholding the standard of family care when it was not fulfilled voluntarily.

    But with town officials trying to minimize poor relief costs and some family members shirking their responsibilities, some of the poor were truly unwanted and neglected. It was often up to the sessions courts to resolve any disputes among these groups. Mary Stephens of Marblehead, for example, plaintively asked the Essex County Sessions Court to “give orders for me to have support. Either from my sons or from the town of Marblehead . . . ,” since neither wanted to support her.662 And Amos George, a boy of fifteen years, was “weakly and Infirm, without a father, and whose mother could not support him,” was refused assistance by his grandparents. But the Selectmen of Haverhill succesfully took their case against the grandparents to the sessions court.663

    As the sessions courts became more involved in the administration and enforcement of the poor laws in the eighteenth century, their role as mediator among competing groups (selectmen, paupers, and their families) became more important. A detailed record of the conflicts among these participants in the legal system occurred in the case of Sarah Moor in 1765.664 In that year Sarah Moor of Rowley gave birth to twin boys fathered by Amos Jewett, Jr. This normally happy event was marred by the fact that Sarah and Amos were not married. Sarah became the twenty-one-year-old mother of illegitimate twin boys; Amos became the convicted father of two bastard children and legally responsible for five shillings per week in child support payments. Within the first two years of the birth of these children, both Sarah and Amos felt the weight of the law on their shoulders as they became involved with the Rowley Selectmen and the Essex County Sessions Court.

    Sarah’s early years and family origins are uncertain. Except for her birth in Rowley in 1743 and her baptism in Newbury, she rarely appears in the public records of Essex County. Her parents probably migrated to Rowley early in the eighteenth century. When Sarah moved to Newbury, she was legally warned out and probably returned to Rowley. There she met Amos Jewett, Jr., a member of a prominent Rowley family. Six months after the birth of the twins, Amos married Ann Noyes and settled in Rowley. Sarah’s pregnancy and subsequent illegitimate births were not unusual for mid-eighteenth-century Massachusetts; pre-marital pregnancies had increased sharply, and contributed to the rising poor costs.665 What was unusual was that the Rowley Selectmen tried to use the poor relief system to take Sarah’s children away from her and bind them into service.

    The Rowley Selectmen officially interjected themselves into the affairs of Sarah Moor in 1767, when Amos Jewett, Jr., went to debtors’ prison because he could not keep up his child support payments. Amos appealed to the Selectmen for financial assistance, and they agreed to give security for his support payments. In return, Amos turned his property over to the town for an indemnity. The Selectmen were eager to keep Amos out of prison because the town would have to absorb the costs of raising Sarah’s children. Still, since Amos could not keep up with the payments, the Selectmen petitioned the sessions court to release Amos from his weekly payments and to permit them to bind out the twins, who were now two years of age.

    For her part, Sarah proved to be a resourceful protector of her children. She resisted the Selectmen’s informal attempts to persuade her to bind out her children, and once in court, became an articulate and forceful defender of her rights. In a written document to the sessions court Sarah argued that it was not customary to permit local officials to take illegitimate children away from their mothers when they had a good home.666 She stated that she was fortunate to have found a man who had been willing to take in both children as well as Sarah, herself, and that she planned to apprentice her children to this man when they reached the age of seven years. Further, she argued that her children, at the age of two, were too young to be taken from her. In contrast, the Rowley Selectmen wanted to take her children from her and place them elsewhere only because it would be a little cheaper. She felt that this other family was “not so good a place nor [in] no ways to be compared with” the family with whom she now lived. Simply put, Sarah argued that the Selectmen were insensitive to her wishes as well as the best interests of her children. She also alleged that the Selectmen had been cruel towards her, had threatened her, and did not agree that her children were an economic burden. The justices of the sessions court agreed with Sarah; they dismissed the petition and ordered Amos to continue his support payments.667 While the Selectmen made their case primarily on economic grounds, the justices saw the issue as one of the rights of a mother to be with her children. In this way the justices preserved the rights of paupers and prevented extreme though possibly legal actions by town officials.

    The case of Sarah Moor, though fascinating for its rich detail, also symbolizes the growing tension between welfare and control. By accepting Sarah’s argument that the Rowley Selectmen had overstepped their authority under the poor laws, the Essex County Sessions Court placed boundaries on the discretionary power of town officials. Of course, not all town officials lacked compassion or acted incorrectly; one cannot weigh acts of compassion against those of control. But the law of poverty in the eighteenth century did begin to recognize that abuses did occur, and that the moral force of the community, through the sessions courts, sought to uphold both standards of fairness and appropriate custodial care.


    The alternative to custodial family care—formal institutionalization—emerged as a distinct and important part of the social welfare system in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Large-scale almshouses and workhouses flourished primarily in Boston and Salem in the eighteenth century, but the problems of poverty forced some country towns to build or to consider building almshouses. The result was intense interest in institutional forms of care for paupers during the middle decades of the eighteenth century.

    In the countryside small-scale poorhouses were occasionally built in order to provide housing and employment for the poor. Usually a dwelling house was converted into an almshouse, but new houses were built as well. Northampton, for example, voted to build a poor-house in 1705, while Ipswich actually built one in 1719.668 It was described as an “almshouse,” and was a log house, forty feet long, sixteen feet wide, six feet high, with a slat roof. Ipswich used the house as an almshouse until 1734, when the town returned to maintenance of the poor in custodial families but with supervised employment by the overseers of the poor.669

    Following this early interest in almshouses, concern over the poor led to more extensive debate over the feasibility of poorhouses in the 1740’s and the 1760’s. Braintree residents debated the merits of building or renting a house “for the Entertaining or Imploying such poor persons as the Town are obliged to take care of” in 1740, but took no action at that time. In 1747 the town agreed to build a house for the poor which was approximately the same size as the one built in Ipswich in 1719. But two months later the town rejected the poor-house concept, returning to the custodial family practice.670 Braintree’s interest in a poorhouse undoubtedly was part of a general concern in Massachusetts over the rising costs of relief. Boston had built a new workhouse in the 1730’s, and probably influenced other towns to consider similar approaches.671

    By the 1760’s small farming towns like Wenham debated the merits of a poorhouse, while neighboring Manchester voted to hire a house for the poor in 1765. Ultimately, Manchester decided not to build a poorhouse, choosing instead to place the poor in custodial families “as in years past.” Northampton voted to hire a house for the poor in 1767, as well.672 It is difficult to know how these country poorhouses actually operated. Some were converted dwelling houses, while others were built specifically for the poor. Still, these country almshouses were small-scale, absorbing only the town poor and unemployed. But the very existence of these poorhouses in the country towns reveals their shared concerns with seaports like Boston and Salem: inexpensive poor relief, employment of idle persons, and the rationalization of poor relief administration.

    In Boston and Salem the demands of urban poverty prompted the use of almshouses, workhouses, outdoor relief through cash payments, and custodial families.673 This blending of a variety of types of social welfare, however, was overshadowed as the almshouse and workhouse emerged in the eighteenth century as the dominant forms of public poor relief. These eighteenth-century urban institutions of care represented a transition between the custodial family of the countryside and the truly large-scale institutions that emerged in early nineteenth-century America.674 On the one hand the almshouse and the workhouse of Boston and Salem were modeled after the family: they provided discipline for the unemployed; they gave unmarried but pregnant women a home in which to give birth; they put people to work; and they eased the pain of the aged and the dying.675 The urban almshouse and workhouse were analogous to the custodial family of the countryside, providing many of the same functions, for they were tailored to the needs of the urban wage economy. But they were more impersonal, housing large numbers of paupers together. The living arrangements in the Boston almshouse, for example, resembled an urban boarding house. Its thirty-three rooms housed some one hundred thirty-three paupers; men and women shared whatever rooms were available; and there usually was more than one person in a bed.676 Fewer people lived in the Salem workhouse, but the conditions of life were the same. Because these institutions were intended to reduce the costs of poor relief, there was inherent in them the tension between compassion and control.

    Both Boston and Salem had separate almshouses in the seventeenth century, but with the growing numbers and costs of the poor in the 1730’s and 1740’s, formal institutionalization of the workhouse became popular in each town. Boston led the way in 1735, when the General Court granted the town the right to organize a workhouse.677 Other towns followed the lead of Boston, most notably Salem, by building a workhouse in 1749.678 Earlier, in 1743, the General Court extended the right to build a workhouse to all the towns, permitting them to erect workhouses for both the idle and the indigent.679 This law provided that the overseers of the poor, not the town selectmen, were to be the legally responsible officials for running the workhouse. The overseers were given broad powers of both oversight and regulation of the workhouse, while the town was required to provide the essentials for running the workhouse (furniture and implements for work, for example).

    With the creation of public institutions of poor relief, overseers of the poor gained both new responsibilities towards paupers as well as new problems in the administration of social welfare. Given the large expenditures of town funds needed to build a workhouse, the Selectmen of Salem, for example, directed the Overseers “not to make any allowance this year to any Poor Persons that are out of [the] Work-House, saving in cases of [the] utmost necessity, [and] then but a small sum.”680 To some extent, the town poor in Salem were coerced into entering the workhouse, since they were threatened with the loss of support. Eventually, twenty men and women entered the new Salem workhouse when it opened in December of 1749.681

    Prescriptive rules governed the lives of paupers who lived in the workhouses of Boston and Salem.682 (In fact, Salem’s Overseers adopted the identical rules set forth by the Boston Overseers.) Life in the workhouse was intended to reform the idle worker and to care for the destitute. A range of punishments awaited the “disobedient poor,” including the denial of a meal and loss of a day’s allowance of food. More severe infractions resulted in strict punishments, such as wearing a wooden collar around one’s neck, standing in a public place “with a Paper fixed on their Breasts denoting their Crime in Capitals for the space of one Hour,” and being placed in the dungeon for forty-eight hours with bread and water.683 If an inmate escaped from the workhouses of Boston or Salem and was recaptured, the master of the workhouse was permitted to attach a wooden clog to the person’s leg to inhibit his mobility.684

    The exact frequency with which these punishments were meted out is simply not clear. What the rules suggest, however, is that the townspeople, through their overseers of the poor, sought to do more than administer social welfare; they were determined to enforce institutionalized care. This combination of welfare with control in the workhouses may be seen vividly in the rules and experiences of the town of Springfield, which opened a workhouse in 1802. The Overseers of that town believed that they, too, had to coerce the paupers because of threatening behavior, drinking, and disobedience. Having decided that “punishment must be resorted to,” the Springfield Overseers erected stocks (“the punishment is infamous painful”) and a cell above the barn of the workhouse. The Overseers found that forty-eight hours “has generally been sufficient to create a dread of it.” Clearly, control was a conscious element involved in running a workhouse, given the dual functions of the house to reduce poor relief costs and effect moral reform.685 In addition, the very existence of a workhouse or almshouse actually deterred the poor from seeking public relief; they did not want to subject themselves to harsh treatment. For example, William Bentley, the Salem minister, expressed concern about the problem of poorly run workhouses and almshouses. He observed that Marblehead provided only a “house” for their poor, which “makes the poor reluctant to return, [and] Overseers of other Towns unwilling to send [the poor back there]. . . .”686 Finally, some of the paupers of the Boston and Salem workhouses took matters into their own hands and simply “went away” or “ran away.”687

    Standing between the paupers and the overseers of the poor were the justices of the sessions courts, who attempted to enforce standards of fairness on the overseers as well as to insure that only legally entitled paupers received relief. A vivid example of the conflicting relationships that occasionally developed among town officials, paupers, and sessions justices occurred in Berkshire County in 1769. Barnet and Sarah Campbell, an aging couple who lived in Great Barrington, applied to the town for poor relief. Barnet had been a tailor, but because of old age, ill health, and poverty, he and his wife were unable to support themselves. Sarah Campbell, according to five matrons who examined her for the local physician, William Whiting, had “Sores, Bruises and other [female] Disorders not proper for us to mention . . . , [so] we judge her at present Extremely unfit for Labor.”688 When the Campbells applied for relief, they expected to receive outdoor relief from the town; that is, monetary payments to provide the basics for living. Instead, the Overseers of the Poor ordered them to the workhouse.689

    Barnet Campbell was unwilling to accept such treatment. Placement in the workhouse, to Barnet Campbell, was in itself inhumane treatment. He believed that “instead of that Kindness and tenderness which Old Age, and impaired health require and that provision and support which Human nature Demands, [he and his wife] have been treated with . . . Roughness, threatened with the workhouse, whips and chains . . . , and left without any support.” Instead of being able to rely on public poor relief, the Campbells survived on the charity of “a few good people.”690 Campbell believed that the workhouse was for those who would not work, not those who could not work. Campbell’s perception of the workhouse echoed the views of William Bentley that the poor tried to avoid the workhouse or the almshouse, but Campbell suggested a new point: he and his wife were too respectable to be placed in the workhouse. Although the statute of 1743, which enabled towns to create workhouses, intended them for both the indigent and the idle, Campbell’s perception was probably the typical one.

    Campbell took his problem to the Berkshire County sessions court, where he petitioned the court to intervene in his behalf and to force the Overseers of Great Barrington to provide outdoor relief. To prove that he was not one of the idle poor, Campbell obtained the support of friends where he had lived for nearly twenty years in Albany County, New York. Twenty-three persons testified by deposition to his good moral character and his “Industrious and frugal manner.”691

    The justices of the sessions court agreed with Barnet Campbell and held that the Campbells did not belong in the Great Barrington workhouse.692 Reviewing the statutory basis for confinement to the workhouse, the justices said that the act applied only to idle persons or persons who refused to work and were able to work; it did not include “persons which providence has rendered unable for Service in this manner.” Still, the justices remained conciliatory towards the overseers, recommending that they “put those old persons into some more Eligible and Easy circumstances than a work house.” One of the justices, Timothy Woodbridge, expressed deep concern for the Campbells to his fellow justices: “I must commiserate the case of the poor helpless old people and could heartily wish some other Expedient might be found for their relief Then sending Them to a House of Correction.”693

    But the Overseers were persistent. One day after the justices ordered the Overseers to provide outdoor relief for the Campbells, the Overseers again threatened to put Sarah and Barnet in the workhouse. Israel Dewey, one of the Overseers, informed the Campbells that the Overseers voted to take them into the workhouse, rejecting the advice of the justices. Moreover, Dewey said that the master of the workhouse waited for the Campbells with two pairs of iron fetters “If you can be found in Town Next Week.”694 Again the sessions justices stepped in, but this time summoning the Selectmen to appear.695 Unfortunately, the resolution of this case is unclear, since the records remain silent after 1772. It is possible that the Campbells found some private way to resolve their economic problems. What is clear, though, is that the Overseers of Great Barrington exercised their power over these paupers in the face of a court order. The power of the Berkshire Sessions Court was apparently insufficient to persuade the Overseers to provide outdoor relief. In the case of Barnet and Sarah Campbell, the balance between compassion and control weighed heavily on the side of control. As long as the eighteenth-century almshouse and workhouse offered the hope of relief from increasing poor relief costs, there remained the possibility of coercion. To be sure, these institutions also provided needed care for the absolutely destitute, especially in Boston and Salem. But control mixed readily with compassion as overseers, selectmen, and justices of the peace sought to administer and enforce the law of poverty.


    Perhaps no area of the law of poverty in eighteenth-century Massachusetts was as important as the law of settlement. Since paupers qualified for social welfare primarily by establishing legal residency, the law of settlement gradually became an arena of conflict between town officials and transient paupers, mediated by the justices of the sessions courts. With the increased mobility of the people of Massachusetts during the eighteenth century, the law of settlement was at the very heart of the transformation of the law of poverty.

    From the very outset of colonization in the seventeenth century the English settlers of Massachusetts attempted to control the process of settlement in order to protect their Puritan ideals. Both the General Court and individual towns monitored the movement of newcomers. In 1637, the General Court ordered that no town or person could “receive any stranger . . . [with] intent to reside” in the colony more than three weeks except by permission of the Council or two magistrates.696 Similarly, Ipswich admitted newcomers into their “meeting” only if they agreed to “the like orders and penalties that we the freemen of the Towne have established for our own peace and comfort. . . .”697 Braintree regulated the sale of houses and land, permitting it first to be offered to current inhabitants, and only later to outsiders who were properly approved by the townsmen.698

    As the populations of the towns became more settled, the townsmen of the Puritan villages began to monitor newcomers with a slightly different eye: they were alert to potential paupers. Cambridge, Salem, Braintree, and Topsfield all banished unwanted transients in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, though the number of people was small.699 Topsfield, a small farming town, excluded a transient about every other year during the 1680’s, while Salem did so at least every year. The Salem Selectmen took particular care to exclude both “menacing” and poor transients. The Selectmen did not permit Indians in the town except during daylight hours and instructed the constables to watch for suspicious “nightwalkers.”700 Banishment, in these cases, served to maintain control before the creation of police forces. No less important was the control of potential paupers; some towns sought security bonds from transients in case they became ill, while other towns admitted migrants only if they had jobs.701 Employment defused the threat of poor relief.

    But as the numbers of transients increased dramatically in the eighteenth century, the law of settlement was transformed. In Essex County the number of transients approximately doubled every decade between the 1730’s and the 1760’s. On the western frontier of Massachusetts the number of transients increased over five times between the 1740’s and the 1760’s.702 A similar pattern of increasing numbers of transients also occurred in Boston during the middle decades of the eighteenth century, with the peak also occurring in the 1760’s.703 The primary solution to the problem of transiency came in the form of revised settlement laws. The General Court hoped to minimize poor relief costs on the towns in two ways: one, by extending the length of residence required for a legal inhabitancy; and two, by placing the burden of disclosure of transients on the migrants themselves, and increasingly away from the towns’ officials.

    The basic form of the eighteenth-century settlement law may be traced, in part, to the seventeenth century. Under the poor law of 1659, the General Court for the first time required that a person was entitled to poor relief if he or his family had been a resident of the town for more than three months. The town could avoid relief only if its constable or one of its selectmen had given notice that the “poore person” was not welcome to remain. Additionally, the selectmen were required to notify the county court of their intention not to provide relief.704 The central elements of this 1659 law—a residency requirement, a warning by the constable or selectman, and notification of the county court—became the core of the law of settlement for over one hundred years in Massachusetts. But social conditions in the eighteenth century, affected by increasing poverty and transiency, gave the law of settlement heightened importance.

    Between 1692 and 1701 the General Court continued to permit a legal residency to be established for purposes of poor relief if a person was not legally warned to leave a town within three months.705 The exception to this rule was that lineal family members had to care for their poor relatives.706 The 1692 statute was a more elaborate statement of the 1659 law. It made more explicit the town’s burden of discovering the presence of transients, and their legal liability for either detecting unwanted migrants or providing relief for them if they established legal inhabitancies. Also, the law made clear the fact that towns had an obligation to return a “warning” or “caution” to the county court of general sessions of the peace as proof that the town had warned the transient to leave. The purpose of the warning was to protect the town against poor relief costs of nonresidents; moreover, it also provided a method of excluding unwanted persons. These procedures, including the discovery of transients and their legal warning, became functions of both the towns and the sessions courts. In most towns populations were small and transients were easily identified. But in the more populated towns like Salem and Boston, detection of transients required more than the customary reliance on casual encounters. Such towns often hired men to inquire about strangers, although the task eventually fell to the constables.707

    Commencing with the 1701 settlement law the General Court began to make inhabitancy more difficult to obtain. Apparently in response to the difficulties of identifying all strangers within three months, the General Court extended the residency requirement to twelve months in 1701, a standard that lasted until 1767.708

    The settlement laws applied not only to transients with legal residences in some town of Massachusetts; they also embraced foreign immigrants. For purposes of the settlement law an immigrant’s port of entry became his legal residence. To protect the seaports from excessive poor relief costs, however, the law provided that masters of ships provide the selectmen of seaports with lists of passengers, their estimated worth and possessions, and a bond for potential poor relief costs.709 Passed in 1723, this law anticipated one of the central problems with the regulation of transients: migrants who entered Massachusetts from other parts of New England as well as Europe.

    During the 1720’s and 1730’s, the General Court altered the settlement law by shifting the burden of identifying transients from the towns to the local inhabitants who provided them with food and shelter. Called “entertainment” laws, these statutes provided that transients could not remain in a town longer than twenty days without special permission from the selectmen.710 Inhabitants who housed transients had to submit written descriptions of the transients’ personal characteristics, or be subject to a forty-shilling fine for noncompliance. One half of this fine, appropriately enough, was to be used for the town poor.711 The “entertainment” laws provided an additional source of indemnity against poor relief costs. Not only could the towns warn out transients, but they could also hold their own town residents responsible for encouraging mobility among the poor. While casual workers, such as seasonal migrants, might still work for a few days at harvest and planting time, these laws discouraged labor mobility. This eighteenth-century Massachusetts policy stood in marked contrast to the English settlement laws, which explicitly encouraged the distribution of workers to towns which held better opportunities.712

    Throughout the eighteenth century, the law of settlement in Massachusetts affirmed that migrants could gain legal residences only with the consent of the town. There could be no presumption of residence; payment of taxes, for example, did not entitle an individual to poor relief.713 The General Court was particularly clear on this point: legal inhabitancy could be obtained only with the “approbation of the town, at a meeting of the inhabitants . . . , or the approbation of the selectmen. . . .”714 Practically speaking, this right to select town members in mid-eighteenth-century Massachusetts was the power to exclude the transient poor. The warning-out system—the enforcement arm of the settlement law—became the focal point for town officials and migrants alike, as transiency and poor relief became identified with each other.


    The chain of legal steps in the warning-out system began when the selectmen of a town ordered one of its constables to warn out a transient. For example, in 1766, the Selectmen of Newburyport directed Constable Francis Hodgkins “to warn and give Notice to the Several Persons hereafter named (who have lately come here to dwell and not being duly admitted Inhabitants) to depart and leave this Town immediately.”715 Similarly, the Selectmen of Egremont, in Berkshire County, expressed concern about transient poor people in their warnings-out warrant: “Whereas Sundry Persons in May Last have Entered and Inhabit in the District of Egremont . . . contrary to the Laws of this Province and whereas Sd Persons appear to be Needy and Indigent . . . ,” they should be warned out.716 Following such directions from their selectmen, constables attempted to locate the people named by the selectmen and orally inform them that they were warned out. Constables did not locate every transient, however. Some undoubtedly moved on, while others tried to avoid being warned out. But some constables were persistent, and reported that they “made diligent inquiry” even if a transient was not found.717 For those transients who were found, the constables gathered the names of all of the family members, ascertained their date of arrival into town, and determined the transient’s “circumstances,” or economic status. Some constables reported that particular transients had “little or no estate” or “no estate that I know of.”718 Although the office of constable had little enforcement power in and of itself, the warning-out system appears to have been one area of law enforcement in which the constables, when acting on behalf of the selectmen, had a measure of power.719

    12. Boston Selectmen to Constable, “Warning Out” dated 1 June 1765, Court of General Sessions of the Peace, Suffolk. Courtesy, Supreme Judicial Court.

    13. Return dated 3 June 1765, on “Warning Out” dated 1 June 1765; Court of General Sessions of the Peace, Suffolk. Courtesy, Supreme Judicial Court.

    Having warned the transients, constables reported back to the selectmen, attesting that a verbal warning had been given. The selectmen then sent the warrant of the warnings-out to be filed with the court of general sessions of the peace of the county. Acting primarily in an administrative capacity, the sessions courts entered the names of the transients warned and the respective towns into its records, retaining the warrants from the town selectmen on file. Yet the justices did not treat the warning-out process lightly. As the warning-out system began to be used more frequently in the early eighteenth century, the sessions justices examined the warrants to insure that the selectmen followed the intent of the settlement law. For example, the justices of the Essex County Sessions Court reviewed the warnings filed with the court in the 1720’s and 1730’s with extreme care, often rejecting warnings because they were not filed according to the law.720 Some selectmen failed to state a transient’s length of residence prior to being warned, while others did not name each transient individually. Even as late as the 1770’s, Hampshire County sessions justices rejected warnings out because the constable failed to provide evidence of a face-to-face encounter with the transient.721 The sessions justices provided an important legal check on the accuracy and honesty of town officials.

    In general, the selectmen, the constables, and the justices developed the warnings-out process into a fairly routine system during the eighteenth century. The critical factor, aside from accurate information by the selectmen, was for the warrant of warnings to reach the sessions court within the prescribed twelve months. Some towns either advertently or inadvertently circumvented the letter of the law and warned out transients up to twenty months after the date they entered town. Similarly, justices occasionally overlooked this delay and accepted the warrants. More typically, selectmen brought their warnings to the courts with efficiency and reasonable speed. In both Essex and Hampshire Counties selectmen delivered almost ninety-five percent of the warnings to the sessions courts within the prescribed time period.722 Moreover, the selectmen maintained a steady, watchful eye over transients, warning them out in a consistent manner throughout the year. Three-fourths of the transients in both Essex and Hampshire Counties were identified by the selectmen, warned out by the constables, and presented to the sessions courts within ten months of the transients’ entrance into the towns.

    Some town selectmen were more efficient than others. Seaport towns like Salem, Marblehead, and Gloucester averaged only about five months between the time a transient appeared in town and the month of the warning in court. In contrast, the farming towns of Essex County averaged nearly eight months before entering a warrant in court. Even in Hampshire County, the three largest towns of Springfield, Northampton, and Westfield were more efficient in warning out transients than the smaller farming towns. Location was an important factor in processing a warning-out warrant. Seaports in Essex County were conveniently located to the towns where the sessions courts met, while rural constables probably made fewer trips to court. Moreover, the farming towns tended to have fewer transients than the large towns and seaports. By 1735 poverty and transiency had become so widespread in Boston that the General Court permitted the Overseers of the Poor to warn out transients “in the same manner, and with as full power as the selectmen.”723

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, both the substantive provisions of the settlement laws and the procedures of the warning-out system restricted the availability of public poor relief for transients. To qualify for poor relief, one had to establish a legal residence; the relevant test was primarily a twelve-month residency without a warning, and formal acceptance by the town. In addition, marriage, birth, or parentage could also establish a legal residency. But the warning-out system was directed primarily at poor transients, not marriages between people of two different towns.724 Cases of disputed settlement based on marriage, for example, seemed to occur if the transient in question had already been identified as a pauper.725

    The settlement laws and the warning-out system apparently were intended to identify actual or potential paupers, not simply to exclude all migrants. Since the settlement laws did not provide economic standards for identifying such transients, constables and selectmen evolved their own categories for deciding who was to be warned out. A transient might have been lower-class, poor or indigent, unemployed, unemployable, idle, single, sickly, or travelling alone with young children. If a transient had one or several of these characteristics, or even potentially might have them, he or she could be excluded from legal inhabitancy by being warned out. Since the mid-eighteenth-century settlement laws were based primarily on the geography of legal residency—not economic or social class—these attributes of poverty were left to the discretion of town officials. Only in the late eighteenth century did wealth become an explicit criterion for inhabitancy.

    A case of contested residency of a transient family litigated by Waltham and Weston in 1763 dramatically reveals the consciousness of the poor laws among both the transients and town officials. Together with their five children, Elisha and Anna Cox moved from Waltham to Weston in 1752. Weston town officials warned them out of town and physically removed them to Waltham. As a result Waltham initiated a case of contested residency before the Middlesex County Sessions Court. Ultimately, the court held that, while the warning out of the Cox family by Weston was legal, the legal responsibility for these transients still fell on Weston. When the Cox family thought they were living on the Waltham border of Weston, in fact they were living on the Weston border of Waltham and were legal residents of Weston.726

    More importantly, testimony in this case revealed the intensity of the enforcement of the settlement laws by town officials. Josiah Allen, a Weston selectman, testified that he was conscious of the Cox family’s presence in town and believed that “it would not be safe for the town to admit [Cox and his family] to be Inhabitants. . . .” He further testified that he “thought it my Duty to Take particular care to Inform myself of the Time of their coming into Town and also to take care that they were warned out within a year . . . ,”727 Allen’s vigilance in identifying and learning the “circumstances” of the Cox family was repeated in town after town in the middle of the eighteenth century in Massachusetts.

    While the warning-out system relied on the discretion of town officials for its enforcement, and the sessions justices held selectmen to procedural accuracy, the transients themselves were also aware of the warning-out law. They certainly were aware that selectmen and constables were anxious to warn them out. Some transients probably did not care, since they would move on again soon anyway. Others, like the Cox family, tried to avoid being warned out. One of Elisha Cox’s neighbors in Weston, Mehetabel Warren, testified that she had discussed the warning out with Elisha’s wife. Warren said that she “asked [Elisha’s wife] whether she was warned out of Weston, and she said she was not,” to which Warren replied, “if it was not done in a little time, it would be too late. . . .”728 Later Elisha’s wife told Mehetabel Warren that she had been warned out. Interestingly, Warren inquired as to the time and place of the warning, suggesting that it was done one day past the required one year. This comment suggests both a consciousness of the warning-out law and the possibility that some transients circumvented that law. While the Cox family remained residents of Weston because of a disputed boundary

    line, the evidence of Mehetabel Warren reveals that transients did not necessarily have to rely on the sessions judges to look out after their interests.

    Only a very few transients were so bold as to challenge overtly the town officials and justices. If transients were warned out but returned to a town, they could be prosecuted as vagabonds.729 Justices of the peace heard alleged cases of vagabondage, brought usually by town selectmen against recalcitrant or threatening transients. In 1700 the General Court of Massachusetts ordered that each county was to build a house of correction to be used to punish “rogues, vagabonds and idle persons going about in any town or county” for a variety of crimes such as begging, “using any subtle craft,” running away, being “railers or brawlers,” and neglecting their callings and families. Under the law, vagabonds were to be put back to work, whipped moderately (only ten stripes), or fettered and shackled.730 Despite the apparent severity of the law, few convictions for vagabondage occurred. In 1700 vagabonds encompassed a broad range of undesirables: gamblers, fortune-tellers, runaways, and those who did not work. By 1756 the law of vagabondage became substantially broader, reaching not only the penniless, but also those who had some property and failed to improve it. Under this law selectmen were empowered to “inspect” people who lived idly, misspent their time and money, and lived dissolute lives—“as if they were poor, indigent, and impotent persons”—and could bind their children, with the assent of two justices, into “orderly families.”731

    Yet enforcement of these statutes was not widespread. An occasional fragment of evidence appears in the sessions records which suggests that vagabonds were convicted, such as Constable Benjamin Smith’s commission of Betsy Travis, “a vagrant person,” to the Ipswich gaol.732 But the lack of enforcement is more striking than the statutory power to commit vagabonds to houses of correction. One reason behind a lack of enforcement of this law was economic. Towns were responsible for the daily support of any person convicted as a vagabond, a fact which could militate against strenuous enforcement. Moreover, even though people felt threatened by vagabonds, many counties did not even build houses of correction. By 1770 the General Court gave the court of general sessions, or one or more of the justices of the court, the power either to send vagabonds to houses of correction or to put them into stocks.733

    Nevertheless, the law of vagabondage was important to town officials because it was a deterrent to be used if necessary; a few cases, strictly enforced, could powerfully illustrate the firmness of the law. The Selectmen of Northampton, for example, used the law of vagabondage in 1767 and 1768 to control the behavior of a transient, mulatto laborer named Philemon Lee.734 The Selectmen warned Lee out of Northampton; he refused to leave and the constables removed him to the nearby town of Simsbury in 1766. Lee was persistent and returned to Northampton. The Selectmen then brought Lee before Eleazer Porter, a justice of the peace, who found him guilty of vagabondage. Porter committed Lee to the Hampshire County house of correction, where he remained for about two weeks until he promised never to return to Northampton. But Lee was soon walking the streets of Northampton, whereupon the Selectmen brought him before the sessions court and he again was convicted of vagabondage and was indefinitely confined to the house of correction. Lee remained there for about six months, until the sessions justices thought that “Philemon is reduced to a better state of mind. . . .” Lee’s case is important, though probably unique; it is an example of the failure of the warning-out system as well as the employment of the little-used deterrent of the law of vagabondage to control transients

    More typically, for the first two thirds of the eighteenth-century Massachusetts towns monitored transients by using the warning-out system to avoid poor relief costs and by excluding unwanted persons. Suddenly, in 1767, the General Court transformed the law of settlement. Under this new statute the General Court removed the burden of the identification of transients from the towns and placed it on the transients themselves. Instead of relying on constables and selectmen to warn transients through the sessions courts, the 1767 statute required all transients to inform the selectmen of their presence as they entered a town.735 Responsibility for being a transient came to rest with each migrant. Selectmen no longer had to search out transients; rather, transients gained legal residence only upon direct application to the selectmen. This statute reversed the relationship between the towns and the migrants: transiency was decriminalized as the warning-out process was discarded.

    14. Broadside depicting the confinement in the pillory, the whipping, and public confessional of a “rogue,” Seth Hudson, in Boston, 1762. Courtesy, Boston Public Library.

    The most striking aspect of the 1767 law was its effect on the warning-out system, the primary mechanism for enforcing the settlement laws as they applied to paupers. The end of the warning-out system was particularly swift in Essex County. In 1766 the towns warned out over three hundred different families; two years later they warned only sixteen transient families. With this law of 1767 the General Court began to change the assumptions of settlement and poor relief law in Massachusetts quite radically, for the law now presumed that transients might well remain in the towns.

    Still, aspects of the old settlement and warning-out laws remained. Transients who failed to gain legal residences were still liable to physical removal by the constable upon application to a justice of the peace. Transients were to pay for their own removal if they possessed some estate; otherwise the town of legal residence bore the expense. The General Court agreed to bear the costs of removal of transients who were not residents of Massachusetts, solving the persistent problem of immigrants.

    The rationale behind this 1767 law is difficult to explain. The journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts remain silent on the bill. However, the preamble to the act cites the unfairness of other settlement laws which failed to account for persons who had no legal residences in Massachusetts. This question of fairness undoubtedly was important, particularly among the seaport towns like Boston that were major ports of entry into Massachusetts. A second factor was the growing organizational problems of an expanding number of warnings out. The decade of the 1760’s represented the peak in the number of warnings processed by the sessions courts in the eighteenth century, with no immediate alleviation in sight. Under the 1767 statute the sessions courts no longer had to spend time on this quasi-administrative procedure. In addition, litigation among the towns over poor relief costs also flooded the courts in the 1760’s, costing considerable sums of money and, again, taking the time of the court.736 Finally, a social explanation may be in order: the General Court, for whatever reasons, began to perceive that the warning-out system, with its premises of residential stability, no longer fit the needs of Massachusetts. Migrants, transients or not, had to be free to move about and find jobs.

    Following passage of the act, towns in Essex and Hampshire Counties generally obeyed the intent of the law and did not warn out transients. The eastern Massachusetts county of Essex integrated this new law more fully than the western county of Hampshire. Between 1768 and 1778 towns in Essex filed only seventy-two warnings with the sessions court, and none appeared again until 1786. In Hampshire the towns filed one hundred twenty-eight warnings between 1768 and 1774, and none again until 1779. Still, in both counties the sessions courts permitted warnings to be filed by towns if they chose to do so, reflecting some confusion over the change in the law itself.

    During the American Revolution, the General Court did not alter the law of poverty; it simply renewed acts concerning the poor which had been in use earlier in the eighteenth century. In particular, the General Court provided that towns were to use the most “convenient” means for relieving the poor and for the assistance of families of soldiers who were involved in the war.737 Just following the Revolution, however, there was a general resurgence of the use of warnings as the towns fell back on familiar ways to cope with the poverty-stricken transients displaced by the war.738 But for the Revolution, the warning-out system probably would have passed into disuse as the towns began to rely on removal of transients rather than the constant vigilance of the warnings. But the 1767 law remains important, for it represents a step towards a new conceptualization of the law of poverty.


    The prelude to the new conception of the law of poverty came in the immediate post-Revolutionary years. Although the General Court had maintained the eighteenth-century poor laws by statutory renewal, the end of the war and its social and economic dislocation brought about a heightened concern over both poverty and transiency—and who was to pay for social welfare. The result was a temporary overlap between the traditional methods of welfare and control and a shift towards newer practices. Boston, for example, passed a town order placing the burden of poor relief costs on town residents who might “admit or entertain in any of their houses or tenements” any “stranger or new-comer” who had not been admitted by the Selectmen.739 Boston had, in effect, re-enacted the early eighteenth-century entertainment laws that shifted the burden of relief directly onto the townspeople. Similarly, a settlement law passed by the General Court in 1789 reinstituted a version of the warning-out system.740 Under this law selectmen administered the warnings to nonresidents and maintained their own records in the “Town Book,” not with the sessions court.741 The law returned the concept of indemnification against poor relief costs but added a new factor: a transient could become a legal resident after two years without being warned out, not the one year that prevailed during most of the eighteenth century.742

    While the 1789 settlement law included traditional methods of identifying and limiting poor relief, it also stated new premises for determining legal residency. For the first time a Massachusetts settlement law contained an explicit test of residence based on wealth. In addition to the usual methods of gaining legal residence by approbation of the town, birth, or marriage, the law provided two standards of residence based on property ownership.743 First, the 1789 law provided that those “seized of an estate freehold . . . of the clear annual income of three founds” and who lived continuously in a town for two years could become legal residents. Second, a person twenty-one years of age who resided in a town and paid taxes for five consecutive years could also become a legal inhabitant. This concern over a new-comer’s wealth, long implicit in the laws of the early and middle eighteenth century, was finally made explicit. Even the legal forms appended to the 1789 statute revealed the concern over the poverty of transients: constables were directed to “warn, and give notice unto A.B. of   in the County of   labourer, (or a transient as the case may be). . . .”744 Towns complied with this new law and began to warn out transients again. Salem, for example, warned out both domestic and foreign transients in its town lists of 1791.745

    But the 1789 settlement law, with its almost virtual return to the status quo of the 1760’s, almost immediately became anachronistic. In 1794 the General Court enacted a sweeping revision of the poor laws that finally laid the warning-out system to rest, and, in the process, sought to strike a balance between the pauper’s need for public welfare and the society’s need for control.746 The 1794 poor law specifically ended the warning-out system, substituting a detailed procedure for the return of paupers who might fall onto the poor relief rolls.747 The element of control of both poor transients and of town expenses for welfare was preserved in the 1794 law. But at the same time the law required each town to provide care and immediate poor relief for all persons, regardless of their legal residence, for a period up to three months.748 The burden of responsibility of care for the poor finally came to rest on the towns as paupers were recognized as a part of everyday life. The towns were given two courses of action in case they had to provide for a transient pauper: one, they could sue the pauper’s town of legal residence in a civil action to recover their costs; and two, the towns could sue for costs on a complaint in the court of common pleas, subject to a two-year statute of limitations after the case arose.749 While transients were still subject to removal, they gained both short-term poor relief as well as procedural protections such as an appeal to the court of common pleas.750 Underlying the 1794 law was the resolution of a long history of tension over the allocation of economic resources for poor relief and the control of transients.

    The transformation of the law of poverty in eighteenth-century Massachusetts was symbolized by the law of 1794. This transformation was born of the unique social, economic, and demographic forces of the eighteenth century; it was nurtured by a variety of experiments with the law of settlement, the warning-out system, and custodial and institutional forms of poor relief. This new conception of poverty, one that integrated the necessity of poor relief with the desire for control, was more a product of the early and middle eighteenth century than of the Revolution itself. Banishment of transients and the warning-out system, rejected first in 1767, utimately pointed to the revised poor law of 1794 that guaranteed at least temporary care for all of the poor and the allocation of legal responsibilities for that care among the towns. In the end, the 1794 poor law gained its legitimacy because it explicitly recognized the needs of the poor and the economic interests of the towns.