There is no doubt that our far-away grandfathers, whether of English, French, Dutch, Scotch or Irish blood, were much more afraid of ridicule than they were even of sinning, and far more than we are of extreme derision or mockery to-day. This fear and sensitiveness they showed in many ways. They were vastly touchy and resentful about being called opprobrious or bantering names; often running petulantly to the court about it and seeking redress by prosecution of the offender. And they were forever bringing suits in petty slander and libel cases. Colonial court-rooms “bubbled over with scandal and gossip and spite.” A creature as obsolete as his name, a “makebayt,” was ever-present in the community, ever whispering slander, ever exciting contention, and often also haled to court for punishment; while his opposite, a make-peace, was everywhere sadly needed. Far-seeing magistrates declared against the make-bait, as even guilty of stirring up barratry, or as Judge Sewall, the old Boston Puritan termed it, at least “gravaminous.”
Equally with personal libel did all good citizens and all good Christians fiercely resent of word, not only of derision or satire, but even of dispassionate disapproval of either government or church. A tithe of the plain-speaking criticism cheerfully endured in politics to-day would have provoked a civil war two centuries ago; while freedom of judgment or expression in religious matters was ever sharply silenced and punished in New England.
That ultra-sensativeness which made a lampoon, a jeer, a scoff, a taunt, an unbearable and inflaming offence, was of equal force when used against the men of the day in punishment for real crimes and offenses.