Battling the scourge of profanity in 18th-century Massachusetts

Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the Year of our LORD, one thousand seven hundred and ninety eight. An Act to prevent profane Cursing and Swearing. [Boston: Young & Minns, 1798 (imprint supplied by Evans).]
Letterpress broadside with 3 lines of headline type followed by 63 lines of text in one column. Printed area 16 5/8”h x 9 ¼”w on a ca. 18”h x 11”w sheet. Some wear along old folds affecting a few letters, toning, tide marks, 6 punctures and rust stains in margins (no doubt from having been posted), chipping to edges. Old cloth tape repairs on verso and docketed, “Law of the Commonwealth on Profane Cursing to be read at the annual meeting in March or April”.

A scarce 1798 Massachusetts broadside transmitting a new law outlawing profanity and specifying procedures for prosecution and fines to be levied upon conviction.

Section I of the Act specifies progressively larger fines to be levied upon repeated instances of profanity, “one moiety of the several forfeitures, aforesaid, to be to the use of the poor of the town in which the offence shall have been committed, and the other moiety thereof to the use of the person or persons who shall make complaint thereof, or prosecute for the same.” The act further provides instructions for officers of the law prosecuting such offenses; for the distribution of the text of the Act to “the several towns, districts and plantations in this Commonwealth” and the reading thereof at the Annual Meeting of each; and for the distribution of same to “public teachers of religion” along with a recommendation that they read the Act to their congregations annually.

Alas, nowhere does the Act provide a helpful list of the profanities subject to sanction, on the order of George Carlin’s “7 Words You Can’t Say on TV”, or even a definition of what constituted a profane utterance. That determination was left to local authorities, who were apparently relied on to, paraphrasing the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “know it when they heard it”.

Evans, American bibliography, 340689. English Short Title Catalogue, W16792 (Harvard-Houghton, John Carter Brown, Library of Congress, and Massachusetts Historical Society, as of Oct. 2020). OCLC 25126900 et al list holdings at Harvard-Houghton, Harvard-Law and Massachusetts State Library as of Oct. 2020. Another is held at the Southern Illinois University Special Collections Center. Not in Ford, Broadsides, ballads, &c. printed in Massachusetts.