The First Blue Laws 1629 – Sunday Closing Law

The First Blue Laws 1629 Sunday Closing Law

The First Blue Laws 1629 - Sunday Closing Law - This 1895 political cartoon illustrates the restrictions imposed by Blue Laws.
The First Blue Laws 1629 – Sunday Closing Law – This 1895 political cartoon illustrates the restrictions imposed by Blue Laws.

Constantine the Great (c. 272–337), Samuel Peters (1735–1826), J. Hammond Trumbull (1821–1897)

Laws prohibiting certain secular activities on days of religion existed in antiquity, although their colorful name only appeared recently. Commentators credit the first Sunday Closing Law to Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who issued an edict in 321 ordering city citizens to rest “on the hallowed day of the sun.”

In 1629, the House of Burgesses of Virginia passed the first Sunday Closing Law in the United States, stating that “the Sabbath day be not customarily profaned by working in any imployments or by going from place to place.”

However, according to etymologists, the word “blue laws” was first used in a satire of Connecticut Congregationalists in the New-York Mercury on March 3, 1755: “Since… the Revival of our old Blue Laws, we have the Pleasure to see the Lord’s Work carry on with Success.” In his caustic General History of Connecticut, Reverend Samuel Peters, an Anglican opponent of those same Congregationalists, popularized the term further. Lawgivers of the colony of New Haven, according to Peters, “betrayed such an extreme degree of wanton cruelty and oppression, that even the strict fanatics of Boston, and the insane zealots of Hertford, blushed, nicknamed them the Blue Laws.”

Peters proposed that “blue” was a euphemism for “bloody,” which was a descriptor of a violator’s condition after punishment for disobedience and is still used as an expletive in the United Kingdom today, but his theory was unsupported by historical evidence. Another possible etymology proposed by Connecticut historian J.Hammond Trumbull in 1876 was that “true blue” never faded, serving as a symbol of constancy and devotion. “Nothing could be more unpopular after the Restoration,” Trumbull wrote, “than tenacity in virtue and fidelity to conceptions of duty.” ‘True blue’ became a pejorative word for puritans…. “To be ‘blue,’ to be ‘puritanical,’ to be meticulous in the fulfillment of legal and religious requirements.”

Blue laws have existed in nearly every state in the Union, but as business and competition grew, courts carved out exceptions to blue laws, sometimes to the point of obliterating the rule. The laws were increasingly unpopular by the twentieth century, and most legislatures repealed them, but some remained.

SEE ALSO:

Canon Law and the Decretum Gratiani (1140);

The Prohibition of Illegal Narcotics (1915);

Prohibition (1918);

The Repeal of Prohibition (1933);

Legalization of Marijuana (1996).

Sources:

The First Blue Laws 1629 Sunday Closing Law

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)

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