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Isaac Johnson in The Scarlet Letter & History

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

This lesson provides a brief sketch of Isaac Johnson as an historical figure and examines his presence in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. He is mentioned only once, but he provides an added layer of context for the novel.

Historical Isaac Johnson

Isaac Johnson is mentioned only once in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, so you might easily overlook his place in the novel. But there's a reason why you shouldn't -- and why Johnson was important not just in history, but in Hawthorne's work as well.

Isaac Johnson was a very wealthy guy. He sailed from England to Massachusetts in 1630. He died only a few months later, but he (and his money) still managed to have a significant impact. When he and his fellow settlers arrived in Massachusetts, it became clear that Salem did not have the resources to support this new influx of people. Isaac Johnson, at the advice of a man named William Blackstone, led the new arrivals to some unsettled territory which later became Boston.

As you're well aware, Boston turned out to be a pretty big deal, so Isaac Johnson's role in getting it started is a pretty big deal, too. But what does that have to do with The Scarlet Letter?? Hang on -- we'll get there!

The Cambridge Agreement

It's also important to know that Isaac Johnson signed something called The Cambridge Agreement. He was one of twelve 'shareholders' who signed this document. These twelve men agreed among themselves that a few of the signers (our friend Isaac Johnson among them) could, in exchange for a considerable sum of money, take sole ownership of the charter owned by the Massachusetts Bay Company. A charter was the means whereby would-be settlers gained permission to emigrate to the 'New World' and take ownership of land there. (Ownership which may or may not have involved the consent of the native peoples already living there...)

One of the most significant things about this Cambridge Agreement is that it stipulated that Isaac Johnson and the other men who proposed to emigrate with him to Massachusetts would be able to set up their own government. It so happened that Johnson and his fellows were all Puritans. This document, therefore, is the means whereby the Puritanical government we see in The Scarlet Letter was established.

Prisons and Cemeteries

Isaac Johnson and his fellows, together with their big plans for a blissful Puritan society, are invoked at the very beginning of The Scarlet Letter, but not in an entirely flattering way. Hawthorne tells us, 'The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.'

Isaac Johnson surely would agree that death is unavoidable and so therefore his new community would need cemeteries, but Hawthorne is perhaps picking at the Utopian ambitions of those who signed the Cambridge Agreement when he asserts that even a society with idyllic intentions (and Puritan governments) will inevitably find itself in need of a prison!

Pointing Fingers and Placing Blame

Hawthorne goes on to rather forcefully link the prison to the cemetery, which he draws clearly back to Isaac Johnson: 'it may safely be assumed,' Hawthorne writes, 'that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot.'

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