J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

“As mad now as...in the time of the Witches”

When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, a little more than eighty years had passed since Massachusetts was convulsed by the witchcraft hysteria that began in Salem Village in 1692. As the Enlightenment-era Whig politicians of Boston looked back on that history, did they see it as a quaint oddity? Did they realize that one day it would inspire much of Essex County’s tourist economy?

No, the people of eighteenth-century Massachusetts were deeply embarrassed about the whole witchcraft incident. In 1711, the General Court passed a bill exonerating and compensating the accused (those who had survived). Individuals like Judge Samuel Sewall publicly apologized. New Englanders looked back on those historical events with shame and disbelief, the same way we’re embarrassed at evidence of Jim Crow segregation and other bigotries of eighty years ago.

Thus, one way that the friends of the royal government could hit deep against their Whig opponents was to liken them to the witch-hunters of 1692-93, as in the advertisement from the Boston Chronicle that I quoted yesterday.

In a letter dated 8 Jan 1774, Customs commissioner Henry Hulton wrote:

this last summer I was pelted by the Mob in coming from a public Provincial Entertainment where I had dined by the Governours invitation. . . . they are as mad now as they were in the time of the Witches.
On 5 Mar 1773, when John Adams was feeling unappreciated for his work defending the soldiers after the Boston Massacre, he wrote in his diary:
The Part I took in Defence of Captn. [Thomas] Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or [government] Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest of Proofs of the Danger of standing Armies.
As Adams sorted out right and wrong, one of his pole-stars was how Massachusetts Puritans had hanged witches and Quakers in the late 1600s—that was wrong.

That attitude has persisted in American politics. We use the term “witch-hunt” (revived in 1938 by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia) to mean a zealous, unjust search for political enemies that would be ridiculous if only people weren’t being hurt. It’s extremely rare to see the opposite—fear of actual witches—arising in a modern political context. This recently circulated video is an exception, and the minister who seeks both funds and protection from “witchcraft” for the political candidate in his church was speaking from a different theological (and legal) tradition.

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