One of the questions we considered this week was: Why remember the Salem Witch Trials? What does this event represent in our national history and national memory? Our readings from Cotton Mather and Robert Calef, coupled with the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s drama, “The Crucible,” give us a glimpse of what happens to justice when it is determined by fear, suspicion, and prejudice. These paranoid behaviors are not unfamiliar to us in 2012, as I’ll explain presently.
First, a few words about Mather and Calef. Cotton Mather’s “The Wonders of the Invisible World, as our biographical sketch for Mather indicates, is a defense of the Puritan worldview in the face of great public skepticism about the methods used to convict the accused in the Salem Trials, as well as the brutal punishments the accused received. Mather’s tortured rationale for why the trials took place begins with a claim that witchcraft was indigenous to the New World, since the Puritans settled in “the devil’s territories” (308). Like Bradford’s explanation of wickedness in Christian society as the result of corrupt servants and the “mixed multitude” accompanying the Pilgrims on their journey (107), Mather seeks to lay blame for the Salem hysteria on those outside of Puritan society. Satan’s “incarnate legions” and “army of devils” were hell-bent on persecuting the Christians, he claims (309). Thus, the ostensible outbreak of witchcraft revealed “an horrible plot against the country” (309). This conspiracy theory reveals a few assumptions that seem common to Puritan leaders such as Winthrop, Bradford, and Mather: 1) the Puritans, as the elect, were not perfect people, but were commissioned to do God’s business in New England and therefore were favored of God; 2) those who disagreed with Puritan leadership – Hutchinson, Morton, and others – were sowing discord and enmity among God’s people and therefore were not assisting in the divine task of taming the wilderness; 3) anyone not conforming to the Puritan mission must therefore be allied not with God, but the devil; 4) any social upheaval, be it war or theological disputes or competing visions of social order, could thus be attributed to the devil’s plot to reduce the “city upon a hill” to the laughingstock of the world. It is not difficult to see how these assumptions, in a time of great fear and suspicion, could lead to a false accusations against others and how those accusations, when judged by magistrates ascribing to Mather’s paranoid view of Puritan society as suffering constant spiritual attacks, would lead to false convictions and innocent deaths.
Robert Calef, in his correspondence with Mather, called Salem “the sorest affliction and greatest blemish to religion that ever befell this country” (338). The fact that Calef himself was not imprisoned and banished or executed illustrates the dramatic shift in Puritan society in just 50-60 years. Hutchinson’s conviction at the Court of Newton in 1637 and subsequent banishment from Massachusetts Bay was only a generation removed from Calef’s challenge to Mather. Yet we see markedly different analysis of the Salem trials in Calef’s observations. In his accounts of Margaret Rule’s testimony, taken from her bedside between what seem to be fainting fits, we can sense a critical mind at work. Most notable is the physical contact between Mather and the afflicted girl, which seems like molestation: rubbing her belly to calm her, feeling her breast and claiming to sense a “living thing” (336). Calef’s conclusion to his Sept 13, 1693 entry does not editorialize, but it is clear from the details he includes that Margaret Rule was not an eminently reliable witness, nor was her affliction necessarily the result of witchcraft. After the ministers leave her side, Calef notes, “the afflicted [Margaret Rule] desired the women to be gone, saying, that the company of the men was not offensive to her, and having hold of the hand of a young man, said to have been her sweetheart formerly, who was withdrawing, she pulled him again into his seat, saying he should not go tonight” (337). What might a rational mind conclude from this? Calef avoids leading the reader toward a particular conclusion, but the facts suggest that Margaret Rule could have been manipulating the ministers for their attention. Few ranked lower in Puritan society than female children and servants, and Rule’s ability to control a roomful of men would have been a sure incentive to heighten her “symptoms,” if only as a means to power.
In The Crucible, we watch Reverend John Hale’s transformation from a fundamentalist Puritan (who believes that the marks of witchcraft are as “definite as stone”) into a rational thinker who can see the human motivations sparking deliberate falsehoods and can distinguish between these falsehoods and devil worship. By the end of the film Hale recognizes how absurd it is to assert certainty in a case such as John Proctor’s and even counsels John and Elizabeth to complete the charade of confession to spare their lives. How realistic a characterization this is of a Puritan minister is debatable, but Hale’s transformation symbolizes the shift in American society during the late seventeenth century toward rationalism.
As we’ve watched the film, I’ve asked us to consider what Salem in 1692 might have to teach us about our own time. One parallel we might draw between the Salem trials and 2012 is the ongoing fear, suspicion, and prejudice associated with the ongoing war on terrorism. This is not a perfect analogy: terrorism is not devil worship; in fact (and perhaps more frighteningly) it can be motivated by intense religious piety. But accusations of terrorism in 2012 are much like accusations of witchcraft in 1692 in that the accuser rarely suffers any penalty, even if no formal charges are brought against the accused, and the accused is, in many respects, presumed guilty before proven innocent (which inverts the presumption of innocence that underpins a rational approach to justice). The fact that racial profiling coincides with accusations of terrorism is also little different from the Puritan equation of diabolism with Native American culture (remember that Mary Rowlandson cannot bring herself to describe any of the converted Native Americans as Christians; instead, she holds them suspiciously at arm’s length as “praying Indians” whom she believes can’t be trusted). Just as Judge Danforth reminds John Proctor and Giles Corey, “Either you are with this court or against it,” the United States is presumed innocent in all acts of terrorism, and the rest of the world is asked to declare themselves allies or, by default, enemies. Perhaps the most chilling part of The Crucible is Danforth’s belief that he can judge the accused in Salem with absolute truth, despite the prodigious doubts cast upon the character of nearly everyone involved. By demanding that Proctor confess before the proceedings be stopped, Danforth creates a false ultimatum between truth and falsehood, ensuring one of two unjust outcomes. Either Proctor gives a false confession to spare himself, his family, and the reputation of the court, or Proctor goes to his death an innocent man. Miller tries to drive this point home when Judge Danforth says, of those about to hang, ”Who weeps for these weeps for corruption.” The irony, of course, is that the court is the most corrupt of anyone. Admitting error would be admitting spiritual uncertainty, and the Puritan mind was so convinced of its uprightness that it could not budge, even when faced with overwhelming confusion. Do we, like the Puritans, believe our purpose in the world to be so inerrant and true that we bear no responsibility for violence? Are we, like William Bradford and Cotton Mather, convinced that our destiny is God-ordained and therefore that all who oppose us are, by default, evil? Or might we consider our own imperfections, as Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor do, and as Robert Calef does in his observations about the Salem trials? What might a humble and rational view of American identity, both nationally and internationally, look like in 2012?