The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Seventeen: The Salem Witchcraft Trials (Analysis)
We're going to move quickly in part seventeen. In part sixteen I laid out what the Salem Witchcraft Trials were and something of how they worked, using an essay by Chadwick Hansen: Andover Witchcraft and the Origins of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Now I am going to proceed into analysis.
When I look at a situation like what I laid out in the previous installment, I say to myself: The communities of Salem and Andover had descended into a state of self-devouring frenzy.
The beginning of an answer, by way of analogy, presents itself. Have you ever seen the horror-suspense movie, Saw?
Neither have I. But we're all familiar with the premise, aren't we? A madman captures several people and confines them all to a single room. Each person is attached to a grisly torture device, of one kind or another.
The only way that at least some of them can, potentially, survive, is by playing the madman's game. They must draw blood, doing injury to themselves and each other. They have no choice, of course, because refusal to play the game is simply not an option.
The bleak hope is that they can punish themselves and each other enough to appease the madman, somehow --- while hanging on to enough of themselves physically, mentally, psychologically, and emotionally to make the prospect of living a meaningful life, after the ordeal, a possibility. Undergirding all of this is the certainty that any refusal to carry out a prescribed action, will bring about direct action from the madman himself; and what he is liable to do is guaranteed to be something even worse. That is the fear, anyway.
What we can say, then, is that a community of one kind or another, may fall into a self-devouring frenzy, if and when it comes under some kind of threat from which it feels there is no escape except through blood. Not even a sacrifice of a particular individual will suffice. Mass, self-flagellation appears to be called for.
Have you ever seen the old Twilight Zone episode called "Monsters Are Due On Maple Street"?
In that episode a small town community, in the 1950s, somehow gets word that there is an alien family in their midst. Either the aliens happen to look like humans or they have disguised themselves as humans, in some way. The people of Maple Street work themselves into a state of hysteria, of course. They take the presence of an alien family as a precursor to invasion.
In other words, they are afraid that the alien family have been working as reconnaissance spies---that kind of thing.
There is a blackout of the neighborhood. The now-Maple Street Mob have come to the decision that the alien family must reside in the house that still has power.
Actually, it's a little more complicated than that. Every single house has experienced this blackout. But suddenly the Johnson family's lights come back on: They must be the aliens.
But no, there lights just went back out. Look! The McNamara's lights just came on: Surely they are the aliens. But no, their lights went out again.
No, its not the McNamara's. Its the Johannson's...
Its not the Johannson's, its the Petersen's....
And so on and so forth.
Much violence ensues, as you can imagine.
The inhabitants of Maple Street seem to be functioning under the delusionary, desperate, completely irrational hope that if they can kill the alien family, maybe, just maybe, the rest of the invasion force will be, ridiculously, scared off and zoom up, up, up and away, back to their own planet.
The episode ends in that special way the old Twilight Zone has. Yes, there were aliens, but no aliens spies living among the good people of Maple Street. But there were aliens who stood a good distance away, manipulating a device that could disrupt the humans' electrical equipment.
Turn off a few lights, stop a few cars and television sets, turn them back on and off at random, and then sit back and watch the humans destroy themselves, as they go "red hunting" for the "Martian," or the "communist," or whatever.
What I am saying, then, is that it is my opinion that the Salem and Andover Witchcraft Trials, in their extreme and unusual violence, were a manifestation of communities that felt trapped, under the mysterious thrall of a malevolent entity that demanded blood.
Mind you, the question is not (Why did the Salem Witchcraft Trials happen?). No, the question is why did a routine judicial procedure get so far out of hand; and what does all of this have to do with reconsidering the American Revolution?
Let's get into it. The first thing to say, is to repeat my basic assertion animating this entire series of essays. In my opinion, you cannot properly understand the history of colonial British North America between 1619-1776, without keeping in mind that great motor churning back in England.
I am speaking of what I have termed---the overwhelming social force of the relentless grind machine of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure movement, privatizing the commonly-held lands.
This movement disposed people by the millions and is, in my view, the very reason England first started to create overseas colonies. Let me be crude: England needed a place to park those "excess" people it was creating with its land privatization policy.
What I'm saying, then, is that, in my opinion, everything that happened in colonial America between 1619-1776, happened under the pressure of the relentless grind machine of the enclosure movement, going on back in England.
On the one hand, the settlers, as you can imagine, wanted to hang on to a sense English-ness, a sense of home. On the other hand---as those of you who've followed this series and understand my thesis know---the settlers would have been keenly aware of the fact that "home" had dispossessed and evicted them.
What we have here, then, is ambivalence, conflicting and opposing psychic directives, if you will, animating the settlers.
At one time, such as these witchcraft trials we're considering, those psychic directives aggregated in the direction of a kind of hyper-assertion of an identity of English Protestantism to honor the country they came from. At another time, in 1776, those conflicting psychic directives would align in such a way as to tell them that separation from England was the thing to do.
Its like this: The settlers on the North American mainland worked much harder than the settlers in the Caribbean and Latin America, to "Xerox," if you will, their English Protestant identity on to the landscape of the New World.
Indeed, the settlers on the North American mainland exhibited what historian Winthrop D. Jordan called an "almost pathetic social conservatism," to describe their "yearning for the forms and symbols of the old familiar social order" (1).
In 1618 the Virginia Company managed to pry loose a knighthood for the newly appointed governor of the colony. Dr. Jordan pointed out that nobody objected on the grounds that this "artificial elevation" was inappropriate to the rugged conditions of the wilderness. On the contrary, the complaint was that the fellow was not of sufficient eminence. Several planters lodged formal requests that a governor of higher rank be sent (2).
Winthrop D. Jordan: "English social forms were transplanted to America not simply because they were nice to have around but because without them the new settlements would have fallen apart and English settlers would have become men of the forest, savage men devoid of civilization" (3).
Dr. Jordan was only being ironic with that remark. He was expressing the settlers' own fear of losing their identity. But this was not the case for European settlements in the Caribbean, Latin America, and South Carolina, especially Charleston. For one thing, radically different geographic and demographic conditions produced radically different patterns of settlement. This, in turn, produced very different social styles.
For one thing, European settlers tended not to find the climate of the Caribbean much to their liking, despite its suitability for sugar cultivation (4). For another thing, the death rate of black slaves in the Caribbean was extraordinarily high as compared to that in British North America. For example, in one year 2, 656 Africans were born in St. Vincent; but in the same year there were 4, 205 deaths (5).
On one plantation in Jamaica more than half the children died in infancy. Miscarriages were high. This situation was the reason why brought into the Caribbean. The slaves were dying off due to extreme overwork and exhaustion (6).
It was these particularly grim facts of life in the Caribbean which served to tilt the demographic balance lopsidedly in favor of the Africans. They would typically vastly outnumber the Europeans. The ratios favoring the Africans could be anywhere from ten-to-one to twenty-to-one (7).
What this meant was that the settlers in the Caribbean could not recreate English culture as they had known it. Therefore, they tended to run their West Indian operations on more of an absentee basis, as they got into the habit of constantly running back to England to reassure themselves that they belonged to civilization. The American colonists did not have to do this because they outnumbered the Africans everywhere on the continent except for South Carolina (8).
In addition, the settlers in British North America worked to preserve their English Protestant identity by keeping themselves emotionally and physically plugged into the royal succession and religious wars going on in England, at least throughout the first half of the seventeenth century.
For example, in the 1640s hundreds of men from Massachusetts and Connecticut sailed back to England to fight on the Puritan side against Charles I. Royalist Virginia welcomed "Cavalier" émigrés and expelled its Puritans. This kind of sectarian fighting also took place in the American colonies. In 1655 Anglican-Catholic forces in Maryland were defeated by their Puritan enemies at the battle of Severn, near Annapolis, Maryland. Political-economist Kevin Phillips added that it was divisions like this which almost thwarted the American Revolution (9).
Let me say this...
I have said that the communities of Andover and Salem had both fallen into what I have termed a self-devouring frenzy. Religion just happens to have been the weapon of choice, of those communities, for self-flagellation.
Those communities unconsciously felt the need for this self-flagellation, according to my theory, because they came to feel themselves trapped by an abstract, malevolent entity that demanded blood.
The communities of Andover and Salem responded to this abstract demand for blood through a hyper-assertion of identity: English Protestantism.
This hyper-assertion of identity served as a kind of strainer, separating those who truly loved England and everything it was supposed to have stood for---from those who, perhaps, merely paid "lip service" to those ideals.
Now then, having said that religion was merely the weapon of choice, for the communities of Salem and Andover, for self-flagellation, we can confidently group those two incidents together with other locales and events in which those communities tore themselves apart, even when religion was not the trigger for the meltdown.
Does that make sense?
In other words, for me, the Salem and Andover Witchcraft Trials (which are unique for their extreme levels of violence), are like any other community "riot."
For example, recall the Rodney King incident. When the officers that massacred this African-American, the community rioted, which is to say that they descended into a state of self-devouring frenzy. Riots are usually self-defeating activities, but they are understood to be an expression of powerlessness and frustration with a perceived, stark lack of justice for all.
You will recall that some African-American shop owners came on camera, bewildered as to why their businesses had been targeted for "looting," and so forth.
Are you following me?
The black community concerned, feeling unhappy with the decision to acquit the officers that massacred Rodney King, "rioted," causing much destruction to their community. Recall that the rage of the riot was no respecter of color.
If we apply my theory, what we can say is that the community felt suddenly felt itself at the mercy of a malevolent entity, who would only be appeased through blood. Of course, this notion functions at the level of the collective unconscious. The community unconsciously felt the need to exhibit a hyper-assertion of basic existence. Those of you old enough to remember may recall Jesse Jackson's drill, "I AM SOMEBODY..."
In other words, the self-devouring frenzy of such "riots" are a manifestation of the need to scream out to the cosmos: "WE ARE HERE! BLACK LIVES MATTER! NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE," and so forth.
Does that clarify things a little better?
A usual procedure in trying to support the kind of thesis we are looking at here, would, perhaps, be to cite many specific, surrounding events. These events might serve to suggest building tension, which makes the unfolding of the actual event in question, almost seem inevitable.
I do not do that because I have described the events of the Salem and Andover Witchcraft Trials---with their unusual, extreme levels of violence---as times of self-devouring frenzy.
A frenzy is, by definition, something that is irrational, erratic, and unpredictable. You never know what the final straw will be to unleash one.
Let me say this. I think there was yet another reason why the English settlers on the North American mainland worked so hard to "Xerox" the English Protestant identity onto a new landscape, in contrast to the settlers in Latin America and the Caribbean.
I think that another reason the colonial American settlers worked so hard to reproduce "home," in the form of the English Protestant identity, was because actually going home, for them, was not an option. But, as I said before, this creates ambivalence.
Again, on the one hand the settlers wanted to recreate a sense of "home," out of national pride. But on the other hand, they would have been keenly cognizant of the fact that "home" had dispossessed and evicted them---due to the overwhelming social force of the relentless grind machine of the agricultural revolution-facilitated, primogeniture-driven enclosure movement, privatizing the commonly-held lands.
With the Salem and Andover Witchcraft Trials, this ambivalence drove them to hyper-assert their English Protestant identity. Eighty-four years later (1776), this ambivalence would work itself out in favor of breaking from England.
Okay, I'll leave it there. If my thesis is still unclear, the fault is entirely my own.
Thank you so much for reading!
1. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 45
2. ibid, 45-46
3. ibid, 46
4. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. (paperback). 43
7. (citation pending)
8. Jordan, W. White Over Black. 141-142
9. Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril And Politics Of Radical Religion, Oil, And Borrowed Money In The 21st Century. Viking (Penguin), 2006. 134
More by this Author
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We're going to address a question: Why did some blacks fight on the side of the Revolution and others fight for the British?
- 0On the Occasion of the Death of Fidel Castro at Ninety: The Cuban Revolution in Historical and Sociological Perspective
What I want to try to do is to help us achieve clarity on just exactly what the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was all about.
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