It is perhaps a cliché in contemporary historical studies to ask the question “What would the Founders think?” or “What would the Founders believe about this or that particular issue today?” Despite being a largely fruitless academic exercise, dozens of books have been written on the subject, including Richard Brookhiser’s entertaining What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers, conservative historian Larry Schweikart’sWhat Would the Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems, and Michael Austin’s left-leaningThat’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers From America’s Right Wing.
These books, and others like them, often attempt to gain new knowledge from the Founders that simply cannot be retrieved. Given the tremendous change in the military, scientific, economic, technological, environmental, and demographic landscapes of the United States since the eighteenth century, it is difficult to grant definitive contemporary authority to the views of politicians and philosophers from a completely different era. When Brookhiser cautiously attempts to ascertain what the Founders might do about modern weapons of mass destruction, using as an example their limited experience of weaponized smallpox used as biological warfare against the Native Americans, he invites a historical comparison that is unhelpful and inaccurate even in relative size and scope. Not even the scientifically minded Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could have envisioned the awesome, potentially world-ending power of today’s international nuclear arsenals. Additionally, conservative Schweikart ponders the question “Does the government have a responsibility to keep large businesses solvent in order to protect American industry?”1 This despite the fact that a “large business” today is part of an infinitely more massive and interconnected global economy than that which existed a quarter millennium ago. Likewise, the more liberal Austin investigates what the founders would think about the Grover Norquist tax pledge while openly acknowledging his own biases in his book, stating in his preface that liberals are less likely than conservatives to “lump [the Founders] together into ideologically incoherent proof texts.”2 Little understanding is gained and the national conversation is not advanced in any positive manner when we use the Founders as historical entertainment, conservative ammunition, or liberal attack dogs.
Inevitably, the area of sociopolitical discourse that attracts the most attention when discussing the Founders’ views of American life is sure to be religion in the public sphere and the separation of church and state. These debates tend to become even more heated than the aforementioned issues as thousands of suburban families and media commentators argue each year around the country in PTA meetings and on cable news about topics such as prayer in schools and public nativity displays. Often, once the blustering demagoguery begins, a quote or reference to one of America’s revolutionary heroes is not far behind. Interestingly, unlike the incredible changes in destructive weaponry, economic systems, and levels of taxation over the past 250 years, religion in America, especially Christianity, remains relatively unchanged by comparison.
Many would argue that the United States is more religiously diverse now than the framers of the Constitution would have ever thought possible. There have certainly been extensive changes in Christian theology and practice. But in attending a weekly Christian church service that features congregational hymns sung in pews, readings from the Bible, participation in the Lord’s Supper, and an individual religious authority figure presenting a sermon, the average American of the twenty-first century has a lot more in common with a colonial Christian of 1776 in regard to religion than in the fields of health, technology, or employment. Today 77 percent of the American population identify as Christian, with about 68 percent attending church services at least monthly, according to a Gallup poll from December 2012.
While the opinions of the various framers and founders were not as simple and clear-cut as many would like them to be, and despite the fact that they were philosophically a very diverse group, the complex issue of religion in the public sphere is, in fact, a subject that we can look to the Founders for guidance, as many of their thoughts and ideas still remain relevant to us today.A careful look at one of American history’s most significant tragedies and most important religious events could help to shed light into the world in which these eminent revolutionary politicians, diplomats, and soldiers lived.
The accusation of witchcraft and subsequent execution of innocent women may seem to belong in the Middle Ages; but it was in colonial Massachusetts, in the town of Salem in 1692, where one of history’s most infamous witch hunts took place. The Salem witch trials occurred a full century before George Washington’s reelection to a second term as president, and it was in that intervening period between the tragedy in rural Massachusetts and the early years of the American republic that puritanical theocracy would give way to Enlightenment-Era values of checks and balances and the separation of religious and secular powers. Could it have been that the Salem witch trials were one of the most important cautionary inspirations for the carefully crafted religious and legal protections, including the right to due process and the Establishment Clause, placed in the United States Constitution in 1787?
It was in a very similar Massachusetts countryside setting that Washington’s vice president and eventual successor John Adams—a prominent Founder, the nation’s second president, and one of the American Revolution’s most celebrated orators—was born and raised. Along with the colony of Virginia that produced four of the nation’s first five presidents, Massachusetts served as one of two epicenters of the revolution and early republic, and was the birthplace of many other Founders and notable early Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Rufus King, Abigail Adams, and Dr. Joseph Warren. To have been raised in the countryside near colonial Boston would have meant growing up among the graves and tombstones of innocent men and women convicted of witchcraft by an incompetent theocratic government.
In Braintree, Massachusetts, just 30 miles from Salem, Adams’ father, John Adams, Sr., would have been a 15-year-old adolescent in 1706, the year that witchcraft-accuser Ann Putnam, Jr., went on record to repent in front of her congregation. Putnam was part of a group of nearly a dozen girls, who 14 years earlier caused the hanging deaths of 19 residents of Salem, one other execution by the pressing of heavy stones, and the indirect deaths of several other individuals who died in the Salem jail. The deaths would later weigh heavily on the conscience of Putnam.
“I desire to lie in the dust,” she admitted, seeking redemption from the heavens and her neighbors, “and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, whose relations were taken away or accused [in] that sad and humbling providence . . . in the year about ’92. I was an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime [whose] lives were taken away from them.”
Putnam was particularly active in the accusation of Rebecca Nurse and her sister Mary Eastey, who, along with 17 other villagers, were judged to be guilty of supernaturally cursing or harming the girls, or committing other heinous crimes of witchcraft, sentenced to death by the religious authorities, and hanged on Gallows Hill.
“I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons,” Putnam continued, “and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time…. I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.”
The events prior to Putnam’s confession have been dramatized and reinterpreted on stage and screen many times during later centuries, particularly in Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible. The story of the witch hunt was an onstage metaphor for 1950s McCarthyism and the Red Scare. When the Hollywood Ten, a group of American movie industry writers and producers, were called to appear before the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to testify on their alleged Communist activities and loyalties, they refused to answer and were arrested and imprisoned for obstruction of justice. The seventeenth-century witch hunt in what is now Danvers, Massachusetts, near Boston, became the archetypal example for the persecution of minority groups in America.
While Arthur Miller used Communism in his retelling of the story during the cold war, one of the more recent interpretations of the event is to consider its implications for American Muslims today. Consider the difficulties that many American Muslim communities have had in obtaining permission to build mosques in many states, such as the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in central Tennessee,3 where an arsonist set fire to construction equipment, the nationally controversial Park51 Islamic Cultural Center in New York City, and the mosque in McKinney, Texas, where vandalism occurred in June 2013 .4
Writing online for the Huffington Post, Kemal Argon professed that “we can recognize that this hysterical witch hunting and persecution that we sometimes see in America is nothing new. At the very least, we can recognize any pattern of intolerance and persecution recycling itself in American history for what it really is and refuse to be part of it.”5
“In the case of Islamophobia manifesting as witch-hunting and persecution,” Argon continued, “although we cannot oppose this persecution with our hands in our current situation, we can oppose it with our voices and with our hearts.”6
The similarity between the persecutions of Muslims in 2013, alleged Communists in 1950, and those believed to be witches in 1692 is a perceived threat to the traditional conservative Christian culture of the American people. In fact, instead of strengthening the community during the time of crisis, the strong Christian faith of so many of the Salem residents actually served to fan the flames of hysteria rather than abate them. Jess Blumberg of the Smithsonian wrote that much of the paranoia and fear in Salem came directly out of conservative Christianity.
“The Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the devil,” Blumberg explained. “With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed for the next few months. Charges against Martha Corey, a loyal member of the church in Salem village, greatly concerned the community; if she could be a witch, then anyone could.”
Blumberg explained that one of the primary, certainly most infamous, means of conviction involved the young female accusers “having ‘fits.’ They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural.”7
The theocratic government in place in Salem, and most of New England at the time, even allowed for “spectral evidence” in the courtroom. Supposed ghostly and devilish visitations that were reported by the accusers served to convict innocent townsfolk. Marc Callis, writing for the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, explained that “spectral evidence was based on the hypothesis that an individual afflicted by [witchcraft] would therefore be capable of seeing a specter resembling the person who has bewitched him or her. Since the doctrine of spectral evidence also stated that God in His mercy would never permit a specter to appear in the form of an innocent person, spectral evidence was considered by its supporters as an all but infallible means of detecting witches.”8
While this practice of admitting supernatural evidence was eventually discarded, it was too late for the executed “witches” in Salem village who, in being denied due process and a fair trial by conservative religious authorities, were victims of one of the last theocratic governments the American people would experience.
We may not be able to know quite how influential the Salem witch trials were for the Founders as they placed into the Constitution legal requirements for “due process of law,” “public trial, by an impartial jury” and protections against congressional “establishment of religion.”9 However, less than 60 years after the confession of Ann Putnam, Jr., the 1765 Stamp Act would be passed into law marking the beginning of colonial resistance to British rule in what would eventually become the American Revolution. It might be difficult to prove, but it could be even more challenging to dismiss completely the indelible mark that these events left on New England, “the unique nature and gravity ‘at least by colonial American standards’, of the Salem witch trials that led many of our colonial forefathers to seek lessons from the sad events of 1692.”10
1 Larry Schweikart, What Would the Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems (London: Sentinel, 2011), p. 106.
2 Michael Austin, That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers From America’s Right Wing (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2012).
8 Marc Callis, “The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Vol. 33, no. 2 (Summer 2005).
9 United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Author: Martin Surridge
Martin Surridge has a background in teaching English. He is an associate editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.