Just an excuse for bad government – A prominent GOP candidate got into hot water recently for confessing an early dabbling in Wicca. Today, the Salem witch trials stand for bad government leaders overstepping boundaries, McCarthyism and Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” but the story hasn’t always had the same meaning throughout history.
Historian Gretchen Adams says the phrase “witch trials” had a different political rhetoric and meaning to Americans in the 1800s than it does to most people today. She says, “We think of the Salem witch trials now as a story of poor leadership and abuse of the government’s investigative powers. In the 19th century, people thought of it as a tale of mass hysteria and going back to the ways of the Old World.”
Though also used against Catholics and Mormons during the 19th century, the most important rhetorical use of the Salem witch trials was during the Civil War. When railing against Massachusetts abolitionist Rep. Horace Mann, Rep. Henry Bedinger of Virginia countered back that someone from a state such as Massachusetts had no moral high ground to call slavery a form of barbarism considering the fact that Massachusetts government officials burned witches at the stake. He said this despite the fact that none of those found guilty of witchcraft in the US were ever burned at the stake. But even today, some people associate witch burnings with the trials.
Adams says, “Back then, the story was about excessive public emotion and the potential of a political movement that might overthrow the government. It was about, ‘you go back to these Old-World, hysterical practices, and you’ll risk the republic.’ It’s a history of meanings and how we create national symbols to support things or to fight against things.” By the 1920s, Prohibition, the first Red Scare and anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiments changed the story to become a moral of how bad leadership could abuse government authority to implement bad behavior.
The equivalent in today’s world might be people who insist that Obama is a Muslim or wasn’t born in the US. Adams says, “The cast of characters changes, but the Salem witchcraft symbolism rolls on through.”
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