Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Revisiting Salem: Part I

The Economics of Witchcraft
by Brad Hart

Over the past week I have had the wonderful opportunity of delving into the July, 2008 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, which is almost exclusively dedicated to a reexamination of the Salem Witch Trials. Though the history surrounding Salem during the latter part of the 17th century has received an incredible amount of attention, I believe that anytime the “flagship” journal of early American history decides to revisit a topic, we would all do well to follow suit. With this in mind, I hope to dedicate the next three or four of my posts on this blog to a review of the Salem historical record and the assessment offered by various historians on this topic in the WMQ.

As mentioned before, the history surrounding the Salem Witch Trials is one of the more popular events in all of American colonial history. Literally hundreds of books and articles have been written over the centuries, making 17th century Salem one of the most publicized events in our nation’s past. While this overabundance of scholarly literature may discourage some historians from engaging in a revision of the Salem saga, other devout students of early American history remain undeterred. As historian Richard Latner of Tulane University states:

The 1692 Salem witchcraft outbreak has had an enduring capacity for attracting popular and scholarly attention…Richly complex and layered, it is continuously amenable to fresh investigation. Thus, though the harvest of books and articles on Salem may deter researchers from this well-trodden terrain, ample rewards may result not only from formulating new interpretations but also from reexamining prevailing conceptualizations. [1]
It is this fresh perspective, a desire to challenge the traditional historiography of the Salem story, that demands our attention. For too long Salem and its witchcraft legacy have been oversimplified to the point that its participants are hardly recognized. The traditional Salem scholarship of the past, most of which portrays the witchcraft “outbreak” as a virtual plague centered in the Puritan “age of superstition,” causes us to see these early Puritans as quasi-madmen, bent on eradicating even the smallest trace of witchcraft.

In Richard Latner’s analysis of Salem, however, we are presented with a colonial society deeply divided by factionalism. During the 1690s, Salem was a community immersed in transition. The traditional covenant community based exclusively on a subsistence agricultural system was rapidly being replaced with the emerging forces of merchant capitalism. As a result, Salem’s population was thrown into a world of economic instability and transition. As Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum point out in their groundbreaking book, Salem Possessed, “the prosaic, everyday lives of obscure and inarticulate men and women…were being shaped by powerful forces of historical and economic change.” [2]

Due in part to these economic changes, the poorer segments of the Salem population found themselves in a state of financial instability. In addition, the ecclesiastical leaders of Salem, still awaiting a new royal charter from England, began to see their authority erode from underneath their feet. The increased level of factionalism between Salem Town and Salem Village – which had remained divided for decades – began to coalesce into rival economic segments of society. Contrary to popular belief, it was the witch-hunters, not the common citizen that were “in retreat” from the “oppressive” advances of those in Salem Town, where merchant capitalism was at its strongest.[3]

It was this internal division, argues Richard Latner that helped to create an atmosphere in which witchcraft accusations could flourish. The initial accusation of Reverend Samuel Parris’ daughter and niece are perfect case studies of how factionalism played out during the witch-hunt fiasco. The accusers, mostly consisting of paranoid clergymen bent on regaining their authority, preyed upon the economic plight of the poorer segment within Salem Village. As a result of their efforts, the overzealous clergy of Salem Town found all the support they would need to levy their accusations of witchcraft. As Christine Alice Young points out:

The powers of witches, were associated with mercantile activity within Salem Town, not the agricultural hinterland of Salem Village…it was impossible in seventeenth-century Massachusetts to simultaneously be a merchant and a leader of the orthodox, anticommercial party in colonial politics. [4]
With the backing of the economically downtrodden, Salem became a haven for radical accusation and religious over zealotry. The opposition, most of which was centered in Salem Town, found themselves virtually helpless against the “brainwashed” – intolerant is probably a more appropriate label -- masses of Salem Village.

While Latner’s economic explanations for Salem’s transgressions are convincing, it is important to remember that economics is but one of many factors that led to the witchcraft accusations of 17th century Salem. In the next few days, I hope to provide additional perspectives, the majority coming from the most recent edition of the William and Mary Quarterly, which I hope will provide an overall historical "landscape" of the Salem saga.

[1] Richard Latner, “Salem Witchcraft, Factionalism, and Social Change Reconsidered: Were Salem’s Witch-Hunters Modernization’s Failures?” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. LXV, no. 3, Pp. 423.
[2] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), xii.
[3] Ibid, 425-426.
[4] Christine Alice Young, Good Order to Glorious Revolution: Salem, Massachusetts, 1628-1689 (Ann Arbor, Mi., 1980), 7.


Brad Hart said...

Just FYI, my footnote links are all messed up. Thanks for pointing it out, Ray.

Phil Johnson said...

I've been to Salem a few times.
It can be a spooky place at night. _^..^_
I'll be interested in your future posts on this subject.

Lori Stokes said...

Always nice to see a 17th-century focus! I am confused by Young's claim that it was impossible to be a merchant and a leader of "the orthodox, anti-commercial party in colonial politics."

So far as I know, the Puritans in England and America were overwhelmingly businessmen. Farming was something they were forced to take up in America, with very little experience to make them good at it. (One of the reasons agriculture in New England was so poor was the lower-quality land, but another reason is that the Puritans farming it were not farmers.)

So merchants were welcome and commonplace and widely acknowledged as necessary to the survival of Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were also Puritans; the major towns, like Boston and Salem, were where the most powerful churches were located. So it was in merchant-based towns that Puritan theology flourished and wielded the most power. How then, could one be unable to be a merchant and a leader in MBC politics?

I am unaware of any "anticommercial" party in MBC politics. I'll have to read Young's article in full--thanks for pointing it out, Brad!