The Historiography of Abolition and William Ellery Channing

Yesterday I wrote a short piece for the U.S. Intellectual History blog on William Ellery Channing and moderate versus radical antislavery thought. You can find it here.

Radical Black Humanism

This past weekend I participated in a virtual conference hosted by People of Color Beyond Faith. The panel I spoke on was “Radical Humanist Traditions in Communities of Color.” Anyone interested can find the video here.

The Salem Witch Hunt in American History and Memory

The witchcraft trials in Salem during the late seventeenth century have made an indelible stamp on the American mind. Contemporary observers look back and wonder how such an event could have taken place in a country now known for religious pluralism and the rule of law. One question that has arisen periodically in American thought is whether or not the Salem witch scare was the beginning of an American tradition of witch-hunts, or a unique episode with no parallel in this nation’s history. Scholars and the general public alike have pointed to developments such as abolitionism in the 1850s, the Red Scare of the 1920s, and McCarthyism in the 1950s as examples of persecution akin to that of Salem. While these latter events certainly displayed a level of paranoia present during the Salem episode, their foundation in economic motivations and political ideology make them events of a different nature than those of Salem, which were motivated largely by religious beliefs.

The witchcraft scare began in the winter of 1691-1692 when the minister Samuel Parris’ daughter and niece became strangely ill. The girls complained of pinching and prickling sensations that doctors were unable to explain, and some began to hint at witchcraft, an explanation that was commonly accepted in the early modern world. While witchcraft had not been a serious problem in colonial New England, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people had been executed for it in Europe over the past three centuries. Authorities in Salem began to question the girls regarding the “specters” that had afflicted them, and three women were soon named and arrested on 29 February 1692. The three women included Sarah Good, Sarah Osbourne, and Parris’s slave Tituba, who soon started naming others. Tituba’s confession began a cycle in which hundreds of people were accused of witchcraft in Salem.

A special court of Oyer and Terminer was soon established to deal with the accusations, and executions began with Bridget Bishop, a woman long suspected of witchcraft, in June 1692. Over that summer accusations continued to pile up and the court continued to hold trials, executing a total of twenty people. Yet from the start there were voices calling for an end to the trials, largely because of the court’s use of “spectral evidence,” which were the likenesses of witches that accusers claimed were afflicting them. Some of the more prominent ministers of the province, under the leadership of Increase Mather, condemned the use of spectral evidence in October, and the colony’s governor William Phips soon put an end to the trials. The remaining defendants had all been acquitted by the following January, ending this brief but deadly episode of Salem’s history.

From the seventeenth century to the present, people have attempted to explain the witchcraft scare in a variety of ways. Recent historians have argued that the outbreak can be explained in terms of gender and economics. Most of the women accused were femes sole, or women who did not live under the household of their father or husband. These women defied traditional social distinctions because they enjoyed a level of economic independence unusual at the time, and were thus seen as a threat to the social order. Other interpretations look to demographic and geographical patterns of Salem and argue that the accusations came primarily from those residents located in Salem Village. These people had steadily migrated to the outskirts of Salem Town during the seventeenth century, and the rising prosperity and commercialization of Salem Town threatened their largely agricultural and rural way of life. These explanations are certainly plausible, but another factor that must be considered is the role of religious ideology itself, and when this is taken into account, the witch-hunt at Salem will be seen as markedly different from political persecution in nineteenth and twentieth century America.

A distinctive element in the witchcraft episode was the Puritan theology that lay at the heart of colonial New England society. First, Puritan ministers, such as Cotton Mather preached and wrote that a belief in God also required a belief in the Devil. For seventeenth century Puritans, the Devil often took physical shape in his attempt to capture the souls of Christians. Puritans also believed the Devil had others working for him—demons, imps, and witches—that he likewise enlisted in his nefarious plans. Along with their belief in the devil, Puritans, while arguing that all were equal in the sight of God, actually practiced a religion that said women were both spiritually stronger and weaker than men. They saw the soul as a feminine entity and thus females were believed to be more religious. At the same time, women’s supposedly weaker bodies made them more susceptible to Satan’s advances, which explains why women were accused of witchcraft on a much greater scale than men. Women themselves came to believe these ideas and had trouble distinguishing ordinary sins from their sinful nature, a predicament that was not common among men. Thus, when women accused others of witchcraft, it was almost always other women they fingered.

After being accused of witchcraft, women were essentially deemed guilty either way. If they denied the witchcraft accusations, authorities felt they were hostile to the court and unsubmissive, which was the culturally prescribed role of women in Puritan society. Those who persisted in their denials, such as Bridget Bishop and Sarah Good, were usually the ones hanged. By contrast, women who admitted guilt and threw themselves on the mercy of the court were most often spared, on one condition. They had to point out their accomplices and discuss their specific practices of witchcraft, which of course helped fan the flames of the crisis that much more.

This particular combination of gender and religious ideologies is unique to Salem because at no other time in the nation’s history were twenty citizens killed for the same reason. Granted, Salem and its witch-hunt have had a lasting endurance in American culture and have provided people with a powerful metaphor to explain persecution. For instance, during the 1850s, as America was on the brink of civil war, southern radicals invoked the metaphor of Salem in explaining the activities of northern abolitionists. They argued that the “fanaticism” and zeal of northerners on behalf of slaves was a type of irrational persecution akin to that of Salem 150 years before the sectional crisis, and southerners warned their countrymen about the likely consequences of such actions. Northerners, of course, denied these charges and instead argued that the slave masters constituted a “slaveocracy” that would stop at nothing to spread their institution throughout the nation. Both sides viewed the other as engaged in a conspiratorial plot to undermine American republicanism, but their views did not come close to the type of zeal prevalent during the Salem episode.

The specter of Salem has also arisen frequently during the twentieth century, beginning with the Red Scare of 1919. The Red Scare had its origins in a number of developments at home and abroad during World War I. Russia had recently undergone their Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, whereby communist Vladimir Lenin came to power after the czar’s abdication. On the home front, more than four million workers had gone on strike during 1919, including a steel workers strike of nearly 340,000 people, and the famous Boston police strike that launched Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge into national fame. Race riots also swept the nation during the summer of 1919, with 38 people killed and over 500 injured in a Chicago riot that year. All told, there were twenty-five race riots in 1919 and hundreds of deaths.

These events provide the backdrop to the actions of radicals and quick reaction throughout American society known as the Red Scare. After the war, the public reaction to a wave of labor strikes and race riots showed the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in America; many people thought that this domestic turmoil was the first part of a worldwide revolution. Socialism had indeed been steadily gaining strength in the country since the late 19th century, with Allan Benson gaining nearly 600,000 votes in the presidential election of 1916 and Eugene Debs winning over 900,000 in the 1920 election. In 1919, radical members of the Socialist party formed the Communist Party (U.S.A) and the Communist Labor Party, and the wartime hysteria against Germany was soon transformed into a Red Scare against American Communists. The fears that characterized the Red Scare were not without foundation; in April 1919, the post office intercepted almost 40 homemade letter bombs addressed to prominent individuals; one of the devices slipped through and blew off the hands of a maid to a Georgia senator. Just a couple of months later, in June 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in Washington was bombed, killing the terrorist and almost killing Palmer.

It is thought that these bombings were the work of a small group of Italian anarchists, yet Palmer and others believed that American Communists were responsible and soon organized what many have termed witch hunts. These “witch hunts” consisted of massive deportations, begun by the Justice Department in 1919; that year, Palmer also authorized J. Edgar Hoover to begin collecting files on radicals, and raids on the Union of Russian Workers began in November. In December the ship Buford transported 249 anarchists and criminals, all of whom were deported to Russia without a trial or hearing, from New York to Finland. And finally, on 2 January 1920 police raids in dozens of US cities took up 5,000 suspects, many without arrest warrants, while the New York legislature expelled five Socialist members who had been fairly elected by the people.

Palmer, Hoover, and others continued to exaggerate the Red Scare, but the panic quickly subsided, with bombings, strikes, and race riots soon tapering off. Even after a bomb exploded in New York City and killed 38 people, Americans realized it was the work of one crazed militant and not part of a worldwide communist conspiracy. The Red Scare would have a lasting impact on American culture and politics, especially with immigration restrictions and anti-unionism. But it was an affair that was quickly over, and while many citizens and historians alike have compared these events to the Salem Witchcraft trials, the two cannot be seen as analogous. For one, federal or state governments did not execute people for their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, as was the case with Salem in 1692. While hundreds were deported, the government never took the drastic step of executing its own citizens during the Red Scare. And second, as we have seen, Salem was motivated largely by religious ideology, which oftentimes wields a much more powerful hold that the political ideals at the heart of the Red Scare.

The fear of communism prevalent in 1919 would crop up again after World War II in a series of events that have likewise been compared to the hysteria surrounding the Salem Witchcraft trials. In March 1947, president Harry Truman established an employee loyalty program whereby all federal government employees would be subject to a background check. Four years later, the Civil Service Commission had cleared 3 million people, while 212 had been dismissed and thousands resigned. During the late 1940s cases of Communist infiltration in the government arose, including the famous Alger Hiss case. In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet agent, told Congress that Hiss had given him classified documents from the State Department. Hiss was soon indicted and convicted of perjury.

Politicians such as Richard Nixon of California and Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin took advantage of revelations regarding Soviet spying to advance their careers. Nixon pursued the case against Hiss with an unmatched zeal and won election to the Senate in 1950. That year, McCarthy gave a speech in which he claimed there were a number of Communists working for the State Department. McCarthy and other members of Congress held hearings throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. As a result of these hearings, thousands of people lost their jobs and hundreds were arrested, yet McCarthy never uncovered a Communist agent in the government.

McCarthy’s activities and the persecution of communists in general during this period have been strongly connected to Salem, largely because of the work of Arthur Miller. In 1952 Miller published his play The Crucible, a story of the 1692 witchcraft trials that has been seen as an allegory for communist persecution during the time. Just four years after Miller published the play, the House of Un-American Activities Committee, which had been investigating communism since 1938, summoned him to testify. Miller refused to name people who had attended the same political meetings he did, and was convicted of contempt of Congress, fined, and denied a US passport. A court later ruled the chairman of the committee had misled him and overturned the conviction.

Despite the connection many have made between “McCarthyism” and the Salem Witchcraft Trials, there were important differences that speak to the uniqueness of Salem in American history. The first and perhaps key difference between the two events was that McCarthy’s and HUAC’s hearing led to no executions, although many did lose their jobs or face imprisonment. And like the Red Scare of 1919, the persecution of Communists during the 1950s resulted largely from political rather than religious ideology and came in the context of another world war.

Since the 1950s, charges of political “witch-hunting” have emerged around a wide range of issues, ranging from the civil rights movement to the Monica Lewinsky affair in the 1990s. The paranoia surrounding these events have often been compared to that surrounding Salem in the 1690s, as this fascinating episode holds a powerful grip on the American imagination. Yet in considering the relationship between Salem and other cases of “witch-hunting” in American history, it becomes clear that Salem was unique. It was unique in its scope, as twenty people were executed, and unique in its cause, being an instance of large-scale persecution motivated primarily by religious ideology.

Timeline of Slavery and Abolition

Over the past few months I have been working on an edited collection on the abolitionist movement that will be published by ABC-CLIO in fall 2014. The book is aimed at high school students and contains 23 documents, 2 of them images, that I selected and analyzed in the book to model how historians approach interpreting primary sources. As part of the project, my editor asked me to include a timeline of some of the key events in the history of slavery and abolition, which I am posting here. I still have a couple weeks to turn in a draft of the manuscript so I’d welcome any feedback on other events I should include.


1619: Approximately 20 Africans are sold into slavery or indentured servitude in Virginia

1641: Massachusetts becomes the first British North American colony to legalize slavery

1662: Virginia declares that the children of slaves will follow the status of the mother, making slavery hereditary.

1667: Virginia passes a law decreeing that baptism does not grant freedom to slaves.

1688: Pennsylvania Quakers approve the first antislavery petition in what would become the United States.

1700: Samuel Sewall pens The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial; Pennsylvania legalizes slavery

1705: Virginia passes a law decreeing masters who kill slaves will not be punished; Massachusetts makes marriages between whites and blacks illegal.

1739: Slaves near Charleston, SC rebel against their masters and attempt to flee to Spanish Florida. The rebellion was put down and many slaves were executed.

1764: Parliament passes the Sugar Act, spurring a crisis with the colonies, and James Otis writes Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, the first pamphlet written by a white man that argued for racial equality.

1773: Phillis Wheatley publishes her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral; Slaves in Boston submit two petitions to the Massachusetts legislature calling for freedom. They also form a committee to advocate for slaves, the first antislavery committee in the colonies.

1775: The Pennsylvania Abolition Society is formed; The royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offers freedom to slaves who will fight for the British; Prince Hall forms the African Masonic Lodge in Boston

1776: The Society of Friends (Quakers) in Pennsylvania prohibit their members from holding slaves, becoming the first religious body to take such action.

1777: Prince Hall and other blacks in Massachusetts submit another petition to the legislature calling for their freedom; Vermont becomes the first state to abolish slavery.

1780: Paul Cuffe submits his petition to the legislature calling for no taxation without representation; Pennsylvania passes a gradual abolition law.

1781: Thomas Jefferson pens the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia.

1783: A court case ends in Massachusetts that is widely interpreted as abolishing slavery in the state.

1784: Connecticut and Rhode Island pass gradual abolition laws.

1787: Gouverneur Morris gives his speech at the Constitutional Convention urging the abolition of slavery; the delegates take no action on slavery, enact the 3/5 Clause, and provide for the continuation of the slave trade until 1807; the Northwest Ordinance prohibits slavery in the Northwest Territory.

1792: Congress excludes blacks from military service.

1793: Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin; the first Fugitive Slave Law is passed by Congress.

1803: The Louisiana Purchase is passed, doubling the territory of the United States, including future slave states such as Mississippi and Alabama.

1807: Congress prohibits the international slave trade.

1819: The Missouri Crisis erupts over the question of whether or not slavery should expand into the new state.

1822: Denmark Vesey’s planned uprising is foiled and nearly forty slaves are executed.

1827: Freedom’s Journal, America’s first black newspaper, begins publication in New York.

1829: The case of North Carolina vs. Mann is adjudicated in the North Carolina Supreme Court; David Walker publishes his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

1831: William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing the Liberator; Virginia debates abolition but ultimately decides against it in the last serious movement by southerners to abolish slavery; Nat Turner leads an uprising in Southampton Virginia that results in the death of 57 whites.

1832: The New England Anti-Slavery Society is formed in Boston.

1833: Maria Stewart delivers her address in the African Masonic Hall; Britain abolishes colonial slavery, which would take effect in 1834.

1835: Anti-abolition riots break out in cities across the North, including Boston and Philadelphia.

1836: Angelina Grimke publishes An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South; Congress adopts the Gag Rule, which immediately tables all antislavery petitions.

1837: Charles Ball publishes his narrative Slavery in the United States; Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery in Maryland.

1840: The issue of women’s rights divides the American Anti-Slavery Society; The Liberty Party runs its first candidate for president.

1846-1848: The U.S. fights a war with Mexico that many northerners condemn as an attempt to acquire more slave territory.

1848: The Free Soil Party is formed to advocate for restrictions on the spread of slavery to new territories out West.

1850: The Compromise of 1850 is passed, admitting California as a free state, passing a stronger fugitive slave law, and abolishing the slave trade in Washington, D.C.

1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work that galvanized the antislavery movement; Frederick Douglass gives his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

1854: The Kansas-Nebraska Act is passed, creating the two territories and allowing for popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery. This latter component repeals the Missouri Compromise.

1856: The Republican Party is formed out of a coalition of Free Soilers, northern Democrats, and former Whigs; fighting between proslavery and antislavery forces breaks out in “Bleeding Kansas” in what would become a rehearsal for the Civil War.

1857: The Dred Scott decision is handed down by the Supreme Court denying citizenship to slaves and free blacks in the country while also allowing slavery in the territories.

1859: John Brown leads an unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry meant to incite a slave rebellion that galvanizes the North and South over the issue of slavery.

1860: Abaraham Lincoln is elected president and South Carolina secedes from the Union one month later.

1861: The Civil War begins in April; Ten more states follow South Carolina lead and together they establish the Confederate States of America.

1862: Slavery is abolished in the territories and Washington, D.C.

1863: The Emancipation Proclamation frees all slaves in areas under rebellion

1865: The Civil War ends; Slavery is abolished by the 13th Amendment

Teaching U.S. Intellectual History

At the U.S. Intellectual History Conference a couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with Jonathan Scott Holloway and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen on teaching U.S. intellectual history so I thought I would share some of their insights and a few of my own approaches.

I spoke first and focused on two aspects–how I approach the class differently when teaching it at different levels in the curriculum, and practical considerations that inform my teaching. When offering the course as an upper-level one in the history department I take a fairly traditional approach, using David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s American Intellectual Tradition, along with a couple monographs. The students wrote book reviews and one textual analysis paper on Paul Finkelman’s book Defending Slavery. Nearly every class session was roughly half lecture and half discussion and my goals were to reinforce the reading and writing skills students would have started to learn in our introduction to historical research class while also pushing them to become more effective communicators of their ideas in class discussion.

I have also offered the class as a general education one that consisted of students at all levels. This was a large lecture course with 110 students, as opposed to the 30 I had the first time around, and it consisted of only 1 history major. I assumed this would be the case going in so decided not to use Hollinger and Capper and to jettison the monographs in favor of a couple Bedford primary source editions on creating an American culture, manifest destiny, and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. We had many fewer discussions but those we did have focused largely on developing their skills at identifying arguments, reading critically, considering the many ways that ideas manifest themselves in society, and discerning how social context influences intellectual life.

Jonathan Scott Holloway had offered a graduate seminar on African American intellectual history from the WWII era to the present. He chose to go with an extremely spare syllabus that just contained the readings for the week. Instead of including supplemental readings he had the students leading the discussion come up with those and they often chose something out of the box like paring Langston Hughes’ poetry with St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis, a social scientific study of black life in Chicago. With this approach the students themselves have an active role in building the syllabus out from his bare bones model.

In Holloway’s graduate course, all the readings are primary sources, while Ratner-Rosenhagen takes the opposite approach, focusing on the literature of the field. She recommends a Quaker-style discussion format where everyone sits silently until moved to talk. This can make for an awkward discussion or two at the beginning of the semester but produces great discussions where students speak more to each other than to her.

Ratner-Rosenhagen has some very useful assignments. The first is having grad students do an annotated syllabus instead of an historiographical essay. In this they explain why they chose certain readings and assignments, and their syllabus has to be related to their research interests. She noted that many students end up coming to a dissertation project through this exercise. Another interesting assignment was a project where students build their own institution–a John Dewey gas station, or a Jane Addams lending library–for example. Here the goal is to get students to understand that ideas are all around them and are not just natural. And lastly, she mentioned having undergraduates write an NPR transcript of a conversation with a particular thinker, which helps students channel voice and learn the ideas more efficiently. This last assignment also has the benefits of helping you get to know your students better than you can with more traditional essays.



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