Stacy Schiff is the author of, among other books, “Cleopatra” and “The Witches: Salem, 1692.”
Well before Japanese internment camps, before the Know-Nothing Party, before the Alien and Sedition Acts, New England drew its identity from threats to public safety. We manned the nation’s watchtowers before we were even a nation.
From that earlier set of founding fathers — the men who settled 17th century Massachusetts — came the first dark words about dark powers. No matter that they sailed to these shores in search of religious freedom. Once established, they pulled up the gangplank behind them. The city on a hill was an exclusively Puritan sanctuary. The sense of exceptionalism — “we are surely the Lord’s firstborn in this wilderness,” the Massachusetts minister William Stoughton observed in an influential 1668 address — bound itself up from the start with prejudice. If you are the pure, someone else needs to be impure.
Quakers fared badly. In Boston, Cotton Mather compared them not only to dogs, but to serpents, dragons and vipers. The great young hope of the New England ministry, he sounds as if he would have started a Quaker database if he could have. Banned, exiled, imprisoned, whipped, Quakers were a “leprous” people, their teachings as wholesome as the “juice of toads.”
Baptists and Anglicans fared little better. In 1689, Boston’s Anglicans discovered the windows of their church smashed, “the doors and walls daubed and defiled with dung, and other filth, in the rudest and basest manner imaginable.” The most moderate of Massachusetts men believed in Papist cabals; priests qualified as the radical Muslim clerics of the day. From the pulpit came regular warnings that boatloads of nefarious Irishmen were set to disembark in Boston harbor, to establish Roman Catholicism in New England.
The alerts naturally served an evangelical purpose. The common enemy encouraged cohesion, appealing to a tribal instinct. In the words of Owen Stanwood, a Boston College historian, the trumped-up fears neatly packaged the Massachusetts settlers’ “desire for security, their Protestant heritage, and their nascent sense of racial privilege.” Those anxieties multiplied at a time of real violence, of political and economic dislocation, of an emboldened Native American population. And in 1690, Mather warned, New England was in a state of “such distress and danger as it never saw before.” He forecast the imminent descent of “whole armies of Indians and Gallic bloodhounds.”
The muddled fears produced a snarl of blame. When fire broke out in 1679 Boston, it was said to be the work of Baptists. Who killed the sheep grazing on Cambridge Common? It had been wolves, but it made sense to harass Frenchmen anyway. The enemies did not need actually to be in New England’s midst. As an Anglican official snorted from a Boston prison in 1689: “There were not two Roman Catholics betwixt this and New York.” New England was nonetheless sacrificed over and over to its heathen adversaries, according to the ministry, that era’s Department of Homeland Security.
In the blur of rampaging predators it became increasingly difficult to distinguish Indians from Frenchmen from devils. One village minister lumped together Louis XIV, his Catholic confederates and Satan, at least two of whom were nowhere in the neighborhood. Conspiratorial fantasies came easily to a Puritan, who found them enthusiastically confirmed from the pulpit, the sole means of mass communication in a province still without newspapers.
Nor, when it came to subversive forces, was it necessary to conjure up real ones. In 1692, New Englanders began to look among themselves for things they could not see. To the “bloody and barbarous heathens,” as Stoughton would term the French, New England added invisible demons, producing the panic we now know as the Salem witch trials.
So great was the terror that year that grown men watched neighbors fly through the streets; they kicked at gleaming balls of fire in their beds. They saw hundreds celebrate a satanic Sabbath as clearly as some of us saw thousands of Muslims dancing in the Jersey City streets after 9/11.
Stoughton would preside over the witchcraft trials, securing a 100 percent conviction rate. A Baptist minister who objected that the court risked executing innocents found himself charged with sedition. He was offered the choice between a jail sentence and a crushing fine. He was not heard from again. One problem with decency: It can be maddeningly quiet, at least until it explodes and asks if anyone has noticed it has been sitting, squirming, in the room all along.
The toxic brush fires flare up with regularity. “Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat; or our daughters the concubines of the Illuminati?” asked Yale’s president on July 4, 1798. In the 1830s it was the Mormons’ turn to subvert America. The language remains remarkably consistent: A 1799 pro-Federalist sermon warned of a plot to “subvert and overturn our holy religion and our free and excellent government.” In 1951 the judge sentencing the Rosenbergs for espionage termed theirs a “diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” Throughout, we brandish our enemies’ hatred as our badge of honor. The churning suspicions invigorate; we become superheroes when we bulk up our opponents. To rage against the powers of darkness is to assure ourselves that we stand in the light.
The homegrown history in no way justifies the incendiary language. But it reminds us that the demonic plots are unlikely to vanish anytime soon. Anxiety produces specters; sensing ourselves lost, disenfranchised, dwarfed, we take reckless aim. “We have to be much smarter, or it’s never, ever going to end,” Donald J. Trump has warned of the war on terror. Amen. At least we can savor the irony that today’s zealots share a playbook with the Puritans, a people who — finding the holiday too pagan — waged the original war on Christmas.