Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscienceby Richard Francis
The Salem witch hunt has entered our vocabulary as the very essence of injustice. Judge Samuel Sewall presided at these trials, passing harsh judgment on the condemned. But five years later, he publicly recanted his guilty verdicts and begged for forgiveness. This extraordinary act was a turning point not only for Sewall but also for America's nascent values and
The Salem witch hunt has entered our vocabulary as the very essence of injustice. Judge Samuel Sewall presided at these trials, passing harsh judgment on the condemned. But five years later, he publicly recanted his guilty verdicts and begged for forgiveness. This extraordinary act was a turning point not only for Sewall but also for America's nascent values and mores.
In Judge Sewall's Apology, Richard Francis draws on the judge's own diaries, which enables us to see the early colonists not as grim ideologues, but as flesh-and-blood idealists, striving for a new society while coming to terms with the desires and imperfections of ordinary life. Through this unsung hero of the American conscience a Puritan, an antislavery agitator, a defender of Native American rights, and a Utopian theorist we are granted a fresh perspective on a familiar drama.
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Judge Sewall's ApologyThe Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience
By Richard Francis
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Richard Francis
All right reserved.
The Shaggy Dog
During his adult life, Samuel Sewall would be haunted by an image in the book of Revelation: an angel, with a rainbow on his head, is standing with an open book in his hand. The angel plants one foot on the sea and the other on the earth. Sewall came to interpret that stance as meaning that the angel was straddling Europe (the earth) and America (the land discovered in the middle of the sea), and from that reading he derived a glorious vision of America's destiny. Perhaps one of the reasons why the picture had such imaginative power for him was that it seemed to sum up his own condition, from the moment of his birth, as someone with a foothold in both the Old World and the New.
Samuel Sewall was born on 28 March 1652, in the Hampshire village of Bishop Stoke, a little north of Southampton, before dawn on a Sunday. It gave him pleasure to reflect later that Sabbath light was the first to enter his eyes, as if it provided a spiritual basis to everything he subsequently saw.
North America, as a European settlement, was less than half a century old, New England not much more than a quarter of a century, but already this child born in Hampshire had roots there. The Pilgrim Fathers had crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620 and settled in Plymouth, just to the west of Cape Cod; ten years later, a fleet of ships led by the Arbella brought a company of Puritans under the leadership of John Winthrop to build a community in a natural harbor that they called Boston, and establish the Massachusetts Bay colony. Only five years after that, Sewall's father, Henry Sewall, arrived. He brought "English servants ... Cattel and Provisions sutable for a new Plantation" across the Atlantic with him, and took a grant of five hundred acres in the settlement of Newbury, on the northern edge of Massachusetts Bay.
The immigrants had come across the ocean for reasons of conscience: the desire to practice their faith without harassment from authorities wanting them to conform to orthodox Anglicanism. But they also had to make a living, and those who'd invested in their adventure wanted to make a profit--mixed motives from the start, though both elements reinforced community values and the need to make order out of chaos. John Winthrop gave a sermon as the Arbella made its way over the ocean toward the New World. He didn't evoke the vast wilderness to which he and his party were heading but instead pictured the future result of their efforts, an exemplary city on a hill, which others would look up to as an example of spirituality and civic harmony: "wee must be knit together in this worke as one man ... alwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in this worke, our Community as members of the same body." As John Eliot, the great minister to the Indians, would put it, "for as hell is a place of confusion, so heaven of order."
However, despite this need for cooperation on both spiritual and material planes, certain other settlers were less orderly. It was a raw, challenging environment, attracting its share of adventurers and misfits. As early as 1627, one colonist had attempted to set up an alternative community at Merry Mount, where members got drunk, danced round a maypole, and hobnobbed with the Indians.
Henry Sewall was only twenty when he arrived in America, and the cattle and provisions represented a family investment. He'd been sent by his father, Henry Sewall Sr., who joined him a year later. The latter's motive in organizing this family upheaval seems to have been the standard blend of practical and spiritual reasons: farming on the one hand, a "dislike to the English Hierarchy" (that is, of the existence of bishops in the Anglican church), on the other. But though the Sewalls were descended from a long line of successful merchants and community leaders (several of them were mayors of Coventry), and though the prevailing culture among fellow Puritans in the early settlement was of sobriety and austerity, Henry Sewall Sr. was immune to the civic respectability that these combined traditions brought with them.
He was a rough, individualistic, cantankerous sort of settler, with an undercurrent of violence. His father left a will asking him to admit his misbehavior toward his mother; his mother left one forgiving him but cutting him off with only a shilling. Almost as soon as he arrived in Newbury, he arranged a legal separation from his second wife, Ellen (Samuel Sewall was the grandson of her predecessor, Anne), and three years later he appeared before a grand jury on a charge of beating her. He got into trouble with the law for other reasons too, including contemptuous speech and carriage to Richard Saltonstall, one of the leaders of the colony, and was bound over in the sum of £66 13s. 8d. He seemed to have a problem with hierarchy in general, not just that of the English church. After a row about whether the Newbury meetinghouse should be moved from its site (conveniently near to his own house on Newbury's Lower Green), he moved out in high dudgeon, went across the river, and settled in Rowley, where in due course he was in trouble again, for disturbing worship and arguing with the pastor at the Rowley meetinghouse. Rumor had it that he was slightly deranged. He was a brooding, difficult man of the frontier, while order was being asserted around him in the face of the wilderness.
No such problems are evident with respect to Henry Sewall Jr., though he was once fined a shilling for missing a town meeting. His cattle farming went well, and he accepted new grants of land as pasture over the years ...
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Meet the Author
Richard Francis is a biographer, historian of American culture, and novelist. He was an American Studies Research Fellow at Harvard, and taught American literature at the universities of Missouri and Manchester. He is nowProfessor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in England.
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