Ah, the President of the United States does love to mangle American History. This morning he set to his favorite Historical Misappropriation Delivery Tool… Twitter and said:
Well, actually… no. The single greatest Witch Hunt in American political history was the one that actually gave you the name with which you use: witch hunt! Now whether his is the second or 200th can be debated, but not the “single greatest”.
The Salem Witch Hunts, which is the episode that really put the phrase into political vernacular, happened in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts and believe it, or not, there is still a great deal of mystery shrouding the event. But without doubt, political it was.
Accusing witches was nothing new in early American History and the first major accusation on American soil happened 30 years before Salem. Salem is generally passed through quickly as a case of religious extremism gone a muck, but it was much more than that. There are competing theories on the non-political side: small pox was especially harsh that year and a common grain fungus in the rye may have produced LSD-like hallucinations in residents of Salem. Certainly religion influenced the events. The unusually harsh winter was blamed on sinning or impurities of the townsfolks, the only “logical” explanation (at the time) for weather aberrations.
But politically there are two common theories. The first is that one of Salem’s leaders, John Alden, proved to be ineffective at fighting Indians, as this timeframe is in the midst of the French & Indian Wars, and this was payback (he was accused as a witch but with his wealth bribed the jailer and fled). The second, and lesser known, is that this was economic warfare between two family factions that were geographically separated in the area.
Salem Village and Salem Town were two different geographic entities. Think of a smaller city existing inside a larger township and you get the relations ship of Salem Village to Salem Town. As each part grew, separate churches dominated their spiritual guidance and two families grew prominent in each sphere. Additionally, most of the accused witches were from the same place, Salem Village, and their accusers almost exclusively from Salem Town.
One of the chief accusers was the Thomas Putnam, who may have latched onto this as a way to settle rivalries. Putnam, an old family in Salem Town, did not like that Salem Village was becoming autonomous and growing in wealth, why his family remained stagnant. One family in Salem Village, the Porters, owned a dam that flooded Putnam’s land. Other property border disputes and local governance issues put the two families at odds. Putnam’s feuding extended to other Salem Village families as well. It is no surprise that among the “afflicted” were Putnam’s own children and he himself accused 43 people of witch craft, of which 12 were executed and two more died in jail.
While the “truth” behind the real cause of the Salem Witch Trials may never see consensus, it is clear that this event was a politically motivated opportunity by one tribal faction to enact its own form of justice upon another outside the rule of law. For President Trump, we do not yet know if these are unfounded accusations intended to enact political revenge by those who lost an election upon those who won. For all Trump’s bluster, the on-coming investigations may reveal that this was not a witch hunt but instead an investigation that uncovered wrong doing by his staff or himself. Time will tell whether this was truly even a witch hunt, and if it is revealed as so, where will it fall in the annals of political witch huntery?