What were the political and economic causes of the Salem Witch Trials?

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During the Salem witch trials, which occurred in 1692 and 1693, twenty people were executed, out of over two hundred people who had been accused of practicing witchcraft. The mass hysteria that gripped Salem Village and provoked such extreme behavior was caused by a combination of religious, political, and economic...

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During the Salem witch trials, which occurred in 1692 and 1693, twenty people were executed, out of over two hundred people who had been accused of practicing witchcraft. The mass hysteria that gripped Salem Village and provoked such extreme behavior was caused by a combination of religious, political, and economic conditions prevalent in that place at that time.

Although New England had been colonized by refugees looking for the freedom to establish societies based upon Biblical principles, their views, in fact, were extremely intolerant and superstitious. Their beliefs included a certainty that the devil existed and could give people the power to harm others. They assumed that the quarrels, political turmoil, economic uncertainties, and other difficulties they faced were the work of the devil.

As far as political context, at the time, the northeastern American colonies were in the midst of a war between England and France known as King William's War. This caused a flood of refugees to enter Essex County, the location of Salem Village. Other situations that increased the unrest and fear of the villagers included a recent epidemic of smallpox and the continual threat of marauding tribes of Native Americans.

All of these conditions put a great strain on the economic resources of Salem Village and exacerbated the tension that already existed among the villagers. The frayed nerves and paranoia eventually erupted when two young girls made accusations of witchcraft against three local women, and the situation rapidly escalated from there.

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The ongoing wars among the British, French, and Native Americans pushed increasing numbers of refugees into the Salem colony, creating more competition for resources. With the competition came social tensions and divided loyalties and there was potential economic gain if the land of a convicted witch was forfeited and put up to public auction.

The appointment of controversial figure Samuel Parris as Salem's spiritual leader also created division and tension that split supporters and detractors into political factions. Moreover, Salem town and Salem village had political and economic divides.

John Hathorne, one of the Salem magistrates, openly sided with accusers, presuming the guilt of the accused and allowing spectral evidence to be used in court proceedings. Moreover, he encouraged the accused to implicate others, making the trials increasingly political in nature and able to be used to get at economic and political rivals.

Governor William Phips established the Salem court of Oyer and Terminer, turned it over to his designate William Stoughton, and then dissolved it after both public opinion and the ministers of Boston denounced the trials, clearly a political rather than ideological move reflective of the theocratic government.

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The Salem Witch Trials can be understood as a consequence of an important political dispute that was occurring in Salem at the time.  A group of residents led by the Putnams, who owned large tracts of land on the outskirts of Salem, wanted to form a separate municipality.  The family felt that the thriving economy was causing individualism that was an affront to the sense of Puritan communalism.  The Putnams would have also benefited economically from a new arrangement.  This family even established its own exclusive congregation. They hired a local minister and he was handsomely rewarded for his work.  As you can imagine, this caused a great deal of animosity from those residents that did not support separating the town into multiple municipalities.  They started to rebel by refusing to pay their taxes.  The congregation's minister, Samuel Parris, was concerned about his financial standing and started to accuse women of witchcraft.  Most of the accused were those that had not settled their tax accounts.  

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