The Salem Witch Trials

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Why were the 1692 Salem Witch Trials important to American democracy?

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In the Salem Witch Trials, the accused had to prove their innocence rather than the prosecution needing to prove the guilt of the accused. Further, the accused were often at a serious disadvantage because many of the them, especially in the beginning, were marginalized members of society who hardly stood a chance when questioned by powerful and educated magistrates who were already essentially convinced of their guilt. In addition, spectral evidence was permitted; this means that the accuser could claim that the accused sent out his or her spirit to attack the accuser—something that only the accuser and accused witch would be able to see. Obviously, such "evidence" could be easily fabricated.

Under the law today, we assume innocence until guilt is proven, and everyone is legally charged to get a lawyer to help defend them against the charges brought against them. If a person cannot afford one, one is provided for them. Moreover, spectral evidence—or anything like it—is no longer permitted; people would laugh now if someone tried to admit such statements in a court of law. The mistakes made during the witch trials helped to shape the American judicial system, one of the three branches of our government. Many of these errors began to be corrected right away, but it took a few hundred years to actually pardon all of those who were executed.

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I think that you could make several arguments as to why the Salem Witch Trials were important to the democratic emergence in America.  The first would be one of the lessons of the trials.  The collapse of religious expression into affairs of the state and government proved to be disastrous in the case of Salem.  The religious fear of the people manifested itself into the government and the actions of the judicial.  When "spectral evidence" such as dreams and visions can be accepted as fact in a court of law, it becomes impossible to refute.  In the process, so many can be found guilty and so much "evidence" can be seen as laughable in retrospect.  This becomes one reason why the Salem Witch Trials are relevant, for the rise of American democracy is a realm rooted in the Rights of the Accused and the notion of due process.  In a larger sense, the rise of American democracy as a secular entity where religious matters can be discussed openly and honestly, but not used in a court of law to render verdicts and decisions becomes another relevant element from Salem.  I would also point out that one other reason why the Salem Witch Trials are important would be due to its questioning of the death penalty.  The fact that 19 people were executed without much in way of legal appellate process as well as meeting a reasonable evidential burden helps to make the argument that if improperly applied, the death penalty harms the pursuit of democratic aims and ends.  The court in Salem sentenced to people to death without showing much in way of regard for life.  Such disregard is avoided with the emergence American democracy and its assessment of the death penalty as  a form of justice, something that is experienced and undergone today.

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