What are the long-term effects of the Salem Witch Trials?

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Almost 325 years ago, i.e., in February,1692, the Salem Witch Trials racked fear and hysteria in the small Massachusetts Bay settlement. Since then, extreme fear and hysteria have been synonymous with “a witch hunt.”

The hysteria in Salem emerged as Tituba confessed to being a witch who was working with...

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the devil. A hysterical, panic induced, massive "witch hunt" ensued. Fear of witches and the devil was not uncommon at the time in both America and in Europe, and others had been convicted of witchcraft before the Salem trials. Tituba, however, was the first to confess her witchcraft and association with the devil.

The confession added to the stresses of the period as people feared loss of religious freedom, when the Britain’s King Charles II revoked the Massachusetts Bay Charter. The colonists had broken several rules of the charter including making laws based on religious beliefs and discrimination against members of the Church of England (Anglicans). The colony became, as far as King Charles II was concerned, the Dominion of New England (hence we get the name New England colonies), but even after Charles II was replaced in the Glorious Revolution by William and Mary, the colony was still governed by a royal governor appointed by the Crown.

In addition to fearing the loss of religious freedom and control of the colonial settlement in the 1690s, colonists feared pirates who prowled the New England shores, commercial and other business adventures experienced significant financial set backs, and the French antagonized the colonies due to some colonists’ recent venture into Canada. People were so worried about witches, they neglected their daily lives, businesses, and other important things so that the colony was affected for years after the witch hunts and trials ended.

At dictionary.com, witch hunt is defined as “an intensive effort to discover and expose disloyalty, subversion, dishonesty, or the like, usually based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence.” Unpopular ideas and beliefs are often subject to “witch hunts.” Well known “witch hunts” in recent history include the hunt for communists in America, i.e., in the 1920s the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee, also known as McCarthism, in the 1950s. Both resulted in the death penalty for, perhaps, innocent victims, Sacco and Vanzetti (1920) as well as Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1954). President Eisenhower said of the Rosenberg conviction, “by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world….” Even the U.S. President in 1954 was not averse to such fear mongering. Nevertheless, many people disagreed with the results of both trials. They doubted the accused were actually guilty as charged, but also believed they were victims of political persecution.

It is common to hear political persecution referred to as a “witch hunt” even today. As recently as July, 2010, a “witch hunt” in Utah was carried out by a group calling themselves “The Concerned Citizens of the United States.” They created lists of “undesirables” and delivered them to government officials, law enforcement, and the media with “a letter insisting action be taken to remove the undesirables” from the country.

When people are anxious about their economic, social or political security, they often rely on fear mongering to intimidate or dispose of those they see as a threat. It happened in 1692 in Salem Massachusetts and it still happens today. Hence, the legacy of the Salem Witch Trials is the modern day “witch hunt." That doesn’t mean we should ignore threats, but it does indicate a need to be cautious about how not just the United States, but the world reacts to any perceived threat.

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