The trial of Anne Hutchinson

Part 3 of our series on Puritan heretic Anne Hutchinson focuses on her fall. After Hutchinson’s brother-in-law Wheelwright’s sermon at the Boston church in January 1637, in which he said all those under the covenant of works were the “great enemies of Christ” and ought to be “killed with the word of the Lord,” Wheelwright was found guilty of sedition (May 1637). Hutchinson’s followers rallied to Wheelwright’s cause, signing a petition in his favor. This petition was in line with the nature of their beliefs: it claimed Wheelwright had done nothing wrong; that anything he said in that sermon was the voice of the Holy Spirit that lived within him; recalled that all the great saints had been wrongly attacked by human courts; and ended with a threat—“we beseech you to consider the danger of meddling against the prophets of God… if you hurt any of his members… it were better that a millstone were hanged about your necks, and that you were cast into the sea…”.

The Court allowed the petition to be read, then proceeded to the charges against Wheelwright, which were slandering the magistrates, ministers, and church members of the colony by saying they were Antichrists under a covenant of works; and for causing civil disturbance with his preaching. Wheelwright, who showed up to the Court over an hour late, denied he had ever said anyone was an enemy of Christ, and denied that his preaching was a source of the accusations, political division, and physical rioting taking place in Boston. The Court presented him with evidence to the contrary, then sentenced him to banishment for creating civil unrest (“troubles of the civil state”).

After this, nine of Hutchinson’s and Wheelwright’s followers were charged with civil disturbance, and all were fined and disenfranchised; one was also banished. Then Anne Hutchinson was tried.

Much is made of this because Hutchinson was a woman. But women appeared in Puritan courts constantly, as plaintiffs and defendants, and were given equal treatment. And if we read the court transcripts we see that Hutchinson was accused of exactly the same things as the men—slandering the ministers. Yes, her weekly meetings were also charged against her, but not because women couldn’t have meetings. The charges were that a) she attracted hundreds of people, which created civil unrest by fueling mobs; b) she did not use her meetings to parse sermons but to attack ministers and others; and c) that she took it upon herself to instruct men of higher rank than herself. The last point is the only one that we can describe as sexist. Otherwise, Hutchinson received the same chance to speak for and defend herself against the charges, to see evidence, and to repent—all those on trial were given the chance to recant, and one of the nine men originally sentenced to banishment had his sentence reduced when he apologized for showing contempt for the court.

Over two days, November 2-3, Hutchinson was tried. She was a very intelligent person who handled her defense well, but after lengthy questioning she was accused in court by ministers who had met with her in the spring of slandering them to their faces. She denied this charge, and called on John Cotton, the one minister she had not slandered, to testify on her behalf.  He hesitated. Cotton declared that “he was much grieved that she should make such comparison between him and his brethren, but yet he took her meaning to be only of a gradual difference”. That is, perhaps what Hutchinson had meant to say was that although the other ministers weren’t as good as him, they weren’t damned. But then Cotton said that since he did not remember everything that was said, he would take the word of the other ministers who remembered Hutchinson saying they were under a covenant of works. Perhaps Cotton trembled to commit perjury in court. Maybe he could not look at the faces of the ministers all around him and claim that they had lied. For whatever reason, Cotton validated the testimony of the other ministers, albeit as weakly as he possibly could, and did what he could to shield Hutchinson.

Hutchinson erupted in fury, demanding again that the ministers be forced to swear an oath that they were telling the truth. “Whereupon the court being weary of the clamor, and that all mouths might be stopped, required three of the ministers to take an oath, and thereupon they confirmed their former testimony.”

Seeing all hope of human help dissolving, Hutchinson began talking about how God had revealed himself to her, “and made her know what she had to do”. Winthrop, “perceiving whereabout she went, interrupted her, and would have kept her to the matter in hand, but seeing her very unwilling to be taken off, he permitted her to proceed.” The last thing Winthrop wanted was to give a soapbox to this charismatic woman. He saw that the Court was at last making headway on the charge of slandering the ministers, and wanted to keep that “matter in hand” now that there was sworn testimony that Hutchinson had committed sedition. We will never know what she did or said to make it clear to him that she was “very unwilling to be taken off”, but Hutchinson succeeded in being allowed to make her statement, and it is here that she condemned herself to banishment.

She began to preach her doctrine in the court, describing “the manner of God’s dealing with her, and how he revealed himself to her, and made her know what she had to do.” Hutchinson said she fought against the realization that all ministers were hypocrites for a full year before God

“…let me see how I did oppose Christ Jesus… and showed me the atheism of my own heart, and how I did turn in upon a covenant of works and oppose Christ Jesus; from which time the Lord did discover to me all sorts of ministers, and how they taught, and to know what voice I heard… and thenceforth I was the more careful whom I heard, for after our teacher Mr. Cotton and my brother Wheelwright were put down, there was none in England that I durst hear… [when they left for America, she followed, although] “it was revealed to me… that there I should be persecuted and suffer much trouble.” [But God revealed another scripture]: “Fear not Jacob my servant, for I am with thee, I will make a full end of all the Nations… then the Lord did reveal himself to me, sitting upon a throne of justice, and all the world appearing before him, and though I must come to New England, yet I must not fear or be dismayed… The Lord spake this to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people…”

Here Hutchinson is making two claims: first, that God revealed himself to her and therefore she is among the saved; second, that God showed her the whole world subjected to his justice, including New England, which God counted among the damned, and therefore she “should not walk in the way of [that] people.” Both claims are explosive. She went on to compare herself to Daniel in the lions’ den, and ended with a direct threat to the colony:

“…therefore take heed what ye go about to do unto me, for you have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm, for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my savior, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man, than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands, therefore take heed how you proceed against me; for I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state.”

In this threat the magistrates heard the original of all the threats the Antinomians had previously made against them, including the petition presented before Wheelwright’s sentencing just days before.  Hutchinson’s speech damned her in several ways, civil and religious: it threatened violence against the state; it claimed direct revelation from God; it slandered the ministers; and it stated that Hutchinson was above human law. Any one of these claims would have justified banishment; put together, they shocked the magistrates and ministers who heard them deeply.

This was heresy and treason, a rejection of Puritan religion and a threat to the civil state, and easily merited banishment, the sentence she received. Her followers in Boston tried to save her, saying that she must have been tricked by the judges into making a statement she didn’t really believe. But when they met with her, Hutchinson reaffirmed her heresy, and made even bolder statements than before. Reluctantly, her church let her go.

Winthrop stayed the sentence of banishment that November because Hutchinson was pregnant. She did not leave Boston until March. Anne Hutchinson went to Rhode Island, where she managed to alienate even Roger Williams, and then to Long Island, where she died in an attack by Native Americans in 1643.

The judges in Hutchinson’s trial were tough, and they were hard on her. No quarter was given her for being a woman. They treated her as they would any heretic. But I think it’s hard to say she was treated unfairly. She got the same treatment as the men who came before her, and the same chance to lighten her sentence. She refused to recant, and expressed scorn for those who tried to reason with her both after her trial and months later, during her banishment, when a group was sent down to meet with her and see if she could be brought back into the fold.

Hutchinson has gone down in history as a demure maiden with downcast eyes facing mean, angry old Puritan men in black coats. Even the most adoring of Winthrop biographers (and one who is a reliable historian), Edmund Morgan, castigates Winthrop for “persecuting” a brave and wonderful woman, and calls the trial he presided over as  “the least attractive” of Winthrop’s life.

But we can find little to admire in a person who wanted to damn the world, believed she was God, and nurtured dissension and mistrust amongst her fellows. The fact that she was a woman should not sway the rational historian. If it had been only Wheelwright and the other nine men, I doubt the whole incident of Antinomian dispute in 1636-37 would be known outside the circle of Puritan historians. Anne Hutchinson was a negative figure in American history who received a fair trial and accepted her sentence, gladly removing herself from people she saw as instruments of Satan. Any positive view of her role in our founding is hard to come by.

Anne Hutchinson: victim or villain?

Welcome to part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on Anne Hutchinson. We left off wondering how such a heretical Puritan could have gained such a following in Boston in 1635.

One reason was that Puritans, as Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop realized, were always on the verge of deciding the world was too sinful, and withdrawing from it to maintain their own purity and safety. Winthrop recognized this as an insult and a danger. An insult because it left the unsaved to their doom, and a danger because once people decide they must withdraw from the world, they go quickly down an endless spiral, rejecting more and more people as unfit, until they are completely isolated and literally alone.

Winthrop, like all good Puritans, knew that the righteous had a responsibility to live in the world and help other people achieve righteousness (if not salvation; only God could give that). He was constantly talking extremists down from the ledge of withdrawal.

Hutchinson’s beliefs were a form of that dangerous withdrawal. Hutchinson not only believed that she knew she was saved (God had told her), but that as a saved person, she was Christ himelf, above the law. Her task was not to help others but to judge them, and “deal with them” as antichrists. She decided and stated publicly that only the ministers John Cotton and John Wheelwright (her brother-in-law) were truly saved, and all the rest of the Puritan ministers in Boston were fallen sinners, not fit to preach. Hutchinson granted salvation to those who attended her meetings, and denied it to everyone else in the world.

Many Puritans gravitated to this withdrawal from the world, and were eager to achieve salvation by affiliation with Hutchinson. It was exactly the kind of withdrawal into a small circle of righteousness that damned the rest of the world that Winthrop knew was not only morally wrong, but could divide and seriously harm the colony.

For a year Hutchinson continued to grow in power. The new governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, young Henry Vane, joined her group and attended the weekly spiritual meetings in her home. The powerful Puritan church in Boston lost many members to Hutchinson when she denounced its pastor, John Wilson, as an unfit sinner. But in October 1636, when John Wheelwright was proposed to take Wilson’s place, the remaining church members rallied against him, sensing a dangerous takeover in the works. In December 1636, John Cotton and other Massachusetts ministers met with Hutchinson to try to get her to moderate her opinions. Cotton was not only the most powerful and revered minister in New England, but a personal hero of Hutchinson’s. She had followed him to New England when he was forced to flee England.

The meeting was standard Puritan procedure: if a person veered into heresy, her pastor was to meet with her, accompanied by the deacons of her church, to talk with her and help her back to the right path. If this failed, the erring person’s church would discuss the matter, and if all efforts at outreach failed, the person might be forced out of that congregation. At all times the person had the right, even the obligation, of explaining her views and defending herself. Often, the vote to force her out of the congregation had to be unanimous; if not, she stayed.

The ministerial group found Hutchinson unmoved by their counsels. Even as her husband was voted out of the General Court (the legislative and judicial body of the colony), Hutchinson’s power grew in Boston. In a sermon in January 1637, Wheelwright stated that everyone under a covenant of works (and that would be just about everyone) was a “great enemy of Christ,” who must be eliminated: “We must lay load upon them, we must kill them with the word of God.” (Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma, p. 134)

Here was withdrawal from and damnation of the world indeed. It was Puritanism going off the rails, and it would lead to the banishment of those who fostered it.

Next up in Part 3: The somehow-notorious trial of Anne Hutchinson

Truth v. Myth: What did Anne Hutchinson believe?

As a Puritan scholar, I am constantly amazed at the hero-worship surrounding Anne Hutchinson. Let’s set the record straight with a little truth v. myth. Here’s part 1.

Hutchinson was a Puritan who arrived in Boston in 1634. Like the other Puritans who were in Boston, Hutchinson had left England because she believed the country was about to be punished by God for failing to live up to its commission. The Puritans believed that every valid nation had a covenant with God in which it promised to obey God’s commandments and God’s word. This was called a commission. Most Puritans of the Great Migration left England because they feared that the country’s failure to purify the Anglican church (England’s established Protestant church) was a breach of its holy commission.

In this respect, Hutchinson was like her fellow Puritans in New England. But she held beliefs that made her a distinct minority, and even a heretic.

The Puritans believed that everyone should be on a journey to discover if they had been given God’s grace, and therefore were saved, and destined for Heaven. This was not a passive thing. No one knew if they were destined to receive God’s grace, and thus what the Puritans called “elect.” You had to find out your status by a well-laid out series of steps. Picture a ladder with several rungs.

First you heard sermons by a respectable Puritan minister. Then you went to study groups to discuss the sermon and get more out of it. Then you read the Bible, and looked for God’s word to you in it. You prayed, and were in constant communication and discussion with other Puritan seekers.

At the same time, you had to do good works. You had to be a fair and honest businessperson, a fair and kind family member, and a friend to the poor and downtrodden. Your dedication to God had to be evident in every part of your life.

Just when you felt you were succeeding in all this, and a little confident, you would most likely suddenly realize you were trying to earn salvation, God’s grace, through these efforts, and you would feel completely let down and depressed. Then you would start the whole process again, chastised, realizing that your good works and other efforts were done merely to make you more able to recognize God’s grace if and when it was given to you, not to earn that grace.

This exhaustive process was very active. You couldn’t be a passive Puritan, sitting back waiting to feel saved. While your exertions wouldn’t earn you salvation, they were the only way to make yourself ready for the gift of grace if it was to be given to you.

What Hutchinson believed was that this whole precious process, so communal and intellectual, was bogus. She believed it only encouraged people to believe that their efforts and their good works did indeed earn their salvation. This was what the Catholic church had taught for centuries, that good works earned you a place in Heaven, and the more works, the higher the place. This was called the covenant of works, and it was the direct opposite of the covenant of grace.

Hutchinson dismissed and rejected the whole Puritan ladder of opening oneself to grace as a covenant of works. She believed that God would suddenly appear to you and let you know if you were saved. God would approach you directly. This was high heresy to the Puritans because it was so passive. You just sat back, doing nothing, and God suddenly gave you private information about your soul. This belief in direct revelation struck at the social foundation of Puritanism, which required you to make the world a better place because of your faith by doing good works. You did the good works not to earn salvation, but to help others see the goodness of God, to help purify the world. It struck at the religious foundation of Puritanism by making sermons, ministers, study groups, and prayer obsolete. None of these things were necessary if God was simply going to tell you if you were saved.

Even more dangerously, Hutchinson believed that if you were saved, Christ dwelled within you—literally. You became Christ. This was her interpretation of the scripture “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”. Therefore, those who were truly saved could not do wrong: if they lied, or stole, or even killed someone, it could not be counted as sin because all these were acts of Christ himself. Hutchinson, therefore, wanted to overthrow the law itself. Christ is not subject to human law, so no one who is truly saved can be subject to the law. This extended to areas like contracts, which Hutchinson rejected.

All those doubts Puritans had about whether they were saved? Those were not signs of healthy humility but proof that someone was not saved, according to Hutchinson, because if you are Christ then you can’t doubt Christ. Doing good works was not only unnecessary but another proof that you were not saved, because Christ did not have to do anything to be Christ—he just was.

Finally, and most explosively, Hutchinson held that you did not even have to believe in Jesus to have him dwell within you. The whole basis of Protestantism is, and was, salvation through faith in God alone. Faith was the only thing and everything. But Hutchinson denied this, saying that someone who did not believe in Jesus as the savior could still receive Jesus to dwell within her—if that was what Jesus chose to do, Jesus would do it. You might still heap scorn on all Jesus’ teachings, and commit heinous sins and crimes, because you had no faith in God, and be not just saved but Christ himself living on the earth, free from all law and human judgment.

The cult-like qualities of Hutchinson’s beliefs become clear. Anyone in her group, and of course she herself, was perfected by becoming Christ and could do no wrong, was not bound by any law, and had no social or legal obligations to anyone outside the group. She alone could tell who was really saved, and if she chose you you owed her everything and if she didn’t, you were her enemy. And, crucially, anyone who criticized her or her followers was clearly the Antichrist, in her words, under a covenant of works, and had to be “dealt with as such”. This could mean shunning people, publicly criticizing people (including during church services), or physically harming people; many of her followers rioted on an election day—May 17, 1637—when the Court would not delay voting for a lengthy petition protesting the charges against John Wheelwright (a minister and Anne Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, whom we’ll learn more about in the next post) to be read and debated.

So Hutchinson was a level-one heretic and a powerful force for civil disruption. So often she is portrayed by historians as a generous and compassionate soul who wanted everyone to have a personal relationship with God, but was struck down by mean and sexist Puritans who told people they were dirt in God’s eyes. This comes from a failure to read the documents of her time, including her own court testimony and the petitions written by her followers, which make it very clear that there was no such thing as a personal relationship with God for Hutchinson: you either were God yourself or you were the antichrist, and she was ready to declare 90% of the Puritans antichrist and deal with them accordingly.

The meetings Hutchinson held in her home in which she expounded her beliefs quickly grew to include hundreds of people anxious to know their status. We are often told that the Puritan hierarchy cracked down on her because she was a woman, and women could not hold these kinds of meetings, but this is untrue. Women could and did hold meetings to discuss sermons they heard, and those meetings were allowed, even at the height of the Hutchinson controversy. The problem with Anne Hutchinson’s meetings was that she did not use them to parse sermons but to say that all of the ministers in New England were sinners, unfit to preach, except for John Cotton, minister at Boston and her beloved mentor.

How did such a heretic find such a following in Puritan Boston? Find out in Part 2!

Truth v. Myth: Andrew Jackson

Part 2 of my analysis of the History International show on Andrew Jackson. In part 1, I mentioned the depressing rationales for admiring Jackson given by two of the “experts” giving commentary during the series. Let’s look at them in depth here.

First up, H.W. Brands, author of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. Brands’ first egregious comment came in the analysis of the Indian Removal and the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Here’s what Brands had to say about it:

“Jackson’s policy was at peace with the policies of adminstrations before and after his. It’s easy to pin the label [of genocidal monster] on Jackson because he took a more visible position. But Jackson probably would have said, this was not merely my policy but the policy of the United States government, for better or worse.”

Hm. The show had earlier claimed that Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and J. Q. Adams had all wanted Native Americans removed from their lands. This, apparently, clears Jackson of the shame of actually doing it. It’s the “he’s just doing what everyone else was thinking” argument.

But there’s a reason why none of those presidents actually did it: it was so inhuman they could not see how to do it and retain any integrity at all.

Let’s examine Brands’ “it’s not Jackson’s policy, it’s the policy of the U.S. government” line. First of all, the U.S. government had multiple treaties with the southeastern Native Americans saying they could stay on their land. Second, the U.S. Supreme Court had just struck down a move to void those treaties and remove the rightful inhabitants of the southeast. Jackson famously ignored the Supreme Court ruling, thus in two ways trampling rather than helplessly going along with the “policy of the U.S. government.”

Brands is joined in his benediction of the Indian Removal Act by Andrew Burstein, author of The Passions of Andrew Jackson:

“It’s easy for us to attack Jackson for his lack of humanity… he should have known better. But it’s too easy for us to do that because we didn’t live in their world. And their world, Jackson’s world, was a very brutal world.”

I remember a friend of mine once reacting to this kind of reasoning; someone had said people in the antebellum period just didn’t understand that slavery was wrong, they couldn’t have known that because slavery had always existed. And my friend said, Really? Do you think in 200 years people will say about us, ‘Oh, people in 1995 didn’t understand that racism was wrong because it had always existed. They just weren’t able to see a different reality”?

I didn’t live in the Nazis’ world, so am I unable to say that killing Jewish people is wrong? Of course not. I know it’s wrong, and so did those Nazis during their own time. Americans in the 1830s knew lying to people and putting them on a deadly forced march was wrong.

If Jackson’s “world” was a “very brutal world,” maybe it was because men like Jackson did terrible, brutal things in the name of money, power, and land, and not because people back then were just different than we are and didn’t understand that people could live in peace. We “don’t live in Jackson’s world” because we have made strenuous efforts to outlaw the kind of brutality that people have always known is wrong. We’ve tried to rid the world of it, and especially to rid America of it because America is supposed to be better than that, and not because something changed in the genetic makeup of humanity between 1830 and 2008.

Finally, it’s back to Brands, who says this about Jacksonian democracy: “Jacksonion democracy sums up the idea that power belongs in the hands of the people, that ordinary people should run this [America’s] government.”

I think Jacksonian democracy shows us that power belongs in the hands of those who uphold the founding principles of representative democracy and natural rights that this nation was founded on, and if someone like Jackson, who tramples those principles, takes power, terrible things happen. If “ordinary people” uphold our founding principles, then by all means give them power. If “unordinary people” (whom I take to mean the rich, the educated, or the thoughtful and cosmopolitan) uphold those principles, then give them power.

Brands’ statement is simply another airing of the tired idea that the (ideally western frontier) outsider is The Common Man, decent and straightforward, independent and tough, uneducated and honest. Jackson was straightforward and tough, but that’s about it.

This myth that headstrong people who won’t listen to anyone else and never admit they’re wrong about anything are Real Americans, and the kind of leaders we need to preserve Americanness, is so dangerous. An egomanianc who won’t be told when he’s going off the rails is not a good leader. From Jackson to Bush, we have seen the terrible results when someone like this holds the presidency.

Now is not the time to idolize Andrew Jackson, but to learn a lesson from his terrible example.


Time to retire “An American Original”

I was watching a History International program on Andrew Jackson last night, and as the experts who were interviewed throughout tried to sum up Jackson’s accomplishments (more on that in a later post), all but two of them encountered the difficulty of being Jackson fans yet having to explain the Native American genocide he happily instigated. They each fell back on disreputable arguments to support their case as fans, and one of them used the old tried-and-true: “Well, Jackson was an American original.”

I notice that this phrase is always dragged out to describe/boost someone whose main quality is that he does not ever think he is wrong. Jackson defied the Supreme Court and overreached the powers allocated to the executive in order to mercilessly betray and kill Native Americans, and never once betrayed the slightest regret or doubt about that. So what do you say about him if you admire his in-your-face independence and confidence? He was an American Original.

This seems to mean someone who did bad things but was charismatic. Someone who never once admitted they were wrong. We translate this into confidence, and independence, and being a maverick who doesn’t kow-tow to the powers that be. A rebel. These are qualities we like, and so we decide they are only exhibited by Americans.

But there is a difference between rebelling against injustice and rebelling against justice, and anyone who does the latter is not an “American original” but a criminal. Yes, the person may be irritatingly charismatic. But there’s no excusing or forgiving the crimes.

So if Jackson’s slate can be washed clean by calling him an “American Original”, it’s time to retire the phrase when used as a compliment.

Thinking you are never wrong is not admirable. It’s not a strength. And no American should ever be that way, because never admitting fault is anti-democratic. It’s saying one person knows what’s right and whatever they do is right and everyone else can just shut up. When the executive won’t ever admit fault, it means his entire administration must support his wrongheaded policies because there’s no other option. And that’s not good for democracy.

Jackson was many things, but in a world filled with criminals and anti-democratic leaders, original is not one of them.

See part 2 for a full analysis of the harmful mythmaking in this program.

Charles Sumner: faking it?

May 22 is the anniversary of the attack on Sen. Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) on the Senate floor in 1856 by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Sumner was a popular and famous anti-slavery senator who made a speech to the Senate denouncing the pro-slavery people who were causing violence and bloodshed in the Kansas territory in an attempt to swing the territorial vote toward entering the union as a slave state. Seeing the recent Kansas-Nebraska Act (allowing the population of territories to vote whether they would come in free or slave) as the source of the problem, Sumner attacked the senators who had written it, Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler. As was usual in the 19th century, Sumner attacked both men personally, and accused southerner Butler of taking a mistress “who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean, the harlot, Slavery.” He also made fun of Butler’s speech impediment.

Two days later, on May 22, 1856, Butler’s nephew Preston Brooks came up to Sumner at his desk on the Senate floor, told Sumner he had insulted his uncle and all of South Carolina, and proceeded to hit Sumner over and over on the head with a heavy gold-topped cane, until Sumner lost consciousness. Other senators who moved to help Sumner were held back by a gun-toting fellow senator from South Carolina, Laurence Keitt.

The attack on Sumner outraged the north and cheered the south. Many southerners sent Brooks a new cane to replace his old one, which may have been damaged during the assault. Sumner was out of action for three years recovering from his wounds. He seemed never to fully recover from them, and to this day writers will state that Sumner never recovered. Southerners at the time claimed Sumner was faking to get attention and publicity.

Ever since that day, historians have debated how serious his wounds actually were. Was Sumner nearly beaten to death? or was he faking it to get publicity for his cause?

An interesting–and logical–idea that has come up in recent years is that Sumner suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. While the physical wounds he received were not life-threatening, and did heal fairly quickly, Sumner’s lingering “weakness” and other symptoms were from PTSD. Whenever he entered the Senate chamber, he seemed worse. This would make sense–the scene of the assault would be overwhelmingly upsetting to him. His nightmares and headaches would be all-too familiar to a person today who is familiar with PTSD.

So Sumner was neither permanently physically wounded nor a faker. He was most likely a person suffering with PTSD, as would many thousands of men and women after him who lived through the events of the Civil War.

The Judiciary saves us from the tyranny of the majority

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule–the basis of democracy–ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature–Congress–cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

Nothing to fear but fearful politicians

I was watching a little of the PBS documentary on FDR last night and by chance I saw the part where they talked about his 1936 re-election campaign. In a speech Roosevelt took on what he called “big money,” the businesses that were not only keeping workers on starvation wages but, according to Roosevelt, trying to take over the government.

“No business which depends for existence by paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country,” he said; “big business and big money are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

“I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match; I would like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”

It is sadly difficult to think of a politician who would make that speech today. Politicians today seem much more timid, very frightened of angering anyone who has any power. Having the commitment to our founding principles to acknowledge and to welcome the hatred of those who want to alter–or simply ignore–our Constitution for their own profit is rare today.

Today, on the contrary, we are often told that big money/big business is critically important to the growth and maintenance of democracy, and must be allowed to do whatever it wants. FDR had an answer to that, too:

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”

FDR’s words are a reminder of how rarely you ever hear a major politician today 1) stating that the defense of our Constitution is her main priority; and 2) that s/he will cling to our founding principles no matter what opposition s/he faces; because 3) anyone who opposes our founding principles is no American, and therefore 4) those who oppose her/him can stuff it.

Actually, you will hear fringe nuts make these statements, but I’m talking about mainstream politicians.

Let’s remember FDR as our current presidential election campaigning goes on, and cast a vote for the person who comes closest to his courage and guts.

The Dominion of New England; or, the Puritan Revolution

Many claims and counter-claims are made about whether the Puritans of New England can be considered to have dug the foundation for democracy in British America. The more I study it, the more I believe it is true. Let’s look at one important instance, the battle against the Dominion of New England, 1686-1689.

James II became king of England in 1685. James posed a threat to the country, in the eyes of his Protestant subjects, because he was Catholic. People feared he would try to return the kingdom to Catholicism, but James’ first move was not against England but Massachusetts. The Puritans in New England were just as vocal and militant about their designs for an improved England from the distant shores of America as they had been in the heart of London. And, more immediately, they had just sent Increase Mather as their representative to Parliament to try to fend off a new, royal charter that would give the king more power over them. James decided to rid himself of a burr in his saddle.

In 1686 he created the Dominion of New England. Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey made up the new domain. Edmund Andros, formerly governor of New York, was appointed by the king to run the Dominion with the help of a council—also appointed by the king. Andros took to his new role, exerting his power dictatorially.

The impact on Puritan colonists was fundamental:

—The popularly elected assemblies were dismissed.

—Puritan judges and military officers were replaced by Anglicans.
Puritan clergy could no longer be paid by taxes.

—Land titles issued by Puritan governments before 1686 had to be reissued. Not only did Puritan colonists have to pay new title fees, they would also have to pay quitrents, an annual land tax.

—A new court was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts. It had no jury. In 1686 the court found at least six merchant ships guilty of violating the Acts and seized the ships. Merchants started avoiding the port of Boston, depressing the new England economy.


The list sounds very familiar to any student of the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774.

Puritan citizens of the colonies formerly known as New England were angry and despairing. They had little power to represent themselves to Parliament, and no hope of subverting the Dominion. Little did they know that the young, healthy new king who had enslaved them would soon be overthrown.

James had made his desire to return the country to Catholicism more and more open; thus, when his queen gave birth to a son and potential Catholic heir in 1688, his government didn’t wait for James to act. It invited Protestant Holland’s leader William of Orange to invade England and force James off the throne. William was conveniently married to Mary Stuart, James’ own daughter.

The plan worked. William was welcomed in London, and James II fled to France.

When the Puritans in the Dominion first heard about this Glorious Revolution in 1689, there was a moment of suspense. It was impossible to know if James was really permanently overthrown, and the long wait for news from England was agonizing. Once the good news came, Puritans from Maine to Connecticut rose up against Governor Andros’ officials, who were arrested and imprisoned. Massachusetts, Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut restored their original governments, complete with elected assemblies.

In New York City, rebels led by Jacob Leisler took over the colony. Leisler became governor.

The Puritans celebrated their successful rebellion. The colonies of New England remained royal colonies, rather than privately owned colonies, but they had preserved their independence. Their lawmakers were popularly elected. Their courts were local. Their laws were valid. And it was specifically to maintain those vital components of representative government that the Puritans fought.

Thus I think we can look back to the overthrow of the Dominion as a valid instance of Puritan Americans putting their independent and representative government ahead of all other considerations, and the events of 1689 were indeed fresh in the memories of men and women—grandchildren of rebels—who fought the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, born in 1705, just 16 years after the Dominion was overthrown, would have heard the stories from people who took part in the rebellion. And thousands of New Englanders must have had their ancestors in mind when they agreed in 1776 that a government which does not have the consent of the people is legitimately overthrown.

The French and Indian War and the American Revolution

I had finished taking some friends from England through a historical house in my town that saw action on the first day of the Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775) when one of them asked, in all sincerity, “What started that war? I mean, what really was the cause?”

Immediate answers came to mind, sort of starting with the last straws and moving backward: the “Intolerable Acts” (see a fantastic post on why we could stop using this term at Boston 1775), the refusal of Parliament to seat American members, Stamp Tax, Sugar Act—all the tax acts—the tireless activism of Samuel Adams and his mechanics… all the way back to the English Civil War itself and its effects on American-English relations (as covered in What caused the Revolutionary War?). But rather than go into all that back story with my friends, who wanted to hear something about history on American soil, I pulled out the French and Indian War.

All those tensions between England and America described in “What caused the Revolutionary War?” created a constant atmosphere of difference and distance between America and England.  But if I had to set a date for when that tension Americans felt shifted to demands for outright separation from England, I’d say the aftermath of the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Americans had supported the war. In fact, they had basically demanded that England remove the perceived French threat to the western frontier. So long as they didn’t have to pay for it, Americans wanted the war to be fought, and took part on a strictly voluntary basis. 

With each shared victory, Americans celebrated heartily. And at the practical end of the war—the capture of Montreal—the Pennsylvania Gazette put it this way on September 11, 1760: “We now have the Pleasure to congratulate our Countrymen upon the most important Event, as we apprehend, that has ever happened in Favour of the British Nation . . . the War in Canada is at an End: The Governor, has surrendered the Country to the British General Amherst without Bloodshed. The Subjects of France are to be sent Home, all that remain of the French are to swear Allegiance to His Majesty, and retain their Possessions.”

“Our Countrymen.” We still felt that way about the British in 1760. But when the war was officially over, and Britain’s taxpayers were reeling under the expense, the British moved that Americans should share the burden of that expensive war fought for their benefit at their request. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

A lot of maybes come into play at that point. Maybe if the British had invited American representatives to discuss the taxes there would have been no protests in America. Maybe if the British had required the Americans to share the burden of expenses during the war (even just feeding and quartering soldiers) there would have been no heavy taxes after the war.

As it is, the taxes went through without American input and the people of Boston in particular were hit hard. The people of Boston protested most forcibly and, in the end, led the charge to revolution.

It was a little awkward for me to privately think, as I spoke to those English friends, that in 1775 the people of Boston were just about the only ones ready to fight.  That it would take a long time to get other Americans on board. That the other colonies were very content to watch and wait and let Massachusetts fight.

So I just answered their question with my on-the-spot response: It was the French and Indian War that pulled the trigger on the Revolutionary War. All the little irritations of being in a colonial relationship were enlarged and rendered insufferable by the taxes that came due to pay for that war. All the statues of King George III that Massachusetts colonists had erected in 1763 to celebrate the victory over the French were pulled down by the same colonists and melted into bullets in 1775.

After that point, it was just a matter of framing the arguments for war, which took many years. But the ball was rolling, and the French and Indian War was what sent it downhill.