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What Kind Of Man Was Salem Witch Trial Governor Samuel Sewall?


In his Pulitzer Prize winning The Colonial Mind 1620-1800, published in 1928, Vernon Parrington writes an interpretation of the life and career of Massachusetts colonial Governor Samuel Sewall (1652-1730.)

In addition to being governor during the trials, Sewall was one of the three judges. 20 people were put to death as a result of the trials. 

Here is information about the Salem Witch Trials.

In Parrington’s view, Sewall was a figure mostly resistant to change who in many ways was representative of a transition between an English and theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony to the more open and democratic ways of the New England Yankee. It was this Yankee type that would play such a large role in the Revolution. 

( Click here to get a more full account of what I’m saying in the above paragraph. )   

A somewhat contrasting view of Sewall is offered in a new book about the governor called Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall. In this book, which I’ve not read, author Eve LaPlante seeks to show Sewall as man who spent much of his life after the Witch Trials trying to atone for his acts.     

The information I have on the LaPlante book comes from a review in the New York Times.   

Sewall retains some fame today for serving as Governor during the trials and for having kept a detailed diary.  

Said Parrington about Sewall, his diary and his times—

The diary of Samuel Sewall not only narrates the homely activities of Boston in the evening of the theocracy…but it unconsciously reveals the transformation of the English Puritan to the New England Yankee. The sober Boston citizens who on the Sabbath…took notes of long sermons, on weekdays plied their gospel of thrift with notable success. They loved their meeting house as their fathers had loved it, but they were the sons and grandsons of tradesman, and true to their English instincts they set about erecting a provincial mercantile society, dominated by the ideas of the little capitalist.

Of this rising world of mercantilism, Samuel Sewall is a worthy representative. A Puritan magistrate and village capitalist, he made full use of his opportunities to worship God, thrive and rise….”

Sewall married a woman who had a rich father, attended to his duties and his business ventures with hard work and diligence and rose to be Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Says Parrington—

“He understood how desirable it is to put money in one’s purse; so he made a great alliance and proved himself a shrewd husbandman as well as a kind husband. From commerce and land speculation and money lending and the perquisites of his many offices, he accumulated steadily until his wealth entitled him to be regarded as one of the first citizens of Massachusetts.”

While noting Sewall’s opposition to slavery and to the death penalty in cases of counterfeiting, Parrington does not see much growth in Sewall’s capacity for open-minded thinking over the long span of his life. 

Parrington ends on Sewall by noting the better aspects of nature—

Happily there is another and pleasanter side to the character of Samuel Sewall….It was his neighborliness that made him so representative of the leveling tendencies of provincial village life, an easy comradeship with man of all conditions. Sewall is the first Yankee who reveals the native kindness of the New England Village… Growing more human with the ripening years, yet instinctively conservative…he reveals the special bent of the New England character…a practical race that was to spread the gospel of economic individualism across the continent.

While Parrington was most interested in Sewall’s overall character, the LaPlante book appears focused more on the Witch Trials and sees Sewall’s life afterwards as an effort to repent having a hand in sentencing the accused witches to death.

The Times’ reviewer, Temple University history professor David Waldstreicher, says Sewall’s more personal story may have been lost over the years “beneath the quest for the Puritan mind.” That might, or might not, be a reference to Parrington specifically. Though in any case, it does seem to get at what LaPlante is trying to accomplish in her book.   

Sewall had four young children die before the 1692 trials. Salem Witch Judge begins with Sewall watching over a dying newborn at 4 AM. It’s suggested that these deaths  may have made Sewall think more about his own sins.

Maybe that was indeed the case, though some pretty bad people people in history have had family tragedies and have cared about their own families. It’s easy to care about your own family. 

Sewall is said by LaPlante to not have doubted the guilt of those accused of being a witch at the time of the trial. His own minister, Samuel Willard, had doubts, in time, and eventually disinvited Sewall from private prayer meetings.

From the review—

In 1697, at a public fast day service, he handed..Willard… a sheet pf paper to read out…He asked “pardon of men” and God for his role in the trials…after the confession he experienced ” spiritual relief” in Laplante’s words, but nevertheless began to wear a makeshift hair shirt. Within a few years he showed a more pacific attitude towards the Indians and published an important early antislavery tract, the first to appear in print in North America. He was thinking big, despite having been humbled.      

Professor Waldstreicher comments that LaPlante should have made more out of the political and social climate at the times of Sewall’s initial acceptance of the charges and his later repentance. Sewall was, after all, a politician.

The final conclusion of the reviewer as he took from the book was that by concern for the rights of Indians and slaves, Sewall had at least been able to take a bad act and transform it into some good for others.

Was that enough? A few years ago in my life I would have said it was not enough. As I get a little older, I’d be less certain of that response today.   

The painting is called Judge Samuel Sewall. It was painted by John Smybert in 1729.    

(Please click here for other Texas Liberal posts on Colonial America.)

November 30, 2007 Posted by | Art, Books, Colonial America, History | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments