The Salem witchcraft trials have been described as foreshadowing the Senate hearings on whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh should be promoted to the Supreme Court. Many supporters of Judge Kavanaugh claim that the Democrats’ tactics were similar to those who prosecuted and hanged Salem’s convicted witches. But why the outbreak of witchcraft accusations occurred at all may help explain the extreme emotionalism surrounding the hearings, and what can be done to reduce it in the future.
Recently a newspaper published a column entitled “Spectral Evidence” in which the writer claimed that how the Democrats of the Senate Judiciary Committee approached evidence and assignment of the burden of proof strongly resembled the way the judges of the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials did. For example, “spectral evidence” consisted of assertions by those accusing others of witchcraft that the accused would send forth their specters, or spirits, to torment their victims. This would explain how witches could harm their victims without appearing to do so. The burden of proving that they had not sent out their specters then rested with the accused—a burden nobody could meet. Everyone condemned with spectral evidence was convicted and, in most instances, hanged.
The author’s point was that the Democrats were holding Justice-to-be Kavanaugh to the same burden of proof as was imposed on the accused witches of Salem: Because, said the Democrats, the hearings constituted a “job interview,” Kavanaugh had to prove he was not the rapist or pervert his accusers said he was. On the other hand, his accusers did not have to present any evidence to back up their claims. In other words, to accuse Kavanaugh was to convict him, unless he could prove otherwise.
And there are more parallels between the recent Senate hearings and the Salem witchcraft trials as well. For example, the behavior of the demonstrators at the hearings was similar to that of the girls at the trials who interrupted the proceedings to keep piling on more and more accusations of witchcraft allegedly committed by those already on trial.
But there’s another parallel that’s gone unmentioned until now, which may help explain why the recent hearings were so bitter, and how the bitterness of future hearings can be reduced. It has to do with the reasons for the outbreak of witchcraft in Salem in the first place.
Nobody knows the exact reasons for the outbreak of the witchcraft hysteria. Many theories have been advanced—psychological hysteria, patriarchal persecution of solitary and eccentric women, hallucinogenic mold in bread, etc. One historian has plausibly argued that some of the hanged really were witches (he argued not that they deliberately tried to summon demons to torment their victims, but that they used witchcraft practices to psychologically manipulate the gullible).
One especially popular theory is that the accusers were using witchcraft to settle scores with families with which they had had longtime disputes over land, business dealings, etc. To make matters worse, many of the disputes arose in Salem Village, an autonomous rural settlement adjacent to the city of Salem, but only loosely associated with it (Salem Village is now the city of Danvers, which, like nearby Salem, is a suburb of Boston). Salem Village had no courts or any other institutions for conflict resolution. Hence conflicts could go unresolved for years before exploding into bizarre, grotesque and fatal accusations of witchcraft.
And herein lies the parallel with the role of the Supreme Court in our political system and our way of appointing and confirming its justices: Over the centuries, as I first argued in a column last July, we, the people, and our Congress as well, have allowed the Supreme Court to become a super legislature, making policy on a wide variety of issues—racial integration, gay marriage, and especially abortion. And once the Supreme Court makes a decision, it effectively reduces the possibility of meaningful discussion and modification within legislatures. Hence those who dislike Supreme Court decisions may feel they have no recourse other than to violence to try to reverse them—the bombing of abortion clinics and the murder of their staffs, a civil war to reverse the Dred Scott decision, which had sought to enshrine slavery as a constitutionally protected property right while denying African Americans, whether free or slave, any rights at all.
What’s needed, therefore, is the development of more ways to channel conflict over Supreme Court decisions into more peaceful channels to thereby avoid the buildup of emotions which spilled out over the Kavanaugh controversy. We should be more ready to use the means specified in the Constitution to amend it to either overturn or confirm Supreme Court decisions: Opponents of abortion should work within the system to add the Human Life Amendment to the Constitution, while supporters of abortion rights should work just as hard to amend it to include guarantees of “reproductive freedom.” Such battles would be carried out in Congress and the state legislatures, providing for plenty of opportunities to peacefully analyze, debate, discuss, whatever, these major public policy proposals, as our Founding Fathers intended.
And we should also work to amend the Constitution to increase the accountability of the Supreme Court and its justices. Currently Supreme Court justices may serve for life, and cannot be removed against their will except through impeachment. A good first step to reducing their insulated positions might be a constitutional amendment to impose term limits.
But assuming these ideas have merit—whether this is a valid assumption is in the eyes of the beholder—the question becomes, how to proceed. Ironically, Senator Chuck Schumer, in his remarks denouncing the impending Kavanaugh confirmation, offered the best advice. He said that if you don’t like the way things are now, vote for those members of Congress who will work for the changes you want. Of course, the context in which he made his remarks made it clear he was urging more Democrats to vote to punish the Republicans, but his point is sound: The first step to bringing about whatever change you want, no matter whether you want to keep things the way they are now or work for change, is to vote for those who promise to pursue the policies you want. And if they deliver, keep voting for them. But if they fail, vote to replace them.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.