In January 1697, for example, the Massachusetts government called a public day so the community could repent and beg God's forgiveness for the disaster of the Salem witch hunt, in which a Colonial court had executed 20 innocent women and men. One of my ancestors, Judge Samuel Sewall, was one of nine judges who had presided over the 1692 witchcraft trials. On Jan. 14, 1697, during the fast-day service at Boston's Third Church, now Old South, 44-year-old Judge Sewall stood up from his bench and bowed his head as his minister read aloud Sewall's public statement of acceptance of "the blame and shame" for the witch hunt. Sewall donned a coarse penitential hair shirt on that fast day and wore it, according to family lore, for the rest of his life, as a constant, painful reminder of his sin.
During the long period of repentance that followed, Judge Sewall tried to improve not only himself but also his society. He became an unlikely spokesman for the advancement of civil rights and individual liberties. In the summer of 1697, not long after the fast day, he published an essay, "Phaenomena quaedam Apocalyptica," that portrayed America - and Native Americans - as virtuous and godly. In 1700, when one in five families in Boston owned African or Native American slaves, Sewall composed and published the first abolitionist statement in America, "The Selling of Joseph," which argued that slavery was immoral. His 1725 essay, "Talitha Cumi," or "Damsel, Arise," stated the "right of women" and women's fundamental equality to men.Having had the traditional myths of ye olde Pilgrim fathers force fed in my youth- largely created by ye olde Yankee historians and used as "nativist" propaganda- I'd never gone into the aftermath of the anti-witch mania and so didn't know about the repentance. Holding a grudge against the Puritans, I'd assumed that anti-slavery efforts began with John Woolman, the Quaker saint. And I'm ashamed to say that I knew little about feminism before Anthony. It's good to be upended once in a while, forced to question basic assumptions and customs of thinking. Apparently Sewall found that to be true.
I have a hard time imagining Scalia or Roberts or Alito repenting their corrupt actions in public or reforming themselves into something other than henchmen of the powerful establishment. Thomas, as his recent book proves, is never going to be any better than the pathetic, self-motivated, limpet to the powerful that he has always been. Ronald Reagan liked to make fun of the Puritan tradition for all the wrong reasons. He saw the discouragement of self indulgence as their major failure. The refusal to self-indulgence is one of the primary sins of our establishment today, usually expressed in some pop-psychological terms of inhibition and hang-ups. Fun is good but it isn't the greatest good. The real sins of the Puritans weren't the ones cited most often today, they were injustice, inequality, sexism and bigotry, hypocrisy and vainglory. The sins of the Puritans are exactly the virtues of today's conservatives.