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Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience [Paperback]

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Item Number 58332  
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Item Specifications...

Pages   412
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8" Width: 5.34" Height: 0.74"
Weight:   0.75 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Aug 1, 2006
Publisher   Harper Collins Publishers
ISBN  0007163630  
EAN  9780007163632  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
Documents the role of Samuel Sewall in the 1692 Salem witch trials, exploring his lesser-known contributions as a anti-slavery agitator, defender of Native American rights, and campaigner against periwigs, in a profile that offers insight into how he was swept up in the zeal that marked the trials and publicly apologized five years later. Reader's Guide available. Reprint.

Publishers Description

The Salem witch hunt has entered our vocabulary as the very essence of injustice. Judge Samuel Sewall presided at these trials, passing harsh judgment on the condemned. But five years later, he publicly recanted his guilty verdicts and begged for forgiveness. This extraordinary act was a turning point not only for Sewall but also for America's nascent values and mores.

In Judge Sewall's Apology, Richard Francis draws on the judge's own diaries, which enables us to see the early colonists not as grim ideologues, but as flesh-and-blood idealists, striving for a new society while coming to terms with the desires and imperfections of ordinary life. Through this unsung hero of the American conscience -- a Puritan, an antislavery agitator, a defender of Native American rights, and a Utopian theorist -- we are granted a fresh perspective on a familiar drama.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Humanizes an otherwise Incomprehensible Crime  Dec 21, 2006
Francis does an admirable job helping us understand the motives and conflicts of the Salem Witch Trials. To modern eyes the events are so unbelievable, so heinous and illogical, that it's difficult to explain without resorting to religious mania, stupidity or superstition. Seen through the eyes of Sewall, we get a glimpse of the society which could be enlightened in so many ways and so backwards in others. Fascinating read.
Shoud be Francis's Apology  Oct 31, 2006
Is it not important to make history interesting to read? This book is so boring, misdirected and verbose I couldn't finish it. Rather than talk about the issues of the title, Francis spends more time going on and on about what Sewall had for dinner, what he paid for land, his romp through London and wars against Indians.

I appreciate the accuracy and thoroughness of his research. But his inability to focus and put words together that are fun to read make this book painful.
Francis brings Massachusetts in the late 17th century to life  Dec 25, 2005
This is a well-researched and revealing account of the inner experience of a wealthy and powerful member of the Boston community. Largely based on Samuel Sewall's voluminous diaries, it covers his life from birth to death. It goes into detail about all sorts of events in Boston and Newbury.

The cover blurb ("The Story of a Good Man and an Evil Event") and the title inflate the importance of the notorious Salem witch trials in the book. The publisher can be forgiven for this exaggeration: scandals grab public attention just as much now as then. If the witchcraft "angle" induces more people to take a look at this interesting book, the exaggeration will prove worthwhile.

The witchcraft angle made me pick it up. I live scarcely a mile from the homestead of one of the women accused in that terrible crisis, and I am quite interested in what happened.

Sewall was a Puritan magistrate. They sat in a panel over various trials, including the witchcraft trials. The nuances of Sewall's interior experience of those trials are revealing about the late Puritan age's issues of gender, social standing, and economic class that underlay the witchcraft panic: it started among women in run-down rural Salem Village (now Danvers) and was prosecuted by men in wealthly Salem Town. Both Sewall and his biographer convey an understanding of these struggles straightforwardly without polemic. Francis just tells the stories, and resists the temptation to draw simple moral lessons from what happened. By doing this he cuts through the illusion that Puritan culture was morally simple-minded and brings it to life.

The people of the Puritan Commonwealth felt the presence of God looming over them with a clarity and intensity that is very difficult for us to understand in the 21st century. Those people thought their culture was destined to be the fulfillment God's divine Providence. Everything that happened, from earthquakes to the birth of infants to the attacks of Native Americans, they understood as expression of God's approval or disapproval of their personal conduct. Sewall was a diligent student of meteorology. He repented and apologized for his role in the witch trials partially because he saw signs of divine disapproval in the elements, and believed that the trials were a sign of collective delusion.

Sewall's accounts of trying to persuade his contemporaries of this position are especially revealing about the complexity of the American attitude towards official mistakes and misconduct. He worked hard to declare a day of public fasting and repentance five years after the trials. He tried to get Minister Cotton Mather (that ghoul!) to write a declaration for the fast day specifically acknowleging the collective evils committed during the trials, but Mather would not go beyond broad generalities.

Sewall's acceptance of personal responsibility for official misconduct is as American as roast turkey and apple pie. Unfortunately, so is Mather's refusal to accept it. This fine biography presents clearly that contradiction in American character in all its complexity.
Good History and Good Writing  Oct 24, 2005
The author uses a biography of Samuel Sewall, affable community leader and judge, as a means to examine the evolution of the Puritan community and conscience. To his credit, the author neither worships nor vilifies the Puritan culture in general nor Samuel Sewall in particular; rather, as a good historian, he attempts to understand and translate their ideas for our consideration.

I thoroughly appreciated the anecdotes that revealed the humane and compassionate side of Judge Sewall - yes, the same man who took part in the tragic injustice of the Salem witchcraft trials. For example, consider this touching quote from page 48

Despite endless bereavement, Sewall never lost his capacity for sympathy and sorrow. He wrote a lovely letter to his aunt Dorothy Rider, who had "some eating thing" in her face: "And seeing neither I, nor you sister, nor any of your relations, can give any reason why God should measure out this suffering to you, and not to us: and why he hath not rather appointed this pain and affliction to us, and made you bear your part in sympathizing with us; we are the more engaged to this duty, which I pray God help us exercise and that more and more, and pardon us wherein we fall short."

Further, the author's shares sound and thoughtful observations and discussion of how the Puritan conscience gradually moved from a tendency towards black and white extreme to a more nuanced acceptance of the mixed motives and grey areas of the human heart.

This book is a wonderful example of the pros and cons of every culture. There were admirable things about Puritan New England. There were also deadly weaknesses that allowed a terrible tragedy to occur. How arrogant it would be to think of ourselves and our own times as having "arrived." Perhaps good history like this book can help us be more reflective about our own culture and nation.
A generous portrait  Sep 11, 2005
As a student of history with a special fascination for the witch trials, I was looking forward to a personal account of the proceedings, and an introspective critique of the judges' verdicts, as promised by the subtitle of the book. Although the history of the times as recounted by Richard Francis, with liberal quotations from Sewall's diaries, is beautifully painted to make for a good understanding of the context of the trials, Judge Sewall's ultimate contrition hardly makes for a sypathetic figure. To the contrary, the picture created, rather than describing the "forming of an American conscience", only reinforces a picture of superstition and ignorance that leaves one wondering what it was that Samuel Sewall actually apologized for. I couldn't help but get the impression that if Increase Mather had ordered Sewall to hang more witches, he would have rationalized carrying on into the 18th century!
Being mired in a Puritan world of ignorance and prejudice is no more an excuse for murdering innocents than modern issues are used to rationalize the witch hunts of our era.
My only point is that if Mr. Francis' purpose was to expose us to the humanity and redeeming qualities of Judge Sewall in order to single him out as a "special" sort of witch hunter, he fails on that one. Otherwise, the book is a wonderful account of daily life in early colonial Massachussets. Don't look for any new insights into the Puritans' relationship with the devil, however.

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