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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 4: American Life in the Seventeenth Century, 1607 - 1692


Nathaniel Bacon (1647 - 1676)

Although his followers were mostly poor, landless white farmers who hated the planter aristocrats, rebel leader Nathaniel Bacon was himself a well-off planter.

Bacon, descended from a famous English family, immigrated to Virginia in 1674 after obtaining a gentlemanly education at Cambridge University and the Inns of Court in London. After the initial phase of his rebellion, which consisted of leading unauthorized attacks on Indians, he was arrested by Governor Berkeley but then pardoned and even appointed to the colonial council in an attempt to appease him. But he and his supporters refused to be conciliated, and when Berkeley tried to suppress them, they went on a rampage that ended in the burning of Jamestown. Bacon seemed on the verge of seizing complete control of the colony when he suddenly died of illnessa development that enabled Berkeley to crush the leaderless rebels.

Quote: For having upon specious pretences of publick works raised greate unjust taxes upon the commonality for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister endsfor having wronged his Majestys prerogative and interesting by assuming monopoly of the beaver tradeand for having protected, favored, and imboldened the Indians against his Majestys loyall subjectswe do demand that the said Sir William Berkeleybe forthwith delivered up or surrender [himself] within four days of this notice forthwith. (Declaration of the People, 1676)

REFERENCE: Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel (1957).


Cotton Mather (1662 - 1728)

Cotton Mathers notorious involvement in the Salem witch trials was only one episode in his long, remarkable career, but it showed many of the contradictions of his complex personality.

The influential Puritan ministers role in the Salem witch trials arose partly because of his strong scientific interest in spirits and the invisible world. Even before the trials, he took into his home a girl believed to be a victim of witchcraft so that he could study her case in detail. By seventeenth-century standards Mather was actually quite cautious about witchcraft. He believed that where witchcraft existed, it should be treated by prayer and fasting, not by prosecutions and executions. But once the Salem trials got under way, he defended them in public, despite his apparent private belief that the evidence was questionable and the executions unjust.

Mather was hot-tempered, arrogant, and power-hungry but also extremely introspective and given to anxiety and self-doubt. Although he sometimes experienced hallucinations and severe depressions, and engaged in harsh attacks on his enemies, some of his writings are brilliant.

Quote: Albeit the business of this witchcraft may be very much transacted upon the stage of imagination, yet we know that, as in treason, there is an imagining which is a capital crime, and here also the business, though managed in imagination, yet may not be called imaginary. The effects are dreadfully real. Our neighbors at Salem Village are blown up, after a sort, with an infernal gunpowder; the train is laid in the laws of the kingdom of darkness. Now the question is, who gives fire to this train? And by what acts is the match applied? (1692)

REFERENCE: Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984).


Rachel Clinton (1629 - 1694)

Clinton is one of the few Salem witches whose biography historians have been able to reconstruct. Her childhood was extremely unhappy, as, evidently, was the rest of her life. After both her parents died when she was very young, she was placed under the control of her mentally unstable stepmother. Her father had left a substantial estate, but Clinton was never able to get a fair share of it because she was constantly exploited by others, including Thomas Clinton, her brother-in-law, whom she married at age thirty-six (he was twenty-two at the time). After her divorce from Thomas Clinton, she was reduced to poverty and dependency, which likely made her extremely bitter and hostile. It is known that she threw stones at people and called them names like hellhound and whoremasterly rogue. Among the witchcraft activities she was accused of, even before the Salem trials, were taking away a girls power of speech for three hours, sending animals to cross peoples paths, and making beer disappear from kegs.

Although convicted in the Salem trials and imprisoned for several months, Clinton was not executed. Released from prison in 1693, she died the following year.

REFERENCE: John Demos, Entertaining Satan (1982).



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