Baseless persecutions throughout history have been stemmed by the idea that opposing values can threaten social order. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible recreates the events of the Salem witch trials, a series of persecutions in Colonial America where inhabitants were falsely accused of witchcraft. The play is an allegory for McCarthyism, a period in American history when the United States government persecuted actors, politicians, and writers, for being communists with little to no evidence. Though the intent behind both governments in 1692 Colonial Massachusetts and 1950’s United States was to maintain social order, restraining personal freedoms to do so inevitably led to a more dysfunctional society than they both began with.
The Crucible follows a community of Puritans who settled in Salem, Massachusetts to reform Christianity. John Winthrop, leader of the 1630 migration of English Puritans to Massachusetts Bay Colony, intended the social structure of Salem to be one where the inhabitants would “obey [God’s] voice” in order to insure their “life and prosperity” (Winthrop, “City Upon a Hill”). Winthrop’s objective was for Christianity to serve as the foundation for the Puritans’ new community, which in turn influenced their political structure. As a result, Salem’s judicial system was sensitive to the witch trials, which led them to look past their violations of personal freedoms for the purpose of maintaining their strict religious beliefs.
Similar tension arose from the McCarthy era when Cold War politics left the United States government to feel particularly strong in preserving capitalist American values. During World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union were allied against Nazi Germany, many American communists began to spy for the Soviets. When the Cold War began to escalate, the espionage became known to the American government. In response, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that American democracy was being destroyed, “not from enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within”(McCarthy). His speech marked the beginning of the national witch hunt for suspected communist and communist supporters, and in turn, sparked fear and suspicion throughout US citizens.
When American politicians and Salem Church officials felt as though their ideologies were being threatened, they resorted to prioritizing the safety of those values over the freedoms of their people. The Salem Church responded by denying the accused to a fair trial, while McCarthy countered political dissidents by violating constitutional amendments during interrogations with accused American communists. The leaders of both trials looked past their lack of evidence because they “dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points” (Miller 62). Much of The Crucible describes the clouded, ill-informed judgments made by both Cold War conservative politicians and Colonial Massachusetts who were denying personal freedoms in exchange for their ideal social order.
Overtime, the United States during the Cold War infringe upon citizens’ rights due to fear and their lack of control against communism. During interrogations with suspected communists, if citizens did not answer all questions, they would have their passport revoked, become blacklisted, or jailed for contempt (HUAC). While many choose to plead the First or Fifth Amendments for constitutional protection, ironically, these principles were disregarded in an attempt to protect other American principles. In the pursuit to preserve American democracy, McCarthy, and his many supporters, were willing to violate the same values they was attempting to protect. They exacerbated the threat of communism which inevitably caused more fear. Similarly, the reaction to the alleged witches was far more extreme than the threat itself.
During the Salem Witch Trials, the authority was more concerned about the potential threat of witches than the fear and hysteria that was produced as a result of the trials. The Church’s purpose was to maintain religious order, yet neglected to see the “vengeance walking Salem” and the “fire that [was] burning” that resulted from the trials (Miller 77, 91). During the persecutions, Reverend Parris began to be more openly concerned with his reputation while the Putnams were concerned about getting revenge for their dead children. Because Christianity was a collective value, and not an individual value, it took a single misguided action fueled by shallowness or anger to cause dysfunction within the entire town. Though the intent of implementing religion as the foundation of Salem society was meant to create a unified social order, it only infringed on the personal lives of other, thus resulting the a weak more disunified society.
Governments must rid themselves of personal attachments to any set of beliefs in order to prevent the recreation of 1692 and the 1950’s fear mongering. If religious and political ideologies begin to be applied as an individualistic foundation of one’s life instead of collective ones, fear and hysteria, similar to the ones of both infamous trials, can be prevented. Though it may seem that the notion of “guilty until proven innocent” is one that is beneath us — that we are somehow immune to the mistakes of history — we are just as prone and liable to creating a nation against each other, fueled by fear that our ideas and beliefs are being challenged.
Congress, House, Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of the Unauthorized Use
of U.S. Passports, 84th Congress, Part 3, June 12, 1956; in Thirty Years of Treason:
Excerpts from Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities,
1938–1968, Eric Bentley.
McCarthy, Joseph: “Enemies from Within” 1950
- Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. New York: Viking Press, 1953. Print.
- Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity” 1630.