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Gerald Mcdermott

The Tongue Is a Witch

A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in 18th-Century Connecticut, by Christopher Grasso, University of North Carolina Press, 1999, 524 pp.; $24.95, paper

Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England, by Jane Kamensky, Oxford University Press, 1997, 291 pp.; $19.95, paper

These two studies of power and speech in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England are models of the best kind of historiography. They carefully attempt to reconstruct the social and intellectual worlds of early New Englanders, while at the same time using the critical tools of their trade to understand early American religion and society in new ways. For example, while many historians have told the story of the Salem witch trials, Jane Kamensky's fascinating retelling argues that the Salem trials—which resulted in the execution of 19 (probably) innocent men and women—marked the first and last time in early New England's history that magistrates did not suppress the accusations of young women against their elders. The irony is brutal. These were not the good old days.

But neither do these books demonstrate unequivocally the superiority of our own political culture, which conspicuously lacked the institutional resources to express or expiate a national sense of shame during our recent presidential impeachment crisis. Perhaps we could have learned something from seventeenth-century Massachusetts Puritans, who demanded compulsory public apologies to restore respect for those offended by wrongful public speech. Offenders were warned not to make their retractions too short or too general; even if their intentions were not sincere, "expressed shame was public shame."

While early New England may have had better mechanisms for dealing with some kinds of public wrongs, these books vividly illustrate why most of us would not want to have inhabited that world. Its rigid social hierarchy left very little room for Americans other than educated white males to speak ...

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