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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Judge Sewall's Apology. The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience. Richard Francis. Fourth Estate (2005)

This is a fascinating biography of Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the Salem Witch trials, the religious and political context in which he lived and the long term consequences of the Witch trials on his life. Samuel Sewall was born in England, he profoundly felt himself to be an American and he had a very explicit vision for the future of America. In 1692 Sewall was one of the panel of judges who presided over the Salem Witch trials and subsequent executions. Five years later he issued a very public and very explicit apology for his actions, he was the only judge to do so. The trials were a key event in Sewall's life, they were not the central one however. His most important and lasting work was related to his vision of America as the site for the, literal, New World that would arise after the Apocalypse. Sewall identified the Native Americans as the lost tribe of Israel and foresaw that they were the key to America's glorious future. Sewall gave voice to the first great expression of the American Dream.
Richard Francis draws heavily on Sewall's diaries which are extensive and detailed, to create a rich portrait of the the man as well as the public figure. The diaries are full of observations of the weather and the food Sewall eats, as well as thoughts and concerns about his family. The book shows the development of Sewell's thinking and how this development drove his public and official actions. One of the strongest aspects to the book is the subtle and sympathetic description and explanation Richard Francis provides of the ideas that were embodied in Puritan theology and how this shaped their view of the world.
Richard Francis has a keen and witty eye for a telling detail and as he explores the early colonial period he presents a great many simple human moments that reveal the beating hearts within the formal costumes.This is a wonderfully warm book about a extraordinary period and a contradictory, fallible and ultimately honest and loving man at the involved so closely in the foundation of America.

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