During the eighteenth century social and political changes in the colonies produced a new America. Leaders began promoting youth, vitality, and the self-made man. Having fully embraced the rationalism and optimism of the Enlightenment, they championed the individual who spoke his mind. This was a dramatic shift: whereas outspokenness had cost people their lives in the witch trials, it had now become a respected quality. As communities continued to grow, eccentric townspeople were less important or noticeable, and conflicts between rival families became less prevalent. The notion of individuality replaced fear of outsiders or differences that had often united people against voices of discontent (unhappiness) within the community. Furthermore, social conflict and opinionated debate came to be viewed as healthy rather than threatening. Less often were accusations hurled against those who dared to speak their minds about politics, religion, or even their neighbors. By the mid-1700s the New England of the era of the Salem trials was a fading memory.
Ironically, these changes had an impact on three groups that had been especially vulnerable during the trials, both as accusers and accused: the elderly, women, and children, especially young girls. As youth and progress became the hallmarks of the time, the elderly were regarded as being out
A memorial was erected in Danvers, Massachusetts (what used to be Salem Village) in the names of all that were killed. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue).
of touch and unnecessary nuisances. Therefore old people were less likely to be targeted as a threat to the community. Women were now experiencing a new way of life. The woman of the Enlightenment was increasingly confined to the home and for the most part isolated from public life. This loss in status removed the stigma of women being associated with power, mystery, and nature. Now a woman was a passionless, delicate creature, and her body was an embarrassing medical condition over which she had no control. Further, the ancient tradition of the midwife who helped women deliver their babies at home, and who also was the target of witchcraft accusations, was slowly being replaced by the all-male medical establishment.
This unfortunate disempowerment of women did serve to protect them from the superstitions that had made them victims of accusations of witchcraft. This shift was accompanied by changes in child-rearing practices, which in turn influenced the lives of children and teenagers in New
England. The Puritans had raised their children to be silent, obedient, and, most importantly, "broken spirits." During the Enlightenment, however, a child was viewed as morally innocent and thus given freedom to explore and play and be gently nurtured toward adulthood. Adolescence became recognized as a unique stage in life, during which young people were encouraged to be social and to explore their world rather than being closely supervised as potential sinners. Young women were given much greater freedom of motion and encouraged to mingle and socialize prior to marriage. These changes dramatically reduced the boredom, frustration, and anxiety that had characterized the lives of the young girls who were involved in the Salem trials. Consequently, time had eliminated an entire category of people who had played a major role in the tragedy. In short, eighteenth-century Americans no longer needed witches as scapegoats. But they soon encountered other misfortunes and problems, so they found new scapegoats: African Americans, Native Americans, recent immigrants, and anyone else who did not quite fit into the Englightenment ideal.
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