The Clare Spark Blog

May 5, 2015

What is “context” and how is it relevant to the Pamela Geller flap?

Context-is-king-1024x7681Lots of pundits, bloggers, and non-writers have been talking about free speech and the affronts to it. The occasion for all this jabber is the event managed by activist Pamela Geller and her event at Garland, Texas, that resulted in the death of two would-be invading Islamist gunmen.

Some commentators have complained that the drawing of a cartoon of Mohammed was provocative and incendiary, while others have vigorously defended untrammeled free speech, let the chips fall.

I am most concerned with the widespread notion that we actually have free speech and exercise it at will. That is one subject on this blog. (

But I am also amazed by William J. Donahue’s statement on Fox News Channel, referring to the larger “context” of Geller’s alleged provocation.  (He had already written about angry Muslims earlier this year with respect to the bombing of the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris:

Donahue as posted by Daily Kos

Donahue as posted by Daily Kos

As I have described here before, the once fact-based profession of history has been taken over by postmodernists, who, following Hayden White, view all published history as “literature.” I myself have advanced the observation that we are “prisoners of our contexts,” (, though I would never go so far as the postmodernists by throwing out all science as a swindle insofar as it affects “objectivity.”

As I discovered when first conducting my Melville research, finding the relevant context for artists and their critics (or for our own cherished beliefs) is a challenge. For instance, Freudians will focus on Melville’s family situation; Marxists will scrutinize him for class, racial, and gender prejudices; “progressives” attempting to co-opt both Freud and Marx will, and have, looked at his family very selectively, and then will praise him to the extent that they believe that he generally reflects their own “moderation.” If they have to suppress documents that contradict progressive notions, they will do that too. (See And the preferred “moderate” position is “multiculturalism” for it keeps us divided and racism and collective categories are  intact,. (See

The relevant context for the Pamela Geller/free speech flap is “multiculturalism”. No one sees this, for the assumption is either that Geller is a “hater” who “incites” Muslims, or, conversely, that we have untrammeled free speech and we must go to the wall on its behalf, lest we betray the First Amendment.

This latter position ignores case law, and worse, often reads back into English history the precedents for free speech, ignoring that the common law originated in medieval times when perfect obedience to orders and personages above oneself in the Great Chain of Being was taken for granted. Kings, Popes, and the nobility were at constant war with one another over conflicting rights, but the notion that peasants and townspeople should enjoy the same privileges was unheard of.

Get used to it, readers. The progressive bourgeoisie and growing mass literacy brought us such free speech as we currently enjoy, and “free speech” has always been contested by special interests that want freedom of expression for their own causes, but would deny it to their adversaries.

Do academics enjoy free speech and academic freedom, as they proudly proclaim? It depends on their superiors. As sociologist Stephen Turner has observed over and over, all scholarship is subsidized. But even if academics could get jobs based on pure merit and objective criteria, we would still be faced with our own limitations. As the lady said, we are to some unknowable extent, all prisoners of our contexts (personal and institutional).

Herman Melville would agree with me.


May 10, 2013

Losing focus and mass media

mass-media1This blog is about how journalism can break our concentration on the most vital subjects, simply through its format. Nothing gets treated in adequate depth, anchors don’t press their guests to answer questions in any detail, and other events are interpolated that are de-politicizing and hence impede ameliorative action or curiosity about those debates that are crucial to our personal safety and survival as a putatively democratic republic.

Why elites hate mass media. Mass illiteracy in reading print and in reading other forms of media (including photos) is a present-day emergency, but I can’t get anyone excited about this. Many academics (the Frankfurt School critical theorists, for instance) blame totalitarianism on mass culture, by which they mean newspapers, radio, television, and movies. Today, add to that list the internet and social media. Why? Because religous authority, the Church that diverted attention from this world to life after death, suffered the greatest crisis since the Reformation at the point where visual and audio media became cheap and popular, promising large financial rewards to its technicians, writers, and artists.

Once naturalism and realism overtook mysticism and symbolism, accelerated by the world-shaking innovation of mass literacy that began to build after the invention of the printing press, democratic sects sprang up in Europe as part of the Reformation. (Read the communist historian Christopher Hill’s semi-classic The World Turned Upside Down that detailed such as Gerard Winstanley’s Diggers and other radical puritan sects of the 17th century, and which Hill clearly hoped would inspire current day readers to adopt their collectivism, including the notion that the earth was a common treasury. Such a historical reconstruction and popularization was surely meant to counter the growing individualism that leftish Romanticism and free markets had encouraged.)

In prior blogs I have shown how popular television shows not only instil fear of the internet and social media as a goad to “malignant narcissism” and serial killers, but that many series create an atmosphere of paranoia (“you are being watched” says Person of Interest every episode). Paranoia erodes basic trust, without which self-confidence and the search for truth are effectively undermined. We can’t count on our own senses, even when we reflect upon them and do research, for “we see through a glass darkly.” Thus, the old religious fears of “worldliness” and the terminal acceptance of insoluble “mystery” is reinforced: We won’t solve the mystery until we get to Heaven. (For related blogs see, and

Why I wrote this blog. This blog, however, is not a defense of the potential democratizing mass media as currently practiced, but rather a different kind of warning about their effects, for this criticism comes from a historian who must focus, if necessarily, obsessively, on a significant problem before any writing can begin, and even after that, one’s writing is constantly interrogated with the same concentration, lest distortions and false claims be laid upon readers, readers who are expected to act upon this new knowledge that has been dug up, chewed over, tested and retested, and usually read by sympathetic but critical colleagues prior to publication.

What concerns me the day after the “explosive” hearings on the Benghazi affair, is that no sooner has the viewer or listener or reader absorbed new and potentially destabilizing information, than the subject is suddenly changed to a “human interest story” that invariably arouses strong emotions and causes the new facts on State Department misconduct to disappear from memory. So it was yesterday: the Jodi Arias verdict, the continuing drama of the Cleveland kidnappings, new facts on the Tsernaev brothers, all jumbled together with Democratic Party accusations that the hearings were a Republican stunt over a phony affair that was already moribund, and that nobody could have saved the four Benghazi victims, even if Clinton and the military had acted immediately upon being notified. (What is of course ignored is the prior cries for enhanced security sent to the State Department and then refused. A few commentators have emphasized this point, but only a few.)

Hence rational political discourse is discouraged, not only because the French Revolution is still on, producing only mobs, or because the nation is polarized over economic strategies or illegal immigrants. We are hampered from focusing on those preconditions that make citizenship possible: the close scrutiny of all our relationships, the desperate need for education reform, and the knowledge gap between most of the electorate and the specialists who make our society hum.

Without basic trust in our (educated) abilities to make sense of conflict; without proportion and a sense of appropriate scale so that we can discern between national emergencies and local problems, all talk of “participatory democracy” is an obscene joke. At one time, our opinion leaders knew this. (See Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, publ. in 1922, and my blog about Chomsky’s attempt to take it down:

media overload

This was a letter from your surrogate mother. Happy Mother’s Day.

July 4, 2012

Index to Fourth of July blogs

Sumner as painted by Eastman Johnson

I included the most substantial blogs on America’s favorite holiday. The whole website is dedicated to the ongoing interpretation (including distortions) of the Declaration of Independence.  (Sumner argued that the Declaration of Independence had the force of law, hence must be seen as an anti-slavery document.)

May 10, 2011

What is an elite/elitism?


As my readers know, I used to be active at Pacifica radio in Los Angeles (KPFK-FM), especially as program director, but also during my series “How Do We Know When We Are Not Fascists?” that ended in the late 1990s. My project then as now was to defend the Enlightenment and science against its numerous anti-intellectual detractors. There were moments when a barrage of angry phone calls accused me of “elitism” though that term was not defined by those who use it regularly. Later in my career, a Canadian follower of Charles Olson accused me of having written “a Medusa book.” What I did not see then was that for many of these [populist] name-callers (always male, by the way), elite meant Jews–the demonic Jews who supposedly infested Hollywood and the mass media; Jews who had planted a computer chip in their brains that set them against authority and/or their parents; such mad scientists and masculinized women were emissaries of Our Great Adversary. Had I polled my most vehement critics, I suspect that each and every one was a follower of Noam Chomsky–a great favorite with the Pacifica audience and with such New Leftists as populated Z Magazine or South End Press.

This will be a short blog. In the olden times, before the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, then the American and French Revolutions, the term elites referred to the monarchs of Europe, the Catholic Church, and the aristocracy, whose wealth was usually based on the land and the rents their tenants provided. (During the age of exploration, some aristocrats merged their interests with the rising bourgeoisie, so we cannot say that every aristocrat was an agrarian. See Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution.) The point is that class mobility was limited in the various old regimes. There was a definable elite, and the lower orders stayed put. They had no intellectual or political or economic apparatus to lift them from the mire.

All that changed in the age of Revolution, the start of which I date with the invention of the printing press and the subsequent, gradual rise in mass literacy. Along with that came a new confidence in “the lower orders” as they were buttressed by empiricism, science, and the evidence of their senses. Such momentous, life-transforming developments destroyed the customary deference to the great families and instilled confidence in the common reader. There was now the possibility of a democratic polity in a republican form of government. I can say with great certainty that the old elites did not take these transformations lying down. When they could not destroy their challengers, they attempted to co-opt them by taking the best and brightest into their ruling institutions. This website is mostly devoted to tracking these usually successful attempts and to warning the autodidacts to beware of false friends, but also that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: to imagine that all “experts” are swindlers is to throw away the competence that has changed the world for the better.

In our would-be democratic republic, the intellectual and emotional demands on the electorate are unprecedented in the history of our species.  If we choose, we may turn away from the difficulties in discovering the truth, and hew to the party line, and I include every political faction that exists. Or we can constantly test our leaders and representatives, using every tool and resource at our disposal.  What we cannot do is blindly follow the leader and react emotionally to the appeal of demagogues who denounce all “experts” or “elites” in the name of vox populi. Such persons, while supposedly attuned to the voice of God speaking through the People,  implicitly embrace nihilism, a philosophy wherein all truths are contingent and relative–except those spewing from the lips of the celebrity or pundit or cleric or public intellectual du jour.

I have just finished reading Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Contarini Fleming. My jaw dropped as I read its final three paragraphs, for I had not expected this noted organic conservative, surely an avatar of the European elite, to end Contarini’s romantic memoir with these modern sentiments:

“When I examine the state of European society with the unimpassioned spirit which the philosopher can alone command, I perceive that it is in a state of transition from feodal to federal principles. This I conceive to be the sole and secret cause of all the convulsions that have occurred and are to occur.

“Circumstances are beyond the control of man; but his conduct is in his own power. The great event is as sure as that I am now penning this prophecy of its occurrence. With us it rests whether it shall be welcomed by wisdom or by ignorance, whether its beneficent results shall be accelerated by enlightened minds, or retarded by its dark passions.

“What is the arch of the conqueror, what the laurel of the poet! I think of the infinity of space, I feel my nothingness. Yet if I am to be remembered, let me be remembered as one who, in a sad night of gloomy ignorance and savage bigotry was prescient of the flaming morning-break of bright philosophy, as one who deeply sympathized with his fellow-men, and felt a proud and profound conviction of their perfectibility; as one who devoted himself to the amelioration of his kind, by the destruction of error and the propagation of truth.”

Truth and Perfectibility: those are fighting words in a meritocracy.

March 26, 2011

Race, Class, and Gender

Alexander Saxton, ca. 1948

One Facebook friend (a neocon) has asked me to justify the current emphasis on “race, class, and gender” throughout the curriculum. He believes that the Battle of Gettysburg (i.e. military history) has been squashed in the general stampede toward relevancy. It happens that when I was program director of Pacifica’s Los Angeles radio station, KPFK-FM, I initiated a resolution that was adopted by all the other program directors and then ratified by the National Board of the Pacifica Foundation, that all programmers in our network should be responsible for educating themselves in the history of minorities, women, and labor, understanding that we were to attempt new syntheses that other, more constrained, journalists were not likely to emulate.  I did the same when I was in graduate school at UCLA, and encountered stubborn resistance to the identical resolution I proposed while representing all the graduate students in the University of California system. This blog is about what I meant, why I advanced this proposal, and how other academics and journalists have dealt with the issues I raised.

1. Why I did it in the first place. All in my generation and in the one following were deeply affected by the civil rights movement and by the turmoil on the campuses of the major universities in opposition to the Viet Nam war. Had I not been a science major, laden with mostly science classes, perhaps I would have learned something about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow in college, but I did not. Even in graduate school, academic study of race in America was mostly centered around two debates: First, did slavery pay? And two, did slavery destroy the black family and to what extent did slaves revolt, resist, or accommodate to their condition, with lingering effects into the present? Since then (the 1980s) a massive amount of work has been done in these fields, though I have complained about black nationalism as controlling these studies, and hold to that view today, as my prior blogs have demonstrated.

Moreover, the 60s movements and the feminist movement were intertwined. I had never thought that there was anything particularly odd about the socialization of women until I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the early 1970s. I cannot count on any man to fully understand the subjugation of women unless he is particularly enlightened and has daughters (especially if he has no sons). The gay rights movement too has focused our attention on gender socialization and power between the sexes. My early socialization has not yet been repaired, to my sorrow.

2.  Race, class, and gender at UCLA Department of History in the 1980s onward.  As I have written previously on this website, the left-liberal professors with whom I studied often collapsed class into race, following the historian Edmund Morgan, who had been much affected by the 1960s movements for native American rights and civil rights in general.  With the exception of a Trotskyist professor, class struggle was no longer the engine of history, it was racial struggle that was front and center. The feminist professors were generally progressives (i.e., statists), which could mean straight-up communism or social democracy.  Even labor historians bought into the new social history, and attributed the failure of socialism in America to cultural reasons, mostly attributing its flaws to white working-class racism and/or embourgeoisment.  Although my dissertation director, Alexander Saxton, thought that “race,” unlike class, was “socially constructed,” he still wrote books about working-class racism and “the white republic.” Everyone was hostile to the “consumerism” that afflicted “mass culture.” Luckily for me, my dissertation topic was the revival of Herman Melville’s reputation between the world wars (thank you, Alex! a “proletarian novelist” in his pre-academic life), so that led me into European intellectual history and away from an obsession with heterosexual white male supremacy. I became extremely interested in the massive transformations in politics that followed the invention of the printing press and the gradual spread of mass literacy and numeracy. (See This focus emancipated me from reliance on class, race, and gender as the explanation for everything and, with a new alertness to the construction of the 20th century humanities curriculum, I soon found myself deep into the history of racial theory and the origins of multiculturalism. “Race” was indeed socially constructed, and a racialist discourse dominates cultural history today, blotting out conflicts of interest having to do with both class and gender, each of which is a material fact. (In this respect, Saxton and I were in complete agreement.)

3. Is class of any relevance? For communists and populists alike, class is everything, and whole upper-class lives may be darkened with fears of servile revolt or, in “the lower orders,” deep, roiling unfocused anger at such targets as Wall Street and the rich in general.  (Antisemitism can be found in rich and poor alike: for the wealthy, Jews are innovators and troublemakers, stirring up revolt and class hatred: Christian love is the antidote for “Jewish” hate. For the poor, Jews are often the agents of modernity that uprooted them from an idyllic, communal, agrarian past and abandoned them to the lonely crowd. )

However, no historian can ignore concrete class interests in describing continuity and change. My (male) reader who objected to “race, class, and gender” was worried about military history and diplomatic history, and I would add international relations in general. Very few individuals in any period of history are so brilliant and versatile as to be able to form a comprehensive history of even one significant event, taking all variables into account.  It is true that international relations and diplomatic history require intensive study and special training  (and even then, the fields are filled with factions that despise each other). But to deprive oneself of crucial analytic tools (i.e., class interest, views of race and national character, or gender roles and socialization in a given historical moment), is to etiolate one’s own grey matter as one undertakes the daunting task of writing history and constructing new and better syntheses. [This blog should be read in tandem with]

Alexander Saxton as I knew him

September 29, 2009

Anne Hutchinson’s Red Regiment and the Cultural Historians, part one

The Uppity Woman in Context

This is the first part of a multi-part blog series about irrationalist renditions of the Reformation. Readers of prior blogs will recognize my  opponent: the “moderate man,” who, I argue, cannot identify irreconcilable conflicts, but believes that all conflict is susceptible to mediation by “rational” arbitrators. The strange historiography on the famous troublemaker Anne Hutchinson serves as instructive example of the rule of “moderates” in the academy.

I.     During the mid-1630s, Anne Hutchinson, a middle-aged gentlewoman, self-appointed lay preacher, midwife and healer, rocked the infant colony of Massachusetts Bay with sufficient vehemence to toss it, bloodied and adrift, into the cold waters of religious and political controversy.  Hutchinson and her large Boston following had challenged the credentials of all but two of the Bay Colony ministry, hence the legitimacy of the ruling group.  Accordingly, the Hutchinsonians, who included wealthy merchants and artisans as well as the humble, were disfranchised, disarmed, or otherwise terrorized and persecuted, while Anne Hutchinson herself was imprisoned, banished, excommunicated and denounced as a Familist, a witch, and a degenerate.[i]

Across the Atlantic in 1636, the very year that Governor John Winthrop declared Anne Hutchinson a troublemaker, another upper-class radical was arrested.  An esteemed English cleric, Dr. John Everard, was accused of preaching Familism, a radical utopian doctrine originated a century earlier by Hendrick Niclaes of Münster which “undermined clerical control over the psychological lives of ordinary people” by encouraging “the newly literate sectors of society–women, artisans, servants and laborers” to read the Bible for themselves and, if need be, challenge the interpretations decreed by their betters. “The heightened self-esteem literacy fostered and the intellectual independence it encouraged suggested to working people that they were not innately sinful and enabled them to believe that one day they might create a perfect society here on earth–an idea that sapped the foundations of Tudor government.” [ii]

Although Anne Hutchinson, the eminently respectable wife of a merchant, landowner and judge, repeatedly disavowed any radical sympathies, her detractors just as persistently characterized her as the non plus ultra of extremists, poisoning the body politic and inciting civil war. John Winthrop fretted that her confidence in “immediate revelation” was “the most desperate enthusiasm in the world…Of all the revelations that ever I read of I never read the like ground laid as is for this. The Enthusiasts and Anabaptists have never the like.”

The Deputy Governor Dudley agreed with Winthrop’s historical analogy:  “These disturbances that have come among the Germans have been grounded upon revelations, and so they that have vented them have stirred up their hearers to take up arms against their prince and to cut the throats of one another, and these have been the fruits of them, and whether the devil may inspire the same into their hearts here I know not, for I am fully persuaded that Mrs. Hutchinson is deluded by the devil, because the spirit of God speaks truth in all his servants.”

Thomas Weld complained that her venom had diffused into “the very veines and vitalls of the People,” dividing every institution: churches, courts, town meetings, the militia, “and in families setting division betwixt husband and wife!”  For Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing two centuries later, Anne Hutchinson was an archetype: “the woman” as riveting agitator. She stares down her persecutors during the civil trial that had arraigned her for criticizing ministers:

[Hawthorne:] “In the midst, and in the centre of all eyes, we see the woman. She stands loftily before her judges with a determined brow; and, unknown to herself, there is a flash of carnal pride half hidden in her eye, as she surveys the many learned and famous men whom her doctrines have put in fear. They question her; and her answers are ready and acute: she reasons with them shrewdly, and brings Scripture in support of every argument. The deepest controversialists of that scholastic day find here a woman, whom all their trained and sharpened intellects are inadequate to foil. But, by the excitement of the contest, her heart is made to rise and swell within her, and she bursts forth into eloquence….”

Hawthorne’s sketch of that enlarged and bursting heart would be realized in Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, Zenobia’s passion flower, Miriam’s ruby jewel, and the Wandering Jew’s “blood-incrusted pen of steel,” then in Melville’s prideful, eloquent Captain Ahab, a character read as a “mystic” by Melville’s first modern biographer, Raymond Weaver.[iii] Today Anne Hutchinson is a heroine to some feminists and libertarians, a protofascist to one prominent New Americanist.  This is how Richard Brodhead, then dean of Yale college and Professor of English, depicted the lineage she spawned, worsened by “the emotional dependencies produced in the hyperaffectionate, inward-turning, hothouse family newly prominent in Melville’s time”:

“Captain Ahab is a figure of the psychically damaged man as visionary authority and charismatic leader.  Ahab knows and persuades others of the One Sole Truth, the truth of his demented obsession.  Pierre is another incarnation of a type that has run through American history, from the antinomian religious dissidents of the 1640s [sic] to the civil disobeyers and antislavery radicals of Melville’s generation to the sect and militia leaders of our own time.  In its harrowing rendition of the cult of private visionary calling, “Pierre” envisions this urge as leading not just to violent trashing of the conventional social world but to a meltdown or disorientation of the moral world.” [iv]

But what of the historic figure? How has “the Woman” been appropriated in the twentieth century? How might we rehistoricize this provocative personality, “the Woman,” not only as a fascinating and complex problem in itself, but as a spotlight into academic politics?  Is there a contrast between the seventeenth-century nexus of the Antinomian Controversy vs. the context and pivotal actions as they have been asserted by recent cultural historians?  Has fear within the professoriate itself of upper-class dissent and agitation tout court distorted a conflict with quite different dynamics than the ones reported heretofore?

There is a dearth of diaries, letters or other primary sources in Hutchinson’s own hand to cast light upon her private beliefs and intentions.  Commentators must rely on “transcripts” of her civil trial and ecclesiastical examination to find her words, and these were delivered in the heat of battle.[v] The other major sources are the memoirs and propaganda of her opponents, such as Governor Winthrop, the minister Thomas Weld, and her once-beloved teacher, the “turncoat” John Cotton. The paucity or one-sidedness of the sources, however, has not prevented many scholars and biographers from making elaborate conjectures concerning Hutchinson’s politics and motives.  Moreover, corporatist ‘liberal’ political assumptions have led biographers to blame the victim by implying that the Antinomian controversy could have been smoothed over or its more repressive consequences averted had its leading figures, especially the ambitious, sharp-tongued, fanatical, and intransigent Anne Hutchinson, commanded the skills of political maturity: self-control and a state of mind conducive to compromise, conciliation, and those democratic procedures necessary to “conflict-resolution” and “adjustment” in the pluralist society of today, the “milieu” in which scholars are expected to function, a setting with little resemblance to the conditions experienced by the English settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Some historians, choosing to emphasize gender antagonisms as the major feature of the controversy, have failed to examine all of the other conflicts in the Bay Colony which could have impinged upon the social crisis of 1636-38, yet we cannot find a balanced assessment of Anne Hutchinson’s role without such a systematic reconstruction.  For “the woman’s” martyrdom was not the only instance of persecution.  To be sure, the writings of ministers and magistrates are so replete with misogyny and hysteria directed against her that the Antinomian controversy may seem like a gender conflict in which an uppity woman got her just desserts.  But women and men of different classes and ‘races’ were at odds during this period; the sex war cannot be detached from other conflicts which perhaps allowed it to surface and which made it seem so threatening.  For instance, as Rutman notes, “Boston’s enlarged servant population…was almost entirely excluded from church membership following the Hutchinsonian disturbances.” [vi]   Defending himself from charges of presentism, Lyle Koehler exposed a weakness which runs through the literature: he has no theory of ideology to connect political economy and culture, hence cannot sort out the variables of class, gender, and ‘race.’  To the complaint from Sidney A. Hart and John Walter Putre that the Antinomian controversy was a conflict grounded in religious differences, not an outbreak of “primitive feminism,” Koehler could only respond: “My concern…was to deal with the question why so many women became “Antinomians” and how the authorities responded to them.  I was concerned with the juxtaposed [his emph.] theological and social dimensions of the Antinomian unrest, but only insofar as those dimensions affected the women’s arm of that unrest.” [vii]  It has been acknowledged by writers of the past and present alike, say Hume in the eighteenth century and Robert Brenner today, that religion provided the vocabulary that subsumed all social conflicts; have other contemporary cultural historians, like Koehler, relieved themselves of customary critical tools?

The Pequot War (May 1637) was fought during this period. To account for the extreme individual and mass political emotions generated in the Antinomian controversy, historians might consider and reject the “fortress mentality” of a colonial society displacing both hostile and friendly natives, but perceiving itself besieged by “papistical Frenchmen and pagan Indians”–a society which saw itself as the victim, not the perpetrator of aggression.[viii] James Axtell explained that “the colonist’s [were] a chosen if momentarily abandoned people.  As the Israelites had suffered oppression and attack in another wilderness, the English felt themselves besieged by Satan’s minions in the form of pagan Indians and papistical Frenchmen.”  Ancient Jews, however, did not characterize their opponents as the Devil’s minions.  Although it is true that Indian relations were a preoccupation for John Winthrop that surely intensified his urgent desire for group solidarity, Axtell has put a dubious spin on this element of the explanatory context; his is an organicist formulation that, like Richard Brodhead’s, subtly smears “Hebraic” radical puritanism.  This essay is intended to historicize all such irrationalist, corporatist explanations founded upon the dodgy notion of group character.

It has been a common Tory strategy to attribute Jewish characteristics to the rebels, first after the English Civil War, then after the American Revolution; the ex-colonists were hypocrites, preaching godliness and equality while killing Indians and enslaving Africans, although I did not see it when I began to write about the Antinomian controversy in 1983-84.  The essentialist anti-puritan/anti-Jewish/misogynistic reading of the Antinomian controversy of this century had powerful precedents in the writing of earlier Tories seeking upper-class unity to stave off another civil war, and in their ideological brethren on American soil.  Take two examples; first, the nineteenth-century American historian Charles Frances Adams: [ix]

It was a struggle for civil power and ecclesiastical supremacy in a small village community.  As such it naturally–it almost necessarily–resulted in a display of the worst qualities of those engaged in it.  It illustrated also with singular force the malign influence apt to be exercised by the priest and the woman as active elements in political life.  Stirred by an access of ill-considered popular enthusiasm, the body of the freemen had, at the election of 1636, put a slight upon the time-honored magistrates of the colony, by placing the boyish Vane over their heads, in the office of governor.  An ambitious woman, with her head full of Deborahs and the like, and with a genius for making trouble, had then sought to drive from his pulpit, in the chief town, its long-settled pastor, in order to install her own favorite preacher in his place, with her kinsman as that preacher’s associate and successor.  In her day-dreams she herself probably occupied, in the new order of things she proposed to bring about, the position of a prophetess,–the real guiding spirit of the whole, –with her husband possibly in the judge’s seat.  Altogether it was an exhilarating vision,–such a vision as self-conscious and usually unappreciated natures have in every time and most places been wont to revel in….(569)…At the hands…of an historian whose intelligence is not mastered by his sympathies, she and her friends, including Governor Vane, are entitled to no consideration.  They went on a fool’s errand, and they brought great principles into lasting odium (574).

[Adams, cont.] On the other hand, the way in which the adherents of Vane and Mrs. Hutchinson were suppressed cannot be defended, without including in the defence the whole system of religious and political intolerance of that time.  But why should it be defended?  It is impossible to ignore the fact, and worse than useless to deny it, that the New England Puritans were essentially a persecuting race.  They could not be otherwise. They believed that they were God’s chosen people.  As such, they were right; all others were wrong.  If, therefore, they failed to bring up their children in the strait and narrow way, and to protect them and all the people from the wiles of the Evil One, God would not hold them guiltless.  The Israelites were their models in all things, and the precedents which guided their action were precedents drawn from the books of the Old Testament.  “So, by the example of Lot in Abraham’s family, and after Hagar and Ishmael, he saw they must be sent away.”  The Israelites were not an attractive or an amiable or a philosophical race; they were narrow, devout and clannish.  No one ever presumed to sophisticate away their cruelties or their persecutions.  Yet withal they were a strong and aggressive people, believing certain things implicitly; and accordingly they impressed themselves and their beliefs on the human mind.  Their very imperfections were essential elements of their strength.  They believed to fanaticism; and it was the strength of their fanaticism which caused their belief to dominate.  It was the same with the Puritans of New England. They persecuted as a part of their faith (Adams, 574-575).

The impartial historian Adams’ misreading of ancient history is remarkably sturdy; it has buttressed antidemocratic, antirepublican social movements since the English Civil War.  In his portrait of the usurping Anne Hutchinson, we have the ahistoric archetype of the totalitarian agitator, the clingy maternal superego that holds humanity, rulers and ruled alike, to universal and timeless ethical standards, that sends unwary men like Ahab and Pierre on utopian crusades that are sure to fail. [x]  It is fascinating and alarming to contemplate the birthing of Adams’-style “pluralism,” scattering the dark shadows of ‘intolerant’ Hebraic Puritanism, cradle of both factions in the Antinomian controversy.

A voluble eighteenth-century predecessor to Adams was the Tory David Hume, noted today more for his contributions to skeptical philosophy than for his massive History of England. It was Hume who eloquently and subtly argued for “toleration” as the only option for societies facing the mayhem fomented by science, printing and mass literacy.  I shall quote at length and comment upon key passages in Hume’s recipes for preventive politics and social stability in an unprecedented and unpredictable social environment; Hume is our guide to the vicissitudes of civil liberties, extending from the sixteenth century to the hard-fought culture wars of the late twentieth century; he was seeking the third way, the moderate solution to the polarizing tendencies of the Reformation-Counter-Reformation; in Hume’s diagnostics, exemplary conduct in the upper-classes is crucial, yet his remedies do not make sense.[xi] Hume’s post-new model intellectual persists today in the humanities, dispensing confusion, not enlightenment.

In my first example, Hume describes the debates between Catholics and radical Protestants aroused by the proposal to disseminate a corrected version of the Tindal translation of the Bible during the reign of Henry VIII.  His remarks demonstrate the urgent need to control what, indeed, the revealed word of God commanded:  While Protestants demanded that all believers, one by one, inspect the written Word to check the veracity of their instructors and to choose more rationally amidst the competing claims of sects, Catholics argued that ambiguity, internal contradiction, and arousing but confusing metaphors in the Bible itself were ingredients that torched the too-vulnerable bodies of “silly women and mechanics”:

[Hume:]  The friends of the reformation asserted, that nothing could be more absurd than to conceal, in an unknown tongue, the word of God itself, and thus to counteract the will of Heaven, which, for the purpose of universal salvation, had published that salutary doctrine to all nations: that if this practice were not very absurd, the artifice at least was very gross, and proved a consciousness, that the glosses and  traditions of the clergy stood in direct opposition to the original text, dictated by supreme intelligence: that it was now necessary for the people, so long abused by interested pretensions, to see with their own eyes, and to examine whether the claims of the ecclesiastics were founded on that charter which was on all hands acknowledged to be derived from Heaven: and that, as a spirit of research and curiousity was happily revived, and men were more obliged to make a choice among the contending doctrines of different sects, the proper materials for decision, and above all, the Holy Scriptures, should be set before them; and the revealed will of God, which the change of language had somewhat obscured, be again, by their means, revealed to mankind.

The favorites of the ancient religion maintained on the other hand, that the pretence of making the people see with their own eyes was a mere cheat, and was itself a very gross artifice, by which the new preachers hoped to obtain the guidance of them, and to seduce them from those pastors whom the laws, whom the ancient establishments, whom Heaven itself, had appointed for their spiritual direction: that the people were by their very ignorance, their stupidity, their necessary avocations, totally unqualified to choose their own principles; and it was a mockery to set materials before them, of which they could not possibly make any proper use: that even in the affairs of common life, and in their temporal concerns, which lay more within the compass of human reason, the laws had in a great measure deprived them of their right of private judgment, and had, happily for their own and the public interest, regulated their conduct and behavior: that theological questions were placed far beyond the sphere of vulgar comprehension; and ecclesiastics themselves, though assisted by all the advantages of education, erudition, and an assiduous study of the sciences, could not be fully assured of a just decision, except by the promise made them in Scripture, that God would be ever present with his church, and that the gates of hell should not prevail against her: that the gross errors adopted by the wisest heathens, proved how unfit men were to grope their own way through this profound darkness; nor would the Scriptures, if trusted to every man’s judgment, be able to remedy; on the contrary they would much augment those fatal illusions: that sacred writ itself was involved in so much obscurity, gave rise to so many difficulties, containing so many appearing contradictions, that it was the most dangerous weapon that could be intrusted into the hands of the ignorant and giddy multitude: that the poetical style in which a great part of it was composed, at the same time that it occasioned uncertainty in the sense, by its multiplied tropes and figures, was sufficient to kindle the zeal of fanaticism, and thereby throw civil society into the most furious combustion: that a thousand sects must arise, which would pretend, each of them, to derive its tenets from the Scripture; and would be able, by specious arguments, or even without specious arguments, to seduce silly women and ignorant mechanics into a belief of the most monstrous principles: and that, if ever this disorder, dangerous to the magistrate himself, received a remedy, it must be from the tacit acquiescence of the people in some new authority; and it was evidently better, without further contest or inquiry, to adhere peaceably to ancient, and therefore the more secure establishments. [Hume, 221-222].

Will the fiery class of Bible readers feel too great a confidence in its own strength?  Now Hume makes his anxiety about role-models explicit; speculative thought in the Head provides a perilous example to the ignorant and giddy multitude, progressively disintegrating the body politic; mass religious instruction was spinning out of control:

[Hume:] The king [Henry VIII] made in person a speech to the parliament on proroguing them; in which, after thanking them for their loving attachment to him, which, he said, equalled what was ever paid to their ancestors by any king of England, he complained of their dissensions, disputes, and animosities in religion.  He told them that the several pulpits were become a kind of batteries against each other; and that one preacher called another a heretic and Anabaptist, which was retaliated by the opprobrious appellations of Papist and hypocrite: that he had permitted his people the use of the Scriptures, not in order to furnish them with materials for disputing and railing, but that he might enable them to inform their consciences and instruct their children and families: that it grieved his heart to find how that precious jewel was prostituted, by being introduced into the conversation of every alehouse and tavern, and employed as a pretence for decrying the spiritual and legal pastors: and that he was sorry to observe, that the word of God, while it was the object of so much anxious speculation, had very little influence on their practice; and that, though an imaginary knowledge so much abounded, charity was daily going to decay.  The king gave good advice; but his own example, by encouraging speculation and dispute, was ill fitted to promote that peaceable submission of opinion which he recommended. [in year 1545, p.298].

Ever the mediator between extremes, Hume distances himself from the Catholics; Hume is a modern and an enemy to superstition.  Repression is no alternative to Protestant disputation, he argues; ignorance but exacerbates feelings of emnity: Hume, as doctor to society and a man of the world, prescribes the toleration of difference, but apparently not from a desire for the intellectual engagement that could lead to rational social action in the body politic he wants to preserve; rather he wishes to forestall outbreaks of barbarism in the lower orders.  The good king will relax the hold of religion, constricting its sphere so that men may be flexible; free to seize new opportunities by ingratiating themselves with more powerful others whose ethical beliefs are different from their own.  Here Hume expatiates upon the wages of persecution during the reign of Queen Mary; no one is so opinionated, irrationally dogmatic and hence destructive of good order, as “polemical divines”; again, Hume reconstructs the debate:

[Hume:] The practice of persecution, said the defenders of Pole’s opinion, is the scandal of all religion; and the theological animosity, so fierce and violent, far from being an argument of men’s conviction in their opposite sects, is a certain proof that they have never reached any serious persuasion with regard to those remote and sublime subjects.  Even those who are the most impatient of contradiction in other controversies, are mild and moderate in comparison of polemical divines; and wherever a man’s knowledge and experience give him a perfect assurance in his own opinion, he regards with contempt, rather than anger, the opposition and mistakes of others.  But while men zealously maintain what they neither clearly comprehend nor entirely believe, they are shaken in their imagined faith by the opposite persuasion, or even doubts, of other men; and vent on their antagonists that impatience which is the natural result of so disagreeable a state of the understanding.  They then easily embrace any pretence for representing opponents as impious and profane; and if they can also find a color for connecting this violence with the interests of civil government, they can no longer be restrained from giving uncontrolled scope to vengeance and resentment.  But surely never enterprise was more unfortunate than that of founding persecution upon policy, or endeavoring, for the sake of peace, to settle an entire uniformity of opinion in questions which, of all others, are least subjected to the criterion of human reason.  The universal and uncontradicted prevalence of one opinion in religious subjects can be owing, at first, to the stupid ignorance alone and barbarism of the people, who never indulge themselves in any speculation or inquiry; and there is no expedient for maintaining that uniformity so fondly sought after, but by banishing forever all curiosity, and all improvement in science and cultivation.  It may not indeed appear difficult to check, by a steady severity, the first beginnings of controversy; but besides that this policy exposes forever the people to all the abject terrors of superstition, and the magistrate to the endless encroachment of ecclesiastics, it also renders men so delicate that they can never endure to hear of opposition; and they will some time pay dearly for that false tranquillity in which they have been so long indulged.  As healthful bodies are ruined by too nice a regimen, and are thereby rendered incapable of bearing the unavoidable incidents of human life, a people who were never allowed to imagine that their principles could be contested fly out into the most outrageous violence when any event (and such events are common) produces a faction among their clergy, and gives rise to any difference in tenet or opinion.  But whatever may be said in favor of suppressing, by persecution, the first beginnings of heresy, no solid argument can be alleged for extending severity towards multitudes, or endeavoring, by capital punishments, to extirpate an opinion which has diffused itself among men of every rank and station.  Besides the extreme barbarity of such an attempt, it commonly proves ineffectual to the purpose intended, and serves only to make men more obstinate in their persuasion, and to increase the number of their proselytes.  The melancholy with which the fear of death, torture, and persecution inspires the sectaries, is the proper disposition for fostering religious zeal: the prospect of eternal rewards, when brought near, overpowers the dread of temporal punishments: the glory of martyrdom stimulates all the more furious zealots, especially the leaders and preachers: where a violent animosity is excited by oppression, men naturally pass from hating the persons of their tyrants to a more violent abhorrence of their doctrines: and the spectators, moved with pity towards the supposed martyrs, are easily seduced to embrace those principles which can inspire men with a constancy that appears almost supernatural.  Open the door to toleration, mutual hatred relaxes among the sectaries; their attachment to their particular modes of religion decays; the common occupations and pleasures of life succeed to the acrimony of disputation; and the same man who, in other circumstances, would have braved flames and tortures, is induced to change his sect from the smallest prospect of favor and advancement, or even from the frivolous hope of becoming more fashionable in his principles.  If any exception can be admitted to this maxim of toleration, it will only be where a theology altogether new, nowise connected with the ancient religion of the state, is imported from foreign countries, and may easily, at one blow, be eradicated, without leaving the seeds of future innovation.  But as this exception would imply some apology for the ancient pagan persecutions, or for the extirpation of Christianity in China and Japan, it ought surely, on account of this detested consequence, to be rather buried in eternal silence and oblivion.

Though these arguments appear entirely satisfactory, yet such is the subtlety of human wit, that Gardiner and the other enemies to toleration were not reduced to silence; and they still found topics on which to maintain the controversy.  The doctrine, said they, of liberty and conscience, is founded on the most flagrant impiety, and supposes such an indifference in all religions, such an obscurity in theological doctrines, as to render the church and magistrate incapable of distinguishing with certainty the dictates of Heaven from the mere fictions of human imagination.  If the Divinity reveals principles to mankind, he will surely give a criterion by which they may be ascertained; and a prince who knowingly allows these principles to be perverted or adulterated, is infinitely more criminal than if he gave permission for the vending of poison, under the shape of food, to all his subjects.  Persecution may, indeed, seem better calculated to make hypocrites than converts; but experience teaches us, that the habits of hypocrisy often turn into reality; and the children, at least, ignorant of the dissimulation of their parents, may happily be educated in more orthodox tenets.  It is absurd, in opposition to considerations of such unspeakable importance, to plead the temporal and frivolous interests of civil society; and if matters be thoroughly examined, even that topic will not appear so universally certain in favor of toleration as by some it is represented.  When sects arise whose fundamental principle on all sides is to execrate, and abhor, and extirpate each other, what choice has the magistrate left but to take part, and by rendering one sect entirely prevalent, restore, at least for a time, the public tranquillity?  The political body, being here sickly, must not be treated as if it were in a state of sound health; and an affected neutrality in the prince, or even a cool preference, may serve only to encourage the hopes of all the sects, and keep alive their animosity.  The Protestants, far from tolerating the religion of their ancestors, regard it as an impious and detestable idolatry; and during the late minority, when they were entirely masters, they enacted very severe, though not capital, punishments against the exercise of all Catholic worship, and even against such as barely abstained from their profane rites and sacraments.  Nor are instances wanting of their endeavors to secure an imagined orthodoxy by the most rigorous executions: Calvin has burned Servetus at Geneva; Cranmer brought Arians and Anabaptists to the stake; and if persecution of any kind be admitted, the most bloody and violent will surely be allowed the most justifiable, as the most effectual.  Imprisonments, fines, confiscations, whippings, serve only to irritate the sects, without disabling them from resistance: but the stake, the wheel, and the gibbet must soon terminate in the extirpation of banishment of all the heretics inclined to give disturbance, and in the entire silence and submission of the rest. [Hume, 416-419].

For Hume, the curbing of speculative thought among the people will discourage science, a bad thing; and in this horrible practice, Protestants have been as guilty as the Catholics.  Toleration, then, entails incorporation or co-option of social irritants; tolerated as long as the troublemakers do not stray from their assigned turf to convince others, that is until they switch allegiances, good opportunists and moral relativists that they are, jumping to a different prospect.  The reader may judge for herself to what degree Anne Hutchinson’s friends and enemies diverge from Hume’s centrist formulation, fed with controversy that is not too hot, not too cold, but [the] Just Right.

[i]. See Darret B. Rutman, Winthrop’s Boston(Chapel Hill, 1965): 121. In addition to the familiar epithets of “antinomian,” “Anabaptist,” “Familist,” and “Opinionist,” all of which connoted varieties of anarchy, free love, and even communal ownership, Rutman has uncovered the appellation, “this red Regiment.”

2. See T. Wilson Hayes, “John Everard and the Familist Tradition,” The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism, ed. Margaret C. Jacob and James Jacob (London, 1984): 60-61, 63.  Thomas Chaundler, a clothier, and Robert Sterete, a clerk, were arrested in 1561 and forced to give “lengthy confessions” about the practices of their Familist community.  They testified that “in their community they had all goods in common and met, thirty at a time, ‘to hear Scriptures expounded.’  The host furnished meat, drink and lodging for the night.  They attended church but objected to confessing to be ‘miserable sinners’ because such confessions lessened self-respect and made it more difficult to stop sinning.  They affirmed that all things are ruled by nature and not directed by God.  They prohibited weapons until they were attacked.  All marriages were performed ‘by the brethren’ and they allowed divorce by mutual consent after one year of marriage.  They denied that Christ is equal to God or is the son of God and believed that everyone must first be in error before understanding the truth.  They insisted that ‘heaven and hell are present in this world among us and that there is none other.’  They refused to hold funeral services or believe in the efficacy of church ceremonies, and thought all ministers should be itinerants and that every day should be a sabbath, for God made the earth to be enjoyed.  They believed Christ was in them, that there was a world before Adam’s time, that no one should be punished for his opinions, and, most important, that everyone has a right to interpret Scripture.”  If this community of Familists was typical, then there are no grounds for comparison between Hutchinsonian theology or social practice.  Hayes’ account differs from Larzer Ziff in Puritanism in America (N.Y.: Viking, 1973): 72.  Ziff writes, “‘Familists’ meant members of the Family of Love, a sect that believed that free love was a permitted result of the gracious life freed from the law.”  The Familists were merely a “counter-culture” “drawn from the disinherited of the earth” comforting themselves “in the little they do possess.”  Ziff’s description has trivialized the Familists and depoliticized their materialist challenge to the dominant culture.

For the Weld quote see David D. Hall ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638, A Documentary History (Middletown, 1968): 207-209.

3. The moderate David Hume, foe to all forms of zealotry, described the end of Cranmer, burned at the stake by the Catholic Queen Mary, but uncompromised and united to his principles: “It is pretended, that after his body was consumed, his heart was found entire and untouched among the ashes; an event which, as it was then the emblem of his constancy, was fondly believed by the zealous Protestants.”  Cf. the remains of “Ethan Brand,” the prideful autodidact who haunted Nathaniel Hawthorne. See David Hume, History of England Vol. 3 (Boston, 1856): 434.

4. Richard Brodhead, “The Book That Ruined Melville,” New York Times Book Review, 1/7/96, p.35.  Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Mrs. Hutchinson,” in Tales, Sketches and Other Papers (Cambridge, 1878): 224.  See also Michael J. Colacurcio, “Footsteps of Anne Hutchinson: The Context of the Scarlet Letter, “ ELH 39, #3 (1972): 459-94.  Anne Hutchinson was the symbol of libertarian revolt and cultural dissolution;  the Antinomian Controversy is the sub-text of The Scarlet Letter. Anne Hutchinson and John Cotton were parents of the “monstrous birth” Antinomianism, just as Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale produced the monstrous child Pearl.

5. Historians have not seen the original reports of the two trials, nor can it be known whether the first transcripts were accurate.  The first account of the civil trial was appended to Thomas Hutchinson, The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (Boston, 1767), but it was taken from “an ancient manuscript” which “may have disappeared in the sacking of Hutchinson’s house during the Stamp Act riots of 1765.  The proceedings of the church trial are an eighteenth-century copy of another lost “seventeenth-century original,” copied by Ezra Stiles, a Newport minister who became president of Yale College.  See Hall, Antinomian Controversy, 311, 350.

6. Rutman, Winthrop’s Boston, 146.

7. Lyle Koehler, William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, XXXII (January 1975): 170.

8. See James Axtell, The European and the Indian (N.Y.: 1981): 310.

9. Charles Francis Adams, Three Episodes of Massachusetts History Vol.II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903, Revised Edition).

10. See the Robert Altman-Donald Freed film Secret Honor, in which the Quaker Richard Nixon is dominated by his mother, the source of his over-reaching and tragic descent into madness.  First his mother’s little dog, he is set up to become the running dog of the fascistic nouveaux riche southwestern capitalists after the war.  It is hinted that the Eastern corporatist liberal establishment erred in not taking the talented young veteran and lawyer into their club; i.e., they lacked the necessary stabilizing pluralism that keeps capitalism afloat.

11. Quotes are from David Hume, History of England vol.3 (Boston, 1856), to be abbreviated HE

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