Salem and Philadelphia: A Tale of Two Cities

CONSIDER Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s — a small Puritan town about 16 miles north of Boston. Salem was, as you know, the site of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692-3. Wikipedia informs us, with our bold font added:

The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex Counties of colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused who were not formally pursued by the authorities. The two courts convicted twenty-nine people of the capital felony of witchcraft. Nineteen of the accused, fourteen women and five men, were hanged. One man (Giles Cory) who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to do so. At least five more of the accused died in prison.

Those were the good old days. None of that separation-of-church-and-state nonsense for those folks!

Thirteen years later in nearby Boston, Benjamin Franklin was born. Quoting his Wikipedia entry:

Franklin is credited as being foundational to the roots of American values and character, a marriage of the practical and democratic Puritan values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment.

Franklin moved to Philadelphia at age 17, so our title contrasts that city, where Franklin achieved fame and fortune, with Salem, roughly 30 years earlier during the glory days of the witch trials. Two colonial American cities, not far apart in time or space — and yet they were worlds apart.

Observe, dear reader, the high place that Franklin holds in American history, compared to that of Cotton Mather. Although he lived in neighboring Boston and wasn’t a judge or prosecutor at any witch trials, Mather was a principal influence on and is closely associated with the Salem proceedings. What is the cause of the vast chasm that separates the reputations of Franklin and Mather? Why is one man universally admired, while the other is someone most of us would cross the street to avoid?

We’ve written before about the Enlightenment — particularly the Scottish Enlightenment, which (quoting from the linked article) “… asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason.” The difference between Cotton Mather’s Salem and Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia was entirely due to the Enlightenment’s influence.

Franklin’s life is as well-known as anyone’s in America. Try to imagine what his life would have been if he had lived 30 years earlier in Salem. Franklin was a bit of a rogue, and was reputed to be a womanizer. His writings weren’t what one would describe as pious in nature. The Wikipedia article on Franklin mentions one of his livelier works, which is used as the title for this collection of his essays: Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School.

Franklin was also an important researcher into the nature of electricity. In addition to his theoretical work, his invention of the lightning rod was an extraordinary benefit to mankind. Had there been a Nobel Prize for physics in those days, he surely would have won it.

How would Franklin have fared in Salem, had he been living there during the witchcraft mania? We’ll leave it to your judgment. According to a book review in the New York Times about Stealing God’s Thunder — Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, By Philip Dray:

The clergy turned a disapproving eye on Franklin’s great invention, the lightning rod. Who was he to disturb the instruments of divine wrath? Even Jean-Antoine Nollet, one of France’s foremost lightning researchers, warned that it was ”as impious to ward off Heaven’s lightnings as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father.”

Franklin was amused. ”Surely the Thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the Rain, Hail or Sunshine of Heaven, against the Inconvenience of which we guard by Roofs & Shades without Scruple,” he wrote to a friend.

Is there any doubt what would have been Franklin’s fate in old Salem? Think about it. And then think about what America might have been if the intellectual climate of Salem, not Philadelphia, had become that of the new nation.

We can hear you now, saying: That’s all very nice, Curmudgeon, but what does this have to do with evolution and creationism?

Our answer is simple. But first we must remind you: When we speak of creationists, bear in mind that there’s a big difference between someone: (a) who believes in a creator; and (b) who also believes in creationism. The former is likely to be a gentle soul and doesn’t concern us here. The latter is a “creationist,” who not only believes things for which there is no evidence, but who insists on beliefs that are contradicted by readily observable evidence, and who denies tested, well-supported scientific theories.

The advocates of mandatory creationism in government schools have much more in common with Cotton Mather than they do with Ben Franklin. They have pre-Enlightenment intellects, and would fit right in if they were living in Salem during the 1690s. It’s their great misfortune to be born in a far better age than the one for which they are suited.

We, who find it entirely congenial to live in the post-Enlightenment world, cannot allow ourselves to be dragged backwards by the intellectual descendants of the Salemites among us. Any compromise with such people is a huge step backwards. You know what they would do to you if they could.

That is why there can be no middle course when dealing with creationists. No cease-fire agreements. No concessions. None, not ever — unless you want to nourish the spirit of Cotton Mather and Salem, so they can rise up to destroy the Enlightenment legacy of Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia.

See also: Jack Chick & the Salem Witch Trials.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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5 responses to “Salem and Philadelphia: A Tale of Two Cities

  1. That is why there can be no middle course when dealing with creationists. No cease-fire agreements. No concessions.

    Amen brother!

  2. Radioastronomer

    “so they can rise up to destroy the Enlightenment legacy”

    This brings to mind “The Drumhead”:

    “Villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged. ”

    ” She, or someone like her, will always be with us – waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay. “

  3. Holy cow!

    First it was Gumlegs, now RA….. I’m shocked, shocked by the sorts of people the Curmudgeon allows to post here….


  4. Longie says: “I’m shocked, shocked by the sorts of people the Curmudgeon allows to post here….”

    I had thought that your presence would be sufficient to drive everyone else away, but things must be desperate out there in cyberspace. Good people are coming here anyway.