Colonial New England underwent a rapid series of changes in the century that passed between its worst armed conflict with local Indians, known as Metacom's or King Philip's War, and the American Revolution. The devout Puritan beliefs that had shaped settlement in the early seventeenth century were challenged both from without and from within. External threats to the established Puritan order came from Native American attacks on frontier settlements and an influx of new Protestant denominations, while internal challenges arose from new theological ideas emphasizing direct accountability to God (which led the faithful to challenge church authority on behalf of private revelation) and extreme fears of damnation and the devil (which fueled the massive hysteria of the Salem witch trials). During this period of spiritual tumult, New England's white settlers continued to multiply in number, to transform the landscape with their imported customs, tools, and livestock, and to spread westward as land became increasingly coveted and difficult to obtain in the older towns. Meanwhile, the region's Native Americans sought redress from the colonial government on behalf of their rights, seeking to adapt to changing circumstances while still maintaining a sense of their core tribal identities.
What can the seemingly distant and obscure facts of life in colonial New England—a land of Indian wars and witch trials, proto-capitalists and Puritans— possibly have to do with your twenty-first century life? What can that far-off place teach us about our own times?
A lot. Or at least that's what Nathaniel Hawthorne (one of our greatest novelists) and Arthur Miller (one of our greatest playwrights) thought. Each looked at aspects of society in colonial New England and found a story with myriad implications for their own generations.
When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and set the story in seventeenth- century New England, he described a specific, long-lost time and place even while capturing a universal truth about the complex interplay of morality, guilt, and social condemnation. His protagonist, the adulteress Hester Prynne, was too individualistic to completely internalize the public scorn heaped upon her by the conformist society of Puritan New England, symbolized by the scarlet "A" branded onto her chest. Even today Hawthorne's work reminds us that every society has its mavericks, who suffer the stigma of being unorthodox or independent thinkers. And while the Puritans seemed to be very homogenous on the surface, when you get a closer look you might find that they harbored serious internal divisions.
When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, a play about the late-seventeenth- century Salem witch trials, he was actually telling a parable about the paranoia of his own society in 1953. Joseph McCarthy was vigorously pursuing Communists both real and imaginary in controversial hearings that were often compared to witch hunts. So Miller utilized historical research he had conducted as a college student to write The Crucible as a parable of McCarthyism: a tale of paranoia, rampant accusations, and unfounded condemnations. It has been his most frequently produced play.
Both Hawthorne and Miller composed fictional works based on real events during the colonial era in New England. Both understood some of the broader themes we can draw from history; both made that history their own.
So here is the history itself, facts and all. Interpret away; you're in good company.