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A Historical Journey Through The American Conscience: The Public And Its Courts

1739 words - 7 pages

America has long taken pride in being a nation of idealism and of freedom. Still, while these values have remained constant, other areas of the American mindset have evolved repeatedly over the brief course of America’s history. Nothing could illustrate this change more than the complex, developing, relationship between American citizens and their criminal justice system. Each era of American history shows the mindset of its time through the courts. From the extreme Puritans, and their deeply spiritual, irrational cases, to the politically charged events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and forward into the hodgepodge of contemporary justice, one can read the American conscience by examining the criminal cases at its forefront. Reflecting on American history, the public’s tumultuous relationship with justice forms an accurate timeline of the American mentality at that given time.
The earliest Americans, the Puritans, emphasized mass religious zeal with unparalleled tenacity. With it, they valued practicality, hard work, and independent spirit. No case illustrates the societal importance of those core values quite like the Salem Witch Trials. The proceedings clearly show the mentality of the average Puritan at that delicate time: paranoid, fearful, and apt to rash decision-making. Indeed, rumors of satanic activity would lead to an extreme every-man-for-himself situation, urged on by the preexisting, rough conditions of the rocky terrain and holy standards. Beginning in 1692, “amid local conflict, [and] political instability,” hysteria swept Massachusetts, taking with it, seemingly, all potential for rational thought. A group of young girls shot accusatory barbs at various people in their town of Salem. Because of the fragile state of the community, the townspeople believed the girls without inquiry, leading to the trials of approximately 185 individuals. In the end, Puritan society was forever marred, and the majestic vision of the City upon a Hill vanished as quickly as the memories of those involved in the Trials. A rare case where public outrage preceded trial, the Salem Witch Trials are infamous, spawning a myriad of inspired works, for complete absurdity and irrationality. The cause for all of the public uproar was, at the root, questionably more reasonable. To the citizens of Massachusetts, witchcraft, or any rumors of it, represented a threat to society. After having built an entire community on the strength of united worship, this unkempt intruder had the potential to tear it all to shreds. Indeed, what a coincidence it was that the very thing the Puritans feared the most, the devil, had come to destroy them. Witchcraft, contrasted against goodness, is portrayed as messy and completely impractical. If fear was not present in the Puritans prior to this incident, it had certainly been incited. Hence, that was what America was at its founding: afraid. This ethos of angst sums up the entire Puritan experience, but America...

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