McCarthyism as Modern Witch Hunt in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible
Section I: Introduction
In Arthur Miller’s, The Crucible, paranoia, and suspicion loom over Salem Village as the story of the witch trials begins to unfold. In 1862, Reverend Parris kneels before the bed of his daughter Betty to pray to God that she wakes from her comatose state. Rumors that Betty has fallen victim to witchcraft have started to take root in people’s minds. Reverend Parris sends for Reverend John Hale of Beverly, an expert on witchcraft, to determine whether Betty truly is afflicted or bewitched. Prior to these events, Parris had discovered his niece, Abigail Williams, along with Betty and several other girls, dancing in the forest in the middle of the night with his slave, Tituba. Abigail denies engaging in witchcraft and states that when caught dancing Betty fainted from the shock and has since been able to wake up. Parris fears that this scandal would spread and drive him out of his ministerial office, the most powerful office in his village. As the story unfolds many innocent fall victims to the villager’s delusions and sin, and hysteria swept the village causing people to be hungover false accusations, land, and success.
Section II: Biographical
In 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9835, which required all federal civil-service employees to be screened for “loyalty”. This order mentioned that the basis for deciding someone’s disloyalty would be finding that said person was involved in or affiliated with any totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive organizations. The period known as the McCarthy Era began before the involvement of Joseph McCarthy but took deeper root with his direct involvement when he made a speech on Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950, to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling. In his speech he mentioned, 'I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department'. This speech resulted in a flood of attention from the press and it helped establish his path to becoming one of the most recognized politicians in the U.S. Wrongful and spiteful accusations began to creep over America as celebrities and federal employees, even regular citizens where selling out neighbors and friends. This caused hysteria among many in office and those in the public eye. People were pointing fingers at each other and ruining lives without concrete evidence of Communist or anti-patriotic involvement. Arthur Miller believed that this was a parallel in history, that the tactics employed by officials during the Salem witch trials were too like the one's officials employed in their hunt for “Reds” during the 1940s and 1950s. In an article written by Arthur Miller and published by The New Yorker the states, “The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties: the old friend of a blacklisted person crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him; the overnight conversions of former leftists into born-again patriots; and so on. Apparently, certain processes are universal”.
Section III: Historical Persecution of Witches
The history of witches is unclear as to when they appeared in time but early records and texts from the Bible support appearances around 1000 B.C. One of the earliest records comes the book of Samuel in the Bible, written between 950 B.C. and 725 B.C. The story says that King Saul sought the Witch of Endor to help him summon the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel so that he may defeat the Philistine Army. The witch conjured the spirit of Samuel, who prophesied the death of Saul and his sons. The next day his sons were defeated in battle and King Saul committed suicide shortly after defeat. The texts do not supply information on whether the Witch of Endor was persecuted after the king’s death. In Europe, 2000 years past the events that led to King Saul’s death, witches would be persecuted for centuries as Christianity and religions like Christianity began to make efforts to expand and strengthen their faith across the known world. The 16th Century was rampant of witch trials in Europe, and many lasted through half of the 17th Century. One of the many to start the 16th Century was the Trier Witch Trials in Germany, which would last over 10 years and claimed about 368 people. The accused would be burnt alive for their crimes in witchcraft, among them people of both sexes, all ages, and all classes. Among the victims, 108 were men, women, and children of the nobility, and people with positions in the government and administration. Between 1640 and 1740 Witch trials would see a decline in occurrences in Europe and the American colonies. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 put an end to witch hunts by making it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practicing witchcraft, it was passed by the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Section IV: McCarthyism
McCarthyism is defined as the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, especially of pro-Communist activity, in many instances unsupported by proof or based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence. In 1950 the United States of America had just finished WWII and the threat of the Cold War loomed, with fear of communism spreading to the free world the USA began enforcing the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act. McCarthy noticed the fears of the American public but because it was not illegal to be a communist, he began charging people with subversion. Subversion is the systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by the persons working within it, so that he did, he began to work prosecuting them for selling American secret information to communist governments. Soon after he made his speech on Lincoln Day, Americans became frenzied to name and remove communists from offices of power and politicians began to attack his claims. McCarthy would then embark on what some called “witch hunts” to root out and indict all the communist sympathizers using controversial techniques and making accusations with little to no evidence. Similarly, in The Crucible, many characters begin to name others as witches without concrete evidence. During trial when Abigail and the other young girls begin to point fingers at others because they simply felt backed into a corner. It would be easy for Senator McCarthy to get rid of his opponents when the public and other official members are scared due to hysteria over communism, using that to his advantage he could potentially ruin many people’s lives. Arthur Miller ended up a victim to McCarthy’s witch hunts over communism, he became blacklisted by Hollywood for resisting to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities in 1957.
The investigations led by McCarthy in the 1950s was influenced by his traditional American values as well as his sense of high social morality. Therefore, his investigations may have been nothing but bias as well as self-indulging as he may have felt he had the right to socially murder these people based on race, sexuality, position in the office, and religion. This is where the parallels begin to form as similar issues happened in The Crucible. Many were put to the gallows because someone considered them not religious enough due to the effortless way they had been “manipulated” by the devil. Others betrayed their spouses by having affairs and the resentment they felt may have been causing for accusations. Such is the case of Elizabeth and John Proctor, prior to the witch trials John Proctor had an affair with Abigail, who at the time worked as a house cleaner for the Proctors. This may have sealed John Proctors' fate at the gallows from the moment it happened. Speculation of course but nonetheless the opportunity arose, and he met his fate. McCarthyism claimed its victims throughout the years, but none were put to death. Social death due to people who had been blacklisted was unable to find work, this was mostly in Hollywood where over 300 people were denied employment because they had been blacklisted. This went on for years, ruining lives, and It was not only in Hollywood, this happened all throughout the United States, people were being blacklisted as communists over grudges, arguments, or paranoia.
Section V: Puritanism and Communism
Puritanism began in North America in the years of 1630 when Puritans immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other settlements along the northern region. The immigration came to a halt by 1641 with around 21,000 having moved across the Atlantic Ocean. Puritan leadership lasted for about a century and was divided among three different generations: the generation of John Cotton, Richard Mather, and Increase Mather. Although the Salem witch trials occurred after the Puritans had lost political control over the Massachusetts Colony if they had full power and authority the event could have been on a larger scale. The Puritans believed that God had formed a special covenant just for them, their church attendance was mandatory and absence would be noted, in order to become part of the church you had to prove your faith, that being said their religion and politics were intertwined. Many in both The Crucible and during the McCarthy trials used their power to prosecute people without proof. In the early age of Puritanism, the Bible condemned witches many believed they must be punished for their witchcraft at once. Often citing the Old Testament verse Exodus 22:18, which says, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. During the Second Red Scare, many in the political office said it would be un-American to let the sympathizers run free without any punishment, using similar tactics to the ones employed in the witch trials. In the Crucible the townspeople were unwilling to stand up against the court out of fear of being accused as witches. Similarly, the media would not stand up to McCarthy out of fear of being accused of being a communist. McCarthy’s claims ruined many people's lives and led to increased hostility in politics and around the nation, as in The Crucible the girls' claim also ruined many people’s lives and spread hostility and hysteria to Salem Village and the villages in the surrounding areas.
Section VI: Conclusion
In conclusion, throughout history, there has always been a struggle with evidence and claims being supported by non-factual information and speculation. In the Crucible as well as the McCarthy Trials, both Senator McCarthy and Abigail along with the children she used to tell lies stand for the corruption of humanity. Both parties used lies and false claims for personal gain in their communities and platform. By spreading lies McCarthy made people focus on something that simply was not happening at the time, or perhaps if it was happening it was not as large scale as he believed it to be. In the Crucible, religion and politics were intertwined and things were messy not only because according to the bible witches should not be allowed to live, but something needed to be done about the crisis at hand. Were science more advanced in the 17th Century many would have been spared and lives not ruined. Arthur Miller did a wonderful job explaining how the government and religion can influence us through the media to act a certain way or feel paranoid without proof or evidence of wrongdoings.
- Works Cited
- Achter, PaulAchter J. “McCarthyism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 20 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/McCarthyism.
- 'Foreign Relations of The United States, 1952–1954, General: Economic and Political Matters, Volume I, Part 2 - Office of The Historian'. History. State. Gov, 2019, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v01p2/d174.
- Exodus. The Bible. KJV ed. Church of England: King James, 1611.
- Miller, Arthur et al. 'Why Arthur Miller Wrote “The Crucible”'. The New Yorker, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/10/21/why-i-wrote-the-crucible.
- Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.