Sunday, July 16, 2017

Frontier Atrocity by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich



On 9 July 1809 in Holloway, Maine ( site of what was later to become Augusta) James Purrington, a recent settler in the community) slaughtered his wife and six of his children with an axe and fatally slashed his own throat with a razor. Midwife Martha Ballard was a near neighbor. In her diary she wrote:


My husband went and returned before sunrise when after taking a little food he and In went on to the house there to behold the most shocking scein that was Even seen in this part of the world. May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take a suitable notice of this horrid deed, learn wisdom therefrom.

Later, she described the funeral as


A sollom specttacle to behold. May we all learn a profitable lesson from this dreadful scein and may it please the God that rules to Sanctify this affliction to the surviving relatives . . .


 Martha’s  prayer no doubt echoed Mr. Taylor’s sermon – and hundreds of others she had heard in her seventy-one years- though it wasn’t the sermon but the pageantry of the occasion that impressed her most powerfully, the ritualistic arrangements of the bodies, the funeral march, and the hundreds of people crowded in nearby houses, in the streets, on the tops of buildings. There had not been an event like this in Augusta since the commemoration of George Washington’s death six years before.

The essential point for Martha, however, was that God was in control, that he had the power to “sanctify” as well as to destroy.


For some of her contemporaries, the lessons were more complex. By 1806, religious dissent in the region had increased. New sects were growing surprisingly strong, making the old divisions among Congregationalists seem tame. In 1780, all the churches in Lincoln County, whatever the differences among them, had been Congregational; by 1800, in the by then two counties of Lincoln and Kennebec, sectarian churches – Separate Baptist, Free-will Baptist, Methodist, and Universalist – outnumbered orthodox congregations by almost three to one.


It was inevitable that the Purrington murders should feed into growing anxiety over religious dissent in the region. Congregationalists along the Kennebec continued to squabble among themselves while Methodists, Free-Will Baptists, Universalists and even Shakers took their members. Martha’s neighbors were among those affected. “There were 6 persons Baptised by imertion at Sidney,” she wrote on 4 August 1805. “Mrs. Andrus was one.” James Purrington, it was said, had dabbled in more than one heterodox creed.

In his broadside “Horrid Murders” Peter Edes, editor of the Kennebec Gazette had noted that the murderer was “warm believer in the fatal doctrine of universal salvation, “ but made no effort to exploit the fact. Within days, Edes had accumulated enough additional information to amplify this explanation into a twenty-page pamphlet giving a more detailed account of the murder, a sketch of the life of Captain Purrington, and “Remarks on the fatal tendency of erroneous principles, and Motives for receiving and obeying the pure and salutary precepts of the gospel: “Unbelief in the superintending providence of God, and human accountability, is a principle which opens the door to every vice.” Edes quoted “a respectable gentleman in Bowdoinham” who affirmed that


about twenty years ago he (Capt.P.) jopoined the (Calvinistic) Baptist Church in Bowdoinham, and continued in their fellowship several years; till he imbibed the sentiments of the Freewill Baptists; for which he was cut off from the church. He was not a Universalist till some years since. I have conversed with several of his former neighbors, who unanimously testify that he was a Fatalist”



If Edes’s account is correct, Purrington’s life recapitulated the religious history of the region. In towns like Bowdoinham, already split by Baptist and New Light revivals, the heterodox teachings of the Free-Will Baptists and Universalists found fertile soil. Both groups challenged the central Calvinist doctrine that God predestined some souls for salvation, others for damnation. The Free-Will Baptists believed sinners chose to accept or reject Christ’s atonement; the Universalists argued that all od’s children would be saved. The emphasis of both groups on “a benevolent God, human perfectibility, universal non-penal atonement, and free grace for all believers” allied them with liberal  Arminians in New England’s urban centers – Edes pamphlet associated Purrington’s universalism with the “fearless impiety of a Paine and the unrestrained licentiousness of a Godwin” – yet both groups were evangelicals rather than rationalists. They were powerful precisely because they grafted their optimistic doctrines onto the experiential, charismatic religion familiar from earlier revivals. In light of the Free-Will challenge, Bowdoinham’s Calvinist  Baptists described themselves as “ a fold in the midst of wolves, or a defenseless flock surrounded with . . prowling multitudes.”



Of the two groups, the Universalists appeared most threatening because they undermined the socially useful distinction between the saved and the damned. How could society survive once the doctrine of an eternal judgment was destroyed? In a sermon preached at Bowdoinham ten days after the murders, Timothy Merritt argued that the first and moving cause of Purrington’s murders was disbelief inn the Providence of God: “Though he died seized of a large estate, he was under apprehension that his family would come to want.” But second only to his lack of faith in God’s superintending care was his belief in the doctrine of universal salvation.


 You all know, that for some years past, he has professed to believe firmly that all mankind, immediately upon leaving the body, go to a state of the most perfect rest and enjoyment: and to my certain knowledge he denied the doctrine of a day of judgment and retribution. Of course it was no question with him whether his family were regenerate, or born again, or in other words, whether they were prepared for so sudden a remove from this world. It was, therefore, natural, and what anyone would do under the same circumstances, to endeavor to prevent the anticipated trouble in his family, and make them all forever happy. There is every reason to believe that this was his real motive.


As a good Calvinist, Merritt could not let his congregation rest there, however. Purrington’s sins were natural because they mirrored the fundamental errors of humankind. Gently, he led his listeners from comfort to discomfort, from calm reassurance in the face of evil to jolting reminders of their own culpability. The murders forced Purrington’s neighbors to recognize the depravity of human nature, the frailty of life, and the folly of trusting in any earthly thing, including their nearest and dearest relations. “We may bolt our doors at night against thieves and robbers, but bolts are no security to life;- the assassin is within.”


This is not said with a view to excite jealousies and fears between friends and connections; nor to destroy that subordinate confidence which husband and wife, parents and children, reasonably repose in each other; but merely to shew you your real circumstances, and bring you to put your highest trust in God alone, where it ought to be placed.

If given the opportunity to answer Merritt’s accusations, the Universalists surely would have argued that the doctrine of universal salvation nurtured righteousness rather than sin, that their teachings were no more to blame for Purrington’s murders than the Congregationalist doctrine for Henry McCausland’s slaughter of Abigail Warren thirteen years before [ God called him to save Maine for the Congregationalists- he was deemed insane]. Universalists would have distained Calvinist efforts to breed fear in the hearts of their listeners; surely a true knowledge of God’s love was a more powerful motive for good than an erroneous fear of God’s wrath.


Despite differences in emphasis, however, the arguments of both groups began at the same point – predestination – and ended with the same consolation – ultimate trust in God’s goodness.


The oral history of Universalism contains an account of a triumphant sermon preached by Father Barnes of Portland, Maine, when all the Congregationalist ministers in the region refused to officiate at the funeral of a suicide. The theme of Barnes’  sermon – “when all the designs of God inn apparent ills are seen through, and his benevolent purposes understood, all that is now dark will become light” - is ultimately indistinguishable from Merritt’s argument – “When we see that God has suffered these evils, we are to conclude that he has acted upon some wise and benevolent principle, worthy of himself.” God is all powerful and all good. We must submit to his judgments. It is thee theology which underlines the religious sentiments in Martha Ballard’s diary: “May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take sutable notis of this horrid, deed, learn wisdom therefrom.”


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Indian Country by Neil Rolde

“ Half convinced, half constrained, the Indians go off to dwell in new wilderness, where the white men will not let him remain in peace for ten years. In this way, the Americans cheaply acquire whole provinces which the richest  sovereigns in Europe could not afford to buy.” – Alexis de Tocqueville


Lewis Cass, secretary of war under Jackson and Democratic candidate in 1848, stated the matter quite baldly. In order for the Indians not to become extinct, “it would be necessary that our frontiers cease to expand and the savages settle beyond them." – a situation he deemed unlikely.


The east-west frontier expanded right up to the Pacific, every child in America knows. That the Indians never did become extinct (  The death of the last ostensible survivor, a  Mrs. Elizabeth George Plouffe, on 6 June 1973 was a signal for that to happen to the Pequots), we also know as a truism. So what was done with them?


The road to the present in the philosophies and programs of the federal government has used in dealing with the “Indian problem” is littered with milestones – more like gravestones – of policies that didn’t work and took a heavy toll on those they were alleged to help – the Indians. Words like “allotment” and “termination” are now but dim memories, dredged up by historians of the zigzags of federal policy towards the tribes. Who remembers the Dawes Act, named for Massachusetts Senator Henry L. Dawes, who though he was doing the Indians a favor by teaching them the virtues of “selfishness” Carlisle College, if remembered at all, is done so for Jim Thorpe’s football prowess, not as part of a concerted effort to separate Indian children from their parents and drill into them, as if they were juvenile West Pointers, the white man’s superior culture.


John Collier’s name is all but forgotten today, except by sensitive Indians, for he was the BIA director under the New Deal, who strove valiantly to let the Indians be themselves and run their own affairs. Was the Indians Claims Commission, finally established by law in 1946, after many years of trying, really a big step forward in settling Indian land claims, or just an impediment, as it seemed to Tom Tureen in prosecuting the Maine Indians’ claim? Who could believe today that the hated ‘termination’ attempts, started in the Eisenhower administration, of stripping the tribes of their independent status and their link to the federal government would be finally halted by Richard Nixon?



Among the more polemic of current American Indian writers, it is fashionable to accuse white Americans of concerted, deliberate genocide vis-à-vis the native tribes. Certainly, there were those who acted upon the statement that ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”   In Maine we had our James Cargill who, when acquitted of murdering peaceable Indian men, women and children, cynically demanded scalp bounties for his victims. [ Passamaquoddy leader Joseph “Cozy” Nicholas  agreed  that “The Indian population inn the U.S. has increased quite a bit – especially since John Wayne died”).  But in defense the argument is offered that no announced, official intent existed, as in Nazi Germany, to wipe out an entire people, and that many “righteous Americans” were friends of the Indians, like Thomas L. McKenney or Helen Hunt Jackson, author of A Century of Dishonor, who blew the whistle on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, or Warren K. Moorehead, the archaeologist who condemned the allotment frauds inn Oklahoma’s and issue A Plea for Justice, his 19124 book detailing his experiences as a conscientious member of the Board of Indian Commissioners.



Even Henry L. Dawes expressed no intent to harm the Indians; he simply believed selfishness was the root of advanced civilization and couldn’t understand why Indians were not motivated to possess and achieve more than their neighbors. His belief in the civilizing power of private property was absolute and, to him, to be civilized was to “wear civilized clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey, and own property.” On the latter score, his “allotment” scheme was guaranteed to do exactly that. The Indian Country West of the Mississippi given to the displaced “civilized tribes” like the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, etc. was to be broken up into individual allotments, so that each Indian would have his or her own homestead. The “surplus” tribal land not needed for this purpose was to be sold to the U.S. government and redistributed to non-Indians.


Senator Henry Teller of Colorado saw Dawes’s bill in a different light. Its real aim, he argued in debate, was “to get at the Indians’ land and open it up for resettlement.” In February 1887 the Dawes Act became law, was not repealed until after the Meriam Report of 1928, and caused Oklahoma Indians, alone, by 1934 to lose almost three-quarters of their land – a reduction from 138 million acres to 47 million acres. Land theft, yes, but genocide?


The use of such emotional language was concurrent with the rise of Indian activism that emerged inn the 1960s as long-simmering Indian grievances began to come to a boil. In the interim a period of passivity had seemingly set in among the tribes, compounded by a steady loss of population and dependency on others once their traditional modes of living were no longer possible.


Maine, itself, was something of a backwater, and the condition of its tribes and bands in the latter half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century was close to invisible – a mere curiosity, if noted at all.



Lives of quiet desperation – to use Thoreau’s expression- were being lived among the Penobscots, Passamaquoddy, Maliseets, and Micmacs, and the rest of the state and the world barely noticed.


[The invocation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790- by which no agreement with the Indians could be made without an Act of Congress, which was ignored by Massachusetts and subsequently by the State of Maine from the beginning- in the Land Claims Suit- settled in 1980- changed things but did not solve all the tribes’ problems, e.g. their fight for the environment and the right to open a casino. ]

 The book profiles  Maine Indians, their history  and their leaders in great detail.  He has traveled broadly in the "Fourth World" of indigenous peoples world-wide and has great Bibliography.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Reply to Chomsky by Chris Knight



Letters, LRB 13 July 2017

Much as I  admire Noam Chomsky’s politics, I have to take him to task for trying to dragoon sympathizers like myself into accepting his linguistics as ‘science’ ( Letters, 15 June). I can’t accept that the biological capacity underlying language didn’t gradually evolve, that it had no precursors but instead sprang up, perfectly formed, via a single mutation, or that it wasn’t designed for communication but remained inactive in speechless individuals for millennia following its installation. These notions are so asocial, apolitical and devoid of practical application that I can only assume Chomsky favored them to keep his conscience clear: he needed them to ensure that his militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use.

That is the argument of my book: not that Chomsky colluded with his military sponsors but that, given his situation at MIT, he had to move mountains to avoid collusion. In his letter, Chomsky claims that I sidestep his central role in resisting the US war effort in Vietnam. In fact his courageous resistance to the US war machine is my central theme. Had these not been his politics, he wouldn’t have needed to make his work under military funding so utterly useless.


Chomsky says that if my argument were true, it would have been logical for him to have switched between one approach to language and another as military funding waxed and waned. But  his entire intellectual milieu was shaped by military preoccupations, the dream of accurate machine translation among them. Chomsky’s concept of language as


I accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been just as scientifically credible whether funded by the church, the military or no one at all,. But when something doesn’t work as science, makes no sense, has no practical application and essentially no connection to the rest of science? Then we have to seek a different explanation for its prevalence.

London SE22