American Civilization is bleeding itself

(This essay, edited, was originally published by on February 22, 2018.)

In comparison to the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the violent incident a few days earlier at my granddaughter’s high school in our cozy, comfortable New England town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was insignificant. Marcus Schlip, 22, assaulted the physical education teacher to gain entry to the gym, after which he told all the students to line up against the wall because he was now in charge. Luckily, he carried merely a knife which remained in his backpack. This episode—however less violent than the Parkland massacre—still traumatized my granddaughter.

America remains positively “exceptional” in so many ways; however, in the area of gun control & personal safety, it—among modern, industrialized countries—stands egregiously apart. According to, gun death in America, 1999-2015, was the number one cause of homicide, of suicide, and of death by gunshot from legal intervention. During that period, America averaged over 33,000 gun deaths each year. The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2014 America had 33,594 firearm deaths. From 2001 to 2010, close to 120,000 Americans were murdered by guns, 18 times all American combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These data and other contrast with data from other modern, industrialized countries where gun deaths are rare. In Germany, two of every million die by gunshot from another person, about the same rate as in the Netherlands and in Austria. In Poland and in England, the figure is less—about one in every million. In Japan it is even rarer: one in ten million, similar to the rate of Americans killed by lightning. In comparison, the rate in America is 31 per million. For men 15-29, gun homicides are the third leading cause of death after accidents and suicides.

In his magisterial work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond arrives at five key factors which determined the fates of societies. In the many he examines, past and present day, he asserts that the only factor significant for all societies is the decisions they make facing their challenges.

At this point in the story of American civilization, one of these key decisions regards national culture and policy on gun control-personal safety. Our current culture, and the policies rooted in it, are unsustainable. Civilizations whose citizens kill each other at such a high rate cannot persist, especially if they kill their young at high rates. When we lose young people, we lose their potential positive impact. Our sense of personal safety declines, replaced by fear. Especially in school shootings, our children grow more fearful. These impacts hinder our civilization’s progress at home and influence abroad.

Compared to other developed countries, our dominant views and policies on the subject are indisputably backward. During my six years in Germany as an army officer, I had numerous conversations with my German friends about Germany’s completely different culture on gun ownership. Gun ownership there is a privilege, not a right, enshrined 230 years ago in the country’s constitution. To purchase a gun in Germany, it takes months to earn the certificate validating one’s skill with a weapon and its ammunition. You must show that you can store it safely, in a place in which only you have access. You must be at least 18, and if you are under 25, a psychological exam is required showing your fitness. Each new gun purchased must be registered. Günter Lach, a member of Parliament in 2015 and avid marksman, said that in Germany, “at any given moment, you know where a gun is.”

In France, as well, guns are highly regulated. A hunting license is required before a rifle can be purchased. For buying a gun to be used at a firing range, the police must approve one’s application. All guns must be registered, and it is illegal to possess military-grade weapons. Gun buyers must provide a medical certificate of mental and physical fitness to own a weapon.

As for all the arguments that gun advocates assert, they may have their merits, but these are drowned out by our current realities. The inordinate gun deaths year after year indicate their views, and the laws and policies stemming from them, are not working for our civilization, which is bleeding itself and failing to provide safety for its children. Abraham Lincoln’s words ring true: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our … [children].”

While we have the Second Amendment, we have no amendment enshrining the right to contribute to American civilization or for a child to live without fear. Perhaps we need one. I am sure that Thomas Jefferson would agree. I wish all who disagree could have seen the fear in my granddaughter’s eyes.

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches Western Civilization and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI, and is a columnist for the Newport Daily News.

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America’s Story Must Evolve with Changing Demographics

(This essay was originally published, abridged, as “Changing demographics: The Battle for America’s Story” on February 10, 2018, at

All great countries, empires, and civilizations have their stories—grand narratives that consist of both truth and myth—which serve as part of the glue which coheres and perpetuates them, along with such factors as race, language, religion, cultural rituals, and significant historical events. However, while founding chapters of a great country’s epic may become fixed with time, the later chapters of the story can never be static; rather, they must change when the country endures a significant historical event or era and also when the country’s demographics change. If the American story is to endure and serve as force of unity, it must change with our changing demographics.

The ancient Greeks had their Iliad and Odyssey, which related the story of the beginnings of ancient Hellas and reflected the aristocratic, heroic values they cherished. These works served as the basis of Greek identity and of their ethical code for a thousand years. Ancient Greece’s story was shaken by the Peloponnesian War, a war lasting 27 years in which—Thucydides tells us—at one time or another just about the entire Greek world was involved.

The ancient Romans had their Aeneid along with their foundation myth of Romulus and Remus, which served to explain the beginnings of the Roman Empire. The magnificent story of the Roman Empire which sprang forth was eventually subverted when the Asiatic and Germanic tribes penetrated its over-extended frontier in the second through fifth centuries. It was also changed decisively when its population turned increasingly toward Christianity. By the end of the 4th century, the emperor declared it the official religion of the empire.

The traditional American epic begins with the age of European exploration and includes as its salient points the American Revolution, the Civil War, the conquering of the American West, America’s rise as a world power, the waves of immigration propelling its development, and its significant role in winning the two worlds wars. After that, the story as epic—marred with dark chapters but overall a beautiful, positive narrative of expansion and progress–becomes more muddied and non-linear.

Resilient epics are not static, they must evolve with significant events but also with the changing demographics of the population. There is no question that demographics will be a key factor in the future evolution of the American story. Demographic trends indicate that the white-alone American majority is declining. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that between 2010 and 2015, the white-alone population (not Hispanic or Latino) decreased from 63.7% to 61.6%, while Hispanic or Latino, Black, and Asian populations all increased marginally, totaling 36.5% of the population. In March of 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that by 2020 more than half of the country’s children will be minority race, and that this shift will take place for the population as a whole in 2044. It also indicated that the fastest growing segment of the next decades will be people from “two or more races.”

As an American of diverse blood who has taught U.S. History for the past 20 years, I can assure America’s people of color that at least some of their sub-stories are in the current American narrative as manifested in conventional U.S. History texts. The blood on the hands of European-Americans is visible. For African-Americans, the story covers the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, colonial slavery, slavery and Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century.

For others, I can testify to the coverage of such episodes as the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, and the struggle of Latino migrants workers. With the success of such books as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the American story will and must again be amplified and enriched with the sub-stories of yet other peoples who have come to America. For example, in a recent interview in Foreign Policy, Daily Show comedian Hasan Minhaj said, “New Brown America represents a whole generation of kids who are either descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves, who are coming to America and enriching what it means to be American.” … “We’re adding to that narrative.”

The battle for the future of America’s story, specifically as a binding force, will turn on some key questions. Among them: For the fading white-only population, how open will it be to changes which make the story even more faithful to the struggle of people of color? For blacks, when will the national original sin of slavery be sufficiently redeemed? How open will they be to include the even earlier original sin of their own people in Africa, without which the Atlantic slave trade would not have flourished? And for all of us: what is our common, unassailable American Creed? How are we to endure as a nation of nations?

Much more so than external threats, it will be our national bonds rather than our divisions which determine our success in facing future challenges. A key factor in that unity will be the legitimacy of this more-complex, future American story in the eyes of the rising peoples of color.

Abraham Lincoln’s words still apply. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838, he said: “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined …could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and is a columnist for the Newport Daily News.

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The Commanding Heights of America’s Ethical Code

Note: This essay was originally published on January 24, 2018, at (

Almost 100 years ago Vladimir Lenin sought to placate his Bolshevik supporters who were upset that some capitalistic elements were being allowed into the fledgling Soviet command economy. He assured them that the state would retain control of its key sectors–the “commanding heights” of the economy.

Our presidents have always occupied a special place on the “commanding heights” of America’s moral-ethical code, specifically, our code of behavior of how we treat each other as citizens and as human beings. In addition to being the Commander-In-Chief of America’s armed forces, we expect our president also to be the CINC of American Civicism and Civility, embodying such traits as patriotism, honesty, integrity, moral courage, courtesy, and respect for the dignity of all people.

By way of contrast, we might consider the apparent ethical code of that formidable and dreaded leader of the Mongols, Genghis Khan, who in the 12th and 13th centuries, conquered so much of Eurasia. The Secret History of the Mongols gives us an indication of his ethical code: “Man’s highest joy is in victory: to conquer one’s enemies; to pursue them; to deprive them of their possessions; to make their beloved weep; to ride on their horses; and to embrace their wives and daughters.”

Offended by breaches of the unwritten American ethical code for presidents, we were disappointed when President Richard Nixon obstructed justice, spoke like a common thug on the tape recordings, and clearly held himself above the law. As well with President Bill Clinton, we did not like his un-presidential quibbling with words, saying in his interrogation: “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

Over the past generation, a decline in the American moral-ethical code has become apparent, suggested by the decline of our moral-ethical vocabulary. Even our use of the words “ethics” and “morality” has seemed to decline in the public square. In their place we tend now to use the more general, multi-meaning word “culture.” For example, when Peggy Noonan, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, asserted the need for more “gentlemen” in American society, she did not use either word. Rather she spoke of how “[o]ur culture has been so confused for so long on so many essentials ….”

The divisive Sixties had the effect of fuzzying our once more uniform American moral-ethical code and legitimatizing other codes. Over the past generation clearly two other factors have been at work undermining even more so the American ethical code. The first is the decline in moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church, for millennia a source of ethics, from the abortion debate and also from its sex abuse scandal. The second is the ubiquitous penetration of the Wild-West, anything-goes digital world, devoid of any ethical code, into our daily lives. This stunned me ten years ago when I entered my first online chat group and one writer called a female politician a “c—t.” I immediately looked over my shoulder, hoping in vain that some moral or legal authority might intervene.

Considering the state of the commanding heights of the American economy, we may thank President Donald Trump and the Republican tax cut for having a positive influence on the economy. At 4.1% the unemployment rate is the lowest figure in a decade, and the stock market has risen some 25% since his election. However, American civilization is more than just political economy, and it needs more that a good CEO of the economy to persist and to progress.

In this regard, we may criticize Trump for his poor example at the heights of America’s ethical code, such as his petulance, vindictiveness, self-centeredness, boastfulness, his dishonor toward John McCain’s time as a POW, and his objectifying of women. And make no mistake of the importance of this to the American civilization. The words and actions of the leader of America, of any country, sends cues—good or bad—to its citizens, cues which are repeated by its citizens.

Meryl Streep was correct then in her dramatic speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards. In a clear reference to Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter, she went on to say: “And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

Our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, spoke to one of the purposes of government in his message to Congress in the opening months of Civil War, July 4, 1861: “On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men … to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Having completed one year in office, Trump’s moral-ethical code is fairly clear. Perhaps he has elevated me economically, but ethically he has diminished me, and I truly regret that I cannot hold him up as a role model to my grandchildren.

In the absence of a true Commander in Chief of Civicism and Civility, it is then especially imperative that other governmental, civic, religious, and community leaders and parents step up to the challenge and occupy the commanding heights of America’s ethical code.

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches Western Civilization and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI, and is a monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News.

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Film Casablanca Still Speaks to Us Today

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 23, 2018.)

Seventy-five years ago today, the film Casablanca, one of the most popular movies of all time, was released nationally after premiering in New York City on Thanksgiving Day, 1942, as World War II raged. It went on to win Oscars for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. Writing in the Belfast Times in 2016 after the last surviving cast member died, Paul Whitington said: “Maybe there are better films than Casablanca, but there are probably none better loved.”

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film was shot at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California, except for the final scene, shot at Van Nuys Airport. It was based on a three-act play, unproduced at the time, Everbody Comes to Rick’s, written by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.

In 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had come to power, and by 1938 Europe was in turmoil as Germany was growing stronger and more threatening. That same year against the advice of friends, Murray Burnett and his wife visited Vienna, Austria, a country which had just been absorbed by Germany. There Burnett, a Jew, witnessed first-hand the increasingly violent anti-Semitism and learned of the escape route the Jews were taking: from Austria to Marseilles in southern France, to Morocco in North Africa, to Lisbon, Portugal, and finally—with luck—to the United States.

Burnett, an aspiring playwright, conceived of the idea for the play when they traveled to southern France and visited a smoky nightclub near Nice in which they saw emigrants, speaking many different languages, all listening to a black pianist from Chicago.

Once acquired by Warner Brothers after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Harry and Jack Warner realized its potential as a patriotic war drama. Harry especially was not afraid to use film to strengthen patriotism and to combat Nazism. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor in 1938, he said he saw it as his duty “to educate, to stimulate, and to demonstrate the fundamentals of free government, free speech, religious tolerance, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly ….”

In Congressional testimony in 1941, Harry insisted that fascism was indeed a global threat—a preview of the spinning globe at the start of the movie. After the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942, Warner Bros. accelerated the release of the movie, capitalizing on the name of the city of Casablanca, Morocco, appearing in the news. It premiered on November 26, 1942, at the Hollywood Theater in New York City, selling 31,000 tickets in the first week and grossing $255,000 ($3.5 million in today’s money) during the 10-week New York run.

The two main characters in the film were played by Humphrey Bogart, one of the few Americans in the cast, and Swedish-born Ingrid Bergman. Bogart, 42, had already played in nearly 50 Hollywood films, playing mostly gangsters or thugs. While he had also played rugged, razor-backed characters, playing the role of Rick Blaine allowed him to play a romantic, understated, cynical hero. With his trench coat and brimmed hat, he achieved international stardom.

Ingrid Bergman, 27, had arrived in America just three years earlier and had appeared in merely a handful of Hollywood movies. She played Ilsa Lund, Rick’s former lover who had jilted him in Paris years earlier. Arthur “Dooley” Wilson, another rare American in the cast, played “Sam,” the pianist at Rick’s Café Americain and Rick’s staunch friend.

In a movie with so many great scenes and with so many great—if sometimes corny—lines, it is challenging to select the best scenes. My three favorite include: the scene in the Café in which the two competing groups, the Nazi officers versus all others, sing their nationalistic songs; the scene in the Café in which Ilsa Lund asks Sam to play the old love song, “As Time Goes By;” and, of course, the final scene in which Rick shows his true colors. With the Nazis pursuing, Rick turns to Ilsa and says: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Though produced in the middle of a world war three generations ago, Casablanca continues to speak to us today with its themes of love, multi-faceted heroism, resistance against tyranny, persecution of minorities, the flight of the persecuted and their yearning for freedom.

For further reading: Noah Isenberg, We’ll Always Have Casablanca.

Note: Watch for news of the upcoming screening of Casablanca, hosted by yours truly, at the Jane Pickens Theater and Event Center. Until then, “here’s looking at you, kid.”

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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Plato, Trump and the Wall

(This essay was originally published as “We’re losing track of what is real and fake in Trump’s America” by on January 15, 2018.)

President Trump and the Democrats are negotiating over the fate of the dreamers and of the border wall with Mexico, the latter of which is clearly an imperative for the president. However, his calling Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, a “fake book” demonstrates that the more important wall for the American citizen is not the border wall, but rather “Plato’s wall,” what constitutes truth and what constitutes fabrication in the American mind.

Twenty-four hundred years ago the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his most famous political study, The Republic, wrestled with the questions of what is the best state and how to produce the best statesmen. A slim chapter deals with his “Allegory of the Cave,” a fanciful story in which Plato deals with knowing reality, among other things. Plato portrays several “prisoners” who have been chained from birth to a wall deep in a cave in such fashion that they can look in one direction only, toward a cave wall.

On this wall shadows are cast from objects passing behind them. The objects casting the shadows are held just over a berm behind which real humans walk with the objects elevated over their heads so that only these objects and not their bodies cast the images. Still farther behind is an eternal fire emitting the light which casts the images on the wall in front of the prisoners. Because of their chains the prisoners cannot turn their heads to see each other or to distinguish the real objects from the images on the wall. Consequently, the only “truth that such men would conceive would be the shadows of those manufactured articles.”

Grasping reality and truth has been an eternal challenge which has occupied philosophers since Plato. With her speech at the Golden Globe Awards on January 8, Oprah Winfrey underlined the importance of truth today in this special women’s moment of American history. “I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”

In recent decades knowing what is real and truthful has become ever more challenging. In the last forty years we have seen the tremendous expansion of media sources through which we may obtain information. Regarding TV, the three major broadcast channels no longer command the attention of the citizen they once did. The result is that we Americans no longer share a common narrative and analysis of news events, broadcast by media organizations which seek to uphold high journalistic standards. This has led to a multiplication of realities—of what is real and what is not.

The internet has enormously expanded Plato’s wall. Anyone—motivated simply by profit—can easily establish a website which purports to provide “news.” For example, in November 2016, the New York Times reported on such sites established by Beqa Latsabidze, a 22-year old college student in the country of Georgia. In establishing the sites, he indicated that his only motive was to make money from Google ads.

In the lead-up to the November presidential election, his sites initially focused on Hillary Clinton. However, the website drew little attention. He then switched his focus to Trump and his readership soared. He found success in stories praising Trump that mixed real information with fake, material which lauded Trump and criticized Clinton. Some were totally false, such as the one which reported in the summer 2016, that “the Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump is elected President ….”

Latzabidze stated he was amazed that anyone would mistake some of his fake posts for real news. They are simply “infotainment.” He argued that he was simply providing people what they wanted, in this case, stories praising Trump to Trump supporters.

A second example of a starkly untrue news story which echoed throughout the pro-Trump media outlets was the tweet which Jack Posobiec sent on May 17, 2017, regarding fired FBI director James Comey. It said: Comey said under oath that Trump did not ask him to halt any investigation, dated May 8, 2017. The New York Times reported that this was simply untrue. Nonetheless, the tweet was picked up quickly by pro-Trump channels and used. It made its way to the prime time Fox News channel and also the broadcasts of conservative Rush Limbaugh.

And now we have President Trump branding not only selected words by reputable sources as fake news but an entire book as “fake.” Plato might suggest that Trump would in effect transport us to his own cave where he alone controls the images on the cave wall. It would appear that the single criterion he would use to decide which images to show us is: Are the images favorable, or perhaps using his word “loyal,” to him or not?

Today then, the American citizen is confronted by genuinely fabricated news not only from individuals for personal economic gain and by foreign governments for their own interests and for the subversion of our democracy, but also by its own duly-elected government complicating matters. The veracity of Wolff’s book aside, when President Trump calls a book “fake,” that should be a clear signal for the American citizen to sit up in Plato’s cave and look very discerningly at the images on the wall.

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, RI.


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Anne Hutchinson, Part II: Founding Mother of Religious Tolerance

(Note: This is Part II of a three part essay on Anne Hutchinson. It was originally published as “Hutchinson followed her ideals on diversity” in the Newport Daily News on December 28, 2017.)

Three hundred eighty years ago, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony convicted Anne Hutchinson of heresy and banished her from the colony. More than just a founding mother of Portsmouth, she can be considered a founding mother of religious tolerance in America.

It was a cold November 7, 1637, when she was called before the General Court of Massachusetts, a group of 40 black-clad men at the meeting house in Cambridge, led by Governor John Winthrop. Hutchinson was 46 years old, pregnant, of average height, the mother of 12, and the grandmother of one. She was forced to stand while the men sat on benches.

She remained strong and steadfast during the two-day ordeal, fortified by her sure knowledge of divine succor. Before her husband, their eleven children, and she had departed England in 1634, she had had a vision of the adversity to come. She would find herself in the role of Daniel of the Old Testament. Daniel, a Jew, was serving in the administration of the Babylonian empire of King Darius. The other high administrators were jealous of his favored relationship with the king, and so they reported that Daniel had broken the law by praying to his Jewish god, Yahweh, rather than to him and the Babylonian gods. The king was forced to have Daniel thrown into a lions’ den; however, Daniel remained unharmed. King Darius was so stunned that he ordered Daniel released and also converted to Judaism.

“It was revealed to me,” Anne recalled, “that [some] should plot against me, and I should meet with affliction. But the Lord bid me not fear.” God said to her: “I am the same God that delivered Daniel out of the lions’ den. I will also deliver thee.”
The General Court combined the powers which our Constitution, 150 years later, divided into three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. As Eve LaPlante points out, “This court’s vast power over the populace limited people’s freedom to a degree that is unimaginable today. People were banned … from wearing any fur, lace, or colorful cloth, and all citizens, whether or not they were church members, were required to attend Sunday services.”

Throughout the two-day trial, the governor and other magistrates questioned her on her authority to conduct religious meetings, called “conventicles,” which had grown in size from a few women to 80 or so women and men. The magistrates and she both rooted their arguments in holy scripture, the ultimate source of knowledge and truth in that day. Religion infused each day of their lives, not just Sundays, and was the prism through which they interpreted reality.
The magistrates questioned her further about her reported criticism of the colony’s ministers, her denial of the importance of performing good works as a sign of salvation, and her claims of divinely-inspired prophecy, a gift which Puritans reserved solely for ministers.

Hutchinson skillfully parried these accusations with quotes from scripture. She argued that testimony given by some magistrates was based on private conversations. Women had no public role in Puritan society. She argued then that she could not be charged and condemned for private opinions and actions.

On the second day of trial, Hutchinson—emboldened by her performance on the first day and convinced of her divine support—could not resist speaking in a manner that would lead to her conviction: she began to preach to the court. In doing so in this public proceeding, she played into the hands of her enemies. Literary scholar Lad Tobin described her speech as a “final act of defiance.”

After being asked to explain how she knew she had received divine revelation, she answered: “By the voice of his own spirit to my soul.” She claimed: “… the Lord showed me what he would do for me and the rest of his servants!” … “And therefore I desire you ,…, to consider and look what you do. You have power over my body, but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul.” She claimed direct connection with God, and this was heresy. She then prophesied the doom of the colony. “I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state!”

With such forceful and heretical statements from Hutchinson, Winthrop had what he needed to convict her. Pointing at her, he exclaimed, “This has been the ground of all these tumults and troubles. This is the thing that has been the root of all the mischief.”

In the end, Hutchinson was charged with heresy for her claims of divine revelation and with sedition for her criticisms of the colony’s ministers. Winthrop concluded: “Mistress Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society ….”

(Look for Part III in March. For further reading: Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel.)
Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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Anne Hutchinson: Founding Mother of Religious Tolerance

Three hundred eighty years ago, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony convicted Anne Hutchinson of heresy and banished her from the colony. More than just a founding mother of Portsmouth, RI, she can be considered a founding mother of religious tolerance in America.

Born Anne Marbury on July 17, 1591, in Alford, England, Anne Hutchinson was raised with no formal schooling, as was common for the times. However, she was well-educated by her father Francis Marbury, a clergyman, schoolmaster, and Puritan reformer. Her father instilled in her an ability to think critically, an uncommon confidence in her own goodness, a strong religious faith, and a desire to demonstrate that faith to others.

In 1634, Anne, her husband William, and their 11 children crossed the Atlantic to the new colony. A female colonist wrote of the wilderness they found: “the air is sharp, the rocks many, the trees innumerable, the grass little, the winter cold, the summer hot, the gnats in summer biting, the wolves at midnight howling.”

Only four years earlier, a group of Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony under a royal charter. The Puritans had been harassed and even imprisoned in England for their religious beliefs, specifically the desire to “purify” the Church of England by removing all practices and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. In the New World, they were free to create a “true” society and state. Theirs would be a “city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop, the first governor, stated in a speech, a near theocracy in which religious and political leadership was closely intertwined.

It is difficult for us today in the increasingly secular Western world to grasp how religion pervaded life for these Puritans in the 1630s. Europe was in the midst of the Thirty Years War, the last of Europe’s religious wars, which saw most of Europe riven by political-religious violence. In daily life the average colonist was constantly concerned with her/his soul and salvation. The devil’s temptations and the potential for sin were ubiquitous.
Winthrop, as the leader and governor of this burgeoning colony, saw himself as the Moses of a new Exodus, establishing a New Jerusalem and initiating essentially a Second Protestant Reformation. To be sure, he would be ever vigilant for anything or anyone who might threaten this vision.

It is also difficult today, with the many advances in women’s civil and political rights over the past century, to comprehend how unusual Anne Hutchinson stood in her day. She was well known among the colonists for her services as a competent nurse and midwife. Primed by her father for spiritual instruction, with a gifted mind and strong will, she began a year after her arrival to hold weekly meetings with women in which she discussed the weekly sermons given by the colony’s ministers. Beyond the sermons she also incorporated discussions of scripture and theology. This occurred at a time when women could not vote, teach outside the home, or hold public office.

Initially a handful of women came to the meetings, then scores. Eventually she crossed a red line: she invited men into her circle. Her commentary on the ministers’ sermons became longer and more critical, and she began discussing scripture and theology more generally. She emphasized especially that a soul’s salvation depended on a “covenant of grace” rather than a “covenant of works.” Salvation was a gift and not an objective goal one could win with right actions.

Anne Hutchinson proved to be too great a threat to Winthrop and the other political and religious leaders of the colony. Some viewed her as a witch; others saw her as possessed by the devil. Winthrop called her an “instrument of Satan,” an “American Jezebel,” and suspected her of aiming to establish a “community of women” to nurture “abominable wickedness.”

It was a cold November day when she was called before the General Court of Massachusetts, a group of 40 black-clad men at the meeting house in Cambridge, led by Winthrop. Hutchinson was 46 years old, pregnant, of average height, the mother of 12, and grandmother of one. With a white coif covering her head and a white linen smock and neckerchief, the rest of her clothing was black. She was forced to stand while the men sat on benches.

“Anne Hutchinson is present,” announced a male voice. Winthrop began: “Mistress Hutchinson, you are called here as one of those that have troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churched here.” “You are known to be a woman that hath had a great share in the promoting and divulging of those opinions that are the cause of this trouble ….”

Ending his opening remarks, he stated: “If you be in an erroneous way we may reduce you.” … “If you be obstinate in your course then the court may take such course that you may trouble us no further.”

Hutchinson, probably the first female defendant in the New World, stood steadfast after he finished and replied: “I am called here to answer before you, but I hear no things laid to my charge.”

(Look for Part II, next month. For further reading: Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel.)

Fred Zilian (; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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