the following is a sample from my forthcoming American Sun article on the history and uses of humiliation.
“What did the Pilgrim Fathers come for, then, when they came so gruesomely over the black sea? Oh, it was in a black spirit. A black revulsion from Europe, from the old authority of Europe, from kings and bishops and popes. And more. When you look into it, more. They were black, masterful men, they wanted something else. No kings, no bishops maybe. Even no God Almighty. But also, no more of this new ‘humanity’ which followed the Renaissance. None of this new liberty which was to be so pretty in Europe. Something grimmer, by no means free-and-easy.” – DH Lawrence, “Studies in Classic American Literature”
Harvard was established to train Puritan clergy and it never stopped.
Humiliations runs deep in the American soul. America is not a land that one thinks of when they think of cultural cringe or the self-loathing that other nations, especially Anglo, have been all too eager to revel in. The Puritans occupy the American imagination, as they should for that American soul cannot be understood without understanding the Puritans, one of history’s great purity spiralers. Never has the purity spiral ascended so high and fallen so low than in their history.
The origins of the Puritans–briefly. They were England’s premier turbo-Protestants of the 16th century and into the 17th century. They sought a pure church, removed from the corrupt trappings that had been imposed by man upon the (Roman Catholic) Church over the centuries, as they saw it. Though they grew in power in England, their most discontent would leave for the New England colonies and found the New World’s first university, Harvard University, explicitly to train the clergy. Meanwhile those who stayed behind would eventually claim the head of King Charles I and a Commonwealth under Cromwell. That failed, and with the restoration of the monarchy the capotains (sans those stylish buckles unfortunately–a myth!) thought it best to ghost for America as to avoid those incoming awkward conversations with their new king, Charles II, the son of the man they executed. His brother James II/VII got the boot (for crimes and Catholicism) and the Glorious Revolution would kick-start the coming age of English liberalism. Puritanism petered out in England, but would define America for centuries to come.
Their industrious presence and misunderstood ways in America have served as an eternal mirror of the American soul. Their very name has become a byword for sexual prude, a great irony given that one in six Puritan women in New England who filed for divorce did so on grounds on impotency or that their sexual morality trials are rife with accusations of bestiality, cuckolding, and homosexuality. The more the modern American man has thought he has achieved escape velocity from the nation’s Puritan anchor, the more it becomes clear he is pinned beneath it and dreaming from the depths. Puritanism decried Mary worship for worshiping her as Virgin. Puritanism relied on humbling and humiliating the heretic. Puritanism needed equality to establish the equal worthlessness of all in their depravity before God. Puritanism was performative wokeness in its restriction to the “visible saints“. Puritanism was the original call-out culture and encouraged all to spy upon all. Dehumanize yourself and face to Harvard.
The distance between then and now is short. Too, too short. When the Puritans are thought of they conjure images of barbaric punishments, social shunning, and scarlet letters of public humiliation. Yet on their punishments, Louis Taylor Merrill found that in the long view the Puritans were not unique in the punishments they doled out. What set them apart appeared to be the public spectacle of it with the myriad trials, accusations, and testimonies. So prevalent was this that it was very common for the tables to be turned on one another within the same trial as everyone accused the other of wrong-doing, and with the total depravity of man such a given each would be litigated. Each would need to do the work of their humiliation. Each would snitch and spy on each other in order to create a more perfect union with the congregation and with God. The truest perception of the Puritan was as the cop. And real Americans love their cops.
Merrill writes ominously in 1945, the once and future Year Zero of American consciousness:
“While such censorious watchfulness had the effect of bringing a larger proportion of sinners to justice in the New England of 300 years ago, there is suggestive evidence of a not too admirable effect on the minds of folk encouraged to practice espionage upon their neighbors and even upon their relatives. It is hard to conceive in the present day the type of mind that would over to the magistrates a relative guilty of indulging in agnostic remarks in the family circle, when in reporting this offense to the authorities the accuser knew his action might mean the culprit would have his tongue bored with a hot iron.”
All examinations of the Puritan punishment linger on the instruments of humiliation and torture such as the ducking stool, spectacles of the imagination for centuries to come. The ducking stool has no record of being used in Puritan New England. Exactly like the majority of instruments of medieval torture that were never real. These are perpetual fantasies the American indulges in of no longer being a buffoonish monster. The American puffs up in pride at being able to point to a cartoon caricature and feel complete confidence that they are nothing as obscene and backwards at that. The petty tyranny of the truth is that at the end of this funhouse hallways is the scariest mirror of all: the plane mirror of the American soul, where light does not spread.
To know that one will always be a Puritan is the humiliation of the American soul.
Humiliation, it must be said, has a particular meaning in the context of Puritanism. Humiliation here is processional humility. Those who converted to Puritanism all had to undergo this process. You had to understand your depravity. You had to understand that nothing you could do could ever rid you or forgive you from the stain of sin so that you would realize that salvation was God’s mercy and Christ was the way before you ever stood a chance of being restored. The process was religiously traumatic, and meant to be. From the Puritan perspective, the Catholic Church had enslaved humanity to notions that they could buy their way out with indulgences and receive salvation through membership and token works. Thus to be humiliated and broken meant to open your heart to introspection and healing, to be wounded so terribly that you’d finally see that only God could restore you at His mercy.
You may have already felt a shiver go up your spine with the question, “and what do you become in this humiliation once God is dead and we have buried Him?”
Nearly everyone gets the Puritans wrong. Humiliation belonged to God, and what public shaming and punishments were done was no more or less than the norm of the time. Strict, but corrective. Some transgressions requiring a permanent correction. What made the Puritans different was the necessity of the public confession and to be witnessed. To close your eyes to the sins of others, to keep secrets and confessions safe as long as you repented and sinned no more, was not a charity but a sinful privilege itself. Humiliate yourself before God, and confess! Confession was the key to this humiliation, and every manner was taken to get that confession, but where there was no confession and there was no witness, they would be set free. “Always, confession opened the way to reconciliation and restoration.”
What though, if this is the Church of No Salvation? If all the earth are but sinners in the hands of an angry broad? Questions with no answers.
Of the Salem Witch Trials, there is not much to be said. It was fear and loathing in the New World frontier, the proximity of a red apocalypse of natives that could explode at any moment and wicked ambitions that destroyed lives in the hysteria. People are fired for making okay signs like cheeky Puritans. The distance from then and now collapses upon itself.
Such that it was that John Buxton Marsden, English history of the Puritans, wrote that it was only the Puritans who could have subjected King Charles I, the regicided runner-up in the English Civil Wars, to the terms of the failed Treaty of Newport. From The History of the Later Puritans he writes:
“The treaty consisted of three articles. By the first, the king was required to revoke all his declarations against the parliament, and to admit ‘that the two houses had been necessitated to enter into a war in their just and lawful defence,’ and that the kingdom of England had entered into a solemn league and covenant to prosecute the same. The king was naturally reluctant to admit the truth of these propositions; nor ought they to have been submitted. He willingly offered an oblivion for the past, and this should have been sufficient. This, indeed, was the only basis on which the wounds of the nation could be healed. To make the king assert, in effect, that he himself had been a tyrant, was an insult and a humiliation from which no sovereign could recover…To insist on these propositions was an act of needless cruelty, a triumph over a prostrate king, of which men less religious than the puritans–might have been ashamed.” (Emphasis mind)
The treaty’s failures, among the rest of the national clamor, ultimately gave way to Charles receiving the silver medal around his neck on the headman’s block. It must be noted, of course, that when Charles was executed, the block was situated in a way that h was forced to lie down versus kneeling, a very deliberate humiliation upon the king. The purpose, after all, in a public execution is to flex political power and for those that consider themselves the lowliest before God to grasp at power and force their political opponents even lower than that must have felt righteous indeed. The meek shall inherit the earth, but beware their political ambitions.
Eleven years of Puritan rule in the eleven year Commonwealth ensued. What followed was bedlam with the readmission of Jews to England after a 350 year timeout, attempted takeover by an apocalyptic sect who wanted to call themselves sanhedrin and accelerate the return of Christ, and the division of the country into military districts. To speak nothing of the Irish. The experiment was aborted. Monarchy was restored.
The great irony of history is that less than thirty years after they would leave en masse, their labor would finally come to fruition. The Glorious Revolution kicked out the final Catholic monarch and brought The Bill of Rights 1689. What stands out about it is it outlawed “cruel and unusual punishment”, the first time this phrase would be used in English. This phrase was never properly defined from the start, and it’s been a puzzle for legal scholars and historians as to what it actually means. The barbarity of punishments? Their proportionality to crime? Both? Excessive fines and penalties would seem to offer the clue, and if that’s the case then that notion has long left America as it subjects suspected heretics against liberalism to an outsourced pillory of plaintiff cases to break their bank account and force a confession in such a humiliating public display. 1689 was a very good year for any English who wanted their dignity restored.
The Salem Witch trials would begin three years later in Puritan America.
Of the Salem Witch Trials, there is not much to be said. The incident invites the opportunists, the hucksters, and the agenda-setters of the world to try and get a bit of attention, make a quick buck, or turn into a Holocaust the murders of 25 Christians from mass hysteria. It was fear and loathing in the New World frontier, the anxious proximity of a red apocalypse of natives that could explode at any moment (the frighteningly violent King Philip’s War had only ended 14 years prior) and wicked land ambitions in an unraveling community that destroyed those lives in the traumatic hysteria of the American wilderness. Reverend Parris, the fourth minister the fractious and quarrelsome Salem Village had in less than two decades, sowed the seeds of what was to come through his inability to quell the rising tensions with public disciplinary method of resolving disputes. The trials would involve screaming accusatory questions, coerced confessions, and searching bodies for the Devil’s mark. Is this not what they knew best in the Puritan colony, however? Everyone was guilty and confession was good for the soul. Why shouldn’t it have ended like this?
Such was their infamy that Nathaniel Hawthorne, descendant of the Judge Hathorne who presided over the Salem Witch Trial and its humiliations changed his name to put a great distance between him and his forebears, but he was haunted by him with every written word. The Scarlet Letter, a name that makes students groan, being the first truly and uniquely American novel must then be a novel about public humiliation. DH Lawrence called it “one of the greatest allegories in all literature”. Despite the distance he placed, Hawthorne was ambivalent toward his Puritanism. He could not embrace it, but he would not command himself to hate it like Faulkner’s Quentin Compson from the humiliating South. It ran through his American bones. Its essence was his American blood-nature and his American soul. How can anyone truly hate themselves and what they are unless they themselves are humiliated? No man can hate himself without total surrender. Self-loathing is the impoverished fiefdom of broken kings and queens.
Auspiciously, The Scarlet Letter had been published just that spring in 1850 when Hawthorne met Herman Melville, who would go on to pen the greatest American novel about what America once was and whose ghosts linger on to haunt her corpse’s orphaned children. Biblical and poetic, Moby-Dick chronicles the tragic end of America as a ship full of colored savages being led by insane messianic Quakers on doomed quests to take revenge and destroy the white specter “of our deepest blood-nature“. Melville sensed the tragic and humiliating character that lay beneath the surface of America, that which it would inflict on everything it conquered, but especially its rebel brother in the South from whom America’s only aristocracy would be destroyed for the equality of the coerced confession, and it was in that sensitivity to what they were that Melville saw and found his Calvinist brother in Hawthorne with the blackness and a touch of Puritanic gloom. Moby-Dick too, that Great American Novel, is a tale of humiliation stretched out divinely like twisted scripture as Ahab leads a microcosm of all the world in a forsaken crusade not for the inflicted wound–but because the whale bore witness to it.
We are not yet done with Harvard. Oh Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. Your students, your shipwreck survivors of the Pequod, know who you are. You may have forgotten that Puritan past, thought you had become the most serene commonwealth of pure research, but Ahab’s crew know what you are and they will lash you back to the prow of this broken ship to serve as figurehead as they resume the chase for the white whale. And that is your humiliation. And that is your wheel to be broken on, and may your eyes find God on the upturn. And may you ask for forgiveness for the perverse and sinful experiments you inflicted on an America you despised in its purity, like Claggart who lies entombed in your very library as a grim reminder of your “natural depravity” and perverse rule over the American soul.
“Tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate America?”
“We don’t hate it,” we said quickly, at once, immediately: “We don’t hate it,” we said. We don’t hate it we thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; We don’t. We don’t! We don’t hate it! We don’t hate it!