In November of 1688, an elderly Irish Catholic woman named Ann Glover was hanged in Boston. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a Protestant stronghold where rigid conformity to Puritan beliefs brooked no deviation.
Glover probably arrived as an indentured servant. As one who held fast to Catholicism, she must have been an object of suspicion and discomfort to those around her. Accused of witchcraft, Glover was jailed and kept in chains before her trial. Worn down psychologically by her incarceration, Glover’s confusion during the court proceedings was compounded by her minimal grasp of the English language. Refusing to renounce her faith, Glover went to the gallows. Her execution preceded the hysteria that would overtake Salem a few years later.
In “American Intolerance,” Robert E. Bartholomew and Anja E. Reumschüssel explore the treacherous terrain of bigotry throughout American history. Their work comprises a most compelling and alarming survey. Over the centuries, the American experience is replete with obscenities perpetrated by one group against those deemed to be “Other.” Perceptions of Otherness have provided rationales for countless cruelties and atrocities visited upon those not considered worthy of the designation “human being.”
In the mid-19th century waves of Irish Catholics left their homeland in desperation. Many made the arduous journey to the coasts of Canada and the United States. Most Americans of that time did not take kindly to this perceived invasion of strange and impoverished people fleeing the ravages of starvation. The Great Hunger — also known as the Potato Famine — had struck in 1845 and would last for another four years. Even though the Irish were nominally British citizens, the United Kingdom’s response to the cataclysm was inconsistent and incommensurate with the devastation. Tribulations marked the ocean transit to the New World. So many people died during the voyage across the Atlantic that the vessels were dubbed “Coffin Ships.”
Even before these years, discord about Catholics was being fomented. It was argued that newly arrived papists would attempt to overthrow the U.S. government and create a novel order subservient to the Pope in Rome.
This fearmongering took place in a country where a brutal system of African-American enslavement and genocidal displacement of Indigenous peoples had been grim realities for more than two centuries. The legal abolition of slavery did not bring freedom to Black citizens. The pernicious system of Jim Crow arose in its place. Given our current chief executive’s fondness for the memory of White supremacist Andrew Jackson, consider Jackson’s hateful reference to Native Americans as he addressed Congress in 1833: “They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement…they must yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
The term “eugenics” was coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Long recognized as a pseudoscience, eugenics once promulgated the notion that selective breeding of human beings could ensure greater intellectual vitality and physical health. It was a concept pursued with great enthusiasm in the United States prior to World War II. The authors write: “It is noteworthy that the first eugenics laws ever passed were in the US state of Indiana in 1907, when the legislature approved a measure to sterilize mentally handicapped prison inmates.” This movement inspired Adolph Hitler and was roundly applauded by his Nazi regime.
The history of Othering is long and deep in America. “American Intolerance” is a timely volume cataloguing the injustices precipitated by raw prejudice and indifference. Our time remains fraught with racial, ethnic, gender, and class animosities. As St. Patrick’s Day draws near, we should appreciate that many American citizens of all hues can trace a Celtic lineage. For some years in his youth, St. Patrick was a captive slave and underwent all of the deprivations of that wretched state. Later in life, he condemned slavery vehemently and unequivocally. Indeed, he was one of the first historical figures to do so.
This is a good thing to keep in mind if you plan to hoist a pint of Guinness, a shot of whisky or a good cup of tea on March 17th.
Read the full March 13 - 19 issue.
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