Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tolerance, Morality Police, and The Scarlet Letter

We speak of the tolerance and commitment to liberty of our forefathers who founded the nation and framed the Constitution, but from the colonials' earliest days on the Continent there has always been a mean streak of intolerance as well.

I picked up The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, at the library last week and it's striking to consider the narrowmindedness and intolerant moralism practiced by the early Puritans (17th Century) of the Massachusetts settlement. Hawthorne writes:

"[These were] people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for.... [A] penalty which, in our days [Hawthorne's, writing in 1850] would infer a degree of mocking [social] infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself."

At public celebrations, minstrels, artists, jugglers, and the like who would have been common at the celebrations of the Puritans' Elizabethan forebears "would have been sternly repressed, not only by the rigid discipline of the law, but by the general sentiment which gives law its vitality.... [T]he generation next to the early emigrants wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up."

Notwithstanding the introduction of Enlightenment principles (the elevation of individual rights and reason over superstitious religiosity) to America through the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in the 18th century, we're still working on eliminating the remaining vestiges of these ancestral stains of intolerance in America some 350 years later (and 150 years after Hawthorne wrote). We've made some progress.... but we remain far short of being a truly tolerant society that fully embraces Liberty.