The Corner

Politics & Policy

Witch Hunts, Then and Now

Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., June 21, 2017 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Robert Mueller’s Russian-collusion investigation is often called a “witch hunt,” and there has been considerable debate over whether this is a proper description. For what it’s worth, the earliest known use of the phrase in American politics occurred a century ago this spring, and it involved Russian attempts to influence the U.S. government. In February and March of 1919, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on “Bolshevik Propaganda,” and at one point the following exchange occurred between Raymond Robins, a progressive economist who advocated recognizing the Bolshevik regime, and Senator Lee S. Overman (D., N.C.) (emphasis added):

Mr. Robins. . . . And, Senator, I believe that when we know the beast, with the united intelligence of the free men and women of America, I have faith enough in our institutions to believe that we will throw that foreign culture, born out of a foreign despotism, back out of our land, not by treating it with the method of tyranny, not by a witch hunt, nor by hysteria, but by strong, intelligent action, the intelligent action of Senators of the United States making a report that gets before the people the truth of the situation and mobolizes [sic] the consciences and the intelligence of the men and women of our land.

Senator Overman. What do you mean by witch hunt?

Mr. Robins. I mean this, Senator. You are familiar with the old witch-hunt attitude, that when people get frightened at things and see bogies, then they get out witch proclamations, and mob action and all kinds of hysteria takes place.

Senator Overman. This committee has been called a witch hunt.

Mr. Robins. I wish to make no possible sort of criticism of the committee. I wish to say that I have never been treated more fairly than I have been here.

Nowadays the phrase is generally understood to refer to the witch trials of colonial New England, which, in the popular mind, are thought to have differed from modern-day criminal trials in several ways:

a) the outcome was often determined in advance;
b) shoddy, fabricated, or unreliable evidence was accepted;
c) they were motivated by a desire to scapegoat members of disfavored groups; and
d) the whole thing was ridiculous because the crime being prosecuted does not exist.

Whether the Mueller investigation fits this description is open to question. Certainly item a) seems unlikely, unless it was Mueller’s intention all along to produce a damp squib spiced up with a few might-have-beens. Item b) is at least partially true because, as Andrew McCarthy points out, the whole investigation was opened on false pretenses.  Regarding c), I’m willing to assume that Mueller’s investigators acted neutrally and professionally, though it’s at least a little suggestive that they were overwhelmingly Democratic. As for d), as McCarthy has repeatedly pointed out, “collusion” is not a crime, and the notion that Trump or his staff were working for Russian intelligence was risible to begin with and quickly determined to be false.

But it’s also questionable whether the actual colonial-era witch hunts would fit our modern understanding of the term. Regarding a) and b), as one historian writes, “Puritans had always been skeptical of claims that someone was truly a witch in league with and empowered by the devil, and required many witnesses and much evidence in trials, and even then dismissed most cases.” To be sure, when most people hear “witch hunt,” they quite understandably think of the 1692 Salem trials, where “spectral evidence” (i.e. dreams, hallucinations, or invented fantasies — sort of like the Steele dossier) was considered probative enough to cause the execution of some 19 women and one man. That horror and its aftermath just about put an end to witch trials. But for most of the 17th century in New England, courts did insist on more tangible forms of proof.

(To be sure, some Puritan practices for gathering evidence look strange to modern eyes. For example, witches were thought to communicate with the Devil through an animal “familiar,” basically a very evil pet, and members of the court would sometimes sit up at night in the accused’s house to see if the familiar turned up.  If a stray cat, or even a mouse, wandered into the room, it was taken evidence of guilt; if not, the absence cast doubt on the prosecution.)

Regarding c), it’s hard to read people’s minds a few centuries later, but members of disfavored groups (most notably, women) did bear the brunt of suspicion as witches in colonial times. As for d), the reality of witches and witchcraft was widely accepted as fact in the 17th century. Salem and the various Enlightenments took care of that, but earlier, witchcraft appeared to be a genuine menace that the colonists dealt with as best they could, using a mix of religion and folklore.

One thing seems clear: Just as the Puritans’ actual witch-hunts were not as irrational as they seem to modern eyes, future generations will need to be told why the Mueller investigation was not as much of a “witch hunt” as it will appear to them.


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