Here’s part three of our Q&A with Sarah Vowell on her book, The Wordy Shipmates. (Part one – part two)
13. Who was Anne Hutchinson? Why was she so important, and why did she get kicked out of Massachusetts?
Hutchinson was a wife, mother, midwife, and groupie of John Cotton who followed the minister to Massachusetts. She hosted religious meetings in her home questioning the preaching of many of New England’s ministers. Her followers started disrupting church services around the colony and so she was hauled before the magistrates to repent both her beliefs and her influence. She believed she had heard the voice of God, which was heresy. Not backing down, the magistrates expelled her from Massachusetts. She went on to found a settlement in Rhode Island. I think, like Williams, she sticks out as having been born too early. Like him, she practiced freedom of speech before this right existed.
14. How did she die? Why do millions of residents of the New York City metropolitan area encounter her name every day without realizing it?
After her husband died in Rhode Island, she settled with her children in New Netherland in what is now the Bronx. The local Indians were at war with the Dutch, and Hutchinson and her family were attacked in their home. A nearby river was named after her and a highway, the Hutchinson River Parkway, was later named after her as well.
15. How do you see yourself as being like Hutchinson?
Like her, I have a penchant for yakking. It’s just way more legal for me.
16. Why did the Puritans commit a gruesome massacre of the Pequot Indians and set the blueprint for all future Indian wars?
And now, for my next trick, I’d like to explain genocide! I guess the Massachusetts militia commits mass murder for the same old reason everyone does—hate, resentment, anxiety, frustration, xenophobia. It’s also simple military ground-war tactics. The English commander understood that his men were about to get slaughtered in the ground-war mayhem, so he thought setting the enemy on fire en masse was the most logical, streamlined way to save his own troops’ lives. When Hannah Arendt was writing about the Holocaust, she pointed out that once something has happened, it is far more likely to happen again. That’s what happened after Mystic. Slaughter one group of Indian women, children, and old people and it’s probably going to happen again—and it does.
17. How did the Puritan bloodlines flow right down to the 2004 presidential election?
The Republican candidate, President Bush, is a descendant of Anne Hutchinson. The Democratic candidate, Senator Kerry, is a descendant of John Winthrop.
18. Why were the Puritans so fearless? What was the source of their strength?
They weren’t fearless. They were fearful. Like, chockfull of fear. Their big fear being God. God is also their source of strength, of course. But mostly they are terrified of disappointing God and suffering His wrath. They are scared of the sea, Indians, heretics and the King of England. They are afraid of eternal damnation. And yet, despite all this terror, they still get on the boats to Massachusetts. They decide that if King Charles sends a new governor to take over, they will fight him. All that is old-fashioned English stiff-upper-lip stuff. But the Bay Colony’s fears are also the source of their worse impulses. This is true of pretty much every society at any time or place. Their fears cause them to enact unfair laws, to crack down on dissent, to burn alive Indian children. Of course, their faith is also their source of strength, why they kept going, why they didn’t give up. They had a city on a hill to build and they built it.
19. What is the positive side of the Puritan legacy? Why is it so overlooked, and why are we Americans so reluctant to embrace it? What promise does it hold for us today?
I think their most endearing legacy is their obsession with education, especially founding the first university in what would become the United States. The way they privilege learning and words, exhort their children to read and write, is worth admiring. I think we’ve lost that as a culture, to some degree. The most admired, most powerful figures in early New England were the smartest—men like Winthrop, Cotton, and Williams. We certainly inherited New England’s collective self-esteem, their idea of themselves as the most divinely blessed. But I think we’ve lost their sense of collective responsibility, their fear that they would fail each other and their God.