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The Pueblo Revolt

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Interviewer: What was the significance of Pope's rebellion against the Spanish in New Mexico in the 1680s?

Eric Foner: We don't know much about Pope, who was a Pueblo Indian (at least, that is what the Spanish called those people in modern-day New Mexico in the 1670–80s), but we know he was named as the leader of what we call the "Pueblo revolt." He was a religious leader of the traditional Indian religion, which Spanish missionaries had worked very hard in the seventeenth century to stamp out, to convert Indians to Roman Catholicism with not very much success. But their efforts to stamp out traditional religious worship, breaking up old altars and religious sites and places of worship, and also the economic exploitation of the Indians by the Spanish settlers, eventually culminated in this Pueblo revolt of 1680 led by Pope, who managed to unite many of the Pueblo villages in a common uprising against the Spanish. In some ways it was the most successful rebellion in the colonial era because it was the only one that actually drove the Spanish out of New Mexico. The Indians managed to expel them all (there weren't that many, a few thousand) and drive them back to Mexico City, and for about twelve years there was no Spanish presence. In the 1690s the Spanish reconquered New Mexico, but Pope's rebellion is definitely an indication of the discontent and the grievances of the Pueblo Indians against both the religious and the economic practices of the Spanish in the seventeenth century.

Salem witch trials

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Interviewer: How do you make sense of the witchcraft episode in Salem? What was its social and political content?

Eric Foner: The Salem witch trials in the 1690s do seem very mysterious and hard to understand for modern-day readers and students. How could people have actually been executed for being accused of being witches? Nobody today believes that there are really witches, but they did believe that in the seventeenth century. Not only in Massachusetts but also in Europe, many people believed that things that went wrong in the world were the result of some magical powers. If a crop failed, if there was a terrible storm that destroyed one house but another house wasn't hurt, if somebody became ill, people didn't have a scientific explanation. They couldn't explain why does lightning strike here and not there, so they explained it by witchcraft, by magic, by some people exercising supernatural powers against their neighbors. The problem with charges of witchcraft was that they couldn't be disproved. People could confess, but in order to confess you had to prove you were really confessing: you had to name other people as witches. Most of the people accused of being witches were women, middle-aged women who had exhibited some form of independence in the society, which was not really desired by men in Puritan society. Charges of witchcraft, to some extent, became a way of keeping women under control by the society, but the whole episode totally snowballed out of control. People began naming others to save themselves. Eventually, quite a few people were executed, and finally the governor stepped in and stopped it because it was obvious that the judicial system had completely broken down. It certainly revealed tremendous tensions in the Salem society, particularly in the time when Indian warfare was rife. Many of the people involved had been living on the border where there was considerable conflict with Indians in the year or two before, and this atmosphere of fear and hysteria fueled these charges, which then snowballed out of hand.

William Penn

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Interviewer: What was William Penn's distinctive contribution to the principle of religious freedom, and what were the limits to that principle in Pennsylvania at the time?

Eric Foner: William Penn was a Quaker, which was one of the religious groups that grew up in seventeenth-century England. He was the proprietor; that is, basically the guy who ran the colony of Pennsylvania; the king had given him this colony to sort of govern by himself. But the Quakers did believe in a broad religious toleration; first of all, they were dissenters from the official Church of England, and their rights in England were restricted, but Penn believed that, in his American colony, most religious groups ought to enjoy toleration.

Also, Penn had a lot of land he wanted to sell to immigrants, and he realized that the more immigrants he attracted, the more money he would make; therefore it would be counterproductive to limit immigration to one religious group when there might be members of many other groups wanting to settle Pennsylvania. It was a very fertile land, Penn had established pretty good relations with the Indians, and so a lot of immigrants from Europe wanted to go there. So Penn was really one of the pioneers, along with Roger Williams in Rhode Island, of this very broad idea of religious toleration.

Pennsylvania did have laws restricting or regulating moral behavior, that is, you're not allowed to do things on Sunday that interfere with religious worship or seem sacrilegious to the Sabbath, but in terms of the government specifically supporting or suppressing individual religious denominations, Penn was much more libertarian than nearly every other colony's governor at that time.

The Glorious Revolution

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Interviewer: To what degree did the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 to '89 advance ideas of rights and liberties, and what effect did this have in the American colonies?

Eric Foner: The Glorious Revolution in England, 1689, etc., was stimulated by fear in England that the monarch, James II, was moving toward reestablishing Catholicism, or at least giving greater toleration to Roman Catholics, which indeed he did. A group of Protestants and supporters of Parliament who didn't like the way he was governing the country brought in William of Orange in a coup d'état, basically to overthrow James and become William III. One of the things that comes immediately after that is a decree of religious toleration for Protestants; this does not include Catholics, but all Protestant groups are now going to be allowed to worship freely. Still, people who are not members of the Church of England, the official Church, still suffered certain political disabilities: they could not go to university, they could not hold public office, but in terms of practicing their own religion, they were now free to do so without interference.

This principle of toleration does extend over to the American colonies. For example, the new British government forced Massachusetts, the Puritan colony, to adopt this principle of toleration. The Puritans in the seventeenth century were not tolerant in the slightest; they kicked out of Massachusetts people who didn't adhere to the Puritan beliefs. Roger Williams was thrown out, Anne Hutchinson, who had criticized certain aspects of Puritan practice, was expelled, Quakers were made illegal, and a couple of Quakers were even executed in the early 1660s or late 1650s in Massachusetts. But now, as a result of the Glorious Revolution, Massachusetts was required to accept this principle of toleration for Protestants. It was not complete religious toleration as we would understand it today, but it was an attempt to end these many, many years of battles among different Protestant denominations as to what was going to be the best official form of worship.

Religious freedom for German immigrants

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Interviewer: In the textbook, you quote a German immigrant in 1739, who says that liberty of conscience was the chief virtue of British North America, and on this score, "I do not repent my immigration." How representative would you say that point of view was?

Eric Foner: I think many of those who came to the American colonies were seeking greater religious freedom. Many of them came, of course, for economic reasons, to improve their condition in life; there were specific groups like the Pilgrims, who went to Plymouth, the Puritans; certain German religious sects, who could not practice freely in the Old World, came over here to establish communities where they could worship as they desired. So, this notion of freedom of conscience—that individual, I believe, is writing from Pennsylvania, which is a colony which does give a great deal of religious toleration, and I think that very fact attracted a lot of people. Back in Germany, you didn't have religious toleration. Germany was not a nation then, it was a series of little states, and each state had a king as a ruler and the king chose the religion, basically, and in this state it was Lutheranism, and in this state it was Calvinism, and in this state it was something else, and you had no choice except to move. So this immigrant wanted to be in a place where he could worship as he pleased without the ruler of the government forcing him to be a member of one or another particular Church.

18th century religious freedom

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Interviewer: By the eighteenth century, we see that there have been steps forward in religious freedom and other civil liberties in the American colonies. How broadly did these apply in colonial society, with specific regard to women and to those in the lower classes?

Eric Foner: Religious freedom in the colonies by the eighteenth century was one of those things which was widely practiced but not really reflected in the law. There was a great variety, because of the immigration in the eighteenth century—the free immigration—of course a lot of slaves were brought from Africa, but they're not entitled to religious freedom at that time—but there were many from Northern Ireland, from Ireland, from Germany, from France, from other parts of Europe, each coming with their own particular religious practices, from many different churches; and then the Great Awakening, which spreads through the colonies in the 1730s and '40s, leads to a proliferation of new religious groups (Baptists, Methodists, etc.).

So there is a wide diversity of religious groups, and a kind of de facto religious pluralism and toleration. But the laws didn't really reflect that. In most colonies, you still had official churches; you had to pay taxes to support that church even if you weren't a member; you're a Baptist in Virginia, you still have to pay taxes to support the Anglican Church. There were still rules about who could vote and who couldn't vote in elections, depending on church membership, so you had this gap, so to speak, between the practice of religious pluralism and the legal recognition of it, which lagged far behind.

18th century slaves' rights

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Interviewer: In the eighteenth century, in the northern and the southern colonies, did slaves have any rights that were recognized in law?

Eric Foner: Slavery existed in all the colonies, all thirteen of the colonies, in the late colonial era: New England, the middle colonies, the South. But it was a rather different institution in those societies. In the South, where the plantation was the basis of the economy and slaves were fifty percent or more of the population, from Virginia southward, the law gave slaves very, very few rights, very, very few rights. The law was meant to control, restrict, police the slave population; very little recognition of any legal rights for the slaves. In New England, where slavery was a minor part of the economy, the law gave slaves more rights. They were still slaves, but, for example, their marriages were recognized in law; I think a slave who was accused of a crime in New England was actually entitled to a trial by jury, which you certainly didn't have in Virginia or South Carolina. In New York there was a tradition, although not probably in the law, that slaves sort of had a say to whom they were sold, in other words if you tried to sell a slave, there was a tradition the slave could sort of veto that if they didn't want to be sold. So in those colonies where slavery was a more peripheral part of the economy, a greater tradition of certain rights for slaves did get into the law. But of course, the fact is, they were all slaves, and when you're a slave, most basic legal rights are denied to you.