American Portraits

Asking Pardon of Men: Samuel Sewall and Responsibility

In this lesson, students will learn about Samuel Sewall’s role in the Salem Witch Trials and how he later took responsibility for his actions. They will read and reflect on the narrative about Sewall and participate in a skit where they will write roles for themselves as though they were a part of the trials to understand how they can act responsibly no matter what the circumstances.

Founding Principles

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Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

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Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

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Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Narrative

Governor Phips appointed merchant Samuel Sewall to serve on a special court to investigate an outbreak of witchcraft in Salem in May 1692. Witchcraft was considered an abomination in Puritan-dominated Massachusetts; residents believed it invited evil into the society.

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you take responsibility for your decisions, whether they are good or bad?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Samuel Sewall’s role in the Salem Witch Trials and how he later took responsibility for his actions. They will read and reflect on the narrative about Sewall and participate in a skit where they will write roles for themselves as though they were a part of the trials to understand how they can act responsibly no matter what the circumstances.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Samuel Sewall’s experiences of acting responsibly.
  • Students will understand the importance of acting with responsibility in their own lives.

Background

In early 1692, two young girls in Salem, Massachusetts were suffering fits and convulsions, prompting their parents to call a doctor. The girls claimed that three witches were responsible for their ailment. The number of afflicted grew over the next several months, all of whom accused more people of witchcraft. Sir William Phips, the governor of Massachusetts, appointed a special court to try the cases. Throughout the summer, twenty suspected witches and wizards were executed, despite the governor, ministers, and some of the judges questioning the validity of evidence brought against the accused. The Salem Witch Trials formally came to an end in October when the governor disbanded the court.

Vocabulary

  • Abomination
  • Spectral evidence
  • Transgressions
  • Ailment
  • Hysteria
  • Pious

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting as you should?

Observation Questions

  • Who is Samuel Sewall? What was Sewall’s role in the Salem Witch Trials? How did this role affect his identity during and after the trials?
  • Based on Sewall’s role at the trials, what was his purpose in life? Did he live up to that purpose?
  • What was Sewall’s purpose in his speech to the congregation? How did this change his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society and Samuel Sewall?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost him?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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