DANIEL BOORSTIN AND THE QUAKERS
DANIEL BOORSTIN AND THE QUAKERS
by William H. Benson
March 25, 2004
The historian and public servant Daniel Boorstin passed away earlier this month in Washington. He was eight-nine years old. In addition to teaching law for twenty-five years at the University of Chicago and serving as the chief Librarian at the Library of Congress from 1975 to 1987, Boorstin also wrote exceptional and readable history.
Early in his career he wrote the three-volume The Americans and then ten years ago he wrote another three-volume work: The Creators, The Discoverers, and The Seekers. He was easily recognizable with his bowtie and black-framed glasses.
My favorite Boorstin essay comes from his chapter The Quest for Martyrdom found in his book The Colonial Experience in which he described the lust that the Quakers’ of the seventeenth-century felt for hardships and torture and mutilation and imprisonment while in their search for a crown of martyrdom. These Quaker men and women preferred “to die for the whole truth, rather than live with a half-truth.”
From a base in Rhode Island they would trudge across the wilderness, risking Indians, snowstorms, and wild animals because they “felt moved” to go to Boston to preach to the Puritans, who already were set in their religious beliefs. The exasperated Puritans would give these Quakers thirty stripes with a three-cord knotted whip, confine them to a jail without food nor water, cut off one of their ears, and, if all else failed, hang them.
Three times Mary Dyer made the pilgrimage to Boston. The first time she was banished to Newport, Rhode Island. The second time in late October of 1659 the Boston Puritans marched her to the gallows along with two Quaker men, who were first hung. Preparations were made to hang Mary Dyer, but then at the last moment, the authorities gave her a reprieve and banished her again for a second time. Then, on May 21, 1660, she was back in Boston preaching her Quaker beliefs, but this time she was hanged.
The Quaker Josiah Southwick told his persecutors after successive whippings that “it was no more terrifying unto him, than if ye had taken a Feather and blown it up in the Air, and had said, Take heed it hurteth him not.”
What seemed to redirect the Quakers away from their mindless focus upon martyrdom was land, in other words having their own colony in Pennsylvania, around Philadelphia, William Penn’s venture. There they established themselves and then prospered, and along the way they gave up their frenetic devotion to spreading their particular form of the Gospel.
But then Boorstin in another essay How the Quakers Misjudged the Indians pointed out how the Quakers’ pacifism left them unprepared when dealing with the Native Americans.
Boorstin wrote, “The political success, even the very survival of an American colony, often depended on a realistic estimate of the Indian. But the Quakers’ view of the Indian was of a piece with their attitude toward war: it was unrealistic, inflexible, and based on false premises about human nature.”
In 1748 instead of voting money for the defense of the colony, the Quaker Assembly gave 500 pounds to the Indians who promptly purchased lead and powder and guns and attacked the Irish and German settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier. The Quakers failed to understand that by their own hands this bloodbath had happened.
In August of 1756 Benjamin Franklin said, “In short, I do not believe we shall ever have a firm peace with the Indians, till we have well drubbed them.”