Back in Massachusetts, the Cotton and Mather families intermarried and had a grandson named Cotton Mather. He was extremely religious, and he became a preacher after studying at Harvard. Meanwhile, poor colonists were rebelling against the British and the rich. Cotton Mather was part of this wealthy elite, so he became upset. To give the people a new enemy, he started writing about witchcraft—he even helped launch the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. During this time, the Puritans described witches, devils, and evil spirits as Black. Even after the trials, Mather spent most of his career defending social hierarchies that put Puritan men on top.
Cotton Mather is the first of the five main characters in Stamped’s history of American racism. His life shows how racist ideas became the norm in colonial America. He learned those ideas from a young age through his education, but he also passed them on when he became a prominent clergyman. Like all the racists mentioned in the book so far, Mather was primarily interested in protecting his group’s own power and privilege. Most students probably know about the Salem Witch Trials, but not about their racist metaphors. Mather’s crusade against witchcraft was really an attempt to protect the moral purity of his people. But he represented moral purity through the metaphor of racial purity. In other words, he was so used to thinking of white people as good and Black people as evil that Black skin essentially became a shorthand for evilness.
Cotton Mather’s ideas, like Gomes de Zurara’s, spread because they helped powerful people justify slavery. And as slavery grew in the U.S., slaveholders created new laws to prevent rebellions. For instance, they banned interracial relationships and legally treated Black and Native people as livestock. Meanwhile, Mather defended slavery as a way to purify—or whiten—Black people’s souls. His arguments were popular until a few years after his death in 1728.
Mather and Zurara’s racist ideas spread for the same reason: powerful people noticed that they could be used to justify racist policies that oppressed less powerful people and, conversely, ensure more wealth and power for the powerful. The ideas about white moral superiority that Mather learned in childhood and preached during the Salem Witch Trials were segregationist, because they suggested that Black people will always be inherently worse than white people. But at the end of his life, he became more of an assimilationist, because he argued that Black people could improve and even become equal to white people (in their souls, if not in their bodies).