It was the darkest and most desponding period in the civil history of New England. The people, whose ruling passion then was, as it has ever since been, a love for constitutional rights, had, a few years before, been thrown into dismay by the loss of their charter, and, from that time, kept in a feverish state of anxiety respecting their future political destinies. In addition to all this, the whole sea-coast was exposed to danger: ruthless pirates were continually prowling along the shores. Commerce was nearly extinguished, and great losses had been experienced by men in business. A recent expedition against Canada had exposed the colonies to the vengeance of France.
The province was encumbered with oppressive taxes, and weighed down by a heavy debt. The sum assessed upon Salem to defray the expenses of the country at large, the year before the witchcraft prosecutions, was L1,346. 1_s._ Besides this, there were the town taxes. The whole amounted, no doubt, inclusive of the support of the ministry, to a weight of taxation, considering the greater value of money at that time, of which we have no experience, and can hardly form an adequate conception. The burden pressed directly upon the whole community. There were then no great private fortunes, no moneyed institutions, no considerable foreign commerce, few, if any, articles of luxury, and no large business-capitals to intercept and divert its pressure. It was borne to its whole extent by the unaided industry of a population of extremely moderate estates and very limited earnings, and almost crushed it to the earth.
The people were dissatisfied with the new charter. They were becoming the victims of political jealousies, discontent, and animosities. They had been agitated by great revolutions. They were surrounded by alarming indications of change, and their ears were constantly assailed by rumors of war. Their minds were startled and confounded by the prevalence of prophecies and forebodings of dark and dismal events. At this most unfortunate moment, and, as it were, to crown the whole and fill up the measure of their affliction and terror, it was their universal and sober belief, that the Evil One himself was, in a special manner, let loose, and permitted to descend upon them with unexampled fury.
The people of Salem participated in their full share of the gloom and despondency that pervaded the province, and, in addition to that, had their own peculiar troubles and distresses. Within a short time, the town had lost almost all its venerable fathers and leading citizens, the men whose councils had governed and whose wisdom had guided them from the first years of the settlement of the place. Only those who are intimately acquainted with the condition of a community of simple manners and primitive feelings, such as were the early New-England settlements, can have an adequate conception of the degree to which the people were attached to their patriarchs, the extent of their dependence upon them, and the amount of the loss when they were removed.