Lesson From Our Past: Walk Humbly

I represent a client in Massachusetts and I took a day to see a bit of Boston. The Old North Church held a lantern to warn of the British troops headed to destroy Rebel gunpowder stores in Concord in April 1775. Paul Revere got the message to the militia in Lexington who temporarily stopped them by starting the Revolutionary War. (We lost that battle but won the War)

For the past eighty years, as most tourists learn and all locals know, the Old North Church neighborhood has been an Italian area. So it is no surprise that a Catholic church may be found on Hannover Street, just across from the Old North Church.

On the front of Our Lady of Victories Church in Boston’s South End/Bay Village neighborhood, this plaque remembers the execution of Goody Glover (Goodwife Ann Glover), an Irish woman who, in 1688, was accused of being a witch by Cotton Mather and other Boston Puritan leaders. Why was she suspected of witchcraft? Because she would not renounce Catholicism. Massachusetts authorities protected their citizens from this Catholic widow by killing her. They thus made the first Catholic martyr in Massachusetts. A hundred and fifty years later mobs still occasionally attacked Catholic buildings and 225 years later in Massachusetts, Irish and Italian and Polish Americans still had trouble getting hired or renting apartments.

We don’t usually think of the descendants of Pilgrims as monstrous murderers. We know they were a bit narrow religiously, and some of us are concerned about how they treated the Indians. But, murdering Catholics simply for being Catholic? That sounds like Europe’s past and not ours.

We are proud of much of our past, and rightfully so. Indeed, I just visited the Museum of the Battle of Bunker Hill and felt a surge of patriotism. I love and embrace our heritage, and I include the folks who came over from the Mayflower, and all they accomplished almost three hundred years before my own ancestors came over. Our communal history gets adopted by all of us. We get to take pride in fighting for our independence every July 4, and for Abraham Lincoln and the War to end slavery. But we must also own the other parts.

We are told that the sad parts of our history happened to Indians, African Americans, and more recently Japanese Americans. And of course, they bore the brunt of it. But the truth is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony not only murdered Catholics, but they expelled Baptists. Baptists now constitute the largest Protestant denomination in the country. But at the beginning of our country, the Government treated Catholic and Baptist minorities as dangerous criminals.

What is the lesson? Walk humbly. Ensure all accused get due process. When your neighbors are afraid of people who are different, tell them to take a deep breath and remember our history. When politicians and media personalities stoke fear, remain calm.

Law is a conservative profession. The essence of due process- courts, cross-examination, the role of judges to limit prejudicial statements and hearsay- is to slow down the mob mentality. As lawyers, we remind our fellow citizens that we must not be so certain of how right we are and so afraid of difference in others that our descendants view us as evil.

These lessons never grow old, and they feel terribly relevant today.

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