How do Primary Source Documents Mirror the Ideals of a Society?
The attitudes and beliefs of a particular time period are reflected in first hand
documents, purposely and inadvertently through the biases and ideals of the authors of the
pieces. The arrogant self-serving attitude of the first colony is reflected in Captain John
Smith’s, “The General History of Virginia.” The Puritans holier-than-thou ideals are
reflected in the essay by William Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Finally the fear of
the unknown by the colonists is shown in Cotton Mather’s reflection on the Salem Witch
Trials, “The Wonders of the Invisible world.” In all of the documents, the biases and
believes of the authors show the attitudes of the people at the time.
Captain John Smith epitomizes the self-serving attitude of the first colony in his
essay, “The General History of Virginia.” Smith is not interested in what people in his
time think of his writing. His work is written so future generations will see Captain John
Smith (he refers to himself in third person) as a hero. According to Smith it was entirely
his doing that the colony was established. He says, “The New President and Martin, being
little beloved, of weak judgment in dangers, and less industry in peace, committed the
managing of all things abroad to Captain Smith...,” meaning that the President is weak and
inferior to himself, and goes on to say, “...who by his own example, good words, and fair
promises...himself always bearing the greatest task for his own share...” Feeling that he
was responsible for the survival of the colony, Smith shows his attitude of self promotion.
This was the belief of many people of the time who wanted to be remembered. Smith
does not take all the credit for his work. He believes that God is helping him. The Indians
did not help Smith by their own accord, “But almighty God (by his divine providence) had
mollified the hearts of those stern savages.”(Smith) Again his feeling of superiority shows
when, he believes the Indians are not human enough to act with out the help of God.
Smith believes that God is solely on his side.
The Puritans, who believed God had chosen them to be the ones who get to enter
heaven, also believed they were above everyone else. In William Bradford’s essay, “Of
Plymouth Plantation,” he exemplifies the belief that the Puritan colony as a complete entity
(rather than Smith who promoted only himself) is superior. In their own
self-righteousness, the Puritans felt that non-Puritans, “did not deserve help at their
hands,” but gave it to prove themselves better than others. Rather than doing deeds that
would promote them in their own life time, the Puritans worked for the afterlife. They all
believed that since God choose them, all that they had to do to get into heaven was to live
pure lives. Bradford is not as hostile towards the Indians-he does not refer to them as
savages-as Smith, but as with Smith, Bradford believes that the Indians were “special
instrument[s] sent of God for their good...” The Puritan people were bias towards all
non-Puritans, not necessarily on purpose, but more inadvertently by their religious
The Puritans also held a fear of the unknown. They believed that the devil was a
physical being who lived in the forest. He cohorts were witches who did his evil bidding.
Anything unusual that happened in the community was attributed to witchcraft. “The
Wonders of the Invisible World,” by Cotton Mather shows the trial of one such witch by
the name of Martha Carrier. The claims of the people in the trial seem to be grossly
exaggerated as to make a stronger case against Cather. Claims such as, “several gallons of
corruption,” running from a wound and, “he could thrust a knitting needle into his wound
four inches deep,” show the exaggeration used to convict suspected witches. The victims
(those accused of witchcraft) were generally those who, such as Martha Cather, were not
upstanding members of the Puritan community. Mather sums up the Puritan intolerance
for members of the community who are not upstanding in his memorandum, “This
rampant had, Martha carrier, was the person of whom the confessions of the witches and
of her own children among the rest agreed that the devil had promised her she should be
queen of Hell.” Anything that was not understood was attributed to witchcraft during the
early years of America in the Puritan colonies. This showed the fear and lack of
understanding of the