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The Enduring Power of Purim

Since colonial times, the Book of Esther has proved a powerful metaphor in American politics.

On May 17, 1776, the Continental Congress, mirroring the moment in which Queen Esther entered Ahasuerus’ throne room to intercede on behalf of her nation, declared a public fast day “to supplicate [God’s] interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity.” The hope was “to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence.” John Witherspoon, then president of what would later become Princeton University, took the occasion to make explicit the connection between the Americans seeking to foil the British forces and the biblical precedent:

The scripture abounds with instances, in which the designs of oppressors were either wholly disappointed, or in execution fell far short of the malice of their intention, and in some they turned out to the honor and happiness of the persons or the people, whom they were intended to destroy. … We have also an instance in Esther in which the most mischievous designs of Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, against Mordecai the Jew, and the nation from which he sprung, turned out at last to his own destruction, the honor of Mordecai, and the salvation and peace of his people.

By partaking in a fast, then, Americans, like the Jews of ancient Persia, sought divine intervention in the effort to defeat their dastardly foes. The Purim story provided a popular metaphor in the war against the British.

Amid the American Revolution, a frustrated General George Washington, furious at war profiteers at Valley Forge, raged: “I would to God that some one of the most atrocious of each state was hung in gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared for Haman. No punishment, in my opinion, is too great for the man, who can build his greatness upon his country’s ruin.”

Abigail Adams, writing to her husband—John Adams—took to the gallows, too, in wishing for her enemy’s downfall. In a May 4, 1775, letter, she wrote of the “wretched” former royal governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Hutchinson, on whom she wished “the fate of Mordecai,” mistakenly swapping in the hero of the Purim story for his villainous foil.