Ethics & Public Policy Center

American Heroes

Published in The Weekly Standard on January 4, 2010



Edmund S. Morgan, the Sterling professor of history emeritus at Yale, must surely know more about American colonial history in New England than any man alive. The author of numerous previous volumes, including The Puritan Family, The Puritan Dilemma, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, and The Challenge of the American Revolution, Morgan has now, aged 93, put together a book of his essays titled to stand as the culmination of his career and a compendium of wisdom gleaned from a very long lifetime spent in the study of history in the old-fashioned sense — that is, history as an attempt to understand the past rather than to impose the historian's ideology upon it.

Though he is not the least bit showy or obviously polemical about it, there are provocations to the prevailing ethos of historical studies on nearly every page of this volume. Here he is, for example, writing of the gentle Arawaks of the Caribbean, met by Christopher Columbus in the first “encounter” between the Old World and the New: That the Indians were destroyed by Spanish greed is true. But greed is simply one of the uglier names we give to the driving force of modern civilization. We usually prefer less pejorative names for it. Call it the profit motive, or free enterprise, or the work ethic, or the American way, or, as the Spanish did, civility. Before we become too outraged at the behavior of Columbus and his followers, before we identify ourselves too easily with the lovable Arawaks, we have to ask whether we could really get along without greed and everything that goes with it. Yes, a few of us, a few eccentrics, might manage to live for a time like the Arawaks. But the modern world could not have put up with the Arawaks any more than the Spanish could. The story moves us, offends us, but perhaps the more so because we have to recognize ourselves not in the Arawaks but in Columbus and his followers.

This strikes me as so profoundly true that its acceptance as truth must make the whole ramshackle structure of ideologized history fall to the ground. No wonder he tucks it away in the previously unpublished essay, “The Conquerors,” that opens the volume. No wonder it is previously unpublished!

In the same vein is an essay from 1958 titled “The Unyielding Indian,” which is also a rebuke to the simple moral melodrama favored by so many historians and other bien pensants these days to describe the interaction between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This essay concentrates on the Indian tribes of what is now the United States and points out that the bloodiness of our ancestors' encounter with them is to a large extent owing to the Indians' refusal to follow the course of most conquered and technologically outclassed peoples and assimilate or adapt to the change that Europeans brought to the continent. Ironically, this “extraordinary refusal to accept the manners and methods of a people who were obviously more powerful than they” was a product of qualities that are now thought to be distinctively American.

All the most typical of Indian characteristics, writes Morgan, “add up to a single quality, which has been given various names. The Massachusetts General Court, for example .  .  . called it 'a malicious, surley, and revengeful spirit.' But the more positive epithet of 'individualism' will also apply.” And seeing the Indians as individualists “may help us to understand not only why the Indian refused to join us but also why we have admired and hated him for his refusal. The Indian in his individualism displayed virtues to which Americans, and indeed all Christians, have traditionally paid homage. An indifference to the things of this world, a genuine respect for human dignity, a passionate attachment to human freedom–these are virtues we all revere.” It is not surprising, then, that “we are irritated, annoyed, and even infuriated by men who exhibit our values better than we do” but who at the same time are savages–barbarians.

None of this should be taken to mean that Morgan is a conservative, however; far from it. He has a decidedly liberal point of view, and even takes some gratuitous swipes of a very familiar kind at our previous president and his administration. Moreover, for the most part, he takes a pretty dim view of the traditional heroes of American history–though George Washington and Benjamin Franklin come in for a good deal better treatment than the grudging praise he accords, for example, Columbus. Most of his heroes are outliers and mavericks, but he also has words of understanding and sympathy for many of those whose lives embodied the errors and misapprehensions of their time–even the judges at the Salem witch trials, who are compared favorably with some of their more dogmatic spiritual descendants.

He is especially sympathetic to the Puritans of New England without sharing many (if any) of the beliefs that they thought necessary for the health of their immortal souls. His essay on “The Puritans and Sex” should be required reading for those who use the words “Puritan” or “Puritanical” to signify a hostility to sexual intercourse. For the Puritan attitude, as he points out, begins in “horror at 'that Popish conceit of the Excellency of Virginity.' ” He quotes one Puritan divine as writing–naturally, from the masculine point of view–that “Women are Creatures without which there is no comfortable Living for man: it is true of them what is wont to be said of Governments, That bad ones are better than none: They are a sort of Blasphemers then who dispise and decry them, and call them a necessary Evil, for they are a necessary Good.”

Morgan also offers a rather witty summary of another reverend's opinion that the “Use of the Marriage Bed” is “founded in mans Nature” and that, consequently, any withdrawal from sexual intercourse upon the part of husband or wife “Denies all reliefe in Wedlock unto Human necessity: and sends it for supply unto Beastiality when God gives not the gift of Continency.” “In other words,” Morgan summarizes, “sexual intercourse was a human necessity and marriage the only proper supply for it.” Well, that's one thing it means.

Morgan also helps us to understand what he calls the “socioreligious theory of criminology” as adumbrated by Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts. This was the view that the whole community might be punished by God for the sins of individuals among it, which was the justification for keeping a close watch on people's moral behavior. The theory may have been mistaken, but it is worth something to understand what otherwise we might simply condemn out of hand.

Typical is his treatment of Michael Wigglesworth, “The Puritan's Puritan,” who is acknowledged to live up, if any man ever did, to the popular caricature of Puritanism but yet without sacrificing his right to be understood. Wigglesworth may have been “a living embodiment of the caricature,” but he also showed how Every social institution existed for the Puritan by virtue of a special covenant with God in which the members had promised obedience to the laws of God. Consequently every Puritan was bound to obey God not merely as a sanctified man (in order to prove to himself that he was saved) but as a member of every group to which he belonged.

Morgan gets “at the origin of [Wigglesworth's] hostility to pleasure and at the central meaning of Puritanism as Wigglesworth exemplifies it: the belief that fallen man inevitably estimates too highly the creatures and things of this world, including himself.” That, too, is why, “the Puritan was not exactly hostile to pleasure, but his suspicion was so close to hostility that it often amounted to the same thing.”

The essay on Washington and Franklin, “The Power of Negative Thinking,” sums up Morgan's own sort of wisdom. Like them, he has a “talent for getting things done by not doing the obvious, a talent for recognizing when not
doing something was better than doing it, even when doing it was what everyone else wanted.” Of Washington and Franklin, he writes that “their deliberate refusals to do things, employed to great advantage in serving their country, originated in a personal ambition to gain honor and reputation of a higher order than most people aspired to”–a quality which showed an appreciation as rare then as it is now of “the distinction between fame and vanity.” Like his heroes, Morgan has refused to take the easy and crowd-pleasing route to scholarly fame, but his fame is likely to be the more impressive and long-lasting as a result.

James Bowman, resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness.

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