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A Heroic Historian on Heroes

The European invasion of North America began in earnest when Columbus, searching for Asia, blundered into the Caribbean. The newcomers, mostly Spanish, English, and French, found a continental vastness sparsely populated by farming and hunting people whose primitive technology was hopelessly inferior to the Europeans’. In the limitless and unspoiled world stretching from tropical jungle to the frozen north, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants. They lived mostly in small tribal units often quite hostile to one another even when living close together, and they spoke an astonishing number of languages, perhaps as many as 375. Nowhere did they constitute anything like the European nation-state that was about to fall upon them in murderous excesses of Christian love and ancient greed.

I have all this and much more from Professor Edmund Morgan’s American Heroes, a fine collection of sixteen essays that carry us swiftly through three hundred years of history about which few of us know as much as we should. It is a relatively small book to cover such a great span of time, and it is a pleasure, and often a delight, to read. Most of the essays are selected from previous publications that make up Morgan’s voluminous body of work. The earliest piece here first appeared in 1937, three others in the 1940s, and three more in the 1950s. Morgan’s curiosity about our ancestors obviously goes far back, yet it still seems as lively as ever in the articles that were written quite recently. The essay that opens American Heroes, published here for the first time, is perhaps the most powerful in the book.

It concerns Columbus’s early encounter on Hispaniola (now Haiti) with the seemingly idyllic Arawak Indians— “the best people in the world,” Columbus said, “and beyond all the mildest”—and tells how the Spanish destroyed them in order to save them. When Columbus first saw them, they seemed “like relics of the golden age.” They cultivated a little cassava for bread and made a bit of cloth, but spent most of the day idling the time away “seemingly without a care in the world.”

The Europeans were charmed, but as believers in the Christian work ethic and the civilizing effect of maximized profit they felt obliged to improve the Arawaks by putting them to work for the improvement of their souls and the enrichment of Europeans afflicted with a lust for gold. Moreover, as Columbus told his royal Spanish patrons, “They have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war, and very cowardly, so that a thousand of them would not face three.” In short, good candidates for slavery: “fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary.”

Columbus was wrong. The Indians were not made for forced labor. They did everything to escape it and when they tried fleeing into the wild the Spaniards hunted them down with dogs trained to kill. “Behind the Spanish assault on the Indians,” Morgan writes, “lay a conviction that men must work, if not for themselves then for their betters” in the interests of civilization and Christianity. This made it possible for Columbus to admire the Indians while planning to enslave them. While the Christian invaders might even envy the pleasant simplicity of the Indians’ life, they were simultaneously offended by it. Morgan writes:

Innocence never fails to offend, never fails to invite attack, and the Indians seemed the most innocent people anyone had ever seen….Without the help of Christianity or of civilization, they had attained virtues that Europeans liked to think of as the proper outcome of Christianity and civilization. The fury with which the Spaniards assaulted the Arawaks even after they had enslaved them must surely have been in part a blind impulse to crush an innocence that seemed to deny the Europeans’ cherished assumption of their own civilized, Christian superiority over naked, heathen barbarians.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Dominican priest who was an eyewitness to the genocide, wrote of Indians “tortured, burned, and fed to the dogs by their masters.” Fifty years after Columbus’s arrival among the Arawaks, Morgan says, only two hundred were left. De Las Casas blamed Spanish greed: “The cause why the Spanishe have destroyed such an infinitie of soules, hath been onely, that they have helde it for their last scope and marke to gette golde.”

Morgan finds no Spanish monopoly on greed. Had the English or French been first on the scene, the result would have been similar, he writes:

Enslavement, torture, and murder on a large scale, not to mention catastrophic epidemics, have often accompanied Western occupation of countries inhabited by people lacking in Christianity, civility, and guns.

It was not Spanish greed, he believes, but “Western greed in general” that made the first chapter of American history “an atrocity story.”

No one is more qualified than Professor Morgan to take us touring through the early centuries of American history. As a professor emeritus at Yale, where he was a faculty member from 1955 to 1986, he has most of the medals, prizes, and certificates that America awards its most eminent intellectual authorities, in lieu of money, and his previous publications include seventeen books and a wide variety of essays, including many for The New York Review of Books. Despite the heavy scholarly credentials, his writing is graced with wit and irony and free of ponderous academic prose.

Having started the present book with Columbus at Hispaniola, Morgan ends it with a small elite group at Philadelphia creating a fictional organism that will be known as “We the people.” Three centuries have passed since the first Europeans arrived, and somewhere in the tangled passages of time these elite few have ceased being Europeans and become a new people and, if asked, would say they were Americans. Here Morgan makes a persuasive argument that all successful government must be based on a fiction: had James Madison and his colleagues in government design failed to produce a credible piece of make-believe at Philadelphia, what is now the United States might closely resemble—well, something more like the Balkans.

Before we arrive at Philadelphia, however, Morgan has a big cast to present. We see John Winthrop on his way to creating Boston. Benjamin Franklin offers a lesson in the wisdom of knowing when to stop, and Anne Hutchinson is expelled into the wilderness for not knowing when to stop. Then he introduces William Penn, a “contentious Quaker” who refused ever to stop and got away with it. On trial in a London court for preaching illegally, Penn “lectured the judges on the law and taunted them into statements” that won him such sympathy among the jurors that, despite “browbeating by the bench,” they refused to convict him. Benjamin Franklin, who tried not to dislike people, found it easy to dislike the arrogant Penn, possibly because he disliked the idea of anybody owning Pennsylvania.

Morgan may know more about American Puritanism than any other living person, and here he provides a great deal of documentation to prove that Puritans were just as human—even about sex—as the rest of mankind. Morgan’s admiration for the Puritans runs deep, partly because, though not religious himself, he has a profound respect for their success in creating a society based on the principles inherent in their faith. The uniquely Protestant New England mind, such a vital component of the American character, seems far removed from the high-church Virginia mind, which was fatally at ease with slavery.

Admiring the Puritans, Morgan is naturally impatient with our national cliché about a sour, church-obsessed, and sexually repressed people who, as H.L. Mencken put it, hated the thought that someone somewhere might be having a good time. Combat against error is clearly one of Morgan’s great pleasures, and those who speak with carefree indifference to fact risk being humiliated and routed by overwhelming barrages of antique official documents.

Lyman Beecher, dead now for nearly 150 years, receives a roughing-up in American Heroes for having once said that Ezra Stiles was a failure as president of Yale during the 1790s. Citing eighteenth-century documents that deal with church membership among Yale men and theological disputes about deism and Arminianism, Morgan makes a persuasive argument that Beecher didn’t know what he was talking about.

Elsewhere he shows the same impatience with modern politicians who misrepresent the meaning of John Winthrop’s metaphor of a “city upon a hill” and with Southern fantasies about the nobility of honor. (Honor justified violence outside the law, such as dueling, and lost honor was often redeemed in the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and “lynchings conducted as grisly ceremonies,” he wrote in 2001.)

To refute the popular notion of Puritan hostility toward sex, he quotes extensively from court records of the Massachusetts colony, which disclose a plentiful volume of illicit sexual behavior and surprisingly liberal attitudes among the authorities. “The Puritans became inured to sexual offenses, because there were so many,” he writes. The records of seventeenth-century New England courts show that “illicit sexual intercourse was fairly common. Many of the early New Englanders possessed a high degree of virility and very few inhibitions.”

Morgan opens his chapter “The Puritans and Sex” by citing a denunciation of “that Popish conceit of the Excellency of Virginity” by the minister of the Old South Church in the late seventeenth century and a quotation from a minister named John Cotton:

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 despise and decry them, and call them a necessary Evil, for they are a necessary Good.

Another preacher pondering “the Use of the Marriage Bed” declares that sexual passion is “founded in mans Nature,” adding that either husband or wife withdrawing from sexual relations “Denies all reliefe in Wedlock unto Human necessity: and sends it for supply unto Beastiality when God gives not the gift of Continency.”

For a good Puritan, sexual intercourse was a necessity and marriage was its proper supplier. Members of the First Church of Boston expelled one James Mattock in part because he “denyed Coniugall fellowship unto his wife for the space of 2 years together upon pretense of taking Revenge upon himself for his abusing of her before marryage.”

Sex outside marriage was another matter. Laws provided death for adultery and whipping for fornication, yet these crimes occurred so frequently that enforcing the most severe penalties seems to have been socially impractical. Morgan finds only three instances in which the death penalty was carried out for adultery. Usually, he writes, the punishment was a whipping or a fine, maybe both, and perhaps a branding or a symbolic execution that involved standing on the gallows for an hour with a rope around the neck.

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