Getty Images

Yves Montand and Simone Signoret as John and Elizabeth Proctor in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater, Paris, 1955

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.

Morgan publishes the records of several cases of outlawed sexual behavior, and all seem very much like the cases one might hear in a modern courtroom. Employers force themselves on the female help; a young man of the neighborhood and a hired girl who should be upstairs tending the baby are discovered undressed in the downstairs parlor at midnight; seducers prowl the neighborhood in search of women not averse to seduction: “about nine of the clock at night, being darke, neither moone nor starrs shineing,” Rachel Smith was walking through a field where she met a man who asked where she lived and what her name was, “and shee told him,” whereupon “he gave her strong liquors, and told her that it was not the first time he had been with maydes after his master was in bed.”

In a long narrative chapter titled “The Problems of a Puritan Heiress,” Morgan tells of a young woman beset by scoundrels in an elaborate plot to steal her fortune. Apparently Puritans not only had twenty-first-century sexual impulses, they also had the Wall Street instinct as early as 1656. The plot is reminiscent of screwball comedies that Preston Sturges used to produce for Hollywood: scheming Boston rascal imports supposedly well-heeled Englishman to marry virginal rich Puritan girl. Fifteen months after awaiting “the performance of an husband on his part, wherin he hath been from first to last altogether deficient,” bride petitions court, which annuls marriage.

This is only the beginning. She remarries the “deficient” husband and produces two children by another man, her husband having proved to be just as deficient after the second marriage as after the first. Adultery is charged; the heiress, seeking relief, goes back to court, which is tired of the whole business and refuses to get involved. And so on through many further complications before the heroine triumphs, marries happily, recovers her stolen estate, sees the thieving plotters stripped of ill-gotten gain, and becomes one of the great ladies of Boston. So much for those who say Puritans hated a good time.

Morgan published this account in 1942, the year he received his doctorate at Harvard. There he studied with Perry Miller—“the master of American intellectual history,” Alfred Kazin said of him; “the best historical mind of his generation, perhaps of his century,” Morgan wrote after Miller’s death in 1963.

He sometimes affected an uncouthness that made a perceptive listener at one of his lectures ask why he kept insisting that he was really a stevedore. The answer, perhaps, was that he feared dignity might not merely substitute for learning but overcome it. Indeed, his posture carried the suggestion that such a conquest had occurred in some academics whom he saw around him.

The tribute to his teacher, used as an epilogue to American Heroes, leaves no doubt that Miller is one of Morgan’s very small band of heroes. It is so small that one wonders why he chose American Heroes as the title for a book with such a notable scarcity of heroes. The explanation seems to be that Morgan is not much interested in the standard warrior model of heroism. Benjamin Franklin is his idea of a hero, and Franklin himself seems to have had little respect for heroism.

“There are three great destroyers of mankind,” Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac,

Plague, Famine, and Hero. Plague and Famine destroy your persons only, and leave your goods to your Heirs; but Hero, when he comes, takes life and goods together; his business and glory it is, to destroy man and the works of man… Hero, therefore, is the worst of the three.

Morgan accepts George Washington, despite his career as warrior, but notes that “Washington’s continuing pre-eminence among our heroes probably owes as much to his presidency as to his generalship.” His own preferences, Morgan writes, run to uncelebrated people

who went their own way against the grain, regardless of custom, convenience, or habits of deference to authority…the Americans who sassed their betters and got into trouble, the people for whom the Bill of Rights was written.

He cites two Boston carters hauling a wagonload of wood along a narrow snow-drifted road one wintry day in 1705 when they met the oncoming coach of the royal governor of Massachusetts and refused to pull aside. The governor later testified that after he jumped from the coach and ordered them to clear the road, one of them “answered boldly, without any other words, ‘I am as good flesh and blood as you; I will not give way, you may goe out of the way.'” When the governor drew his sword to assert respect for high office, the carter “layd hold on the governor and broke the sword in his hand.”

It was “a supreme gesture of contempt for authority and its might,” Morgan writes. One shudders to think what might happen to this stubborn working stiff and his supreme gesture in today’s world of terrifying political motorcades with their heavily armed bodyguards.

Morgan writes with special admiration of two young people who chose to die rather than connive in the Salem witch hunts of 1692. As the hysteria spread, those accused of conspiring with the devil discovered that the best defense was confession. Puritan culture was usually lenient to the repentant sinner, and those who could persuade a judge that their confessions were true and they were genuinely sorry might be let off with only a fine. To establish sincerity they might be urged to identify others with whom they had conspired—to “name names,” in the phraseology of the Communist-hunting culture of the mid-1900s.

Naming names was a way to keep the hysteria spreading, and before Salem’s terror subsided at least twenty people had been executed, all but one by hanging. This, Morgan notes, is a modest number when measured by the huge number killed in Europe’s periodic seizures of witch hysteria, not that its modesty justifies the Puritans’ shameful descent into judicial murder.

From this bleak story he extracts the names Giles Cory and Mary Easty, two citizens of Salem who heroically chose to die rather than make false confession and “name names.” “They took their religion seriously enough to believe that if they confessed to a crime they had not committed, God would hold them guilty of the lie,” Morgan writes. He cites Mary Easty’s dying statement, a petition to the court “not for my own life for I know I must die,” but for the court itself to look to its own soul by closer examination of “these confesing wichis” so “that no more Innocent blood be shed.”

Giles Cory was the only witch-hunt victim not hanged. When he came to trial he refused to plead either guilty or not guilty. The law, Morgan says, made it impossible to try, and therefore convict, a person refusing to plead. Conviction, which was assured unless he made a false confession, would have meant his family’s being stripped of his property. Refusal to plead might save the property for his family, but the law also provided a way to make men plead. This involved placing the accused party between two wooden planks or platforms and piling stones on the upper boards until he was ready to speak. Without ever speaking, Cory was slowly crushed to death.

Five years later the General Court of Massachusetts, deciding that the state had executed innocent people, did something that today would be utterly inconceivable. It appointed a day of public fasting during which the people were to ask forgiveness for what they had done. Samuel Sewall, one of the Salem judges, stood in church with bowed head while a minister read his statement begging forgiveness of God and man and asking that “the blame and shame of it” be placed on him.

Morgan ends his book by exploring the history of the idea of popular sovereignty, the philosophical foundation on which Madison and his colleagues at Philadelphia created the United States government. Popular sovereignty assumes the existence of an organism called “the people” capable of choosing a small group of flesh-and-blood humans—a kind of philosophical priesthood—qualified to speak on its behalf.

That this is a make-believe notion is obvious to everyone aware of how passionately flesh-and-blood neighbors can disagree on the smallest political matters, not to mention the greatest national issues. Yet though obviously a fiction, it is a fiction sufficiently close to fact, sufficiently plausible, to allow suspension of disbelief.

Madison and his colleagues, of course, would not, in any case, have been interested in a truly popular sovereignty; they were all members of the ruling class. They were interested in replacing a dysfunctional government with a government that would be responsive to men of their disposition, social position, and economic needs.

Four score and seven years later Lincoln would call it government of, by, and for the people. Under close scrutiny the “by” and “for” in his majestic phrase seem nearer to fiction than fact. This will not disturb Morgan. He sees fictionalizing as essential to effective government. In his essay “The Founding Fathers’ Problem: Representation,” first published in 1983, he writes:

Popular government in both England and America has been representative government, and representation is the principal fiction by which the larger fiction of popular sovereignty has been itself sustained.

In an essay published in 1978, he said, “All government, of course, rests on fictions, whether we call them that or self-evident truths.” Like all fiction, he wrote, political fictions require a willing suspension of disbelief by those who live under them. Thus European governments flourished for several centuries under a fiction about a divine right of kings, which ceased to work when the ungodlike behavior of kings exposed the fiction as too absurd to deserve a suspension of disbelief.

Morgan’s discussion begins with David Hume’s observation that one of the great wonders of governance is that so many should willingly submit to being ruled by so few. On inquiring how

this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. ‘Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded….

Morgan, noting that all government requires consent from the governed, believes that people require plausible “opinions” to support consent, even though the “opinions” are “often at variance with observable fact.”

All parties to the system—those who will govern and those to be governed—engage in “make-believe,” he writes. Making believe that the king is divine, making believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God, making believe that the people have a voice, and that the representatives of the people are the people—everyone is playing make-believe to keep a necessary fiction afloat.

Morgan’s analysis is long, complex, and often ironic, as when he shows the representatives of individual towns and counties assuming power over a whole country as representatives of “the people.” When discussing early development of the British Parliament, he might also be writing about today’s American Congress: “The sovereignty of the people was an instrument by which representatives raised themselves to the maximum distance above the particular set of people who chose them,” he writes. “In the name of the people they became all-powerful in government, shedding as much as possible the local subject character that made them representatives.”

After the Revolution the newly independent American states, governed by large elected legislatures, formed a loose confederation in which each state myopically pursued its own highly localized interests. The dominant men of the revolutionary generation foresaw probable disaster for all. In Philadelphia they returned to make-believe by inventing the American people. Here was a fiction that the masses might agree to accept as fact. There was a people, they proclaimed. It spoke with the royal “We,” declaring, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form….”

The Constitution’s fictions of popular sovereignty “may have strained credulity, but they did not break it,” Morgan writes. “Madison’s invention worked. It still does.”