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The Trials of Thomas Morton by Peter C. Mancall

Richard M. Gamble

The Trials of Thomas Morton: An Anglican Lawyer, His Puritan Foes, and the Battle for a New England, by Peter C. Mancall. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019, ix + 278 pages, $30.00.

In 2011, when Deval Patrick served as governor of Massachusetts, the former 2020 Democratic presidential contender and Obama protégée proclaimed March 1 to be “Thomas Morton Day.” Most Americans would be hard pressed to say who Morton was or why he ought to be so honored. Perhaps few people in the Bay State knew either. But Patrick praised the seventeenth-century colonist for his “respectful relationship with Native Americans,” “intrepid explorations,” and for writing the New English Canaan— “an invaluable ‘first chapter’ of Massachusetts history.”

The Pilgrims and Puritans would have been scandalized by this encomium. William Bradford and John Winthrop never intended for Morton’s notorious maypole to be celebrated, and they would have been baffled by the revelry depicted by governor Patrick as a symbol of “intercultural prosperity” and an invitation to “respect” and “cooperation.” But such is the state of cultural politics in the twenty-first century. The world of 1620 was not the world of 2020.

And yet it could have been. Or at least it could have been an experiment in an alternative New England not engineered by Separatists and Puritans—an alternative more respectful of Native Americans, more tolerant, and a little more fun. Historian Peter Mancall does not endorse everything Governor Patrick proclaimed, but he does ask readers to consider a provocative “what if?” that puts Morton at the center of the story instead of Bradford and Winthrop. In other words what happens if we recognize how precarious one version of New Canaan was in light of a competing commercial colonial enterprise more loyal to James I and Charles I and adhering to the established Church of England?

With the sense of inevitability removed from the story, the English settlement of North America becomes highly contingent, hanging by a thread on colonial and imperial politics, economic rivalry, and international competition, along with heavy doses of religious controversy in and out of New England. No one in the 1620s and ‘30s knew the future, no matter how confident they were of their ability to read God’s special providences and their proclivity to run all their experiences through the grid of the Old and New Testaments. God’s New Israel was hard work.

To say that Morton was a colorful figure is an understatement. The word “trials” in the book’s title points to Morton’s career as an endlessly litigious lawyer and the ordeals that he himself and the New England magistrates put him through. Morton likely arrived in New Plymouth for the first time in 1622 and the second time in 1624. His trading post threatened the Separatists’ fragile economy and his arming of local tribes seemed to imperil their lives, property, and the very survival of their New World haven. Morton seemed to relish his ability to scandalize the pious, and when he erected his infamous eighty-foot-tall maypole on Ma-re Mount (or Merry Mount) and danced around it with English and Natives, Bradford called him the “Lord of Misrule” and exiled him. Morton threatened to bring the corruption of the Old World into the New, the very thing the Separatists had fled. Undaunted, Morton returned and became a thorn in the side of Winthrop as well. Morton ended his days in Maine.  

Morton and his company nearly succeeded in the law courts of London and in their appeals to the crown to secure their own charter claim to New England. To explain his vision for New England, Morton published his New England Canaan in Amsterdam in 1637, a sales pitch that was part amateur anthropology, part geology, part history, and part bitter, humorous, and satirical send-up of the (in Morton’s judgment) bigoted and insufferable Noncomformists. He painted them as religious and political subversives.

What fascinates Mancall is the way in which Morton “became an outlier in the triumphant narrative of the establishment of colonies in New England” (14). He became, and for years remained, the antagonist in somebody else’s story. Only a few copies of his book survived, and it was not rediscovered in any significant way until the nineteenth century. As the national story became the New England story writ large, Morton symbolized for many the would-be obstacles to America’s providential founding. Nevertheless, he had his sympathizers along the way, and when the nation turned against “Puritanism” he was remade into a symbol for free thinkers and even a proto-hippy.

Mancall’s book is lively, fascinating, and highly readable. His sympathies for Morton are clear, and his relativizing of the past (including religion) may turn off some readers. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Mancall’s book as just another exercise in politically correct revisionism. Mancall has meticulously reconstructed a neglected episode in colonial history and the twists and turns of the publishing, reception, and subsequent use of a mischievous book. His research has led him to conclude, with only slight hesitation, that Morton’s New England Canaan is “the second most important historical narrative” of New England colonization after Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (215).

Morton failed in his personal ambitions and the quest to build his vision of English colonization in the North Atlantic. As Mancall promises, his failure pulls us out of “the familiar narrative” (17). This is a tale of two visions. Bradford and Winthrop exiled Morton “because his dream threatened theirs. They were right” (172). Of course, the English colonies and the nation that followed were the product of more than these competing visions. The sheer variety of colonies in North America meant that many visions occupied the Atlantic seaboard by the eighteenth century. The Pilgrims and Puritans defeated Morton, but their vision of a New Israel remained an irritant to the Dutch in New York, the Quakers, the Anglicans, and more than few “Cavaliers” in the South.

Richard M. Gamble is a professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, where he holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics. He serves as a ruling elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, April 2020.

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