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Our Good Forbearers

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 31, 2009

AMERICAN HEROES

Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America

By Edmund S. Morgan

Norton. 278 pp. $27.95

Herein a collection of 17 essays written over a span of some 70 years, three previously unpublished and 14 previously uncollected in book form, by one of the most distinguished and influential historians of Colonial America. It is the 18th book Edmund S. Morgan has published in his 93 years (he also has edited five others) and further evidence of the depth and breadth of his research, the nimbleness of his mind and his willingness to dissent from received wisdom.

"American Heroes" is all that and more, but it is not what its title says it is. To be sure, Morgan contributes a preface in which he posits one definition of heroes as people "who [go] their own way against the grain, regardless of custom, convenience, or habits of deference to authority," who have an "ability to say no." This is interesting and plausible so far as it goes, but it doesn't really go very far in this book, which is principally a study of various aspects of Puritanism, with considerable emphasis on the theological debates that flourished among its members and dissenters in the 17th and 18th centuries.

That there were heroic aspects to some of these men (Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight, presidents of Yale College whose influence on religion and education was significant) and women (Anne Hutchinson and Mary Easty, who stood bravely behind their own convictions) is indisputable, but the theme of heroism in any form is so secondary in so many of these essays as to be virtually invisible. Obviously, what we are looking at is a publisher's decision to fabricate a title that echoes "founding fathers hagiography" (as the dust-jacket copy puts it), even as the text fails to bear it out.

This is unfortunate both because the title misrepresents the book and because some readers doubtless will be frustrated at not finding therein what they had been led to expect. The book opens, for example, with a withering chapter about the Spanish occupation of the Caribbean island now known as Hispaniola and the eradication of its indigenous Arawak Indians. "Although their story was only a small early incident in the Europeans' total transformation of the Western Hemisphere," Morgan writes, "and ultimately of the world, it epitomized that transformation." Morgan is right, but the chapter is a mighty odd way to begin a book that's ostensibly about heroism.

So set aside notions inspired by the title and read the book for its real subject, Puritanism. Many of these essays were written when Morgan was young and still very much under the sway of his great teacher and mentor, Perry Miller, to whom he pays tribute in the concluding essay. Like many who have studied the Puritans, Morgan finds them admirable at times, vexing at others but almost always interesting. In a first-rate piece about Michael Wigglesworth, "a morbid, humorless selfish busybody," an "absurd, somewhat pathetic figure of the [Puritan] caricature," he argues that "the popular picture of the Puritans . . . is grossly overdrawn, for Puritanism did not exclude the enjoyment of the good things of life," among them food, drink, poetry and even sex, so long as practiced within the bounds of marriage. Then, however, he says that the obsessively zealous Wigglesworth was the quintessential Puritan because "he accepted the demands of Puritanism more wholeheartedly than most of his countrymen." He continues:

"To affirm, then, that Wigglesworth was exceptionally and emphatically Puritan is not to cast doubt on what historians have been saying about the Puritans, but it is to suggest that the popular caricature may be closer to the central meaning of Puritanism than the friends of New England sometimes like to suppose. . . . For the mark of the Puritan was not his human warmth but his zeal, his suspicion of pleasure, his sense of guilt; and it is these qualities that are satirized in the popular caricature. Michael Wigglesworth, who appears to be a living embodiment of the caricature, was distinctly and thoroughly a Puritan. If we measure him by the precepts of the Puritan preachers, it will be apparent, I think, that his sense of guilt, his hostility to pleasure, and even his minding of other people's business were not the anomalies of a diseased mind but simply the qualities demanded of a good Puritan."

Wigglesworth may to some extent have "shaped early America," as this book's subtitle would have it, but you'd have to stretch the definition past the snapping point to call him a hero. Ditto for Cotton Mather, the "pompous egotist" who had the gall to suggest that the devil had launched "so formidable a campaign against the godly inhabitants of New England" during the Salem witchhunt because "Mather's superior godliness posed a challenge that hell itself could not ignore." Even the Quaker William Penn, whose influence on early America is well documented, comes in for sharp words as one who "persisted throughout his life in a posture of no compromise with the world," who, "in spite of being a likeable person, had a contentious streak that impelled him not only to reason with opposers but even to denounce them."

Though Morgan briefly describes a handful of lesser-known people whose courage during and after the Salem witch trials was exemplary, it is no surprise that the two figures who come closest to meeting both the conventional and Morgan's own definitions of heroes are George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. "If it can be said that any two men made the American republic," Morgan writes, "they conspicuously did," because they shared "a talent that enabled them to accomplish what they did where others might have failed." This "was the 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."

They knew how to say no, Franklin in his low-keyed negotiations for French support of the Revolution, Washington "because he did not start battles he could not win, while waiting and watching for those he could." That is a quiet form of heroism, but it is heroism all the same, and we must thank Edmund S. Morgan for calling it to our attention.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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