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American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early Americaby Edmund S Morgan
Synopses & Reviews
The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of interest in the founding fathers so intense that a reader or television viewer of today might imagine that America was the creation of beings who were flawless in their wisdom and courage. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund S. Morgan shows here, Americans have long been obsessed with their heroes. But, drawing on a lifetime of scholarship, he presents a different cast of characters—among them Indians, witches, heretics, and naysayers—men and women who went against the grain, in addition to the stock figures of our national hagiography.
Morgan has mined the seventeenth century and has identified several new heroes, among them Giles Cory and Mary Easty, accused witches, who were put to death when Puritanism went wrong at Salem in 1692. Pressured to reprieve herself by admitting her guilt and naming friends and neighbors as confederates in witchcraft, Easty declared, “I dare not belie my own soul.” Her humble statement stands as the ultimate expression of the religious principles that led to the founding of New England, principles temporarily abandoned by the rulers of Massachusetts Bay who tried and sentenced her.
While American Heroes celebrates the lives and principles of ordinary Americans, the book also considers the legacy of some of our most prominent colonial and Revolutionary leaders, among them William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. Franklin and Washington are best known for standing against the repressive and often brutal regime of Great Britain’s colonial policies, but here Morgan makes the case for their heroism in standing up to their own countrymen. When Americans were demanding precipitate action, Washington and Franklin got the nation off to a good start by knowing when to say no.
Whether presenting the scandalous story of a Puritan husband whose on-and-off marriage to a beleaguered Puritan heiress illustrates the nexus between property and sex, or assessing the power of books to subvert the standing order and alter the course of history, American Heroes rises above hagiography in challenging the reader to conceive of American individuality and idealism in new terms. Morgan, who credits his mentor Perry Miller “with the best historical mind of his generation,” has shown throughout his own career an unrivaled originality and intellectual courage. American Heroes demonstrates Morgan’s fascination with our national identity and his abiding affection for the men and women whose character, honesty, and moral courage make plain that heroism in America can be found in unexpected places.
"Despite the lowbrow title, these are intelligent, opinionated essays on America between 1600 and 1800. Morgan, a revered historian and the bestselling author of Benjamin Franklin, wrote the earliest chapter in 1937, the latest in 2005. Many describe obscure events but pack a surprising punch. In 'Dangerous Books,' the author tells the story of Yale (where he is professor emeritus), founded in 1701 as a bastion of Puritanism, but with a library of works by English Enlightenment intellectuals. In 1721 six members of the faculty, including the rector, horrified the community by publicly renouncing Calvinism. The last official American execution for witchcraft occurred in 1692, but the popular belief in witchcraft continued well into the 19th century: in a marvelously recounted vignette, Morgan describes Philadelphia in 1787, where a few miles from the halls where America's elite were debating our Constitution, a mob abused and finally killed an old woman accused of witchcraft. Three of the 17 essays are previously unpublished. Happily, all are up to the standards of this wise, venerable (now 93) and deeply thoughtful historian." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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 witch hunt 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 likable 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(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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These revelatory stories of American heroes and their undaunted courage will forever alter our understanding of American history.
From the best-selling author of Benjamin Franklincomes this remarkable work that will help redefine our notion of American heroism. Americans have long been obsessed with their heroes, but the men and women dramatically portrayed here are not celebrated for the typical banal reasons contained in Founding Fathers hagiography. Effortlessly challenging those who persist in revering the American history status quo and its tropes and falsehoods, Morgan, now ninety-three, continues to believe that the past is just not the way it seems.
About the Author
Edmund S. Morgan (1916-2013) was the Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University and the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Pulitzer Prize, and the American Academy's Gold Medal. The author of The Genuine Article; American Slavery, American Freedom; Benjamin Franklin; and American Heroes, among many others.
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