The Magazine

Early Americans

Shrewd observations on wisdom about the past.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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American Heroes

Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America

by Edmund S. Morgan

Norton, 304 pp., $27.95

Edmund S. Morgan, the Sterling professor of history emeritus at Yale, must surely know more about American colonial history in New England than any man alive. The author of numerous previous volumes, including The Puritan Family, The Puritan Dilemma, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, and The Challenge of the American Revolution, Morgan has now, aged 93, put together a book of his essays titled to stand as the culmination of his career and a compendium of wisdom gleaned from a very long lifetime spent in the study of history in the old-fashioned sense--that is, history as an attempt to understand the past rather than to impose the historian's ideology upon it.

Though he is not the least bit showy or obviously polemical about it, there are provocations to the prevailing ethos of historical studies on nearly every page of this volume. Here he is, for example, writing of the gentle Arawaks of the Caribbean, met by Christopher Columbus in the first "encounter" between the Old World and the New:
That the Indians were destroyed by Spanish greed is true. But greed is simply one of the uglier names we give to the driving force of modern civilization. We usually prefer less pejorative names for it. Call it the profit motive, or free enterprise, or the work ethic, or the American way, or, as the Spanish did, civility. Before we become too outraged at the behavior of Columbus and his followers, before we identify ourselves too easily with the lovable Arawaks, we have to ask whether we could really get along without greed and everything that goes with it. Yes, a few of us, a few eccentrics, might manage to live for a time like the Arawaks. But the modern world could not have put up with the Arawaks any more than the Spanish could. The story moves us, offends us, but perhaps the more so because we have to recognize ourselves not in the Arawaks but in Columbus and his followers.

This strikes me as so profoundly true that its acceptance as truth must make the whole ramshackle structure of ideologized history fall to the ground. No wonder he tucks it away in the previously unpublished essay, "The Conquerors," that opens the volume. No wonder it is previously unpublished!

In the same vein is an essay from 1958 titled "The Unyielding Indian," which is also a rebuke to the simple moral melodrama favored by so many historians and other bien pensants these days to describe the interaction between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This essay concentrates on the Indian tribes of what is now the United States and points out that the bloodiness of our ancestors' encounter with them is to a large extent owing to the Indians' refusal to follow the course of most conquered and technologically outclassed peoples and assimilate or adapt to the change that Europeans brought to the continent. Ironically, this "extraordinary refusal to accept the manners and methods of a people who were obviously more powerful than they" was a product of qualities that are now thought to be distinctively American.

All the most typical of Indian characteristics, writes Morgan, "add up to a single quality, which has been given various names. The Massachusetts General Court, for example .  .  . called it 'a malicious, surley, and revengeful spirit.' But the more positive epithet of 'individualism' will also apply." And seeing the Indians as individualists "may help us to understand not only why the Indian refused to join us but also why we have admired and hated him for his refusal. The Indian in his individualism displayed virtues to which Americans, and indeed all Christians, have traditionally paid homage. An indifference to the things of this world, a genuine respect for human dignity, a passionate attachment to human freedom--these are virtues we all revere." It is not surprising, then, that "we are irritated, annoyed, and even infuriated by men who exhibit our values better than we do" but who at the same time are savages--barbarians.