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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None of this should be taken to mean that Morgan is a conservative, however; far from it. He has a decidedly liberal point of view, and even takes some gratuitous swipes of a very familiar kind at our previous president and his administration. Moreover, for the most part, he takes a pretty dim view of the traditional heroes of American history--though George Washington and Benjamin Franklin come in for a good deal better treatment than the grudging praise he accords, for example, Columbus. Most of his heroes are outliers and mavericks, but he also has words of understanding and sympathy for many of those whose lives embodied the errors and misapprehensions of their time--even the judges at the Salem witch trials, who are compared favorably with some of their more dogmatic spiritual descendants.

He is especially sympathetic to the Puritans of New England without sharing many (if any) of the beliefs that they thought necessary for the health of their immortal souls. His essay on "The Puritans and Sex" should be required reading for those who use the words "Puritan" or "Puritanical" to signify a hostility to sexual intercourse. For the Puritan attitude, as he points out, begins in "horror at 'that Popish conceit of the Excellency of Virginity.' " He quotes one Puritan divine as writing--naturally, from the masculine point of view--that "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 dispise and decry them, and call them a necessary Evil, for they are a necessary Good."

Morgan also offers a rather witty summary of another reverend's opinion that the "Use of the Marriage Bed" is "founded in mans Nature" and that, consequently, any withdrawal from sexual intercourse upon the part of husband or wife "Denies all reliefe in Wedlock unto Human necessity: and sends it for supply unto Beastiality when God gives not the gift of Continency." "In other words," Morgan summarizes, "sexual intercourse was a human necessity and marriage the only proper supply for it." Well, that's one thing it means.

Morgan also helps us to understand what he calls the "socioreligious theory of criminology" as adumbrated by Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts. This was the view that the whole community might be punished by God for the sins of individuals among it, which was the justification for keeping a close watch on people's moral behavior. The theory may have been mistaken, but it is worth something to understand what otherwise we might simply condemn out of hand.

Typical is his treatment of Michael Wigglesworth, "The Puritan's Puritan," who is acknowledged to live up, if any man ever did, to the popular caricature of Puritanism but yet without sacrificing his right to be understood. Wigglesworth may have been "a living embodiment of the caricature," but he also showed how
Every social institution existed for the Puritan by virtue of a special covenant with God in which the members had promised obedience to the laws of God. Consequently every Puritan was bound to obey God not merely as a sanctified man (in order to prove to himself that he was saved) but as a member of every group to which he belonged.

Morgan gets "at the origin of [Wigglesworth's] hostility to pleasure and at the central meaning of Puritanism as Wigglesworth exemplifies it: the belief that fallen man inevitably estimates too highly the creatures and things of this world, including himself." That, too, is why, "the Puritan was not exactly hostile to pleasure, but his suspicion was so close to hostility that it often amounted to the same thing."

The essay on Washington and Franklin, "The Power of Negative Thinking," sums up Morgan's own sort of wisdom. Like them, he has a "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." Of Washington and Franklin, he writes that "their deliberate refusals to do things, employed to great advantage in serving their country, originated in a personal ambition to gain honor and reputation of a higher order than most people aspired to"--a quality which showed an appreciation as rare then as it is now of "the distinction between fame and vanity." Like his heroes, Morgan has refused to take the easy and crowd-pleasing route to scholarly fame, but his fame is likely to be the more impressive and long-lasting as a result.

James Bowman, resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness.