Saturday, 4 July 2009

“American Heroes”, by Edmund S. Morgan (W.W. Norton)


Profiles of Men & Woman Who Shaped Early America

“American heroes. Probably most of the people in this book would have disclaimed or disdained the title,” (xi) so begins Edmund S. Morgan’s account of a number of known and unknown heroes of American history, a collection of past essays – some published, some as-yet not available, with a loosely-tied common thread of “heroism”.

Heroes have a long-established, special place in American history and culture. Whether it is genuine heroes of the revolution or modern wars, ascribing to the traditional definition of a hero as warrior, or if it is the too-commonly thrown adjective to describe just about anyone who has achieved something or been the victim of a tragic accident or event (e.g., the 9/11 victims, deemed “heroes” on the commemorative plaque at Ground Zero).

Some of those featured in the book are obvious inclusions. These include George Washington and Benjamin Franklin: “Franklin is truly my hero, and so is Washington, two men for whom my admiration never stops growing.”). The author’s respect for these two is considerable. He explains how it is likely that, without these two historical giants, the United States would likely never have worked or existed, in some ways because their greatest strength “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.”

The other characters mentioned are not your usual cast. Morgan explains his choices thus: “The people I have selected here, whether public heroes or simply my favourites, have surprised me in one way or another.” Morgan’s definition of hero, for the purposes of this volume, is a person “who [goes] their own way against the grain, regardless of custom, convenience, or habits of deference to authority,” who has an “ability to say no.”

The book is separated into three parts, each looking at a specific ‘type’ of hero. The first, “The Conquerors” takes a look at Christopher Columbus, who Morgan argues without whom, none of the others could ever have played the heroic roles they did. The second section, “Puritans, Witches, and Quakers”, as the name suggests, focuses on minor players in the American story presented with situations (relating to religion, heresy, and so forth) they courageously overcame or tackled. The final section, “Revolutionary Leaders”, takes a look at more famous heroes such as Washington and Franklin, as well as the Anti-federalists and Perry Miller. Overall, a mixed selection that manages to keep the book both interesting and different from the usual volumes of Founding hagiography one finds clogging up store shelves.

Given Morgan’s past publications and research interests, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he writes a good deal about Puritanism and various aspects of its development through the theological debates of the 17th and 18th Centuries. For those interested in this subject, the book will have plenty to offer. This focus on Puritanism, in fact, was quite interesting as Morgan clearly finds them interesting and yet difficult at the same time.

For those actually looking for an account of the lives of American Heroes might come away slightly disappointed, as it’s not always clear why some of these people have been included. Some, of course, were heroic, when they stubbornly stood in the face of persecution, refusing to sacrifice their principles (other others). Not so much heroes, they are, well, just interesting. Perhaps the book should have been titled, Interesting Americans.

Morgan’s research effort for these essays is very impressive, and he draws extensively from primary sources (such as diaries, correspondence, and court transcripts). Coupled with the author’s obvious enthusiasm for the task he has set himself, this makes for a thoroughly interesting read – whether you are reading the chapters on established heroes, Yale presidents Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight, the Salem Witch Trials, or puritans such as Michael Wigglesworth (in an interesting essay that attempts to dispel much of the received wisdom of Puritans as prudes with unhealthy attitudes towards sex and desire).

As 93, Morgan remains one of America’s most interesting and imaginative historians, and American Heroes is a worthy addition (if ill-named) to his extensive bibliography. (Morgan has 18 books and five edited volumes to his name.)

An interesting read, though perhaps not for everyone (at times I struggled to remain wholly interested, though Morgan’s writing style is very readable), it offers a twist in the approach to American history that is worth a curious look.

Further Reading: Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (2003), The Genius of George Washington (1983), Birth of the Republic 1763-89 (1956), The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958/2000), The Meaning of Independence (1988); Michael Beschloss, Presidential Courage (2007); Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men (2009); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (2002)

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