From a body of work stretching back seven decades, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian selects 17 essays on characters large and small who illuminate early American history.
Morgan (The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America, 2004, etc.) offers something new about well-known public heroes, identifying, for example, those issues over which the famously pragmatic Benjamin Franklin refused to compromise. The author shows how John Winthrop’s exhortations to the Bay colonists brought “disagreements to a happy issue,” preventing a Jamestown-style collapse, and why Anne Hutchinson’s dissent, while attractive to our modern sensibilities, posed such a serious threat to the Puritans. He also pens a superb 40-page sketch of William Penn’s character and career. Morgan excels, though, at limning lesser-known figures. He traces the tortuous marital history of Puritan heiress Anna Keayne, examines the Puritan caricature Michael Wigglesworth, assesses the historical reputations of Yale presidents Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight and toasts the courage of Giles Corey and Mary Easty, who nearly died for their refusal to submit to Salem’s witchcraft madness. The author also demonstrates that groups can be heroes: the Arawak Indians of Hispaniola, whose demise constitutes the sad first chapter of the European transformation of the Western Hemisphere; the Antifederalists, whose important opposition to the Constitution’s ratification led to the Bill of Rights. This uniformly strong collection boasts an insightful, even startling, observation—“Government requires make-believe”—on nearly every page. If the concluding appreciation of Harvard’s famed historian Perry Miller seems out of place, Morgan may be forgiven for honoring a man who, like Morgan himself, has left us with the “record of a mind” that has thought deeply and creatively about our history.