Thomas Morton Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Morton 1579?-1647

American adventurer, trader, lawyer, and travel writer.

Morton is one of the most colorful and controversial figures in colonial American history. His only book, New English Canaan (1637), is an account of life at his New England settlement and fur-trading post of Merrymount, or Ma-re-Mount, and offers perhaps the earliest description of Native American life and culture. Morton's book is also significant for being, unlike virtually every other early history of the region, told from the point of view of a non-Puritan. Indeed, Morton and his companions were viewed with hostility by the Pilgrims of nearby Plymouth and other settlements, who considered their reveling and association with the local Indians to be immoral. Morton's description of the revels and merriment at Ma-re-Mount gave rise to the depiction of Morton's exploits in a number of works of American literature, most notably Nathaniel Hawthorne's story “The Maypole of Merry Mount.” For centuries Morton was disdained as an irresponsible liberitine whose account was not to be taken seriously because of its fictionalizing, harsh criticism of the Pilgrims, and obscure classical and biblical references. Since the 1960s, however, Morton has been seen in a more favorable light, as someone who presents a sympathetic and at least to some extent accurate account of early Native American life and manners, who shows an appreciation for the beauty of the American landscape, and who uses humor and satire to great effect to offer a critical look at the hypocrisy of the Pilgrims as he contrasts their inhumanity to the kindness and humanity of the Indians.

Biographical Information

Very little is known about Morton's early life. He was most likely born in 1579 or 1580 in the West Country of England. From some brief remarks made in New English Canaan, it is surmised that his father was a soldier. Morton trained as a lawyer at Clifford's Inn in London and practiced as an attorney in the West Country. In 1621 he married Alice Miller, a widow whose legal affairs he had been managing. Records show that for about three years Morton was engaged in legal action with his wife's son over property rights.

In 1624 Morton set sail for the New World aboard the Unity, which was under the command of Captain Wollaston. The party arrived on the shore of what is now Quincy Bay in Massachusetts in the spring of 1624. The area, called Passonagessit (“Little Neck of Land”) by the native tribes, was apparently the heart of Indian country, although it was not inhabited at the time. Morton and his companions set up a plantation and fur-trading post at the site they called Mount Wollaston, which was about thirty miles from Plymouth, the site of a larger English settlement. The name of the settlement was changed to Ma-re-Mount by the inhabitants, and was also known as Merry Mount or Merrymount because of the merrymaking or reveling that took place there. In 1627, his fur-trading post thriving, Morton and his companions erected a maypole at the plantation. They invited local Indians, both women and men, to join the settlers and dance around the maypole. According to Morton, the Puritans at Plymouth, already envious of the success of his plantation and disapproving of the “ungodly” ways of his companions, were incensed by this act, deeming the maypole an idol that should be destroyed. While Morton saw the revels as “harmless mirth,” Governor William Bradford, presenting the position of the Puritans in his chronicle of Plymouth, History of Plymouth Plantation, saw the merrymaking at the maypole in a quite different light, labeling Morton the “lord of misrule” who maintained a school of atheism. In the spring of 1628 the Puritans of Plymouth and other nearby plantations charged Morton with selling guns to the Indians and creating various disturbances. He was arrested by Miles Standish and after a brief trial was transported back to England.

After being tried and acquitted in England, Morton returned to Ma-re-Mount in 1629. He clashed with John Endecott (an official who had, while Morton was in England, cut down the maypole at Ma-re Mount) over the rights of the individual traders to carry on their activities independently of any local management. A feud began with Morton and the officials of Massachusetts Bay Company, who claimed control of the trading territory, and Morton was again arrested in 1630 and shipped back to England. The authorities also burned down Morton's house and confiscated his goods, charging that he had, among other things, inflicted injuries upon the Indians. Bradford in his History also claims that Morton was wanted in England on suspicion of murder. In England, Morton sought to nullify the Massachusetts Bay Company patent but was unsuccessful. He wrote New English Canaan while in exile in England, in some measure as part of his campaign against the Massachusetts Bay Company. The book was likely penned around 1634 and published in 1637 in Amsterdam, although there is some speculation that it was published earlier but seized by the authorities.

Morton returned to New England again in 1643, wintering in Plymouth and then traveling in the wilderness. He was watched closely by the authorities and the following year he was imprisoned again, charged with agitating against the Massachusetts Bay Company. His portrayal of certain figures in New English Canaan was cited as evidence against him. After spending a year in a Boston jail, Morton was fined a hundred pounds and set free. He moved to Maine, where he died in 1647.

Major Works

Morton's only published work was New English Canaan, a book which is in some sense a historical document, though scholars have noted its historical inaccuracies and fictional aspects. Most early historians tended to reject Morton's appraisal of the Puritan authorities and found fault with his motives, while more recent commentators have viewed the book as a literary work that offers insights into the psychology of the early American settlers and Native American life. New English Canaan is divided into three books. The first concerns the Indians of New England, and reports and speculates on their languages, ancestors, rites, beliefs, and way of life. Morton's account of the Native Americans is largely sympathetic, as he insists on the natives' basic goodness and humanity, admires their simple life and closeness with nature, and extols their hospitality. He draws parallels between their values and those of the English—including their love of pleasure—and contrasts them with the Puritans, who are in his view ill-educated and devoid of common humanity. In the second book of New English Canaan Morton describes the natural resources of New England. He comments on the country's beauty and promise, its fertile soil, pure air, and healthy climate. In his vivid descriptions of the landscape, Morton shows an intimate familiarity with the country. But Morton's pleasing portrayal of New England, he admits, is presented with an ulterior motive. As he says in the first chapter of Book Two, he means to show Englishmen what commodities are available in New England so that they might settle there and take advantage of the fur trade before the Dutch can do so. However, despite the description of the land in terms of its natural resources, Morton reveals a deep love for his natural surroundings, using metaphorical language and biblical allusions to liken it to an Arcadia or paradise on earth.

The third book of New English Canaan is a clear departure from the earlier, expository sections, as it deals with the lives of the Puritans and their conflicts with the inhabitants of Ma-re Mount. The tone in this book is deeply satirical, and its stories are often disjointed and use a variety of styles, from satire to straight narrative to complex allegory. The most notable portion of the third book tells of the erecting of the maypole and the revels at Ma-re Mount This section includes two poems. The first (“The Poem,” or “Rise Oedipus”) is attached to the maypole and its meaning confounds the Puritans. The second (“Song”) is a drinking song sung by the revelers as they dance around the maypole. The rest of Book Three deals with events which took place between 1629 and 1634, including Morton's two arrests and deportations. The tone of the book is increasingly serious as Morton attacks those who have sought to destroy him, but there are still touches of humor as he lampoons his enemies—for example calling Miles Standish “Captain Shrimp”—and satirizes the wickedness of the supposedly saintly Puritans. Throughout the work Morton blends fact and fiction, using classical allusions and references as he presents his story. The result is a work which is at times confusing, but filled with humor and fascinating insights into the lives of the colonists, Indians, and Morton himself.

Critical Reception

Morton has been largely neglected by critics in the three and a half centuries since his New English Canaan was published. Some scholars have suggested that the suppression of his work and ideas has been a direct result of his conflict with the Puritan ideology that became the dominant tradition of thought in American history and literature. Bradford's influential History of Plymouth Plantation, which criticizes Morton and his “atheistic” ways, has been treated as the more reliable account of Morton's life on the Ma-re Mount plantation than Morton's own work, although in recent years scholars have challenged this view. Charles Francis Adams, who edited the still-authoritative edition of New English Canaan in 1883, presents Morton in largely unflattering terms, siding with the Puritan authorities in their assessment of his character. Throughout the years, however, Morton has been defended by some, including his contemporary Samuel Maverick, who was sympathetic due to his own problems with the New England Puritans, and the nineteenth-century historian B. F. De Costa, who saw Morton as a misunderstood figure. The critical assessment of Morton began to shift after the 1960s, as historians and literary critics began to see similarities in Morton's views of the Native Americans with those of modern historians. Although Morton is not widely read or studied to this day, critical appraisal of his work is beginning to paint a more favorable picture, and at least one commentator has seen in him the roots of the countercultural movements that have played an integral part in American social life and history.

Although the historical figure Morton has been paid scant attention, the character and spirit of Morton have been portrayed in a number of works of American literature. Almost all have been concerned with the maypole revels at Ma-re Mount. Morton figures in John Lothrop Motley's 1849 novel Merry Mount: A Romance of the Massachusetts Colony, and Hawthorne describes the festivities at Morton's plantation in “The Maypole of Merry Mount.” Morton also appears in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poetry, in Stephen Vincent Benét's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937), L. S. Davidson's 1964 novel The Disturber, and Robert Lowell's 1965 play Endecott and the Red Cross. However, these works portray Morton less than sympathetically, usually as a flamboyant dreamer whose love of pleasure is his ultimate downfall. With the renewal of interest in his work—as historians and critics find new appreciation for his sympathetic portrayal of early Indian manners and his love for the American landscape—Morton's reputation too has enjoyed a more positive assessment.