American Heroes: A book review by Bob Morris

American HeroesAmerican Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America
Edmund S. Morgan
W.W. Norton & Company (2009)

No one but Edmund Morgan has in our own time “known so well the materials of New England history during the period that he covered.”

What we have in this volume are sixteen essays that share information and insights that Edmund Morgan accumulated during more than four decades of teaching and research. I am hard-pressed to think of a better classroom teacher who produced more scholarly books and essays of higher quality. I cherish the two graduate courses I took from him at Yale. This was the latest of his 25 books, published two years before his death at age 97. It is a “scholarly” work, to be sure, but as is also true of Morgan’s other works and indeed of his classroom style, it is by no formal in an academic, sometimes pedantic sense. He loved sharing stories that entertained as well as informed but that had to be historically accurate and authentic as well as relevant to the given point made.

For example, here is a story he includes in the Preface:

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There were the two Boston carters, my personal favorites, who stood down the royal governor of Massachusetts on a wintry day in 1705. They were carrying a heavy load of wood on a narrow road, drifted with snow, when they encountered the governor coming from the opposite direction. Since they did not turn off the road to let the governor’s coach pass, he leapt out and bade them give way. One of them then, according to the governor’s own testimony,” answered boldly, without any other words, ‘I am as good flesh and blood as you; I will not give way, you may goe out of the way.'” When the governor then drew his sword and advanced to teach the man a lesson, the carter “layd hold on the governor and broke the sword in his hand,” a supreme gesture of contempt for authority and its might. This is an excellent example of the heroism that Morgan examines throughout his lively as well as eloquent narrative, focusing on dozens of others who also had the courage of their convictions and acted upon them when in harm’s way.

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Morgan wryly notes that the people he selected, “whether public heroes or simply my own favorites, have all surprised me in one way of another. Something about them has sent me looking at the records they left behind, often looking for a second time, having second thoughts. Many of these pieces are the result of second thought about what I said earlier in biographies or biographical sketches.”

Morgan recalls Benjamin Franklin’s assertion (in 1748, writing as Poor Richard) that Hero “when he comes, takes life and goods together; his business and glory it is, to destroy man and the works of man…Hero, therefore, is the worst of the three [destroyers],” the others being Plague and Famine. Morgan then observes, “Only one hero in my gallery comes close to fitting Franklin’s unflattering description: Christopher Columbus, subject of the first selection. Except in his daring to go where others feared to go, he does not meet my criteria for a hero. But how could I leave him out?”

Columbus is among the Conquerors” discussed in the first chapter, and Morgan then shifts his attention Puritans, Witches, and Quakers in the next eleven Chapters, taking the narrative to profiles of Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight in Chapter Twelve. He concludes with five essays that discuss the leaders of the American Revolution. “Franklin is truly my hero, and so is Washington, two men for whom my admiration never stops growing.” There are also others who also demonstrate heroism in one form or another. In the Epilogue, Morgan has this to say about the “genius” of Perry Miller, one of Morgan’s professors at Harvard:

“Miler’s distinction lay in an extraordinary ability to discover order where others saw chaos, and to express his deepest insights without uttering the, by tracing unsuspected patterns in the raw materials of the past. Only one who has examined the raw materials for himself can fully appreciate the beauty of those patterns in [Miller’s classic work] The New England Mind or how faithfully they encompass the materials. No one but Miller, in fact, has in our time known so well the materials of New England history during the period that he covered.”

Channeling Bernard of Chartres, a 12th century French monk, he would insist that he was a dwarf standing atop Miller’s shoulders. I am among those who believe that no one but Edmund Morgan has in our own time “known so well the materials of New England history during the period that he covered.” Those who question that need only read this book.

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