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Bradford’s Morton: The Lord of Misrule in Early New England

Morton selon Bradford : le “Lord of Misrule” dans la Nouvelle‑Angleterre du xviie siècle
Morton según Bradford: el ‘Lord of Misrule” en la Nueva Inglaterra del siglo xvii
Benjamin Perriello


Thomas Morton, figure controversée de la Nouvelle-Angleterre du xviie siècle, a tenté d’établir une colonie en Nouvelle-Angleterre. Surnommé le « Lord of Misrule » par William Bradford, Morton est accusé, entre autres méfaits, d’avoir incité des engagés sous contrat à échapper à leur servitude, et d’avoir organisé des festivités devant un rassemblement mixte d’Anglais et d’Algonquins. Cet article examinera deux textes : des extraits Of Plymouth Plantation de William Bradford et le New English Canaan de Thomas Morton. Ces récits divergents peuvent être lus comme une remise en scène de certaines préoccupations prédominantes déjà existantes en Angleterre (comme les pratiques festives populaires et du théâtre) inextricablement liées à l’articulation des classes sociales et à la crainte de la prolifération des « hommes sans maître ». Je soutiens que la lecture des récits contradictoires de Bradford et Morton offre une clé pour interpréter les pratiques de colonisation aux mains des puritains au début de la Nouvelle‑Angleterre.

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I/ Introduction

  • 1 In the context of the early English colonization of the region known as New England, there is a dif (...)

1Of the few early seventeenth-century English who opposed the hegemony of colonial authorities in New England, Thomas Morton (c. 1575 – c. 1646) was the most controversial. Dubbed the “Lord of Misrule” by William Bradford and thrice exiled for insubordination, Morton enticed indentured servants to escape their bondage, erected an eighty-foot maypole, and staged festivities to a mixed gathering of English and Algonquian-speaking peoples. More dangerous in the eyes of Bradford, Morton was accused of having truck and trade with the indigenous peoples –selling both guns and liquor– and disrupting the social equilibrium of the nascent colonies.1

  • 2 OED s. v. “rebellion.”
  • 3 The term ‘New England’ first came into use after the publication of a map by Captain John Smith fol (...)

2Morton’s staged rebellion was not by definition an organized armed resistance to an established power structure, much less a renewal of war, as the primary sense of the word would suggest.2 Instead, Morton drew from his experience as a lawyer educated at Clifford’s Inn (one of London’s Inns of Chancery), using festivities, trade, poetry, treatises and lawsuits to oppose the existential, epistemological and legal basis of the existing power structure. Though far from disinterested, Morgan’s efforts to stage the upheaval of first the Pilgrims then the Puritans through aesthetic as well as litigious means constituted the most consistent internal threat to the early English colonization of the region known as New England.3

3This article will examine two texts, one Bradford’s account of Morton, and another Morton’s New English Canaan. These texts are a script of the discursive staging and upstaging that qualify the conflicting narratives about Thomas Morton. More importantly, they demonstrate how the portrayal of Morton was a restaging of overriding preoccupations of early modern England. One such preoccupation was the supposed perniciousness of popular festive practices and the theater, itself linked to a larger discourse on the decline of morals, which was to become a leitmotif of the reformation of manners so dear to many a Puritan. However, this apprehension was inextricably linked to the articulation of social class, and the fear of “masterless men,” or the growing number of the uprooted and unemployed in England. Moral decay and social disorder went hand in hand, or so some argued (Cartelli 259-262). Against this background entered Morton and Bradford.

II/ Setting the scene: Bradford, Morton, and early New England

  • 4 William Bradford. Of Plymouth Plantation (1850). Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, New York: Alfred A (...)
  • 5 See Cartelli 261 and passim; see also Marshall 161.

4In addition to its other virtues, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is one of the most important contemporary sources for Thomas Morton.4 The few passages dedicated to Morton are a mixture of invective, sanctimonious indignation, and the plaintive cries of an injured miser resentful of his successful neighbor. Between 1620 and 1650, Bradford composed his chronicle of the early endeavors of the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth against the backdrop of the rise and mutation of Puritanism. This period was marked by the increasingly embittered exchanges between Puritans and their foes from the 1550s to the 1640s, and although a Separatist, Bradford shared the concerns of the Puritans and often expressed them in similar terms.5

  • 6 Aside from the original manuscript, there are to date two editions of Morton’s New English Canaan. (...)
  • 7 On the life of Gorges, see Mancall 47-80. On Morton’s work for Gorges, see Adams 32 and following, (...)
  • 8 See Adams 59‑60.

5For his part, Morton published New English Canaan in 1637, a work drawing from multiple genres and larded with classical and topical references.6 During his second exile in England from 1630 until his final return to New England in 1643, Thomas Morton labored for the interests of Sir Ferdinando Gorges. Gorges, descended from a family whose ancestors came with William the Conqueror, had had his own share of trials and tribulation.7 He had played a minor role in the Essex plot, was pardoned, and along with his son Robert, dedicated the latter half of his years to carving out a colonial fiefdom in the lands that now comprise the northeast coast of New England, from present-day Maine all the way to the Cape Cod Bay. Gorges did not want to establish a commonwealth to excel the golden age: his plan called for the partition of the land according to a strictly feudal model, to be governed by men loyal to the English crown.8

6Part of this doomed attempt to persuade royal authorities to wrest the charter of colonization from the Pilgrims, Morton’s work is also deeply indebted to the cultural contexts from which he emerged: the rich literary and theatrical culture of the Inns of Court of Elizabethan London in the 1590s and the resurgence of interest in that era in the 1630s. Morton’s New English Canaan is a keen satire of his adversaries and contemporary colonizers, Pilgrim and Puritan alike. Morton tried to impress upon his English readers, particularly those with the power to grant or revoke royal charters, that the Pilgrims and Puritans acted against the interests of the crown and were inept colonizers (Shea 52-69, Murphy 755-768). His work draws on the anti-Puritan satire of the late Elizabethan period, especially Ben Jonson (one thinks of Bartholemew Fair and The Alchemist in particular), but also Nashe, Marlowe, and Butler. As Thomas Cartelli pointed out, Morton’s text of 1637 was part of a “conservative cultural revival of the 1630s which attempted to direct nostalgia for the Elizabethan Age into popular opposition to the growing Puritan authority” (Cartelli 260). Or, as another scholar suggests, Thomas Morton used the “Renaissance language of metamorphosis” (Shea 55).

  • 9 On the publication of New English Canaan, see Cohen 1‑18.
  • 10 “The references to classical antecedents of the practices reveal an important dimension to Bradford (...)
  • 11 See Van der Woude 422‑23

7Morton never read Bradford: his work was not published until the nineteenth century when a manuscript was discovered in London, but it is probable that Bradford and other members of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay settlements read Morton: in 1644, the New English Canaan was referred to as evidence in support of charges brought against Morton in Boston (Connors 28).9 Thus, the literary exchange between the two (if it may be called that), though outside of time, is nevertheless indicative in that each author uses the language, style and tropes of their respective ideology and social class.10 Bradford wanted his readers to associate Morton with the licentious, seditious, rabble-rousing insurrectionists both Biblical and historical, from Satan to Jack Straw (Cartelli 267). As such, Bradford’s passages on Morton are among his most florid. Morton’s New English Canaan is a response to and reversal of Puritan typology, seeking to deride the Separatists in the manner of an Elizabethan satirist.11

III/ “The Mischief that this wicked man began:” Bradford’s account of Thomas Morton

  • 12 While Morton claims twice in New English Canaan that he arrived in 1622, there is reason to believe (...)

8According to Bradford, Thomas Morton accompanied one Captain Wollaston, a “man of pretty parts,” who led an expedition of some thirty men, many of whom were probably indentured servants, to establish a plantation in what is today Quincy, Massachusetts (204-5). In all likelihood, this was in June of 1624.12 Wollaston soon left the Massachusetts Bay after “not finding things to answer to their expectations nor profit to arise as [he] looked for,” taking “a great part of the servants” to Virginia. Morton stayed behind, “having more craft than honesty,” and according to Bradford, contrived to thrust out Wollaston’s remaining agent (one Lieutenant Fitcher) for his own nefarious purposes. After preparing a feast for the remaining men, who as previously mentioned were probably indentured servants, Bradford relates a speech purportedly made by Morton, as follows:

  • 13 See Lupher 86, where he identifies him as Humphrey Rastall.

But this Morton abovesaid, having more craft than honesty (who had been a kind of pettifogger of Furnival’s Inn) in the other’s absence watches an opportunity (commons being but hard amongst them) and got some strong drink and other junkets and made them a feast; and after they were merry, he began to tell them he would give them good counsel. ‘You see,’ saith he, ‘that many of your fellows are carried to Virginia, and if you stay till this Rasdall [Wollaston’s agent Humphrey Rastall13] returns, you will also be carried away and sold for slaves with the rest. Therefore I would advise you to thrust out this Lieutenant Fitcher [Wollaston’s agent in the Bay Colony], and I, having a part in the Plantation, will receive you as my partners and consociates; so may you be free from service, and we will converse, plant, trade, and live together as equals and support and protect one another,’ or to like effect. (204‑5)

  • 14 On the allusion to the Old Testament, see Cartelli 267.

9Nothing resembling the speech reported by Bradford exists elsewhere, including in Morton’s New English Canaan; nor does Morton ever mention Captain Wollaston. As his account continues, Bradford’s indignation only deepens, and he would have his readers assume what he assumed: just as the serpent whispered into Eve’s ear, so Morton seduced Wollaston’s men:14

After this they fell to great licentiousness and led a dissolute life, pouring out themselves into all profaneness. And Morton became Lord of Misrule, and maintained (as it were) a School of Atheism. And after they had got some goods into their hands, and got much by trading with the Indians, they spent it as vainly in quaffing and drinking, both wine and strong waters in great excess (and, as some reported) £10 worth in a morning. They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices. As if they had anew revived and celebrated the feasts of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians. Morton likewise to show his poetry composed sundry rhymes and verses, some tending to lasciviousness, and others to the detraction and scandal of some persons, which he affixed to this idle or idol maypole. They changed also the name of their place, and instead calling of it Mount Wollaston they call it Merry-mount, as if this jollity would have lasted for ever. (205‑6)

  • 15 Citing the Guildford affair recorded in Winthrop’s History of New England, Alan Bray has argued tha (...)

10Bradford relates the excesses and instability of Morton and his gang in a series of alliterative pairings: drinking and dancing related to fairies and furies, feasts and Flora, beastly practices and mad Bacchanalians, lascivious and scandalous poetry. Bradford’s lexical field and accumulative progression includes licentiousness, dissolution, profaneness, misrule, and atheism.15 It is an interesting approach, more rhetorical than reasonable, a kind of discursive staging.

11Bradford passes over the sources of obvious prosperity of Morton’s endeavor. Prosperous it must have been: how else could they have afforded to spend £10 on spirits in a single day? He only writes, “They had got some goods into their hands, and got much by trading with the Indians.” The apparent success of Morton and the others would have been particularly galling to Bradford: in 1625, the Pilgrims were under considerable pressure to repay those debts incurred after the dissolution of the merchant association that had underwritten their expedition. Bradford was one of seven settlers personally responsible for repaying the debt and promoting the lucrative trade of beaver pelts (134‑137).

12Bradford’s narrative on Morton follows a progression from rupture and rebellion, to revelry, to riches: only slightly later, he arrives at the ostensible reason for which he even bothered to include Morton, otherwise “a man of no account”: the danger of an armed indigenous population.

And here I may take occasion to bewail the mischief that this wicked man began in these parts, and which since, base covetousness prevailing in men that should know better, has now at length got the upper hand and made this thing common, notwithstanding all laws to the contrary. So as all the Indians are full of pieces all over, both fowling pieces, muskets, pistols, etc. They have also their molds to make shot of all sorts, as musket bullets, pistol bullets, swan and goose shot, and of smaller sorts […] wherewith they are better furnished than the English themselves. Yea, it is well known that they will have powder and shot when the English want it nor cannot get it […] yet it has been bought up and sent to other places and sold to such as trade it with the Indians at 12d the pound. And it is like they give 3s or 4s the pound, for they will have it at any rate […] O the horribleness of this villainy! […] This Morton having thus taught them the use of pieces, he sold them all he could spare, and he and his consorts determined to send for many out of England and had by some of the ships sent for above a score. (207‑8)

13Bradford is quite specific about the sums of money, both in this passage and the preceding one. Certainly, as a man earnestly engaged in the welfare of his fledging colony, such attention to pecuniary matters is understandable. One may read in this passage that Morton and the unnamed others’ success was due to covetousness, and the Puritan’s failure a point of moral redemption. However, the rise of Puritanism was linked intimately with the emergence of specific social class and its world, “the pious tradesmen’s London,” for whom Merry England was anathema (Barber 22). As Samuel Barber pointed out, the Puritans occupied a “world of isolated, busy individuals” in which thrift and individual accumulation were of the essence (Barber 23). In such a world, there is no room for festivals and the large, collective expenditure they required, certainly not 10£ spent on strong liquors in a single morning.

  • 16 John Winthrop, born in 1588, attended Trinity College, Cambridge, then studied at Gray’s Inn in Lon (...)
  • 17 David Hall writes, “This ensemble of practices [communal instruction and catechism] sustained a vig (...)

14Therefore, the rift between Morton and his immediate neighbors was not one of opposing social classes, but opposing notions tied to social class. For example, Morton was the scion of minor gentry, by no means in the same class as John Winthrop (whose journal is an important source for the trial of Thomas Morton). Winthrop had studied at Gray’s Inn, and would later lead a group of Puritans to Massachusetts in 1630.16 Rather, underlying Bradford’s outrage is the criticism of an older social and economic order that many reform-minded writers decried: public opulence as opposed to individual accumulation. In other words, Morton represented an outdated method of social organization: “mine Host,” like the retainer of old, was a source of beneficence to his dependents. Nothing could be further from the emerging reality of early capitalism. Writing about the reversal of values at the time, Christopher Hill pointed out: “Idleness, unproductive consumption, is the count against monks, retainers and beggars alike. The employment of industrious laborers, not loyal dependents, is the way to prosper now” (Hill 232). However much one might argue that the practical divinity led to forms of sociability which did not isolate the self-perceived “godly” in an early form of modern individualism, Puritan communal practices were ultimately secondary to the social practice of accumulation.17 Furthermore, the congregational polity that emerged in New England was based on strict rules of enfranchisement and inclusion. Even though after 1632 no minister or member of clergy would hold a civil office in the colonies, only those who professed their doctrinal faith could thrive, let alone remain in the community (Hall 229, 237). And those who remained certainly did not dance about a maypole.

15Feasts and festival were often decried in the language of Merry England, and Bradford was no exception when using this stylistic procedure common to some Puritan writers (Barber 51). Merry England, and all that it represented, was exactly the world and its codes from which Thomas Morton emerged; at least, this is the persona he tried to establish in his New English Canaan, to which we will now turn.

IV/ Morton and the establishment of Merry England in New England

16Few fail to notice the figure of Falstaff hovering over Morton. For nineteenth-century readers, the imprint of Shakespeare was as undeniable as it was enticing, particularly against the perceived sterility, both literary and cultural, of America’s Puritan forebears. As Charles Francis Adams, Jr. wrote about Morton’s New English Canaan, “Poor as it may be, it is yet all we have to remind us that in literature, also, Bradford and Winthrop and Cotton were Englishmen of the time of Shakespeare and Jonson and Butler.” (Adams 98) Whatever the case, if Bradford sought to stage Morton as a Lord of Misrule, Morton was not loath to refuse this role. Bradford’s association of the Mayday festivities and the Lord of Misrule, though ritually distinct, were clearly connected in much Puritan invective. They are both pejorative terms in the discursive logic of the Puritans in their arguments against literary and theatrical rituals of the court. Morton, a “wanderer from Elizabethan England,” (Brooks 337) chose another term to describe himself: “Mine Host.”

  • 18 This context also reflects the controversy surrounding James I’s publication of the Book of Sports, (...)

17A common term used both by Bradford and Morton is “merry” and its derivatives. Bradford’s use of the word “merry” may be associated with commensality, conversation, and consociation, all means of living inimical to the Pilgrim and Puritan conception of social order, and thus another element in Puritan and Anti-puritan discourse. For example, one clergyman of the old stamp lamented, “It never was a merry world since there was so much preaching, for now all hospitality and good fellowship was laid abed” (Hill 50), a remark worthy of Sir Toby Belch. Thus for Morton, the use of the word “merry” was most likely a means of rebellious appropriation, a way of scoffing at the Pilgrims and Puritans. Author of a series of revels around the Maypole to commemorate the renaming and foundation of his colony, Morton and his Maypole “had been a challenge to the social order that the puritan discipline was trying to establish.” (Hill 153)18

18To follow is the passage wherein Morton describes the establishment of the revels in New England:

The inhabitants of Pasonagessit (having translated the name of their habitation from the ancient salvage name to Ma-re Mount, and being resolved to have the new name confirmed for a memorial to after ages) did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemn manner with Revels, and merriment after the old English custom: prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and Jacob, and therefore brewed a barrel of excellent beer, and provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day. And because they would have it in an complete form, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and the present occasion. And upon May-day they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose, and there erected it with the help of the Salvages, that came thither of purpose to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long, was reared up, with a pair of buckhorns nailed on, somewhat near unto the top of it: where it stood as a fair sea mark for directions how to find out the way to mine Host of Ma-re Mount. (Book III, Ch. XIV, 132)

  • 19 For a discussion on the explicit association of May games and the Lord of Misrule, see Barber 18. O (...)
  • 20 The Inns of Chancery, of which Clifford’s Inn was part, were subordinate to the Inns of Court. One (...)

19Although Morton does not use the term himself, his description of the revels and the erection of the Maypole are associated with the Lord of Misrule: mine host and the Mayday point to festive traditions that offer a structural reversal of social order, akin to the Saturnalia of antiquity.19 This was a recurrent element in Elizabethan England, appropriated by the courtly and theatrical traditions of London. Morton’s years at Clifford’s Inn in the 1590s were an immersion in the crucible of a complex cultural context in which such revels played an important role.20 In this Shakespearean –and Jonsonian– context, it is possible to read Morton’s New English Canaan as a masque, the theatrical, staged irruption and disruption integrated into courtly drama, with its satirical naming and ridicule of his Puritan adversaries.

  • 21 As Barber points out, the revels associated with the Lord of Misrule were a secularized version of (...)

20Moreover, there are political implications to the revels of Morton. The Lord of Misrule enacts a form of rebellion, leading to a period of topsy-turvy wherein the established social order is reversed, just as in the Saturnalia, when knave became master, and master knave.21 Hence Bradford’s dubbing of Morton as a Lord of Misrule; the specter of “masterless men” rose before his eyes, coupled with the perceived threat from the Massachusetts and Wampanoags. When he describes the concerted efforts to drive Morton from the colonies, he writes:

Besides they [the English colonists] saw they should keep no servants, for Morton would entertain any, how vile soever, and all the scum of the country or any discontents would flock to him from all places, if this nest was not broken. And they should stand in more fear of their lives and goods in short time from this wicked and debased crew than from the savages themselves. (208)

  • 22 See also Kupperman and Finch passim.

21It is telling that Bradford insists that the other English “should stand in more fear …than from the savages themselves,” who in other passages of Bradford, are portrayed as fearful enough (for example, see Bradford 26). The hyperbolic fear of the savages is a fitting trope to emphasize more familiar and pressing concerns: spiritual decay and social disorder. This entailed a conflicting or paradoxical attitude to the lower orders, at once in need of protection, but also the authors of their own misery. As David Hall notes, “The wrong kind of people thronged the everyday world, people characterized as ‘brawlers’ and ‘masterless’ or as the ‘wicked, wandring [sic] idle people of the land.’ (beggars, thieves, vagrants, ex-soldiers, the unemployed). Their behavior threatened every aspect of social and moral order […] The visible evidence of idleness included locations or practices as diverse as the London theater and dancing around maypoles” (Hall 149).22

22Although he could not have read Bradford, Morton was very much aware of his concerns and the generalized contemporary fears of social upheaval. Among his most satirical passages (most often associated by critics as indebted to the masques of Jonson) is Chapter xv of Book III, entitled, “Of a great Monster supposed to be at Ma-re Mount, and the preparations made to destroy it.” In it, Morton writes:

The Seperatists [sic], envying the prosperity, and hope of the Plantation at Ma-re Mount (which they perceaved [sic] beganne to come forward, and to be in a good way for gaine in the Beaver trade) conspired together against mine Host especially […] accounting of him, as of a great Monster […] The nine worthies coming before the Den of this supposed Monster, (this seven headed hydra, as they termed him,) and began like Don Quixote against the Windmill to beat a party. (Book III, Ch. xv, 137, 142)

  • 23 See Linebaugh and Rediker 69. The expression may be found in Thomas Hobbes’ reaction to new forms o (...)

23Morton seems to revel in the title of the hydra, a recurrent trope for the elite’s fear of popular expressions of power and rebellion.23 This, along with the speech Bradford attributes to him, is the basis of a Morton’s reputation as a rebel.

  • 24 Barber writes, “in a static, monolithic society, a Lord of Misrule can be put back in his place aft (...)

24However, some have pointed out that the rhythmic and structured reversals of festival with their ridicule –flaunting and fleering– are periodic, not permanent.24 As it was with the rituals of the Chronaia or Saturnalia in Classical antiquity, so it was in Elizabethan culture: lords and ladies may be dethroned for a time and servants rule in their place, but when the festive season ends, the established social order is restored. Furthermore, despite their popular roots, festive rebellions were progressively integrated into the courtly and urban culture as expressions of aristocratic power (Barber 33). In every play of Shakespeare in which topsy-turvy comprises part of the dramatic structure, the presiding social order is restored by play’s end. The dynamics of power do not change, but playgoers are offered a tantalizing vision of a world in which the first shall be last and the last first. Through its very staging, festive upheaval maintains or reinforces the established social order by offering momentary release through ridicule of one’s superiors (Barber 38).

  • 25 See Burnham 405‑428.

25This inevitably leads one to question the egalitarian basis of the social order attributed to Thomas Morton, who himself makes no explicit mention of it in his New English Canaan, unless it is through the above-mentioned referral to his adversaries’ critiques. Some scholars, such as Linebaugh and Rediker, maintain that Morton’s proposal was an expression of a great Leveler (Linebaugh, Rediker 46). Others question the accuracy of what is admittedly only a passing reference in Linebaugh and Rediker’s work. They impugn Morton’s motives, suggesting that he “exploited superficial social egalitarianism of the May Day revels, extending the festivities as a means of solidifying his own social position,” and that his complicity with the exploited classes had purely a “self-serving end.” (Walden 225, 230) In an astute analysis of Morton’s New English Canaan, one scholar has suggested that Morton’s literary style and his lavish praises of the land and its people constitute a kind of “trading post pastoral.” In such a reading, Morton’s descriptions of land and gendered metaphors are an endemic element of commodification in the tradition of travel narrative and colonial treatises of the period.25

26For the above scholars, Morton is “a type of diasporic British gentry” (Walden 317), realizing the economic necessity of including the “traditionally unempowered [sic] laborers who composed the functional scaffolding of Atlantic commerce into his plantation’s social culture” in which the revels were merely a tool of his trade (Walden 317). Nor should one forget that Morton’s fidelity to the crown (and more specifically the coincidence of his interests with Gorges and Archbishop Laud) situates his use of satire as a function of conservatism – perhaps the most conservative literary genre (think of Aristophanes or Swift). Morton terms the Separatists as “Schistmatiks”: they are the ones who have rebelled against the established order, the authors of perversion. Just as his title, New English Canaan, and ample references within, situate his work and his project within the discourse used by Puritans and Antipuritans alike in their ongoing polemics.

V/ Conclusion: “Let Every Soul be Subject to Higher Powers”26

  • 26 Romans 13:1‑2.

27Whatever the intentions, extent, and potential of Thomas Morton’s activities, the seed was planted and Morton’s posthumous fate was sealed, destined to be variously denounced, or declared author of proto-communist egalitarianism, the antithesis of the rapacious, hierarchical social order so necessary to the emerging trans-Atlantic trade. The question is: How rebellious was Morton? If Morton’s poetry and practices were indirectly influenced by or allude to the diverse articulations of resistance to social order in early modern England, this is difficult to reconcile with his activity for nearly fifteen years, as he labored under Gorges and Laud, whose interests could hardly be described as egalitarian. On the one hand, his staged rebellion was inscribed in modes of expression increasingly reserved to the upper classes: Did it compromise a classless structure of exchange and cooperation between indigenous and colonial actors? We cannot exclude commercial considerations as fundamental elements of Morton’s actions and motivations, nor that his discursive methods evoke questions of power, as they were part of a concerted effort to shift the colonial enterprise from one set of hands to another. His machinations with leading elite colonial actors are difficult to reconcile with his manifest rebellion or re-articulation of power in the colonial context. Moreover, the contemporary context of conflict between Puritans and their adversaries colors the style and tone of both Morton and Bradford’s writings.

28One might concur with Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who wrote, “There was nothing about Thomas Morton that was remarkable [. . .] It is the Alsatian Squire and Wildrake type” (92). A man of his times, a petty player in a lesser game of colonialism, a mediocre and at times incomprehensible author. This may be true. However, there are passages in Morton revealing his political proclivities, however commonplace, embraced egalitarian principles. This is particularly the case in his praise of the Massachusetts, the people with whom Morton probably had the most contact: “Yet all things (so long as they will last,) are used in common amongst them […] They are not delighted in baubles, but in useful things” (Book I, Ch. xx, 57).

  • 27 See the conclusion of Dunbar-Ortiz 309 and following for a discussion of genocide in North America.
  • 28 For a thorough discussion of King Philip’s war, see Lepore.

29Despite the differences in the multiple approaches to Morton, academic and artistic, they all react, implicitly or explicitly, to a common problematic. Some see in Morton a flickering but doomed hope for another America, the one that might have been, if only Morton and his kind had triumphed over those whom he contemptuously termed the “Schismatiks.” This may be wishful thinking. Re-reading Morton, we rub up against the uncomfortable reality of what ensued, rightly qualified as genocide, which some would argue is the most violent and inevitable expression of the disassociation and dehumanization of capitalism.27 However else some might wish it, this latter is tied to the emergence of Protestantism. “But the new attitude […] lies deep in protestant theology. The connection between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism is far more fundamental than the accidental fact that both godly reformers and greedy landlords liked pillaging the Church.” (Hill 230) The war that most bloodied the soil later to become the United States of America was not the Civil War; it was the conflict between English and Indigenous that broke out some fifty years after the arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans.28 The exclusion of the other, the creation of a community where only the godly could abide, and the genocide that ensued were part and parcel of what Patrick Wolfe has ascribed to the settler/colonizer (Wolf 387). All who approach Morton are consciously or unconsciously confronting and reacting to this reality.

30There is more to Thomas Morton than the individual reader’s attraction or dismissal. The man and his deeds are but a means, not an end in and of themselves. We can delight in Morton, we can criticize him, but we cannot dismiss him. He is an incomplete figure, both part of a grim reality, and the stuff that dreams are made of. However, the individual and his deeds cannot be the sole end of our attention. If we embrace him, it is neither to laugh nor to weep, but to understand past, present and future, and how we choose to define the discourse of America, its myths, and its meaning.

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ADAMS, Charles Francis, Jr. The New English Canaan of Thomas Morton, with Introductory Matter and Notes. Boston: The Prince Society, 1883.

BARBER, C.L. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy. A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1959.

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1 In the context of the early English colonization of the region known as New England, there is a difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans. In general, the former were Separatists, who advocated the separation from the Church of England, while the Puritans advocated for a reform of the Church. The leaders of the Pilgrims had originally gone to Leiden; when that endeavor did not meet their expectations, they set sail for Virginia, ending up in what is today Provincetown, Massachusetts.

2 OED s. v. “rebellion.”

3 The term ‘New England’ first came into use after the publication of a map by Captain John Smith following his 1614-15 voyage to the coastal regions of what is today called the Gulf of Maine. His Description of New England was published in 1616. Morton was not alone among those who did not adhere to the principles and teachings of the Separatists. Among the Separatists, or Leideners (those Separatists who had initially gone to Holland) there were the Strangers, or Adventurers, as the Separatists dubbed them: passengers recruited to take the place of those Separatists who chose to remain in Holland. The two other notable contemporaries of Morton who kept their distance from the Brethren were Blackstone, and Samuel Maverick. The former lived apart from the Puritans and is generally considered the first English inhabitant of Boston. He lived for a time at Shawmut, or what is today known as Beacon Hill in the city of Boston. An Anglican minister, he was reputed to have brought a considerable collection of books to the lands of the Massachusetts. As Van Wyck Brooks rather elegantly puts it, “There had been books on the slope of Beacon Hill when the wolves still howled on the summit.” (Brooks 15) As for Samuel Maverick, he had his own difficulties with the Puritans. He was one contemporary who considered Morton’s New English Canaan to be “the truest description of New England as then it was that I ever saw” (Maverick 238).

4 William Bradford. Of Plymouth Plantation (1850). Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

5 See Cartelli 261 and passim; see also Marshall 161.

6 Aside from the original manuscript, there are to date two editions of Morton’s New English Canaan. The first edited by Charles Francis Adams (The New English Canaan of Thomas Morton, with Introductory Matter and Notes. Boston: The Prince Society, 1883). The second, edited by Jack Dempsey (New English Canaan. Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 2000). On the history of the publication of Morton’s New English Canaan, see Sternberg, passim.

7 On the life of Gorges, see Mancall 47-80. On Morton’s work for Gorges, see Adams 32 and following, and Drinnon 390‑395.

8 See Adams 59‑60.

9 On the publication of New English Canaan, see Cohen 1‑18.

10 “The references to classical antecedents of the practices reveal an important dimension to Bradford’s account. Both he and Morton were conscious of the recent history of such revels. Bradford as a Puritan was responding to the confrontational policies of James I and Archbishop Laud. Morton, ever vigilant for drawing on the practices seemingly approved by the monarchy, brought together these customary British countryside practices with the spirit of classicism, even to the point of writing something of a pastoral eclogue extolling the fecundity of nature in this New World setting, in his New English Canaan.” (Abrahams 129)

11 See Van der Woude 422‑23

12 While Morton claims twice in New English Canaan that he arrived in 1622, there is reason to believe that he arrived in 1624 aboard the Unity. First, the entry in Bradford, which chronicles events of 1628, introduces the passage on Morton with the mention “about some three or four years before this time” (see Bradford 204). Second, Thomas Morton is listed in a record of ships and persons arriving in New England in 1624 (See Connors 165).

13 See Lupher 86, where he identifies him as Humphrey Rastall.

14 On the allusion to the Old Testament, see Cartelli 267.

15 Citing the Guildford affair recorded in Winthrop’s History of New England, Alan Bray has argued that the charge of atheism was often equated with that of sodomy (Bray 65‑66).

16 John Winthrop, born in 1588, attended Trinity College, Cambridge, then studied at Gray’s Inn in London. He purchased his uncle’s manor in Groton, and was thus “a member of the English ruling elite.” See Dunn and Yeandle ix.

17 David Hall writes, “This ensemble of practices [communal instruction and catechism] sustained a vigorous sociability at odds with the assertion by the early twentieth-century sociologist of religion Max Weber and repeated by some modern scholars that the practical divinity isolated the godly in an unhealthy ‘individualism.’ (126)’’

18 This context also reflects the controversy surrounding James I’s publication of the Book of Sports, reissued by Charles I in 1633.

19 For a discussion on the explicit association of May games and the Lord of Misrule, see Barber 18. On the role of these festive traditions and their relation to antiquity, see Cunin 41.

20 The Inns of Chancery, of which Clifford’s Inn was part, were subordinate to the Inns of Court. One may recall Ben Jonson’s dedication of Every Man out of His Humor (1602): “The noblest nurseries of humanity and liberty, the INNS OF COURT.” (qtd in Heath 138).

21 As Barber points out, the revels associated with the Lord of Misrule were a secularized version of the Feast of Fools: Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles (Barber 25).

22 See also Kupperman and Finch passim.

23 See Linebaugh and Rediker 69. The expression may be found in Thomas Hobbes’ reaction to new forms of organized power after December Days of 1641. However, the word appears in Shakespeare in a number of instances as a metaphor to describe the seizure of power by the lower classes. See Perriello 38.

24 Barber writes, “in a static, monolithic society, a Lord of Misrule can be put back in his place after the revel with relative ease (214).”

25 See Burnham 405‑428.

26 Romans 13:1‑2.

27 See the conclusion of Dunbar-Ortiz 309 and following for a discussion of genocide in North America.

28 For a thorough discussion of King Philip’s war, see Lepore.

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