America’s First Banned Book: Discover the 1637 Book That Mocked the Puritans

In the con­test for the title of the most Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of them all, Thomas Mor­ton’s name can’t be left out. Busi­nesslike, liti­gious, giv­en to rhap­sodies over nature, and not resis­tant to turn­ing celebri­ty, he was also — in a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly Amer­i­can man­ner — born else­where. Back in Devon, Eng­land, he’d made his name as a lawyer, rep­re­sent­ing mem­bers of the low­er class in court, but in 1622 he was hired by investor Sir Fer­di­nan­do Gorges on a trip to han­dle his affairs in the North Amer­i­can colonies. This was just two years after the found­ing of Ply­mouth Colony, whose suc­cess had inspired many an Eng­lish busi­ness­man to con­tem­plate get­ting in on the New World action him­self. In 1624, Gorges sent Mor­ton across the Atlantic again, this time with every­thing need­ed to found a colony of his own.

Mor­ton was not a Puri­tan, nor was he “on board with the strict, insu­lar, and pious soci­ety they had hoped to build for them­selves,” as Atlas Obscu­ra’s Matthew Taub puts it. Though his own colony of Mer­ry­mount became Ply­mouth’s rival in the fur trade, for the Puri­tans “the prob­lem wasn’t only that Mor­ton was tak­ing goods and com­merce away from Ply­mouth, but that he was giv­ing that busi­ness to the Native Amer­i­cans, includ­ing trad­ing guns to the Algo­nquins. With Plymouth’s monop­oly dis­solved and its per­ceived ene­mies armed, Mor­ton had per­haps done more than any­one else to under­mine the Puri­tan project in Mass­a­chu­setts.” And that was before Mor­ton erect­ed Mer­ry­moun­t’s 80-foot, antler-topped may­pole, around which he invit­ed res­i­dents to “drink, dance, and frol­ic.”

Obvi­ous­ly, Mor­ton’s reign as a “lord of mis­rule” (as Plymouth’s gov­er­nor William Brad­ford deemed him) could not be borne for long. “Dur­ing the 1628 fes­tiv­i­ties, a Puri­tan mili­tia led by Myles Stan­dish invad­ed Mer­ry­mount and chopped down the may­pole,” writes Taub, not­ing that the inci­dent inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1832 short sto­ry “The May-Pole of Mer­ry Mount.” Mor­ton also turned out to be an able chron­i­cler of the peri­od him­self, at least after the sub­se­quent tribu­la­tions that saw him sen­tenced to death by star­va­tion, helped to sur­vive by the Native Amer­i­can tribes with whom he had main­tained good rela­tions, safe­ly returned to Eng­land, and frus­trat­ed in his attempts to return to the colonies. Around 1630, he did what any true Amer­i­can, offi­cial or aspir­ing, would do: put togeth­er a law­suit.

Mor­ton demand­ed, writes World His­to­ry Ency­clo­pe­di­a’s Joshua Mark, “that the gov­ern­ment of the Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony demon­strate by what author­i­ty they exer­cised their pow­er,” argu­ing for the revo­ca­tion of its char­ter “because the Puri­tans of Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony had not only mis­rep­re­sent­ed them­selves in obtain­ing the char­ter but had no right to col­o­nize the region in the first place as it was legal­ly in Gorges’ patent.” As the long (and in any case futile) legal pro­ceed­ings dragged on, Mor­ton got the idea of turn­ing his exten­sive briefs for the tri­al into “a three-vol­ume work of his­to­ry, nat­ur­al his­to­ry, satire, and poet­ry” called New Eng­lish Canaan, a Bib­li­cal allu­sion under­scor­ing Mor­ton’s crit­i­cal view of the Puri­tans as “abus­ing the natives and the land for prof­it and then jus­ti­fy­ing their actions in the name of their god and the scrip­tures.”

Lin­da Can­toni at Hot off the Press writes that “the first two books of New Eng­lish Canaan are most­ly non-con­tro­ver­sial, con­tain­ing Morton’s obser­va­tions on the native Amer­i­cans, whom he respect­ed great­ly, and on the rich nat­ur­al resources in New Eng­land. It was in the third book that Mor­ton rolled up his sleeves and got down to his real pur­pose of skew­er­ing the New Eng­land Puri­tans, who, he said, ‘make a great shewe of Reli­gion, but no human­i­ty.’ ” As a result, writes Men­tal Floss’ Jake Rossen, “his book was per­ceived as an all-out attack on Puri­tan moral­i­ty, and they didn’t take kind­ly to it. So they banned it,” mak­ing New Eng­lish Canaan what Christie’s called “Amer­i­ca’s first banned book” when they auc­tioned a copy off for $60,000. But you can read it for free at Project Guten­berg, bear­ing in mind the most Amer­i­can les­son of all from the life of Thomas Mor­ton: when all else fails, pub­lish a tell-all mem­oir.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The British Library Dig­i­tizes Its Col­lec­tion of Obscene Books (1658–1940)

It’s Banned Books Week: Lis­ten to Allen Gins­berg Read His Famous­ly Banned Poem, “Howl,” in San Fran­cis­co, 1956

When L. Frank Baum’s Wiz­ard of Oz Series Was Banned for “Depict­ing Women in Strong Lead­er­ship Roles” (1928)

Read 14 Great Banned & Cen­sored Nov­els Free Online: For Banned Books Week 2014

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Let­ter to the High School That Burned Slaugh­ter­house-Five

When Christ­mas Was Legal­ly Banned for 22 Years by the Puri­tans in Colo­nial Mass­a­chu­setts

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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