Lord of Misrule Thomas Morton’s American Subversions

When we think of early New England, we tend to picture stern-faced Puritans and black-hatted Pilgrims, but in the same decade that these more famous settlers arrived, a man called Thomas Morton founded a very different kind of colony — a neo-pagan experiment he named Merrymount. Ed Simon explores the colony’s brief existence and the alternate vision of America it represents.

November 24, 2020

Grand BacchanalScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Grand Bacchanal (1680), an etching by Gerard de Lairesse — Source.

“With proclamation that the first of May
At Merrymount shall be kept holy day.” — Thomas Morton, The New English Canaan (1637)1
“It was the tongue in your cheek that they hated most,
The last flare of Old England, the reckless mirth.” — Steven Vincent Benet, Western Star (1943)2

In 1620 the Mayflower shepherded in the founders of Plymouth Plantation, and in 1630 the Arbela brought John Winthrop with his sermons about the “city on a hill”, but during the decade that separates these canonical arrivals a very different sort of English colonist would establish a very different sort of colony on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Merrymount — founded as Mount Wollaston in 1624 near present-day Quincy, Massachusetts — was the brainchild of the Devonshire-born lawyer, raconteur, libertine, rake, and crypto-pagan Thomas Morton (1579–1647). His ideas for colonizing the New World were distinct from either the Plymouth or the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While generations of historians have claimed that Americans are intellectually the descendants of stern Calvinist Puritans and Pilgrims, Morton (who stood in opposition to both groups) had his own ideas. The utopian Merrymount, it has long been argued, was a society built upon privileging art and poetry over industriousness and labor, and pursued a policy of intercultural harmony rather than white supremacy. The site where it stood — now an industrial area across the road from a Dunkin’ Donuts3 — once bore witness to a strange and beautiful alternative dream of what America could have been.

Morton had first arrived in Massachusetts in 1622, only two years after the Mayflower had made its landing, but he returned to England after expressing dissatisfaction with Puritan governance. A year later he returned and helped to establish a colony with his associate Captain Richard Wollaston, a notorious pirate and distinctly un-Puritan figure who named the settlement after himself. Mount Wollaston would come to an end shortly after its founding, when Morton discovered to his horror that the titular leader of the colony was selling its settlers into Virginian slavery. As a result, at some point in 1626, he encouraged an uprising against Wollaston, and upon the captain’s exile Morton became the new leader, renaming the colony variously “Mount Ma-Re” or “Merrymount”, a play on the Latin for sea, the Mother of God, and an emotion not associated with the Puritans — joy.

As Morton recounts, it was decided to mark, on May 1, 1627, this new naming of the colony with a party of “Revels and merriment after the old English custome”. For the occasion Morton set up a gigantic maypole, a “goodly pine tree of eighty feet long . . . with a pair of buck’s horns nailed on somewhat near unto the top of it, where it stood as a fair sea mark for directions on how to find the way”. Settlers and local Massachusett alike were encouraged to join in the revelry for which there was “brewed a barrell of excellent beare and provided a case of bottles, to be spent, with other good cheare, for all commers of that day.”4 Such mixing with Native Americans and drunken carousing around a maypole, with its pagan associations, was a direct affront to Morton’s Puritan neighbours. A repeat celebration the following year, after a further twelve months of Merrymount subverting Puritan norms, saw the Plymouth commander Myles Standish (a short man later slurred by Morton as “Captain Shrimp”) march a garrison into the idolatrous settlement, cut down the maypole, and have Morton sent off back to England in fetters.

Maypole at MerrymountScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Anonymous 19th-century engraving of Captain Miles Standish with his garrison observing the maypole festivities at Merrymount — Source.

Bernard Bailyn, in The Barbarous Years, describes Morton as “one of the strangest, most flamboyant, and most belligerently impious people ever to wander into the coastal scene” — a “nature lover, pleasure seeker, and a Rabelaisian celebrant of secular rites” who seems almost the diametrical opposite of the Puritans and Pilgrims who would exile him from America.5 Morton’s English background was “vague”, as Bailyn puts it, and his reputation “was said to be rather shady.”6 Such was the Plymouth leaders’ perception of the Renaissance man who sold arms to the Native Americans and encouraged liquor-fuelled carousing and cohabitation between the natives and his colonists; the classically trained barrister who saw himself as loyal to King and country, but who also invented his own syncretic folk culture born from the merging of Algonquin and Celtic traditions. He appeared to them as a threat to both the souls and fortunes of the Plymouth colonists. Leader of the Plymouth colony, William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation (1651), would ragefully sputter about Morton’s maypole celebrants, whom he saw as “consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather and worse practices . . . . Of the mad Bacchanalians.”7

Fortunately we don’t have to rely on Morton’s dour detractors for an account of Merrymount. We also have the colonist’s own impious, cheeky, and intelligent observations in The New English Canaan (1637), a work that is part ethnography of the native Algonquin, part geographic study of Massachusetts, part handbook on agriculture and husbandry, part philosophical tract on the values of toleration and religious melding, part political argument for the revocation of his enemies’ royal charters, and part ribald anti-Puritan diatribe. While it certainly helps shed light on Merrymount, it is important to remember that Morton wrote The New English Canaan nearly a decade after he had been exiled, in an England on the verge of civil war between High Church Anglican royalists like himself and the Puritan sympathizers of Parliament. The book was, Andrew Delbanco observes, “clearly intended as propaganda”8 — a ploy, as Gilles Gunn puts it, to “get the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company revoked by portraying the Puritans as anti-Anglican.”9 He would fail in that task, however, just as his side would fail in the upcoming civil wars.

Thomas Morton New English Canaan, or, New CanaanScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Title page to Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, or, New Canaan (1637) — Source.

Morton’s declared ambition for The New English Canaan was to “present to the public view an abstract of New England, which I have undertaken to compose by the encouragement of such genius spirits as have been studious of the enlargement of his majesty’s territories”,10 though today the book is probably better remembered for its inclusion of two enigmatic lyric poems which Morton had supposedly “affixed to . . . [the] idol” of the buck-horned Maypole for the edification of the revelers.11 Bradford found nothing to admire about what is arguably the first American poetry to be written in English, calling it merely “sundry rhymes and verses, some tending to lasciviousness, and others to the detraction and scandal of some persons.”12 Yet it’s possible to see in these sundry rhymes and verses an alternative vision of America to the one put forward by his Puritan adversaries.

The ribald joviality of Morton’s poem simply entitled “The Song” is clear. The black-clad men and women who settled in Massachusetts are often (not entirely fairly) envisioned as dour, austere, life-denying prigs who permanently bequeathed to their American intellectual descendants a hypocritical zealotry. Morton’s “song” offers an opposite vision, urging the colonists of Merrymount to “Make green garlands, bring bottles out / And fill sweet Nectar freely about . . . Then drink and be merry.”13 Morton (un)soberly records that the song was performed in a chorus with “every man bearing his part, which they performed in a dance, hand in hand about the Maypole”, knowing full well how indecent it would sound to any Puritan listeners.14

Merrymount can be seen as an anomaly, an attempt to reestablish “Merrie Olde England” in the New World, free of the encroaching threats of positivism, capitalism, and puritanism which increasingly defined modernity. Indeed, Morton himself is often seen as an “old-fashioned Englishman”, as Delbanco writes — an “emblem of the Elizabethan jollity threshed out of the American grain by a stern-visaged and iron-willed Puritanism.”15

The Roxburghe balladsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Image of a 17th-century broadside featured in William Chappell’s The Roxburghe Ballads, Vol. VII (1893) — Source.

If this risks reducing Morton to an allegorical figure, it is still certainly true that The New English Canaan’s conception of the land itself was steadfastly opposed to the Puritan “errand into the wilderness” which saw America as a howling wasteland — a frightening, demon-haunted void. If Puritans like Bradford and Winthrop saw their American mission as an exile (albeit one that involved the establishment of a New Israel), Morton harbored no such apprehensions about the natural world. To him, “the land... seemed paradise”,16 a sentiment common among Spanish colonists in South America and English colonists in Virginia, but anathema to his fellow New Englanders. Morton’s affection for America was uncomplicated: “The more I looked, the more I liked it.”17 Decades later, the memories still endured for Morton; he described the Massachusetts countryside in The New English Canaan by recourse to its “goodly groves of trees, dainty fine round rising hillocks, delicate fair large plains, sweet crystal fountains, and clear running streams.” The new continent, he adds with a flourish, “was Nature’s masterpiece, her chiefest magazine of all where lives her store. If this land be not rich, then is the whole world poor.”18

This is the vocabulary of paradise, the rhetoric of Eden. For Morton, America promised to sustain the pre-Reformation culture which was his inheritance and at the same time return humanity to prelapsarian innocence. Of course, it is possible to see Morton’s language as partaking in the same consumptive logic that motivated other colonial missions, or to view his valorization of Native Americans as a form of infantilizing condescension. His conflation of the land and its people with a virginity to be ravished is evident in the words of “The Song”:

Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys;
Let all your delight be in the Hymens joys;
So to the Hymen, now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a room.19

However, unlike other New England colonists, Morton does truly seem to revere the land and wish to incorporate the local Massachusett people into the social fabric of Merrymount. In singing about Hymen — the Roman god of marriage as well as the female anatomy — Morton is also encouraging (as he did at Merrymount and elsewhere in the pages of The New English Canaan) English settlers to join with Native American partners in the hopeful forging of a new American society. This was what so offended the Puritans and Pilgrims; not only that Morton engaged fairly with Native Americans as business partners, and was even willing to sell them guns, but that he had no prohibition on marital relationships between settlers and natives. While we must not forget that Morton was, at heart, still a colonialist — with all the exploitation of land and people this implies — he was certainly a different kind of colonialist. With the exception of figures like Rhode Island founder Roger Williams or the missionary John Elliot, New English rhetoric about Native Americans was often explicitly genocidal.

Carte geographique de la Nouvelle FranseScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Detail from Samuel de Champlain’s Carte geographique de la Nouvelle Franse (1613). Pictured are a man and woman labelled as “Almouchiquois”, the French term for the Massachusett-speaking peoples of southern New England (including the Greater Boston area in which Merrymount was founded). Samuel de Champlain explored the region in 1605, making landfall on islands in Boston Harbor and what are now the towns of Weymouth and Cohasset in Massachusett territory — Source.

The encouragement of discourse between the colonists and Native Americans — along with Morton’s trading guns with them, his cornering of the lucrative beaver market, and his valorization of native ways of social organization, whereby he could claim that “Plato’s Commonwealth is so much practiced by these people”20 — enraged the fathers of Plymouth Plantation. Morton saw Merrymount, Richard Slotkin argues, “as the fountainhead of that erotic energy to which all the new and old worlds might have recourse”, believing that “the Englishman must withhold nothing of himself from the wilderness and the Indian but merge thoroughly with them and refresh himself at the sources of human passion and affection.”21 Affection was not, obviously, bound to dictate the course of the American experiment.

Though Morton may have wished for a harmonious merging of English and Native American cultures, he soon found his experiment curtailed and his utopia abolished. The Pilgrims, he writes in the third person, “made up a party against him and mustered up what aid they could, accounting of him as of a great monster.”22 Despite that failure, however, we can find something redemptive in Morton’s iconoclasm. His rhetorical campaign against the Puritans and Pilgrims emphasized that they had denied the beauties of the American landscape and the Native American peoples. Though Morton’s task was deeply traditional, based as it was on a fantasy of “Merrie Olde England”, it was still rooted in an understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature that is not outright antagonistic.

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Again and again, Morton has emerged as an undercurrent in American culture since the seventeenth century. Condemned by John Adams, celebrated by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but more often than not a historical footnote, Morton can be regarded as part of a Manichean battle, where he and the Puritans grapple for control of national self-definition. Indeed, the clashes between Morton and his enemies provide a convenient metaphor for those warring dichotomies in the American spirit — puritanism and licentiousness, staidness and carnival, piety and irreverence. With the Puritans come the Protestant work ethic and self-loathing prudery, with Morton, sensuality and leisure; with the Puritans come cold theology and nascent capitalism, with Morton emotive poetry and ecstatic revels. While one could argue such oppositions to be over-simplistic, Morton remains a powerful disruptive presence in the common founding myth of American identity. What Morton promises us is that things need not be done as they always have been, for things have not always been done this way at all.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions, which the New York Times has called the “indispensable literary site”. A specialist in early modern and early American literature, he holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and his most recent book is Printed in Utopia: The Renaissance's Radicalism (Zero Books, 2020).

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.