American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America

American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America

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by Edmund S. Morgan

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These revelatory stories of American heroes and their undaunted courage will forever alter our understanding of American history.
The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of interest in the founding fathers so intense that a reader or television viewer of today might imagine that America was the creation of beings who were flawless in their wisdom and


These revelatory stories of American heroes and their undaunted courage will forever alter our understanding of American history.
The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of interest in the founding fathers so intense that a reader or television viewer of today might imagine that America was the creation of beings who were flawless in their wisdom and courage. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund S. Morgan shows here, Americans have long been obsessed with their heroes. But, drawing on a lifetime of scholarship, he presents a different cast of characters—among them Indians, witches, heretics, and naysayers—men and women who went against the grain, in addition to the stock figures of our national hagiography.
Morgan has mined the seventeenth century and has identified several new heroes, among them Giles Cory and Mary Easty, accused witches, who were put to death when Puritanism went wrong at Salem in 1692. Pressured to reprieve herself by admitting her guilt and naming friends and neighbors as confederates in witchcraft, Easty declared, “I dare not belie my own soul.” Her humble statement stands as the ultimate expression of the religious principles that led to the founding of New England, principles temporarily abandoned by the rulers of Massachusetts Bay who tried and sentenced her.
While American Heroes celebrates the lives and principles of ordinary Americans, the book also considers the legacy of some of our most prominent colonial and Revolutionary leaders, among them William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. Franklin and Washington are best known for standing against the repressive and often brutal regime of Great Britain’s colonial policies, but here Morgan makes the case for their heroism in standing up to their own countrymen. When Americans were demanding precipitate action, Washington and Franklin got the nation off to a good start by knowing when to say no.
Whether presenting the scandalous story of a Puritan husband whose on-and-off marriage to a beleaguered Puritan heiress illustrates the nexus between property and sex, or assessing the power of books to subvert the standing order and alter the course of history, American Heroes rises above hagiography in challenging the reader to conceive of American individuality and idealism in new terms. Morgan, who credits his mentor Perry Miller “with the best historical mind of his generation,” has shown throughout his own career an unrivaled originality and intellectual courage. American Heroes demonstrates Morgan’s fascination with our national identity and his abiding affection for the men and women whose character, honesty, and moral courage make plain that heroism in America can be found in unexpected places.

Editorial Reviews

Bret Stephens - Wall Street Journal
“About [Harvard's Perry] Miller, an authority on early America, Mr. Morgan writes that his 'distinction lay in an extraordinary ability to discover order where others saw chaos, and to express his deepest insights without uttering them, by tracing unsuspected patterns in the raw materials of the past.' The same might be said about Mr. Morgan, whose virtues as a historian are testified to in this wise, humane and beautifully written book.”
David Waldstreicher - The Philadelphia Inquirer
“These essays are like a tour of what history at its best can be: portraiture, social commentary, moral inquiry, weather vane for our sense of where we have been and where we are headed. There is something here for everyone with even a passing interest in a past that remains, somehow, present.”
Jim Cullen - History News Network
“Whether in gentle praise or cutting criticism, Morgan’s utter immersion in the world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is so palpable as to be a gift to those who experience it through owe it to yourself to read American Heroes and remember the pure pleasure great history by a consummate artist affords.”
Kirk Davis Swinehart - Chicago Tribune
“The book is vintage Morgan, and it showcases the trademark range and depth for which he is celebrated. From the Salem witch trials to the Constitution, Morgan shines whatever the century or topic....As so many times before, Morgan proves himself one of our deftest thinkers about race—what he once called 'the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom.' But then, Morgan has always found himself ahead of his time.”
Jonathan Yardley
Herein a collection of 17 essays written over a span of some 70 years, three previously unpublished and 14 previously uncollected in book form, by one of the most distinguished and influential historians of Colonial America. It is the 18th book Edmund S. Morgan has published in his 93 years (he also has edited five others) and further evidence of the depth and breadth of his research, the nimbleness of his mind and his willingness to dissent from received wisdom.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Despite the lowbrow title, these are intelligent, opinionated essays on America between 1600 and 1800. Morgan, a revered historian and the bestselling author of Benjamin Franklin, wrote the earliest chapter in 1937, the latest in 2005. Many describe obscure events but pack a surprising punch. In "Dangerous Books," the author tells the story of Yale (where he is professor emeritus), founded in 1701 as a bastion of Puritanism, but with a library of works by English Enlightenment intellectuals. In 1721 six members of the faculty, including the rector, horrified the community by publicly renouncing Calvinism. The last official American execution for witchcraft occurred in 1692, but the popular belief in witchcraft continued well into the 19th century: in a marvelously recounted vignette, Morgan describes Philadelphia in 1787, where a few miles from the halls where America's elite were debating our Constitution, a mob abused and finally killed an old woman accused of witchcraft. Three of the 17 essays are previously unpublished. Happily, all are up to the standards of this wise, venerable (now 93) and deeply thoughtful historian. (May)

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Library Journal

This book is a perfect gem. None of the 17 essays here has been published previously in book form, and three of them appear here for the first time. Morgan (Sterling Professor Emeritus, Yale; Inventing the People), the winner of just about every major book award, including the Pulitzer, ranges from Christopher Columbus, to the Puritans and sex (which they liked, providing it was in marriage), William Penn, the Anti-Federalists, and historian Perry Miller. Two characteristics that tie the essays together are Morgan's penchant for taking contrarian views of accepted orthodoxies and his admiration for individuals who stood up against authority. His piece on the development of Yale's library in the 18th century demonstrates that books are valuable because they keep alive the memory of dissident voices that otherwise might be drowned out by official, hagiographical versions of a nation's past. His chapter on George Washington and Benjamin Franklin points out that one of the traits that made them great was their ability to say "no" when popular opinion wanted them to act in one way or another. Both specialists and general readers will find this book both authoritative and fun to read. Highly recommended.
—Thomas J. Schaeper

Kirkus Reviews
From a body of work stretching back seven decades, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian selects 17 essays on characters large and small who illuminate early American history. Morgan (The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America, 2004, etc.) offers something new about well-known public heroes, identifying, for example, those issues over which the famously pragmatic Benjamin Franklin refused to compromise. The author shows how John Winthrop's exhortations to the Bay colonists brought "disagreements to a happy issue," preventing a Jamestown-style collapse, and why Anne Hutchinson's dissent, while attractive to our modern sensibilities, posed such a serious threat to the Puritans. He also pens a superb 40-page sketch of William Penn's character and career. Morgan excels, though, at limning lesser-known figures. He traces the tortuous marital history of Puritan heiress Anna Keayne, examines the Puritan caricature Michael Wigglesworth, assesses the historical reputations of Yale presidents Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight and toasts the courage of Giles Corey and Mary Easty, who nearly died for their refusal to submit to Salem's witchcraft madness. The author also demonstrates that groups can be heroes: the Arawak Indians of Hispaniola, whose demise constitutes the sad first chapter of the European transformation of the Western Hemisphere; the Antifederalists, whose important opposition to the Constitution's ratification led to the Bill of Rights. This uniformly strong collection boasts an insightful, even startling, observation-"Government requires make-believe"-on nearly every page. If the concluding appreciation of Harvard's famed historian Perry Miller seems out of place, Morgan maybe forgiven for honoring a man who, like Morgan himself, has left us with the "record of a mind" that has thought deeply and creatively about our history. Outstanding.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013) was the Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University and the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Pulitzer Prize, and the American Academy’s Gold Medal. The author of The Genuine Article; American Slavery, American Freedom; Benjamin Franklin; and American Heroes, among many others.

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American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Massattorney More than 1 year ago
This book is outstanding. Like all of Morgan's writing, this is proof positive that often less is more. The key to Morgan's writing is its efficiency. Unlike so many in contemporary academia, who are flat-out guilty of shameful self-indulgent over-writing (not to mention often doing so incoherently), Morgan's works are cogent. The flow of his narrative is nothing short of superb. These essays largely stick to what Morgan does best: Provide a structural analysis of an area of historical inquiry, pick out the main two or three themes, and stay keenly focused on them. His writing should be mandatory reading for all college students, not just for its content, but as a modicum of how to write clearly and effectively.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is it possible to give a book fewer than one star? If so, I would nominate this book for that score. The book has many serious problems. First, it is marketed as though it were an original piece of work. In fact, it is merely a collection of essays that the author wrote for various historical publications over the past many decades. (A small number are listed as "not previously published", which , considering the poor quality, likely means that no publication would accept them). Second, the essays are symptomatic of the worst sort of political correctness. In them, we learn that American Indians were better Christians than the Christians themselves, and that the only true patriots were those opposed to the cause. We also learn the shocking fact that libraries are good! My, that was worth the cost of the book, wasn't it? Finally, the writing is poor and the author's arguments are facile. To cite just one example, he finds it inexplicable that settlers would have disapproved of the Indians' idleness, claiming that their "non-materialism" was in fact the highest Christian virtue. Perhaps he is unacquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, one of which is sloth. And this is a Princeton professor? I shudder for his students.