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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Utopian

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William
- Anne
- Sarah Kemble
- Thomas Morton
- Samson Occom
- William Penn
- Mary
- Edward Taylor
- John Winthrop
- John Woolman
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Authors: Thomas Morton (c. 1579-1647)

[6740] Nicolaes Visscher, Novi Belgii Novaeque Angliea Nec Non Partis Virginiae Tabula Multis in Locis Emendata (1685), courtesy of the Library of Congress [97683561].

Thomas Morton Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
The historical record does not offer much detail about Thomas Morton's early life beyond the basic facts that he was born in England, received a traditional education, worked as an attorney, and had connections within the court of King Charles I. Those connections with wealthy court gentlemen probably enabled Morton's first visit to North America in 1622 and, as part of a trade venture, his settlement there in 1624. He established a fur-trading post at Mount Wollaston (modern-day Quincy), Massachusetts, and quickly began turning a steady profit dealing in beaver pelts. Morton called his community Mar-re-Mount, supposedly in reference to its position overlooking the sea; his Puritan neighbors saw through his pun and called it "Merrymount" in an indictment of what they viewed as the group's heedless indulgence in worldly pleasures. Indeed, the community at Mar-re-Mount did not share Puritan values and openly engaged in practices the Puritans condemned—drinking, dancing, and general "revelry." Tensions between Morton and the Puritans escalated, both because of the discrepancies between their respective moral systems and because of Morton's decision to trade rum and firearms with the local Native Americans, a practice the Plymouth group perceived as inimical to the safety of all European settlers in the region.

The situation came to a head with the famous Maypole incident in the spring of 1627, the conflict for which Morton is best known. When Morton invited local Native Americans—men, boys, and "lasses in beaver coats"—to dance around the eighty-foot maypole he had erected at Mar-re-Mount in a celebration of spring, the Puritans were so outraged by this open display of "profaneness" that they sent a military contingent out to arrest him. Morton was deported to England in 1628, where he stood trial and was acquitted. He returned to New England in 1629 as a free man only to have the Puritans seize his property, burn down his house, and banish him again. Back in England in 1630, Morton dedicated himself to creating difficulties for the Puritans, calling the legality of their colonial charter into question and condemning their religious practices. In 1643 he returned to New England, where he was imprisoned for slander until 1645 and died two years later in the northern part of the Massachusetts colony (present-day Maine).

Morton's only literary work is New English Canaan (1637), a satirical tract he drafted as part of his campaign against his Puritan enemies while in exile in England. Although part of the book is dedicated to chronicling Morton's skirmishes with the Puritans—and ruthlessly satirizing the Plymouth group—New English Canaan is not simply a history, nor is it wholly satirical. The book is also meant to serve as a promotional piece, celebrating the wealth and promise of the lands of New England and encouraging non-Puritans to settle there. Morton's florid, urbane writing style and witty irreverence make him unique among seventeenth-century New England writers.

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