Morton on My Mind
Synopsis: From the literary circles of London to the colonial frontier, Thomas Morton got around. His comings and goings demonstrate how crossing borders can help efficiently move resources, though never without controversy.
“I think I am quite soused,” said the nobleman to the ceiling. Neither of his two table companions was terribly surprised, nor did they take much notice. The inn was loud, the din of patrons who'd been overserved on ale and cheap wine rising and falling with the tides of disparate conversations. They had heard a few taking to song or proclaiming their opinion of this or that with the certainty reserved for drunks and politicians. Smoke curled in the rafters from a roaring fire that fought off the February chill, and there were pleasant smells of meat pies wafting in from the small kitchen.
Will, the young man with a high forehead and a trimmed pointed beard, acted as if he hadn’t been interrupted: “And then my character says ‘the first thing we do is kill all the lawyers’. What do you think?”
It took Morton, a non-inheriting son of a noble family, a moment to focus, his wits dulled as they were by hours of excessive consumption. “Damn it Will, you know I am a lawyer! You do me wrong.”
“Yes, of course I know it. Why do you think I wrote thus?”
Morton arched an eyebrow at the playwright and drummed his fingers clumsily on the table. Then he let out something between a sigh and a chuckle. It was, he knew, a pretty good line. The tension of the table melted away, replaced with an easy familiarity.
“What’s got you all bothered tonight Morton?” asked the second man, whose unkempt facial hair and reddish-brown curls were in stark contrast to Will’s meticulous whiskers and bald pate. “Shouldn’t you be out somewhere sitting astride a horse leaping hedges, with horns blaring, dogs howling, and in chase of a sporty but ultimately doomed fox?”
Morton yawned. “Boring,” he said with his head hung low, his companions straining to hear his voice. “There you have the heart of it Ben, nothing is exactly wrong. There is nothing to do and I am bored. Bored of fox hunts, bored of literary conversation with the likes of you two, and bored of England.”
“That is good news for the foxes,” Ben jibed.
“And for us,” countered Will.
“I should very much like an adventure. And I think I will find it in the New World,” sighed Morton.
“Wonderful!” cried Ben. “We shall trade you to the colonists…for what? What will we get in return?”
“I have it,” announced Will after some thought. “We shall get a reprieve on claret prices once all of this demand dries up.” He turned over Morton’s empty glass for effect. Not for the last time, Morton wondered if he really ought to try and verbally spar with such men.
Morton eventually found his adventure, arriving in the New World in 1624 to match wits with the colonists already established around Plymouth. He was entranced by the natural beauty and wide-open spaces of the New World and grew to love the land and most of the people, including the Indian tribes whose ingenuity and toughness he respected. But Morton, an unapologetic Anglican Royalist, and the separatists at Plymouth Rock were bound to clash. Morton set up a profitable trade with native tribes, making the original settlement of Pilgrims nervous and angry. They felt it was their exclusive charter to treat with the locals and they were not happy to have the competition. So, clash they did.
During a spring celebration, Morton, the locals, and his employees celebrated by dancing around the Maypole, a Germanic tradition that included drinking ale and engaging in the “harmless mirth made by young men.” To Plymouth, it was a pagan ritual and just the sort of thing they didn’t want in their new utopia. Or, at least, it was a great excuse to head on up there and put a halt to the offensive dancing and trading. An armed troop of Pilgrims attacked the trading post at Merry Mount and arrested Morton, calling him the Lord of Misrule. He was jailed for allegedly selling guns to the natives, and Morton the lawyer, trader, and adventurer became the first person ever deported from the colonies. Turned out and put aboard a ship headed back to England, you might say he was their first export.
Back in London he set about clearing his name, which was no great feat given his background in the law and the flimsy charges against him. The courts in England found the evidence against him feeble at best and dismissed the charges. Vindicated he returned to America and was again arrested and deported in 1630, whereupon he took up the pen to describe his treatment by the Pilgrims in his three-volume dissertation New English Canaan. In 1643, he returned for the last time and, after arrest for writing the aforementioned book, was again imprisoned. Eventually, he was allowed to settle in Maine where he fades from the historical record.
Morton's adventures are a reminder of how easy, frequent, and often alarming it is for things and people to cross borders. As trade battles begin to heat up and protectionism rears its head, be mindful of Morton and the Maypole. While economists assume that we are rational beings who, if left in a better state by a transaction, will be happy, his experience suggests otherwise.
In Morton’s case, the English traded something they had plenty of…young, bored, noble males. They received, in turn, a reprieve from explosive population growth. The colonists gave up some land to attract another settler, presumably a man of letters who could be relied on to help expand the culture of the colonies. It was a win-win situation until personal feelings got in the way. Isn’t it always? Even if both sides are better off after a transaction, that doesn’t mean that we won’t make every human effort to screw it up in the future. The rationality of economic actors is a myth. Feelings get hurt and emotions rule, or misrule. Recent rhetoric about trade tariffs shows that these emotional reactions have yet to fade from the historical record, that we are writing a similar script. It’s nothing to dance about.
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