The First Book Banned in America

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The first book banned in America was written in 1637 by Thomas Morton. He arrived in Massachusetts as a partner in a fur trading venture in 1624, now called Quincy Massachusetts. Morton grew up in Devon, England, a dark corner of the country with vestiges of paganism and Catholicism still remaining. Morton was considered a libertine and once ashore, became friendly with the Native Americans whom he felt were equal or better than the Puritans. When Morton’s partner fled after it was discovered that he was enslaving indentured servants, Morton hosted (his words) the settlement, and renamed it Merrymount.

The freewheeling settlement scandalized the Puritans who accused Morton of debauchery and going native. Not only did Morton sell guns to the Native Americans, he disregarded the Sabbath. He celebrated May Day by erecting a huge Maypole and encouraged the settlers to dance and drink with the natives. But the Puritan’s animosity to Merrymount may have been fueled also by competition. In Morton’s settlement, natives and colonists shared resources and traded equitably. It was the fastest growing settlement in colonial New England, overshadowing nearby Plymouth. It was no surprise that William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, considered Morton a dangerous man. After the second May Day celebration, Myles Standish was sent to arrest him. Morton was marooned on an island, left to starve, but helped by the Native Americans, he fled to England. Merrymount, renamed Mount Dagon, was burned to the ground.

Morton sued the Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to revoke its charter. The legal briefs he prepared were the basis of his three-volume work called New English Canaan. In it was a description of the New World, the Native Americans and how poorly and unfairly the Puritans were governing the land. He had hoped that his way of colonizing would be embraced. But instead, the book was considered seditious. Four hundred copies were destroyed upon publication. Only sixteen copies of the book exist, which is now considered a classic of Colonial American history.

The Puritans were intolerant to any view not theirs. They also banned The Christian Commonwealth by John Eliot, written in the late 1640s which was another vision of how the natives and colonists could live together. The thesis of The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption written by William Pynchon, founder of Springfield, was that sinners found forgiveness through obedience rather than punishment. It caused a sensation because Pynchon was a well-respected and wealthy man, and a one-time partner with Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Labeled heretical, it was publicly burned, forcing Pynchon to flee to England, never to return. These books are the start of a long list of banned books in America.

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