The May-Pole of Merrymount (What May Day Means to America)

It’s May the 1st. I saw this morning that the “President” wishes us all a happy “Loyalty Day”. Had you ever heard of that holiday? I never had. When I think of May 1st I normally think of the Pagan Holiday Beltane and an annual international celebration of workers. It turns out that Loyalty Day exists, but it’s normally kept fairly quiet because it happens to be an un-American embarrassment, a Fascist attempt to stifle ordinary workers’ celebrations that had been cooked up during the First Red Scare in the 1920s and made official during the Second Red Scare of the 1950s. Tribal loyalty is what’s important to this President, not fealty to American ideals. It’s the very word, right? “Loyalty” is what he tried to strong-arm out of James Comey at that infamous dinner meeting; A Higher Loyalty is what Comey has chosen to call his new book in response.

The language for the Congressional declaration of this holiday calls it a celebration of “loyalty to our heritage of American freedom.” Think about that for a second. Could ANYTHING be more oxymoronic or nonsensical? “Loyalty” to “freedom“? I think I’ll celebrate my freedom by not being compelled to declare my loyalty, thank you very much. If you earn my loyalty, I’ll give it, but it’s absolutely conditional on your moral behavior, so you’d better not screw it up, elected officials. That’s America, as I understand it. Unconditional loyalty? Take a very long hike.

Not all Americans look at it that way unfortunately. “My country, right or wrong” was my dad’s refrain during the Vietnam era, although when his country passed Civil Rights legislation and created a Martin Luther King holiday he was suddenly very resentful of his country indeed. But really “Loyalty Day” sounds to me like something out of the Hitler playbook. So today, I want to use May Day to talk about MY idea of American freedom, and the guy who sponsored the first American May Day celebrations in the 1620s, and in so doing brought about the first appearance of the cultural rift in America that still exists (more than ever) to this very day. This is not alien business to talk about on this blog. I spent entire chapters of my book No Applause to talk about the war between Puritanism and Hedonism in American culture. And I also adapted this story, borrowed from Hawthorne, into a one act play about ten years ago. It was produced at the Metropolitan Playhouse.

Thomas Morton (c. 1579-1647) is the guy. Morton was a High Church Anglican from Devon, England, an area of the country that still mixed its Christianity with rural folk tradition dating back to Pagan times. In the 1590s he studied law in England, where he was influenced by prevailing libertinism, Renaissance classicism, and the Gray’s Inn entertainments of Bacon and Shakespeare. It was here that he became lifelong friends with Ben Jonson. As a lawyer he defended the poor and the displaced. He began to work for Plymouth (England) Governor Ferdinando Gorges, and wound up visiting America as early as 1622 to oversee Gorges’ economic interests. Morton and the Puritans of both England and America were not on friendly terms.

In 1624, Morton joined a Captain Wollaston and 30 indentured servants to set up a trading post west of the Plymouth Colony. Called Mount Wollaston, it was located where Quincy, Massachusetts is today. Morton immediately hit it off with the local Native Americans, and sold them liquor and guns, which did not endear him to the Pilgrims of Plymouth. When Wollaston began selling the indentured servants south to Virginia into slavery on tobacco plantations, Morton indignantly organized a rebellion with the remaining colonists and ousted Wollaston. Now the head of the colony, Morton renamed it “Merrymount”. He freed the remaining indentured servants and invited the Native Americans to live among them.

They set up a May Pole, and were accused by the Puritans of holding drunken Pagan orgies, honoring the Gods of Greece and Rome, consorting with native women, and so forth. Morton was effectively mixing his Devon folk Christianity and its English Pagan Roots, with the Ancient Classical Paganism, as well as the culture of the local Native Americans. Frankly, it sounds bloody AMAZING to me. It is what I am all about! But the local Pilgrims weren’t any too pleased. And also they were especially bugged by the fact that Merrymount was becoming more prosperous and populous than Plymouth was.

So in 1628, Plymouth citizen soldiers led by Miles Standish occupied the town, arrested Morton, and chopped down the May Pole. Morton was banished and his former colony was burned to the ground a few months later.

In the 1630s, with the help of the hedonistic Charles I and other powerful backers, Morton successfully sued the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1637 he published New English Canaan, a three-volume work that condemned the Puritans, their genocidal policies, their oppressive government, and their habit of living in fortresses. He promoted his own alternative vision of colonization, based on what he had done at Merrymount. The Puritan colony’s charters were revoked and the colonies and their leadership were reorganized, largely due to Morton’s advocacy. He was an influential man, and he had been treated ignominiously in the colonies.

Unfortunately, the English Civil War and Puritan Revolution in England cut short Morton’s victory. Morton returned to the Americas, where he was arrested and imprisoned for several months. Old and infirm, he was eventually granted clemency, and he spent the remainder of his life in a remote section of Western Maine.

A Pyrrhic victory for the Puritans, though, or so I long thought. But the battle ain’t over yet. Today I encourage you to contemplate the ideals of freedom as exemplified by Thomas Morton. I would never demand that you declare your “loyalty” to the memory, however.