William Moraley: "Coming to America"

Who is William Moraley and why is he coming to America?

As the editors of Moraley’s memoir, Susan Klepp and Billy Smith write: “William Moraley ventured from England to the colonies in 1729 as an indentured servant, worked in various capacities, rambled about the countryside on foot, and mingled with white and black bondspeople, labor artisans, Indians, and other common folk.” Moraley’s memoir is a morality tale about failure in eighteenth-century British America. After spending five years in America, he returned to England and wrote The Infortunate: or the Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley. Klepp and Smith have published the memoir with a nice editor’s introduction. The book is now in its second edition with Penn State University Press.

I have been teaching Moraley in my Colonial America course for about eight years now. Since many of my students read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in my U.S. Survey course, they are familiar with the memoir genre. (One of the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts college is that most history majors who take my colonial course also had me as a professor in their introductory survey course so I can assume most of them have read Franklin). Both Franklin and Moraley arrived in the Delaware Valley in the 1720s, but only one of them “made it.” Moraley did not experiences the so-called “American dream” and thus we know virtually nothing about him. After all, we ambitious and self-improving Americans would not look highly on a guy who openly admits that “I neglected to improve my Talents, always preferring the present Time to the future; so that all these Advantages were bestow’d on me to no Purpose.” Franklin he was not.

I love comparing Franklin and Moraley in class because it leads to a great discussion about who was more representative of early eighteenth-century immigrants to the Delaware Valley. My students and I wonder together about why Americans do not deal very well with failure. This time around several of my students admitted that they were frustrated with Moraley because he was not living up to their standards of self-improvement. I asked them why this was the case. Was there something in the American psyche that cannot accept failure? And how do they reconcile their disgust for Moraley with their theological belief (most of my students are Christians) that we are all sinners who doomed to failure? We all prefer Ben Franklin or Philip Vickers Fithian to Moraley.

While Franklin’s Autobiography became a book that defined the American character, Moraley was a bungler–a guy who did not take advantage of what the colonies offered him and ended up wandering in the woods of New Jersey getting “treed” by a panther.

Moraley is the stuff of which good folk music is made. He is on a “Down Bound Train” where he experiences “Hard Times” in this “American Land.” (OK–these are all Springsteen songs or covers, but I am sure that there are Seeger and Guthrie songs that would fit the bill. I just don’t have the time right now to look them up). In some ways, he is an eighteenth-century Tom Joad.

This connection with the American folk music tradition prompted me in class the other day to challenge the students to write a folk song about Moraley. Only one student took me up on the offer. Sarah Plumadore, a music major and history minor, creatively changed the lyrics of Neil Diamond’s classic “Coming to America” to better reflect the experience of Moraley. Here is her Moraley-inspired version of “Coming to America” (or perhaps “Lost in Philadelphia” might be more appropriate):

Far
He’s been travelin’ far
Across the sea
But not beyond the empire

Free
Moraley wants to be free
Not indentured
But improved as can be

He took a boat he walked the trail
He’s lost in Philadephia
He left town to fix a watch
Now he hides from panther’s claws

Free, time served, now he’s on his way
And Moraley is now to be wed
But it’s taken away
It’s taken away

Home, to return to a familiar place
He cleans clocks, he gets the fare
Creditors give him chase
To Burlington does he race

Next, he goes to Maryland
But on the way a snake finds him
Then it’s back to Burlington
Then a ship bound for England

On the boat he is the cook
They dock in Ireland
Moraley journeys to Newburn
He reunited with his family

But there’s lack of opportunity
His mother dies tragically
From debts he’s still not free
The moral of this tale, you see
We can’t all like Franklin be

Great work, Sarah! I encourage my readers to go listen to Diamond’s version and replace the lyrics with Sarah’s new words.