History Doyens: Edmund S. Morgan

What They’re Famous For

Edmund Morgan is the Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University. Morgan has authored dozens of books on Puritan and early colonial history, which are acclaimed for both their scholarly focus and their appeal to a general audience. Michael Kammen in the Washington Post Book World described Morgan as “one of the most distinguished historians of the United States.” His books have challenged traditional assumptions about the forces that shaped early American history, including the lives and beliefs of the Puritans and the impetus for the Revolutionary War. Morgan has earned a reputation as an historian of people as well as of ideas, and as a writer of wide appeal. Bruce Kuklick, writing in Books and Culture, maintained that “Edmund Morgan is arguably the finest living American historian.”Edmund Morgan  JPG

Morgan’s most influencial books include The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1953), Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1988), which won Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize in American History in 1989, and American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), which won the Society of American Historians’ Francis Parkman Prize, the Southern Historical Association’s Charles S. Sydnor Prize and the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Award. Two of his early books, Birth of the Republic (1956) and The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958) which is a standard text on the topic used in University courses.

Morgan has received many awards throughout his prolific career for his work as a writer and a professor, including a lifetime achievement Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for “a creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half-century.” In 1971 he was awarded the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa’s William Clyde DeVane Medal for outstanding teaching and scholarship, considered one of the most prestigious teaching prizes for Yale faculty. In 1972 he became the first recipient of the Douglas Adair Memorial Award for scholarship in early American history, and in 1986 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the American Historical Association. In 1965 Morgan became a Sterling Professor, one of Yale’s highest distinctions, and was awarded the 2000 National Humanities Medal by the US President Bill Clinton at a ceremony for “extraordinary contributions to American cultural life and thought.”

Morgan’s own interest in history grew while he was an undergraduate at Harvard, where he went on to earn his Ph.D in 1942. At Harvard Morgan studied under Perry Miller. Since he became a historian, he has witnessed a major change in his field. In 2002, he achieved his first New York Times best-seller with Benjamin Franklin Morgan attributes this to “the geezer factor. There just aren’t that many 86-year-olds writing books, so when they do, it’s quite an event.”

Personal Anecdote

The Calvinist

It was the 29th of August, 1938. After a postgraduate year at the London School of Economics I had been touring Europe with a friend, and we were then spending a week in Freiburg im Breisgau, not far from the French border. In a fit of cultural enthusiasm we had decided to travel to Colmar to view the famous altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, a day trip by train via Breissach on the German border.

Before describing what happened there and how it affected me, I need to say that I had spent four years at Harvard under the tutorship of Perry Miller, whose respect for ideas and need to share them had given direction to my college years. Edmund S. Morgan  JPG He, like myself, was a confirmed atheist but at the same time an admirer and profound student of Puritan theology and its elegant scheme of thought. His studies of that scheme would bring him recognition as the foremost intellectual historian of his day. As a student and admirer of Miller, I had devoted much of my college studies to growing familiar with the doctrines of predestination, original sin, divine perfection, human depravity, and theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness despite the existence of evil). Puritan theology commanded respect as a rigorous intellectual system. But I had never quite accepted its dire view of the human condition, its insistence on the innate depravity of human beings. At twenty-two most people did not look all that bad to me.

At Breissach I gained a new perspective on humanity. It was exactly one month before the Munich Pact for which Neville Chamberlain became infamous. The morning paper had announced that Hitler had sent an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia demanding the return of the Sudetenland. When we reached Breissach, we were told that there was a two-hour wait before we would be allowed to cross over to the French side of the Rhine to reach Colmar. And as we strolled through the town, we noticed that young men in SS uniform were everywhere, standing conspicuously in every doorway. Without exception they were blond, six feet tall or more, good-looking. They could easily have been taken for American college boys. So we asked one of them what was going on. “Nur Ubung” was the answer: “just an excercise.” We came to a road leading to a cathedral overlooking the Rhine. As we walked into a beer garden we were confronted by a man in plainclothes who came over to tell us in a civil manner that we could go no further. Why? Because they were “cleaning the cathedral.” We laughed out loud, and so did he. They don’t clean cathedrals in Germany, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyhow, we must not proceed. He was obviously Gestapo.

So we sat down in the beer garden, next to a low hedge beside the street. Moments later, a big open-topped Mercedes touring car fishtailed to a stop near us. Top brass in Wehrmacht uniforms stepped down and had the SS arrange everyone on the street (full of people as curious as we were) in a row opposite to where we sat. Blackshirted men stood at six-foot intervals beside our hedge watching the citizenry, hands on pistols. Why we, and a few others, were permitted to stay put is a puzzle. Everyone was aware that some big shot was coming, but we did not expect the man himself. Then Hitler came through, fanning his signature sloppy salute to the crowd, as his touring car drove up past the cathedral that was not being cleaned. There was no mistaking his beefsteak-red face and negligent demeanor. In preparation for the coming war he was inspecting the Rhine fortifications.

We sat quietly, not ten feet from him as he passed slowly by. I could not help thinking that if I had been armed I could have shot him. (Like many American boys of my generation, I had been given a rifle at an early age and shown how to use it on small unoffending animals.) No one had searched me or any other patron of the beer garden, though I assume that more than one SS man had us in his sights.

The point of this story, for me, however, is that I knew I was looking evil in the face. And it looked like my next-door neighbor or a friend of the family, perhaps a bit old-fashioned but solid. Edmund S.  Morgan JPG What Hitler was already doing to the Jews of Germany and Austria was no secret-although highly-placed officials of the United States government were content to look away and to complain about slanders directed against the German nation.(The American consul at Stuttgart, with whom I had subsequent dealings, was a blatant antisemite.) The part those fresh-faced, and, well, biddable, young men in black were playing was no secret, either. But they all looked so human and so everyday. Even the Gestapo agent could have been a stodgy chance-met tourist rather than a hard man or heavily-armed stooge.

Puritan theology began to make sense, in a way that shook me. I could not believe in the salvation of a few held out by John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards, but human depravity suddenly acquired a face, the cheerful mask that we all learn to wear as the price of belonging to a settled social order. I was still an atheist, as I am now, but that day in Breissach I became a Calvinist atheist. Human beings are capable of great good, but I know that the capacity for fathomless evil is equally human, and it wears a smiling face.

Quotes

By Edmund S. Morgan

  • “We can know what many of his contemporaries came to recognize, that he did as much as any man ever has to shape the world he and they lived in. Benjamin Franklin JPG We can also know what they must have known, that the world was not quite what he would have liked to make it. But we may also discover a man hidden behind the affability and wit that entranced those who enjoyed his presence. We may discover a man with a wisdom about himself that comes only to the great of heart. Franklin knew how to value himself and what he did without mistaking himself for some- thing more than one man among many. His special brand of self-respect required him to honor his fellow men and women no less than himself. His way of serving a superior God was to serve them. He did it with a recognition of their human strengths and weaknesses as well as his own, in a spirit that another wise man in another century has called “the spirit which is not too sure it is right.” It is a spirit that weakens the weak but strengthens the strong. It gave Franklin the strength to do what he incredibly did, as a scientist, a statesman, and a man.” — Edmund S. Morgan in “Benjamin Franklin”
  • How Virginian, then, was America? How heavily did American economic opportunity and political freedom rest on Virginia’s slaves? If Virginia had continued to rely on the importation of white servants, would they have headed north when they turned free and brought insoluble problems of poverty with them? Would they have threatened the peace and prosperity of Philadelphia and New York and Boston, where the poor were steadily growing in numbers anyhow? Would Northerners have embraced republican ideas of equality so readily if they had been surrounded by men in “a certaindegree of misery”? American  Slavery, American Freedom JPG And could the new United States have made a go of it in the world of nations without Virginia and without the products of slave labor? Northern republicans apparently thought not. Some could not condone slavery and talked of breaking loose from the South in their own independent confederation. But the fact is that they did not. They allowed Virginians to compose the documents that founded their republic, and they chose Virginians to chart its course for a generation.
    “Eventually, to be sure, the course the Virginians charted for the United States proved the undoing of slavery. And a Virginia general gave up at Appomattox the attempt to support freedom with slavery. But were the two more closely linked than his conquerors could admit? Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black? Is America still colonial Virginia writ large? More than a century after Appomattox the questions linger.” — Edmund Morgan in “American Slavery, American Freedom”
  • “It looked as though my best friend at Brown, Barney Keeney, was going to be made president, but the corporation didn’t do anything about that until Wriston was just about ready to step out of office. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I would have been upset if they hadn’t made Keeney president; on the other hand, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be teaching at a college where my best friend was president. I though to myself , ‘Maybe you’re just too complacent.’ I found myself getting very conservative about practically everything. I didn’t want any changes made. I thought, ‘Well, you need shaking up. You’re sitting here getting just as complacent as you can be.’ And then Yale makes me this offer, so I said, ‘Oh, well, what the hell.’ Hedges made no bones about advising me. He said ‘Brown is Brown, but Yale is Yale. You ought not to stay here, you ought to go on.’ So, in any case I decided. ‘Well, maybe I need some more challemges, maybe I need to be shaken up.’ In a sense I left Brown because I was too confortable there.” — Edmund S. Morgan in 1985 interview discussing his decision to teach at Yale.
  • “I guess The Stamp Act Crisis. That’s the one I got the most excitement out of writing, I guess. I felt that I was seeing things fresh in in a major current of American history. Putting it together was more challenging than most books that I’ve done; maybe it was my firsat real book after my dissertation.” — Edmund S. Morgan in 1985 interview discussing his most influencial and also favorite book.
  • “I made a point of always teaching undergraduates because they are not a captive audience. If you teach undergrads, you have to make history intelligible to people who are not specialists in your field and that’s good for you as a scholar. I always tried out my research ideas first in the classroom to get feedback from people who didn’t have to listen to me if I didn’t make it interesting.” — Edmund S. Morgan on ungraduate teaching in “Humanities”
  • “I used to tell my students to try and maintain the capacity for surprise. If you’re studying the French Revolution and you come across something that surprises you, you have to ask why it surprises you. Most likely, it’s because what you’ve read about the French Revolution before would not lead you to think that this would happen or that it had happened. So don’t say, ‘gee, I didn’t know that’-you have to ask why you didn’t know that. The likelihood is that somebody else gave you the impression it wasn’t so…. “You’ve got to take what people say seriously.”… “Don’t start with the assumption that they didn’t mean what they were saying. It’s up to you to show that they don’t mean it if you don’t think they mean it. All that postmodernism is junk. If the postmodernists are right, there’s no point in studying history at all… No matter what people say, history doesn’t repeat itself.” ” — Edmund S. Morgan in a Publishers Weekly interview about historical philosophy
  • Looking back on his career as a teacher, Morgan says that his greatest reward in the classroom was “getting students to talk back and challenge my ideas. I always had large classes, but I encouraged students to interrupt me at any time.”… “My view has always been that an analysis of historical developments should be embodied in narrative,” Morgan says of his approach as both teacher and writer of history. “A historian should not be didactic-that is a word that makes my blood run cold.” — Edmund Morgan in Yale Bulletin & Calendar, January 12, 2001
  • About Edmund S. Morgan

  • “While several previous biographies provide fuller accounts of Franklin’s life, none rivals Morgan’s study for its grasp of Franklin’s character, its affinity not just for his ideas, but for the way his mind worked.” — Joseph J. Ellis, London Review of Books on “Benjamin Franklin”
  • “So much has been written about Benjamin Franklin in the 212 years since his death that you might imagine there’s nothing left to say. But there always is. Now comes another biography of the man, a fairly short one, and in my opinion it’s one of the best. The author is Edmund S. Morgan, a historian of early America at Yale University for 47 years, now emeritus. He stands high in his profession, is closely familiar with the 18th (Franklin’s) century, and writes with clarity and a pleasing informality. He is an ideal author for this undertaking.” — Max Hall, former editor at Harvard University Press reviewing “Benjamin Franklin”
  • “Benjamin Franklin generated much controversy in his own times, and historians have reflected this in their treatment of him. Professor Edmund S. Morgan, in his new and readable biography, relies heavily on Franklin’s writings to tell Franklin’s side of the story. He does it well…Franklin would have been pleased with Morgan’s interpretation. Many others, both then and now, would disagree, but, for those who want to know Franklin as Franklin undoubtedly wanted to be known, Morgan’s biography is the place to start. — Owen S. Ireland reviewing “Benjamin Franklin”
  • For the past quarter century Edmund S. Morgan has been one of the most prolific and respected authors of early American history. Noted for its incisiveness, as well as its graceful crafting, his work on the New England Puritans and the American Revolution has set high standards as a model of careful investigation and sensitive reading of the historical record. For these reasons, any addition to the corpus of Morgan’s scholarship immediately commands his colleagues’ attention. But American Slavery, American Freedom is attractive in its own right because it is one of the first book-length studies to emerge from the current reexamination of Virginia’s colonial history. Furthermore, Morgan’s assessment of the Old Dominion’s first two centuries is destined to spark controversy among specialists in Southern history and slavery…. American Slavery, American Freedom is a stimulating book. Its insights are provocative and imaginative, and therein lies the book’s importance. — Warren M. Billings, University of New Orleans reviewing “American Slavery, American Freedom”
  • Edmund Morgan’s The Genuine Article is an anthology of book reviews written by one of America’s most prolific and knowledgeable scholars of early America for the New York Review of Books. Having said that, one should not assume that his reviews resemble anything that you will read in the book reviews of journalism History. While each review is a means of educating readers about the book or books that he is reviewing, Morgan, who has written and edited twenty other volumes since 1952, is more interested in enlightening readers about issues, people, and events from seventeenthand eighteenth-century America.
    Genuine Article JPG For Morgan, who taught at Yale University from 1955 until his retirement in 1986, the release of a new volume on early America presented the opportunity to give readers a history lesson while critiquing the scholarship that provided him with a point of departure. The resulting collection is probably the best historiography and introduction to life in early America that one could imagine with each lesson presented in twenty or fewer pages of concise, insightful commentary. The Genuine Article‘s chapters, which cover nearly forty years of Morgan’s reviews, describe most aspects of life in the colonies from the landing at Jamestown through the Revolution… Morgan reiterates this throughout, but, of even more value, he demonstrates what he professes through his reviews. The book’s cover claims Morgan “has had a more profound role in shaping our perceptions of the American colonies” than any other living historian. The breadth and depth of the reviews included in this anthology confirm the claim. — David Copeland reviewing “The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America”
  • “Edmund S. Morgan remains one of the academy’s best secrets. Over a long and fruitful career, Puritan  Dilemma JPG he has been one of the most influential historians of early America, a man with a rare gift for telling the story of the past simply and elegantly without sacrificing its abundant complexity. The best known of his books is probably his biography of John Winthrop, “The Puritan Dilemma.” Mr. Morgan’s “Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles” is the inside favorite of many historians, but the hilarious comparison of Indians with the barbarous Englishmen of 17th-century Virginia in “American Slavery – American Freedom” will delight anyone with a taste for the human comedy and good writing. Yet the work of this artist among contemporary historians remains generally unknown to the reading public.” — Pauline Maier in the New York Times Book Review
  • “To Edmund S. Morgan, for his brilliant scholarship as one of America’s most distinguished historians. With elegant prose, fresh perspective, and exhaustive research, he has enhanced our understanding of American colonial history by challenging traditions and assumptions about the birth of our nation and by bringing to life the people and ideas that shaped America’s destiny.” — 2000 National Humanities Medal Certificate’s commendation
  • “Morgan doesn’t teach history, he narrates it. Listening to his lectures is like listening to a story.” — Anonymous former student
  • Basic Facts

    Teaching Positions: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, instructor in social sciences, 1945-46;
    Edmund S.  Morgan JPG

    Brown University, Providence, RI, assistant professor, 1946-49, associate professor, 1949-51, professor of history, 1951-55;
    Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor of history, 1955-65, Sterling Professor of History, 1965-86, professor emeritus, 1986–.

    Johnson Research Professor, University of Wisconsin, 1968-69.
    Member of council, Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1953-56, 1958-60, and 1970-72;
    Trustee of Smith College, 1984- 89.

    Area of Research: Puritan and American colonial history

    Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1937, Ph.D., 1942;
    London School of Economics, University of London, graduate study, 1937- 38.

    Major Publications:

  • The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England, (Boston Public Library, 1944, new edition, Harper, 1966).
  • Virginians at Home: Family Life in the Eighteenth Century, Colonial Williamsburg (Williamsburg, VA), 1952.
  • (With Helen M. Morgan) The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, (University of North Carolina Press, 1953, 3rd edition, 1994).
  • The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789, (University of Chicago Press, 1956, 3rd edition, 1992).
  • The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, (Little, Brown, 1958).
  • The American Revolution: A Review of Changing Interpretations, (Service Center for Teachers of History, 1958).
  • The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795, (Yale University Press, 1962, reprinted, Norton, 1984).
  • Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, (New York University Press, 1963).
  • Roger Williams: The Church and the State, (Harcourt, 1967).
  • So What about History (Atheneum, 1969).
  • American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, (Norton, 1975).
  • The Challenge of the American Revolution, (Norton, 1976).
  • The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, (University Press of Virginia, 1976, 2nd edition, 2004).
  • The Genius of George Washington, (Norton, 1980).
  • Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, (Norton, 1988).
  • Benjamin Franklin, (Yale University Press, 2002).
  • The Genuine Article, (Norton, 2004).
  • Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (With others) The National Experience: A History of the United States, (Harcourt, 1963).
  • (With others) The Emergence of the American, (Educational Services, 1965).
  • Prologue to the Revolution: Sources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764-1766, (University of North Carolina Press, 1959).
  • The Founding of Massachusetts: Historians and the Sources, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).
  • The American Revolution: Two Centuries of Interpretation, (Prentice-Hall, 1965).
  • The Diary of Michael Wigglesworth, 1653-1657: The Conscience of a Puritan, (Harper, 1965).
  • Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1965, 2nd edition, Hackett Publishing, 2003).
  • Contributor to The Mirror of the Indian, Associates of the John Carter Brown Library, 1958. Author of introduction to Paul Revere’s Three Accounts of His Famous Ride, (Massachusetts Historical Society, 1961, 2nd edition, 1968). Also contributor of articles and reviews to historical journals. Member of editorial board, New England Quarterly.

    Awards:

    National Humanities Medal, 2000;
    National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 2003, for Benjamin Franklin;
    Organization of American Historians Distinguished Services Award, 1998;
    Bruce Catton Award, 1992;
    Columbia University’s 1989 Bancroft Prize in American History for Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1988);
    In 1971 he was awarded the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa’s William Clyde DeVane Medal for outstanding teaching and scholarship, considered one of the most prestigious teaching prizes for Yale faculty. One year later, he became the first recipient of the Douglas Adair Memorial Award for scholarship in early American history, and in 1986 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the American Historical Association.
    Douglass Adair Memorial Award, 1972;
    William Clyde DeWane Medal, 1971;
    Research fellow, Huntington Library, 1952-53.
    Morgan has received numerous fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council.
    Morgan has received Honorary degrees from Rutgers University, Brown University, Colgate University, Washington College, William and Mary, University of New Haven, Williams College, Lawrence University, and Smith College.

    Additional Info:

    At Yale, Morgan has been a member of the Administrative Board of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin for more than 30 years and has been its chairman for the last 11. This documentary enterprise, sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and Yale and now edited by Ellen R. Cohn, is in its final few years. It now has 36 volumes and will eventually have about 46. In addition, the documents in all 46 volumes will be available on a CD-ROM.The documents are of three kinds: letters and other pieces written by Franklin, letters to Franklin, and other documents closely involving Franklin.
    Edmund S.  Morgan JPG Morgan is a member of the Society of American Historians, American Antiquarian Society, Organization of American Historians (president, 1971-72), American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, Massachusetts Historical Society, Colonial Society of Massachusetts, British Academy, Royal Historical Society.
    During World War II Morgan worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, as a tool-and-die make in the Radiation Laboratory, (1942-45).
    Morgan has been a professional woodturner for the past decade or so, working on large lathes and other equipment in the basement of his home. His walnut bowls and other creations have been exhibited at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven and at the League of New Hampshire Craftsman in New Hampshire, where Morgan maintains a vacation home. He and his wife, Marie Morgan, have also crafted tables and other furniture for their home in New Haven.

    Posted on Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 6:35 PM

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