Edmund S. Morgan, historian of early America, dies at 97

July 10, 2013

Edmund S. Morgan, a renowned historian whose books on Puritanism and Colonial life offered new perspectives on the nation’s founding, and who published a best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin at age 86, died July 8 at a hospital in New Haven, Conn. He was 97.

He had pneumonia, his wife, Marie Morgan, told the Associated Press.

Dr. Morgan, a longtime professor at Yale University, published more than 15 books on early American history during a career that spanned more than 60 years.

He wrote incisively about the conditions that led to the American Revolution, including the ethos of New England’s Puritans, the slave-owning culture of Virginia and the leadership of George Washington and other Founding Fathers.

Dr. Morgan won many of the major awards for historians, including the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize and, in 2006, a special Pulitzer Prize for his body of work. Several of his books, such as “The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789” (1956) and “The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop” (1958), were republished through the years and widely used in college courses. His most recent book, “American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America,” appeared in 2009.


“No matter what people say, history doesn’t repeat itself,” historian Edmund S. Morgan told an interviewer. Dr. Morgan, a longtime professor at Yale University, published more than 15 books on early American history during a career that spanned more than 60 years. (2002 photo by Bob Child/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Over a long and fruitful career,” historian Pauline Maier wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1988, “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.”

Dr. Morgan said he was drawn to the element of surprise in history, and from his first book — “The Puritan Family” (1944) — he challenged many long-held beliefs. Among other things, he showed that the Puritans had a healthy interest in sex, despite their reputation for dour rectitude.

In 2002, Dr. Morgan had an unexpected bestseller with his biography of Franklin. Writing in an inviting, aphoristic style, he looked beyond Franklin’s famous kite and bifocal spectacles to reveal a serious, thoughtful man who was Colonial America’s most respected international figure.

“With a wisdom about himself that comes only to the great of heart,” Dr. Morgan wrote, “Franklin knew how to value himself and what he did without mistaking himself for something 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.”

In 1975, Dr. Morgan published perhaps his most controversial book, “American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia,” which he called a study of “the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom.”

The book, which won the Francis Parkman Prize, argued that Virginia plantation owners exerted an outsized influence on Colonial thought. They sought freedom of British rule, at least in part, to maintain the economic benefits of slavery.

“Aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one,” Dr. Morgan wrote.

“How heavily did American economic opportunity and political freedom rest on Virginia’s slaves?” Dr. Morgan asked, in a series of increasingly pointed rhetorical questions. “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?”

With his 1988 book, “Inventing the People,” which won the Bancroft Prize for the year’s outstanding work on American history, Dr. Morgan turned the notion of representative government on its head. The willingness of people at large to entrust elected officials with the collective will, he argued, was built on a sense of “make-believe.”

“The sovereignty of the people, like the divine right of kings, and like representation itself, is a fiction that cannot survive too close examination or too literal application,” he wrote. Yet, even if the ordinary citizen had little real power over public events, the shared exercise in democracy “becomes a useful conception for making representative government work.”

Dr. Morgan’s study, historian Michael Kammen wrote in The Washington Post, “provides that best explanation that I have seen for our distinctive combination of faith, hope and naivete concerning the governmental process.”

Edmund Sears Morgan was born Jan. 17, 1916, in Minneapolis and spent most of his childhood in Arlington, Mass. His father was a Harvard law professor who chaired the committee that developed the uniform code of military justice in the 1940s.

Dr. Morgan graduated from Harvard in 1937 and then spent a year in Europe doing graduate work. He was visiting Germany in 1938 when military officials suddenly blocked a road, and Adolf Hitler passed by in the back of a car, no more than 10 feet from where Dr. Morgan stood.

After receiving his doctorate in history from Harvard in 1942, Dr. Morgan spent the war years as a machinist, making instruments in a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He taught for a year at the University of Chicago and then at Brown University from 1946 to 1955, before joining the Yale faculty. Some of his students became distinguished historians in their own right, including Joseph J. Ellis, Robert Middlekauff and T.H. Breen.

Dr. Morgan received the National Medal of the Humanities from President Bill Clinton in 2000 and a gold medal for lifetime achievement from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008.

His first wife, historian Helen Mayer Morgan, died in 1982 after 43 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Marie Caskey Morgan of New Haven; two daughters from his first marriage; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

After retiring from teaching in 1986, Dr. Morgan became an accomplished woodworker and furniture maker. His wooden bowls were displayed in craft shows and sold for as much as $400 apiece.

He continued to work on cataloguing the papers of Franklin and to write essays on history for the New York Review of Books and other publications, always with a tart, no-nonsense voice.

“No matter what people say,” he once told an interviewer, “history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment