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.”