Edmund Sears Morgan (January 17, 1916 – July 8, 2013) was an American historian and an eminent authority on early American history. He was the Sterling Emeritus Professor of History at Yale University, where he taught from 1955 to 1986. He specialized in American colonial history, with some attention to English history. Thomas S. Kidd says he was noted for his incisive writing style, "simply one of the best academic prose stylists America has ever produced." He covered many topics, including Puritanism, political ideas, the American Revolution, slavery, historiography, family life, and numerous notables such as Benjamin Franklin.
Edmund Sears Morgan
|Born||January 17, 1916|
|Died||July 8, 2013 (aged 97)|
|Alma mater||Harvard College|
|Institutions||University of Chicago, Brown University, Yale University|
|Doctoral advisor||Perry Miller|
|Doctoral students||Joseph Ellis|
Morgan was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the second child of Edmund Morris Morgan and Elsie Smith Morgan. His mother was from a Yankee family that practiced Christian Science, though she distanced herself from the faith. His father, descended from Welsh coal miners, taught law at the University of Minnesota. In 1925 the family moved from Washington, D.C. to Arlington, Massachusetts to allow the father to take a position as professor at Harvard Law School.
Morgan attended Belmont Hill School near home. He then enrolled in Harvard University, intending to study English history and literature, but after taking a course in American literature with F. O. Matthiessen he switched to the new major of American civilization (history and literature), with Perry Miller as his tutor, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1937. Then, at the urging of the jurist Felix Frankfurter (a family friend), Morgan attended lectures at the London School of Economics.
Returning to Harvard, in 1942 Morgan earned his Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization, with Miller as his adviser.
Although a pacifist, Morgan became convinced after the fall of France that only military force could stop Adolf Hitler, and he withdrew his application for conscientious objector status. During World War II he trained as a machinist at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, where he turned out parts for radar installations.
In 1939 he married Helen Theresa Mayer, who died in 1982.
Morgan died in New Haven on July 8, 2013 at the age of 97. His cause of death was pneumonia. He was survived by two daughters, from his first marriage, Penelope Aubin and Pamela Packard; his second wife, the former Marie Carpenter Caskey, a historian; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Morgan was profoundly influenced by historian Perry Miller, who became a lifelong friend. Although both were atheists, they had a deep understanding and respect for Puritan religion. From Miller, Morgan learned to appreciate:
The intellectual rigor and elegance of a system of ideas that made sense of human life in a way no longer palatable to most of us. Certainly not palatable to me... He left me with a habit of taking what people have said at face value unless I find compelling reasons to discount it... What Americans said from the beginning about taxation and just government deserved to be taken as seriously as the Puritans' ideas about God and man.
Morgan's many books and articles covered a range of topics in the history of the colonial and Revolutionary periods, using intellectual, social, biographical, and political history approaches. Two of his early books, The Birth of the Republic (1956) and The Puritan Dilemma (1958), have for decades been required reading in many undergraduate history courses. His works include 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, and 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. He has also written biographies of Ezra Stiles, Roger Williams, and Benjamin Franklin.
Morgan's trio The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in 17th-Century New England (1944), The Puritan Dilemma (1958), and Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (1963) restored the intellectual respectability of the Puritans, and exposed their appetite for healthy sex, causing a renaissance in Puritan studies, the more so because both Morgan and his mentor Miller were Ivy League atheist professors, adding to their credibility. Visible Saints, dedicated to Miller, was a reinterpretation of the Puritan ideal of the Church of the Elect. Morgan argued that the criterion for church membership was not fixed in England. Soon after their arrival the Puritans changed membership to a gathered church composed exclusively of tested Saints.
Morgan's 1958 book The Puritan Dilemma made him a star, becoming the most-assigned book in U.S. history survey courses, documenting the change in understanding among Puritans of what it means to be a member of a church, "doing right in a world that does wrong": "Caught between the ideals of God's Law and the practical needs of the people, John Winthrop walked a line few could tread."
In The Stamp Act Crisis (1953) and The Birth of the Republic (1956) Morgan rejected the Progressive interpretation of the American Revolution and its assumption that the rhetoric of the Patriots was mere claptrap. Instead Morgan returned to the interpretation first set out by George Bancroft a century before that the patriots were deeply motivated by a commitment to liberty. Historian Mark Egnal argues that:
The leading neo-Whig historians, Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn, underscore this dedication to whiggish principles, although with variant readings. For Morgan, the development of the patriots' beliefs was a rational, clearly defined process.
In his seminal 1975 book American Slavery, American Freedom, Morgan explored "the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom":
Human relations among us still suffer from the former enslavement of a large portion of our predecessors. The freedom of the free, the growth of freedom experienced in the American Revolution depended more than we like to admit on the enslavement of more than 20 percent of us at that time. How republican freedom came to be supported, at least in large part, by its opposite, slavery, is the subject of this book.
Morgan claimed that Virginia plantation owners exerted an outsized influence on patriotic thinkers, seeking freedom from British rule partly to maintain the economic benefits of slavery, while black slavery and the racial divide (color line) made it possible for white men to become more politically equal ("Aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one"). In a controversial passage he describes how the labor system of early Virginia was surprisingly non-racial until the debacle of Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s convinced Virginia planters they could no longer safely depend on white indentured servants as their primary workers, causing them to turn to slavery and a color line as an alternative to class conflict. "Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty." That is, white men became politically much more equal than was possible without a population of low-status black slaves. Anthony S. Parent commented: "American historians of our generation admire Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom more than any other monograph. Morgan resuscitated American history by placing black slavery and white freedom as its central paradox."
In 2002 Morgan published a surprise New York Times Bestseller, Benjamin Franklin, which dispels the myth of "a comfortable old gentleman staring out at the world over his half-glasses with benevolent comprehension of everything in it", revealing his true mental makeup.
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 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.
After examining his writings, David T. Courtwright finds that:
They are based on exhaustive research in primary sources; emphasize human agency as against historicist forces; and are written in precise and graceful prose. This combination of rigor, empathy, and lucidity is intended for, and has succeeded in capturing, a broad audience. Morgan is read by secondary school students, undergraduates, and graduate students, as well as by his specialist peers – some sixty of whom were trained in his seminars.
As a historian of colonial and revolutionary America, he was one of the giants of his generation, and a writer who could well have commanded a larger nonacademic audience than I suspect he received. He characteristically took on big issues and had a knack for conveying complex, sophisticated truths in a way that made them seem, if not simple, at least easily understandable.
Benjamin L. Carp described Morgan as "one of the great historians of early America, with a formidable influence on academic and popular audiences." Jill Lepore called Morgan "one of the most influential American historians of the 20th century." According to Joseph Ellis, Morgan was "revered" by other members of the profession.
In 1971 Morgan 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 1971–1972 Morgan served as president of the Organization of American Historians. In 1972, he became the first recipient of the Douglass Adair Memorial Award for scholarship in early American history, and in 1986 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the American Historical Association. He has also won numerous fellowships and garnered a number of honorary degrees and named lectureships. In 1965 he became a Sterling Professor, one of Yale's highest distinctions. Morgan was awarded the 2000 National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Bill Clinton at a ceremony for "extraordinary contributions to American cultural life and thought." In 2006 he received a Pulitzer Prize "for a creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half century."  In 2008 the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored him with a gold medal for lifetime achievement.