Roundtable: The Legacy of Edmund S. Morgan

This is a very special week at The Junto. Following last month’s sad news of the passing of one of our field’s true giants, Edmund S. Morgan, we all agreed that a weeklong retrospective on his remarkable career was in order. Hence, this week, each day will be given over to a specific work or theme to which Morgan made important contributions during his four-decades long academic career. We hope that this roundtable, being written by graduate students and junior faculty, will provide a snapshot of Morgan’s continuing relevance to new generations of early Americanists almost three decades after his retirement from Yale University.

Eedmundsmorgan-bydavidlevinedmund Sears Morgan was born on January 17, 1916 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.[1] His father, Edmund Morris Morgan, was a Professor of Law at the Minnesota Law School, Yale University, Harvard University, and Vanderbilt University. Ed the Younger attended Belmont Hill School from which he graduated in 1933. From there, he left to do his undergraduate work at Harvard. In his second year, he took a course taught by F.O. Mathiessen, his senior tutor, and Perry Miller, whom Morgan called “simply the most exciting lecturer” he had encountered. The experience turned a budding English major into an American history and literature major. Upon graduation, Morgan spent a year at the London School of Economics studying with Harold Laski.

At the end of the year in London, he returned to Harvard to begin graduate study in the history of American Civilization program. With Miller as his advisor, Morgan also became intrigued by Puritan thought. After two years of work, he submitted a dissertation draft on Puritan political thought. Miller rejected it saying, “Try again, for God’s sake. What do you think this is, just an enlarged senior essay?” He suggested Morgan expand his chapter on Puritan family life. The subsequent dissertation was eventually accepted and published as The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (1944). In the meantime, Ed married Helen Mayer in June of 1939. Despite initially registering for conscientious-objector status, his concern over Nazism (stoked by his time in London) eventually drove him to participate in the war effort, doing machining at the MIT Radiation Laboratory.

Following a one-year stint at the University of Chicago, Morgan took a job offer at Brown University in 1946. Over the course of a few journal articles and a landmark work, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1953), he helped change the direction of twentieth-century Revolutionary historiography. That work earned Morgan an appointment in the Yale History Department, something still quite rare for non-Yale graduates at the time. The appointment of Morgan—as well as John Morton Blum in 1957 and C. Vann Woodward in 1961—signaled the process of modernizing the history department at Yale University.[2] The following year, his brief synthesis, The Birth of the Republic (1956) was published by the University of Chicago Press, who just published a fourth edition of the book this year.

For much of the end of the 1950s and first half of the 1960s, Morgan returned to his Puritan roots, writing The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958), The Gentle Puritan (1962), Visible Saints (1963), and Roger Williams (1967). He was named a Sterling Professor of History by Yale in 1965. In the late 1960s, his research into the Puritan work ethic in early America led him to investigating sources related to the early settlement of Jamestown. Again, following two exploratory journal articles, Morgan published what remains perhaps his most enduring achievement, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975). During the bicentennial, Morgan published two extended essays, The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson (1976) and The Challenge of the American Revolution (1976). 

Following Helen’s death in 1982, Morgan married Marie Carpenter Caskey, an historian and author of Chariot of Fire: Religion and the Beecher Family. Morgan’s last great work, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty, was published in 1988. For years, he served on the Board of the Franklin Papers and in 2002, at the age of 84, published the biography, Benjamin Franklin. This was followed by The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America (2004), a collection of his reviews for the New York Review of Books spanning a period of twenty-five years. In 2006, Morgan was awarded a Pulitzer Price Special Citation “for a creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half century.” His last book, American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America, was published in 2010.

Morgan is widely admired by his fellow historians not only for his groundbreaking works but also for his writing style. It is a rare ability, especially in a historian, to be able to convey complex ideas and arguments with a clarity that makes the reading feel easy to the reader; Morgan had that ability. Almost forty years after its publication, American Slavery, American Freedom remains such an important work in early American history that The Junto‘s readers voted it the winner of our six-round March Madness knockout tournament a few months ago. For a book to have such longevity in academic historiography is a rare feat indeed. But it is also Morgan’s writing style and ethos that will also continue to make him an excellent role model for new generations of early Americanists well into the twenty-first century.

We hope you’ll come back throughout the week as Sara Georgini looks back at The Puritan Family tomorrow, followed by my own thoughts about Morgan’s impact on the historiography of the American Revolution on Wednesday. On Thursday, Roy Rogers reflects on the legacy of American Slavery, American Freedom and we will close out the week with Ken Owen’s thoughts on Inventing the People.

Edmund Morgan: A Selected Bibliography

American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women who Shaped Early America. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

“The American Revolution as an Intellectual Movement.” In Paths of American ThoughtEdited by Arthur M. Schlesinger and Morton White, 11–33. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

The American Revolution: Revisions in Need of Revising.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 14, no. 1 (1957): 3–15.

The American Revolution: Two Centuries of Interpretation. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.

Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

The Challenge of the American Revolution. New York: Norton, 1976.

Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power, 1764-1766.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 5, no. 3 (July 1, 1948): 311–341.

“Conflict and Consensus.” In Conflict and Consensus in Early American History. Edited by Allen Freeman Davis and Harold D. Woodman, 289–309. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1980.

The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.

“The Historians of Early New England.” In The Reinterpretation of Early American History: Essays by Ten Leading Historians of Colonial AmericaEdited by Ray Allen Billington. San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1966.

Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976.

The Postponement of the Stamp Act.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 7, no. 3 (1950): 353–392.

Prologue to Revolution: Sources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764-1766. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.

The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 24 (1967): 3–43.

Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

Roger Williams: The Church and the State. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.

Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.” The Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (1972): 5–29.

The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

Thomas Hutchinson and the Stamp Act.” The New England Quarterly 21, no. 4 (1948): 459–492.

Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1963.


[1] For the sources of this piece’s biographical information, see David T. Courtwright, “Fifty Years of American History: An Interview with Edmund S. Morgan,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 44, no. 2 (1987): 336–369; John S. Murrin, “Edmund S. Morgan,” in Clio’s Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945-2000, ed. Robert Rutland (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 126-37; Saints & Revolutionaries: Essays on Early American History, eds. David D. Hall, John M. Murrin, and Thad W. Tate (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984).

[2] William Palmer, “From Gentleman’s Club to Professional Body: The Evolution of the History Department in the United States,” Historically Speaking 10, no. 3 (2009): 37.

3 responses

  1. I would like to hear more about how Morgan’s “Stamp Act Crisis” helped change the direction of twentieth-century Revolutionary historiography if anyone could elucidate further.

    Thanks and very much looking forward to this Roundtable.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: