Ed Morgan and the American Revolution

esmEd Morgan changed the way historians understood the American Revolution. Over a period of about ten years, from 1948 to 1957, he published three important research articles, a monograph, an essay aimed at a general audience, and a historiographical article, all having to do with the coming of the Revolution. It was an amazing burst of work that elevated Morgan to the upper echelons of American historians. Of course, Morgan had previously worked on Puritanism and would go on to do groundbreaking work on colonial Virginia and slavery. But he made his bones with the American Revolution.

Sometime following his move to Brown University from the University of Chicago in 1946, Morgan began looking at sources from the 1760s. At the time, the reigning historiographical paradigm of the Revolution was the Progressive interpretation. In the first decades of the twentieth century, historians like Carl Becker and Charles Beard inspired a reaction against the Whig interpretation of the Revolution that dominated much of the nineteenth century. Whig historians, most notably George Bancroft, wrote of the Americans’ successful resistance against the rise of British tyranny as part of a longer, divinely inspired march toward democracy. He was a millennial nationalist; so was his history. Becker and Beard saw class conflict and economic interests as decisive in explaining the American Revolution, with the former positing a “dual revolution” thesis. In 1909, Becker wrote: “The American Revolution was the result of two general movements; the contest for home-rule and independence, and the democratization of American politics and society. Of these movements, the latter was fundamental.”[1] By the 1940s, this interpretation not only held sway in academia, but had seeped out to a broader audience.

Because Progressives saw an economically motivated power struggle between internal classes as well as between the colonies and the mother country, they saw motivations in terms of interest. Hence, they interpreted the constitutional debates (of both the 1760s and 1780s), particularly amongst the elites, as deceptive rhetoric, i.e., a cover for both class-interest and self-interest. However, when Morgan looked at the sources, he saw something different.

CIPPMorgan took a leap of faith in “insist[ing] on taking seriously what the colonial leaders said they were fighting about.”[2] For him, the American Revolution was, at its core, a constitutional crisis between the metropol and its colonies. He believed that Becker’s “dual revolution” thesis, “distorted [the internal conflict] beyond recognition.”[3] Perhaps his single most important interpretation came first in “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power.”[4] Progressives had argued that the colonists’ changing of their arguments during the imperial crisis supported their thesis regarding the power of interest. Morgan contended that the Americans’ arguments against the power of Parliament to tax the colonies were “intellectually consistent.”[5] He came to this conclusion, in large part, by privileging sources from the colonial Assemblies over the more factious pamphlet and broadside literature. Morgan’s insight was informed by his failure to find “a trace of the ideas which Americans are supposed to have adopted” from 1764-1777, namely the distinction between internal and external taxes.[6] This was followed later that year by an article in the New England Quarterly showing that even Thomas Hutchinson held the common colonial position regarding taxes, and two years later he published another article in the WMQ on “The Postponement of the Stamp Act.”[7] Eventually, the work of these years was synthesized in The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1953).

The-Stamp-Act-Crisis-Prologue-to-Revolution1During the first four decades of the twentieth century, there was another interpretation that informed the way historians viewed colonial America. British imperial historians strongly influenced the work of Charles M. Andrews, who looked at the colonies through the lens of the imperial metropol. To them, British behavior during the 1760s was rational and, essentially, logical. That is, Parliament were not being tyrannical in imposing taxes on the colonies and King George III was not a bumbling fool being hoodwinked by his Ministers at the behest of the power-hungry Parliament. Morgan, however, took a rather dim view of the King and believed the Parliament also had not acted smartly. They weren’t tyrants, but they also weren’t good imperial managers. Nevertheless, what was important for Morgan was not how either he or the imperial historians judged the Parliament and the King’s actions but how the colonists judged them.

At the same time as Morgan was writing, yet another interpretative school was gaining traction: the consensus school. Reacting, in part, to the Cold War (and there should be no underestimating the influence of anti-communism in the late 1940s/early 1950s reaction against the class-based Progressive interpretation), a new interpretation arose from the work of historians like Louis Hartz, Daniel Boortstin, and Richard Hoftsadter. These historians believed that the Progressives had overplayed their hand on internal class conflict. They wrote about unifying aspects between classes and, intellectually, they stressed that a broad-scale consensus existed around the liberal political philosophy of John Locke.

Morgan has always been hard to fit into any historical school. Some historians thought that his arguments about a consistent belief in the limited rights of Parliament placed him in the consensus school. However, the point of Morgan’s work was not to assert a broad consensus throughout colonial society so much as amongst the resistance leadership. Others thought that his stress on the constitutional nature of the conflict made him a neo-Whig historian, a twentieth-century George Bancroft. For Morgan, what was truly revolutionary about the American Revolution was the idea of equality, but Morgan was an atheist; he was not a millennialist in religion or history.[8]

That said, he shared with many Whig historians perhaps his most important contribution to the historiography of the American Revolution: the idea that ideas mattered. This contribution helped lay the groundwork for those historians many have called “neo-Whigs.” In the early 1960s, Bernard Bailyn, taking Morgan’s assertion about the importance of ideas as a starting point, traced ideas late in the colonial period. His student, Gordon Wood, traced ideas during the Revolution and the 1780s. From the late 1950s to the 1970s, the American Revolution became the staging ground for intense historiographical debates regarding the intellectual character and causes of the Revolution. Of course, just like the Progressives rose in reaction to the Whigs, neo-Progressives arose in reaction to the neo-Whigs. But Morgan had helped spark what is arguably the most fruitful period of the Revolution’s historiography.

ARRNRAt the end of ten-year period, Morgan was not content with simply having made a significant contribution. He concluded the period first by writing The Birth of the Republic (1956). In less than 200 pages of artfully concise prose, he summarized for a general audience the new interpretation of the Revolution that his previous work had shaped. (Remember that at the time general readers read these kinds of works by academic historians.) He ended the period in 1957 with an article summarizing the historiographical debate in which he had been taking part, “The American Revolution: Revisions in Need of Revising.”[9] More importantly, he suggested directions for historians of the American Revolution to pursue. He challenged them to “dissect the local institutions which produced the American Revolution.”[10] After perhaps the most intensive period of significant productivity of his career, Morgan felt the need to reach out to both the general reader and his fellow academics.

Morgan’s most lasting achievement in terms of the American Revolution was to legitimize the history of ideas. But this was not your old-school type of intellectual history that primarily traced the genealogy of ideas. Instead, Morgan was interested in how ideas played out in the behavior of individuals and groups and how they could be utilized and manipulated by institutions. His interest in the former would culminate three decades later in Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1988). Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) may have won The Junto‘s March Madness tournament, but, especially in terms of influencing subsequent scholarship, his work on the American Revolution has had a longer and, arguably, a more significant impact on the field.


[1] Carl L. Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1909), 5.

[2] Edmund S. Morgan, “The Second American Revolution,” New York Review of Books, June 25, 1992, 23.

[3] Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic 1763-89 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 100. For my own reconsideration of this work, see my own post from here at The Junto, “Reconsidering Edmund Morgan’s ‘The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89.'”

[4] Edmund S. Morgan, “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power, 1764-1767,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series (1948): 311-41.

[5] Edmund S. Morgan and Helen S. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953): 369.

[6] Morgan, “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power,” 314.

[7] Edmund S. Morgan, “The Postponement of the Stamp Act,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 7, no. 3 (1950): 353–392; Edmund S. Morgan, “Thomas Hutchinson and the Stamp Act,” The New England Quarterly 21, no. 4 (1948): 459–492.

[8] Morgan, Birth of the Republic, 66.

[9] Edmund S. Morgan, “The American Revolution: Revisions in Need of Revising,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 14, no. 1 (1957): 3-15.

[10] Ibid., 14.

25 responses

  1. Michael, thanks for this astute and rightfully generous assessment of Morgan’s work. To see ideas as something other — or something more — than mere camouflage for interests is (or should be!) axiomatic now, but that’s only because scholars like Morgan contended for that approach. This post is also a great crash-course in historiography. Bookmarking for my undergrads!

    • Thanks, Alec! Both of Gibson’s books on the historiography of the founding are fantastic. Understanding the Founding goes more in-depth into the methodological and theoretical foundations of the various interpretations. That said, I think Interpreting the Founding is written in such a way that even a general reader could really get a lot out of it and that it could make them approach their reading of even popular works on the Revolution more critically.

      • I agree Michael – about 95% is perfectly comprehensible to the lowliest of laypersons (i.e. me). Every now and then I get a little lost (the discussion of Rogers Smith) but my college Locke and Hobbes, plus some Forrest McDonald has made it otherwise very comprehensible. Looking forward to Understanding as well.

        I very much appreciate this blog as well.

      • I incorporated Whose American Revolution Was It? by Alfred Young and Gregory Nobles into introductory remarks on the Revolution, worked well for a survey course.

        • Absolutely. Young and Nobles fantastic volume is probably the most accessible introduction to the historiography of the American Revolution and I would have no problem assigning selections of it to undergraduates, even perhaps in a survey course.

  2. Outstanding post, Michael. The historiography involved is critical for developing an appreciation of what Professor Morgan did for our understanding of the American Revolution. I have a feeling his impact is going to be felt for many years to come as we’re still following his queries about the role of ideas impacting the behavior of individuals and groups.

    • You’re right, Jimmy. Morgan’s long-term influence becomes clear when you think about the fact that up until the late 1940s/1950s, the Progressive interpretation was dominant. Morgan changed the narrative of the Revolution into the one that, sixty years later, is still essentially taught to schoolchildren and even college students today, i.e., the Revolution as a constitutional crisis between Britain and colonists’ seeking to retain their rights as Englishmen. There are historians who don’t think constitutionality or ideas were the primary force behind the Revolution but I don’t think there are many who would deny the importance of ideas in the Revolution completely, even many neo-Progressives.

  3. Nice post, Michael. In regards to what “school” to place Morgan in, I think it’s fair to label him consensus historian, as long as one recognizes that such historians did not always portray Americans and American values in a positive light. Hofstadter was certainly critical of the boundaries of the American political tradition and Morgan’s _American Slavery, American Freedom_ is basically about the creation of a cultural consensus in favor of white supremacy.

    • Nic, the reason I feel he does not fit squarely with the consensus school is because Morgan’s work on the Stamp Act was not shaped by the underlying current of the Cold War. Even though The Stamp Act Crisis came out in 1953, the work that it synthesized was begun in the mid-1940s before the Cold War had really ramped up. That is to say, I see less of a presentist streak in Morgan’s work than in much consensus history, for which presentism was a defining characteristic of its analytical framework. But that is, of course, just my own opinion.

      • I think that you’re absolutely right about the consensus question, and generally your essay is excellent and valuable.

  4. Very excellent post, Michael.

    I just want to second Nic here. I think it is more than fair to describe Morgan as a “consensus historian.” Like us all, Morgan fundamentally a product of his times. His fundamental intellectual orientation was shaped as a reaction to the “Beardian,” conflict focus interpretation of the founding and the colonial period. As you note above this gives us a lot. Morgan is a fantastic intellectual historian.

    But he always seems to find cultural consensus in his work. Even as he shifts towards a more conflict/contestation oriented direction in AS/AF he still finds a lot of consensus. That consensus may change, it may be organized at the expense of certain social groups but it is always there. Americans are always *Americans.* Virginians are always *Virginians.* If you catch my meaning.

    Again, absolutely wonderful post!

    • Michael, I understand your point about the Cold War, but I think that is only one context of the consensus school. As Roy (and your piece) pointed out, Morgan stressed a level of consensus and consistency in the patriot’s ideological response to the Stamp Act, whereas the Progressives emphasized conflict among Americans and cynical use of rhetoric.

      Daniel Boorstin is associated with celebrating American values of democracy etc in contrast to Soviet Russia, but the Consensus school itself had no necessary connection to the Cold War, nor did it necessarily portray American values in a positive light (again Hofstadter is generally grouped as a consensus historian despite being very critical of America).

      • You can also argue that Morgan’s willingness to believe that the American Revolution was about what the Patriots said it was about is very much a product of the post-WW2 and High Cold War period.

        In the wake of the ideological horrors of Nazism and Soviet Communism it is easy to argue that what folks say correlates directly what they do and the situation they find themselves.

        • Your first point is absolutely true. I am in no way arguing that Morgan somehow stood outside of his time. However, the question for me is about presentism as a priority in historical interpretation. As I said before, much of the work I am discussing here was conceived before the Cold War hit its peak. We all react to the world and time in which we find ourselves, as E.H. Carr noted half a century ago. And, indeed, the entire historiography of the American Revolution can, to some extent, be read as “The Life and Times of American Revolution Historians,” from the 1910s Progressivism of Becker and Beard to the 1950s conservatism of Boorstin, from the social history of the 1960s and 1970s (including the rise of race and gender histories) to Bailyn’s reactionary biography of Hutchinson following the campus upheavals of the late 60s, and then later the rise of relativist cultural histories of the 1980s and 1990s. As E. H. Carr said, “The historian is a part of history” so “before you study the history, study the historian” and “his historical and social environment.” In no historiographical oeuvre is that more apparent than it that of the American Revolution.

        • Also it is worth noting that Morgan addressed this issue in “Conflict and Consensus in the American Revolution,” in Essays on the American Revolution, eds. Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), 289-310. He didn’t see himself as favoring one or the other, and he didn’t see it as historically viable to see one without the other. He wrote, “Those impressed by the achievement of consensus among the Revolutionists can scarcely hope to understand the nature of that consensus without understanding the conflicts that had to be overcome or repressed in order to arrive at it. Nor can those who emphasize conflict gauge the force of the movements they examine without considering the kind of consensus that later grew out of those movements or that succeeded in subduing them.”

  5. What about The Challenge of the Revolution? What does that cover and where does it fit into Morgan’s work?

    • Alec, The Challenge of the American Revolution was a collection of Morgan’s essays and articles including “Revisions in Need of Revising” and “Slavery and Freedom.” In another essay, “The Revolution Considered as an Intellectual Movement” (an allusion to J. Franklin Jameson’s landmark lectures), Morgan argued that prior to the Revolution a change was occurring in the colonies in which the primary intellectual pursuits in which most of the population engaged began to be secularized. That is, public debate about theology and the standing of clergy as intellectuals began to diminish, the latter being replaced by those in the new professions, particularly law. That was a very astute interpretation at the time, and my current work touches on some of the conflict set off in the early days of that transition in the 1750s.

  6. Nic Wood said: Hofstadter is generally grouped as a consensus historian despite being very critical of America

    The “grouping” of Hofstadter proved treacherous terrain for course components on the “paranoid style” and further varieties of historiographical, well, “grouping.” Due to his citation kudos of, and later correspondence with, Bernard Bailyn (1962-65), a digression into Hofstadter seemed appropriate for a lecture on that period. But Eric Foner’s publications on Marxian “traditions” and claim that post-1964 students shaped the Hofstadter persuasion (and vice-versa) introduced still more seemingly insuperable obstacles.

    Roy Rogers said: In the wake of the ideological horrors of Nazism and Soviet Communism it is easy to argue that what folks say correlates directly what they do and the situation they find themselves

    I found that brief presentations on both the central contentions, and contemporaneous reviews of, Charles Beard’s President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (second foreign policy volume) facilitated undergraduate discussions on postwar historiographical “reaction.” Also helpful for gauging contexts of the Challenge of the Revolution were the subsequent Edmund Morgan WMQ comments on the Stamp Act Crisis as a “favorite” contribution and his HNN anecdote on the Breisach beer garden and human depravity.

  7. Pingback: Roundtable: The Legacy of Edmund S. Morgan « The Junto

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful alignment of American historians with their times and perspectives. I do have one question. None of your commentators nor your essay refer to the chapter on slavery and freedom, as if it does not relate to the American Revolution. When I read that chapter, it frames the reason why Americans were so opposed to paying taxes for relief of the debt incurred in the French and Indian War by the British. One could almost understand the Whig interpretation from that perspective, and it traces itself back to the very fear of debt that Morgan outlines–from Bacon’s Rebellion to what Gordon Wood terms “tyranny anticipated.” Slavery created America’s social order [free and unfree], and that concept, that notion became an ideology, a kind of sociology of survival that would protect former members of the English 3rd Estate from returning to their condition of social marginalization. I wish your essay had connected the subject of taxes to the fear of debt and the rise of slavery as a bulwark against both social and economic marginalization.

    • Thank you for commenting, Dr. Permaul. Because this was a blog post, I focused my remarks on Morgan’s influence on the historiography of the Revolution based primarily on his earlier works, particularly his contribution toward the shift away from Progressivism toward ideas. I did not go up to American Slavery, American Freedom because this was one of four posts in the roundtable and that work was slated to be covered in a subsequent post. This blog post, therefore, should not be seen as attempting to offer a complete assessment of Morgan’s relationship to the Revolution over his entire career. Nevertheless, you are absolutely correct that anyone tackling the topic in a more formal forum with more space would move from where I concluded to incorporating perhaps Morgan’s most critical and enduring work. Again, thank you for reading and taking the time to offer a thoughtful comment.

      • Thank you for your prompt response. I understand how you approached this analysis, and your review of American historians will be very useful to me as I teach my political theory class at Berkeley. I read Professor Morgan’s analysis of slavery and freedom in conjunction with Hannah Arendt’s provocative chapter on “the Pursuit of Happiness” in On Revolution. Her cryptic, but insightful comment on American slavery, in conjunction with Morgan’s has been a core element of my understanding of the American Founding. Warm regards.

  9. For someone like me who is just an interested or curious layperson, not a historian, and learning about the American Revolution for the first time, would you pick Ed Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic or Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution? Or is there a third option? (If you could only pick one relatively short book.) Thank you!

    • That’s a good question, Michael. Wood’s book is much more recent and so, out of the two, I’d probably suggest that. But Morgan’s is better written. The most recent edition of Morgan’s book came out just a few years ago with an excellent extra essay by Rosemarie Zagarri, who was Morgan’s last student and a fantastic historian, that fills in the gaps between when the book was published in the 1950s and the present. You can’t go wrong with either and they’re different enough that it’s definitely worth reading both. Hope that helps!


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