The Paradox of Popular Sovereignty

If Inventing The People is a work of consensus history, it is not one that seeks to celebrate blindly the development of an Anglo-American tradition of popular sovereignty. “The popular governments of Britain or the United States rest on fictions as much as the governments of Russia and China” (13). Indeed, many of Morgan’s most important conclusions in the book are remarkably radical—reminding us that all power is at some level arbitrary, and that appeals to rationality alone cannot justify any single system of government. Indeed, governments that try and conform to the letter of their appeals to the people could not long hope to survive. “The fiction must approach the fact but never reach it” (91). Thus, while Morgan unquestionably concludes there is a coalescence of ideas of popular sovereignty, it is not a reassuring consensus. The consensus on the dominance of popular sovereignty is necessary, for else a community can never be made fit to govern. Continue reading

The American Dilemma

The influence of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia is inarguable. For such a lean volume it casts a long shadow upon our understandings of colonial Virginia, the development of slavery in the American South, the relationship between racism and equality, and a variety of other interpretative problems large and small. Scholars since the book’s publication have revised and extended its arguments—into questions of gender and class consciousness—and more than a few have sought to topple its conclusions but Morgan’s central contention that “[r]acism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty” remains more or less intact.[1] During my graduate education, at both the master’s and doctoral levels, Morgan’s arguments have served as the starting point in many a seminar meeting’s discussion of America’s long history of racial inequality. Few interpretations of any historical question can claim such sustained influence.

The question I pondered, as I reread American Slavery, American Freedom for this essay, is simple: why? Why has Morgan’s interpretation of colonial Virginia survived, despite the many shifts in the historiographical winds over the last thirty-eight years, when many other powerfully argued interpretations have withered and died? What gives this book its continuing appeal to the historical profession? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Puritan Family Ties

puritan-family-edmund-sears-morgan-paperback-cover-artFamily pictures can be the hardest to frame, and Puritans make for appealingly restless subjects. In tackling the early American narrative, scholars must confront the thorny task of portraying the Puritan family with equal parts theological dexterity and sociological skill, a problem that seventeenth-century artists and modern historians alike have sought to refine. Scholars who take on the Puritans must address sin, salvation, and community-building in a way that does not make American democracy feel inevitable; further, they must seize onto the seventeenth-century peculiarities of transatlantic intellectual life in which the Puritans flourished and fell. Wrapped in New England lore and either exalted or disowned by their descendants, the cultural memory of Puritan contributions to the project of nation-building has inspired a broad spectrum of historiographical views. In the early 1940s, then-Harvard doctoral student Edmund S. Morgan and his colleagues would have encountered a popular narrative of Puritanism, one seemingly destined to smother any effort at new work: America’s Puritan “tribe” had briefly inhabited a tau(gh)t sphere, bounded by covenant theology and laden with impossible ethics, peopled by censorious prudes who excelled at capitalist rhetoric and balked at the sinful frivolity of a stray dance. Or… did they? Continue reading

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. Continue reading