Edmund Sears Morgan, who died in New Haven, Connecticut, on Monday at age 97, was one of the most influential American historians of the 20th century. He was also a singularly elegant writer, as well as a famously gentle, humble, and generous man, the E.B. White of the historical profession. He’d studied history and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard and went on to graduate study in Harvard’s program in the history of American civilization. He had a decidedly literary mind. In the middle decades of the 20th century, when a great many American historians were drawn to the social sciences, as both a method and especially as a style of writing, with all its brutalism, Morgan’s own thinking and writing turned, instead, toward humanity, clarity, and compassion. The Puritan Dilemma (1956), his short biography of John Winthrop, is a piece of biographical haiku: the character of a man as the character of a people in 224 pages. There are sentences in American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) that generations of historians have committed to memory. Of the failure of the first English colonies in Virginia: “Doubtless the expectations had been too high, but it is always a little sad to watch men lower their sights.” Of the rise, in early America, of both liberty and slavery, “The paradox is American, and it behooves Americans to understand it if they would understand themselves.” Morgan admired no American historical figure more than Benjamin Franklin. Writing against the prevailing fashion for triumphant, nationalist Founding Father biographies, Morgan, in Benjamin Franklin (2002), wrote about him as an intellectual. He adored Franklin’s wit. He liked, especially, an epitaph Franklin wrote for a little girl whose pet squirrel had died: “Few Squirrels were better accomplish’d; for he had had a good Education, had travell’d far, and seen much of the World.”
Don’t tell me what other historians say. Tell me what you see. Never dismiss the unexpected.
Morgan was a spectacularly brilliant teacher. He taught at Yale beginning in the 1950s. (I missed the chance to take a class with him; he retired in the 1980s, a few years before I got there, but I saw him in the park nearly every day. I’d be walking my dog, and he’d be walking his.) He held his American-history graduate seminar in his office. He turned off his phone and leaned over his desk. He told his students to find out how to find facts. He gave them assignments. Find out: How long did it take to sail from Liverpool to Philadelphia in 1694? In an 18th-century New England town, who owned the meetinghouse? For writing, he gave his students rules. Don’t tell me what other historians say. Tell me what you see. Never dismiss the unexpected. Edmund Morgan liked, especially, to teach his students how to make and sharpen a quill. None were ever so sharp as his.