Edmund Morgan: Revered author and authority on early US history
Thursday 11 July 2013
Edmund Morgan, who died on 8 July aged 97, was a leading scholar of the US colonial era who helped reinvigorate the reputations of the founding fathers, probed the country's racial and religious origins and, in his 80s, wrote a bestselling biography of Benjamin Franklin.
A professor emeritus at Yale University, he was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and author of more than a dozen books. His awards included a National Humanities Medal in 2000 and an honorary citation from Pulitzer Prize officials in 2006 for his "creative and deeply influential body of work."
Morgan wrote several books and essays about the country's founders, especially Franklin and George Washington, praising them not just as men of action but of inaction. He cited the "genius" of Washington in declining to seize power after the surrender of the British and found the seemingly sloppy Franklin a far more effective diplomat overseas than John Adams.
An informed and accessible prose stylist, Morgan liked to imagine his readers as "ignorant geniuses"; the public knew him best for Benjamin Franklin, published in 2002, when Morgan was 86. It was a short, lively summation that began with the unlikely image of a young, athletic Franklin – and sold more than 100,000 copies.
But Morgan never imagined that the founders were perfect or that the country's early history was unscarred by racism or sly intentions. In American Slavery, American Freedom, he documented how demands for greater freedom in colonial Virginia were influenced by the rise of slavery, which gave whites a heightened sense of entitlement.
Furthermore, in Inventing the People, Morgan stated that politicians often used democratic language as a cover for maintaining power. "Government requires make-believe," Morgan wrote. "Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people... Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not."
Morgan approached his work as both scholar and hobbyist. He had no agent and didn't accept advances because he disliked deadlines.
After studying at Harvard under Perry Miller, Morgan became fascinated by the Puritans and wrote about them in his first book, The Puritan Family (1944). "Miller was an atheist, and so was I, but we both had this tremendous regard for the intellectual grounding of their theology," Morgan said in 2002.
Morgan's restless mind often led him well away from scholarship. After retiring as a Yale professor, in 1986, he took up flying, set up both a wood and metal shop in his basement and put together a lathe in his garage.
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