Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, History

Edmund S. Morgan, 1916-2013

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We are saddened to hear of the passing of award-winning historian Edmund S. Morgan (1916-2013) this week. Over his sixty-year career, Morgan authored many books on the history of colonial and Revolutionary America that became required reading for students of history. The University of Chicago Press has been proud to publish one of these, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, since 1956. Now in its fourth edition, The Birth of the Republic remains the classic account of the beginnings of American government. This edition features a foreword by Joseph J. Ellis, who lauded Morgan’s achievements in the book and in his impressive career:

Apart from its uplifting argument, part of the appeal of The Birth of the Republic is its prose style, which is blissfully bereft of academic jargon, sophisticated but simple in a way that scholarly specialists find impressive and ordinary readers find comprehensible. Morgan makes the story he is telling take precedence over the note cards he has assembled. He regards narrative as the highest form of analysis, and he has a natural gift for telling a story, silently digesting mountains of historical evidence to produce the distilled essence of the issue at stake. He is fond of saying that when you construct a building, you put up a scaffolding. But when the building is finished, you take the scaffolding down. He wears his learning lightly, in effect inviting us into a conversation about our origins as a people and a nation.

The Birth of the Republic appeared on the early side of Morgan’s long and prolific career, first at Brown, then for thirty-one years at Yale, from which he retired in 1986. Depending on how you count, he has authored or edited twenty-six books ranging across the landscape of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. These include several works on New England Puritanism; a seminal study of race and class in early Virginia; biographies of John Winthrop, Ezra Stiles, George Washington, Roger Williams, and Benjamin Franklin; and a panoramic look at the concept of popular sovereignty in Anglo-American political thought. His work has received virtually every award the profession can bestow, capped off by the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and a special Pulitzer Prize for his lifetime achievement as a scholar. A persuasive case can be made that Morgan is the most respected American historian of the last half century.

The pages that follow, then, represent an early expression of the interpretive flair and stylistic skill that were destined to make an indelible mark on our understanding of America’s origins. Here we can see him hitting his stride, revising the conventional wisdom of the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, synthesizing massive piles of scholarship succinctly, playfully tossing off a twinkling aside, making it all look so easy.