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Edmund Morgan, RIP


Edmund Morgan, the seminal historian of colonial America, has died at the age of 97. One of the five most important historians of the period in American history, Morgan’s books helped shape the field in the second half of the twentieth century. Among his most important books are American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (which I used as the basis for my This Day in Labor History post on Bacon’s Rebellion), Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, and Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. His last book was probably his most popular, an excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin.

….Although I don’t have a link, I understand from colonial historian friends commenting on Morgan’s death that his father was a radical lawyer who was on Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense team.

……Claire Potter has a really good piece on Morgan and the writing of history.

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  • Ronan

    It’s a good age to get to. Good work Edmund Morgan

  • Todd

    Nice quote on Morgan from another important historian of early America, Gordon Wood:

    “When he was first writing (in the 1940s) the dominant thinking among historians was that ideas didn’t matter, that the founders only cared about the rich and that they didn’t mean what they were saying about freedom and government,” Wood told The Associated Press in 2002. “But Morgan started with the assumption that their ideas were to be taken seriously; he was really bucking the tide.”

  • Made it to 97 and wrote a best selling non-fiction book at 86? Well done, Mr. Morgan. I had no idea he was that old. Of all the history books I’ve plowed through over the years, “American Slavery, American Freedom” has stuck with me better than almost any other. I had almost no idea where he was going with things until about 3/4 of the way through the book when he pulls everything together and the entire thing just clicks. That’s a trick too few history authors are capable of.

    On the opposite end (stylistically, not qualitatively), “The Genuine Article”, a collection of things he wrote for the NYRB, is a great read in that you can just pick it up and get something really fascinating without getting sucked into a six hundred page rabbit hole. It’s paywalled (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/jan/09/bewitched/), but his review of the Daniel Day Lewis movie version of “The Crucible” explains the play, in both of its historical contexts, better and more concisely than anything else I’ve ever read.

  • rea

    One of the five most important historians of the [Colonial] period in American history . . .

    If you are going to say something like that, surely you have to tell us who the other 4 are.

    • walden

      Gordon Wood would have to be one of them.

    • I was afraid someone was going to ask me that.

      I don’t know, Morgan, Wood, Perry Miller for sure. Probably John Demos. A number of candidates for the 5th–Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Philip Morgan. Perhaps should at least mention James Brooks since colonial America also included the modern southwest, although that’d be based on one book. Depending on where Jill Lepore goes with the rest of her career she might deserve a mention, although she’s moved into more of an Early Republic historian.

      And one can always argue for Bernard Bailyn or Daniel Boorstin.

      • Sly

        I’d argue for Charles Beard, but probably because I might be operating under a different definition of “important.”

        • rea

          Well, yeah, he ought to make a “most important” list, if not a “right” list.

      • Hogan

        I love me some Francis Jennings, but he’s not as important as I wish he were.

      • wjts

        Jack Greene?

        • Certainly could make an argument for Greene.

          • C.S

            Eric Foner? Richard Hofstadter?

            • Are they really historians of colonial America?

              • C.S

                Ah — I seem to have missed “of that period” in your original post. Sorry. Carry on.

          • C.S

            And it all kinda depends on what constitutes “important,” right? Important in the sense of moving their field forward; important in the sense of bringing their field to a broader audience; important in the sense of viewing a subject in a way they had never been viewed before? Because if you skew it one way (bringing stuff to broader audience), you should probably even include Barbara Tuchman on the list.

      • Anonymous

        I agree that Morgan, Wood, and Miller are locks. Candidates for the last two slots probably include Ulrich, Demos, Richard White (The Middle Ground is more than enough), David Weber (built the foundation upon which so much great work on the SW has been written), Bailyn, and maybe Waldstreicher or Juliana Barr if they keep doing good work.

        • Yeah, I’d agree that Weber should be on that list. No question, he’s the 4th.

        • wjts

          I don’t know about White. Not a knock on his work at all, but I always thought of him more as a “frontier” historian rather than as a “colonial” historian.

        • Anonymous

          David Waldstreicher or Juliana Barr?

          Seriously? Both fine scholars, innovative in different ways, and each certainly making their mark on this generation of scholarship. But COME ON. Neither is a particularly distinguished writer. Neither has won the Bancroft or major AHA or OAH prize. Neither is in a major PhD producing department, and I don’t think that’s likely to change. In fact, both left first jobs, willingly in Barr’s case, I believe, and unwillingly in Waldstreicher’s, at more prominent posts for their current positions.

          If we’re talking early mid-career scholars with the potential to be giants in the field, I would say Vincent Brown and Pekka Hamalainen stand out for jaw-dropping debut books. And yeah they both won big prizes and are now at Harvard and Oxford.

          In terms of impact on the field, Alan Taylor is the obvious missing name here.

      • OSS

        Loomis you should model your career after Perry Miller – full time professor, part time spy.

      • James E. Powell

        You have to put Bailyn in the top five. Have to. Not just for his own work, but for his influence on others. Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, Peter Wood, Jack Rakove, among others.

  • 97 is a good age, but it’s always sad to see the passing of a giant.

  • Glad to see you mentioning Inventing the People, which gets overshadowed by American Slavery (which is of course also excellent).

  • Django1066

    A tip of the cap to Edmund Morgan.

    Please don’t forget about Gary Nash (I was very influnced by
    The Urban Crucible amongst others)

    and Alan Talor

    and yes to Perry Miller and Bernard Baylin

  • James E. Powell

    American Slavery, American Freedom and Inventing the People are two of my most favorite history books. Read and re-read. I (perhaps arrogantly) insist they are mandatory reading for students of American political history.

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