Thursday, July 11, 2013

RIP Edmund Morgan

Edmund Morgan, my favorite historian of the U.S., died last week at 97 -- one good thing about being a historian is that we are the longest-lived of all professions. I took Morgan's course in the American Revolution as an undergraduate, when my distaste for the American history forced on me in my youth was at its peak. I longed only for the unfamiliar and bemoaned the requirement that history majors had to take one U.S history course. But Morgan's wonderful storytelling and astonishing knowledge of all the characters of the revolutionary era broke through my cynicism and re-awakened for me the wonder of the American past.

My favorite of Morgan's two dozen books is American Slavery, American Freedom: the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975). Although it focuses on the question of how Virginians came to both own slaves and love freedom, it approaches the topic by giving the best available narrative of seventeenth-century Virginia and the best analysis of its society. In Morgan's view, slavery was the outcome of certain Virginians' determination to live as wealthy landed men in a place where land had little value and labor was everything. They fought for decades to keep their white laborers (indentured servants, convicts) in what amounted to slavery, and when this became too difficult they switched to kidnapped Africans. Morgan's portrait of the sheer nastiness of life in Virginia's frontier oligarchy has stayed fresh in my mind for 25 years.

Morgan's short books on George Washington (1980) and Benjamin Franklin (2002) are also excellent, the best available short works on both men.

The biggest part of Morgan's output about was more than a dozen books on the Puritans of New England. Morgan's main argument was that Puritanism meant, at its core, an insistence on taking Christianity seriously. For example, drunkenness is condemned in the Bible, so the Puritans banned public drunkenness. But when one Massachusetts faction tried to ban all public drinking, they failed, because the Bible clearly does not condemn public drinking. The debate on this measure, recorded by John Winthrop, was entirely about the Bible; the question of whether drinking was a good or bad thing in any other way was not admitted. In our cynical world Puritan means, mainly, not liking sex, but as Morgan showed over and over the New England Puritans were anything but anti-sex. On the contrary, they had the highest birthrate of any society ever studied, an outgrowth of a strong emphasis on love and affection within marriage coupled with severe condemnations of any alternative to married intercourse. Puritan society was patriarchal and quickly came to be class-bound, but the constant emphasis on godliness set real constraints on the behavior of powerful men. I think The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958) is still the best book I have read on the Puritans and their political development.

Morgan was a man of the left and in his reviews regularly attacked any sort of conservative political interpretation of American history. Yet you would be hard put to extract any politics from his books beyond a general suspicion of power and a concern for the truly oppressed. In his work he seems more Tea Party than socialist, and he often opposed left-wing fads. For example, when some left-wing historians started arguing that the American Revolution was social as well as political -- "as much about who would rule as home as about home rule," one put it -- Morgan disagreed. He took what was then the right wing position, that the American Revolution was essentially conservative in its politics and in fact preserved the power of the existing American elite. Morgan supported the rise of women's history in the 1970s but was dismissive of the hunt for marginal characters that followed, and he never accepted the post-modern dogma that history is only an extension of our own prior political commitments. As a man who spent 75 years immersed in the documents of his chosen period of study, he knew as well as anyone what it is possible to learn about another world.

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