The Character of John Adams
The Life of George Washington
Jefferson: A Revealing Biography
Well, honour is the subject of my story….
—Julius Caesar, I ii 92
Some scholars put impenetrable stuff in the journals, and polish it toward intelligibility for their books. But Edmund Morgan’s articles are even better written than his books. This may be because they were first delivered as papers, where attention must be won, paragraph by paragraph. Certainly the Williamsburg audience that heard Morgan, in 1971, answer those who lump him with “consensus historians” found it worth their while to stay awake for a conclusion that wittily recast William Wirt’s recasting of the speech of Patrick Henry:
[The outlook produced by the Revolution] was not a static consensus but one with the genius to serve changing times and needs. It was a consensus that invited conflicts and still invites them. A consensus peculiarly adapted to a growing people, a people on the move both geographically and socially. It could not have contained, but it did not produce, the kind of conflict that gave Charles I his Cromwell. It made instead for a society where a Hamilton had his Jefferson, a Hoover his Roosevelt, and a Nixon—might profit by their example. If this be conservatism, it is radicals who have made the most of it.
The papers collected in The Challenge of the American Revolution reveal how often Morgan anticipated developments in the history of our Revolution—when he did not get full credit for his new insights, this was because he so modestly stated the case. The “ideological” interpretation of the Revolution, often dated from the Sixties, was anticipated in the first and most important of these reprinted essays (from 1947), which showed that the common theory of a developing justification for the Revolution, responsive to changing social and economic pressures, is derived from debates in England between America’s friends (who made the most limited claims at the outset) and America’s enemies (who accused the colonies of an inconsistent and opportunistic “escalation” of demands). In America itself, Morgan shows, the claim to legislative independence of Parliament (supposed to be the “final” position arrived at by 1776) was already the most prevalent claim put forward in the Stamp Act controversy of 1765.
The fourth paper included here, from 1967, takes up another aspect of the ideological interpretation—the charge that corruption had, in effect, suspended the British constitution, releasing Americans from their allegiance. Morgan balances this claim by discovering its literary roots in the Puritan jeremiad, in exaggerated self-accusation meant to bring about reform. Some Americans directed the same charges of corruption against their provincial governments, both before and after the Revolution. This kind of literary insight is needed to correct the legalism of much ideological analysis.
But Morgan knows how to use social data, too. He is not a consensus historian if that means ignoring the conflicts that arise from economic circumstance. His fifth paper, from 1966, states a little more sharply the thesis of his recent book, American Slavery, American Freedom, that the …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.