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Wise Men

It is wonderful to have another book by Edmund S. Morgan, and that one on Benjamin Franklin, who is not only one of the greatest of America’s Founders but also someone who would have appreciated Morgan’s offbeat humor and engaging personality. At the age of eighty-six most scholars would have long since put down their pens and settled for chairing sessions at scholarly meetings. But not Morgan. As readers of these pages know from his sparkling reviews, four dozen of which have appeared over the past three decades, he is still very actively thinking and writing about history. He also spends a lot of time now on woodturning, of which he is a master, making beautiful bowls and other wooden vessels. But, as this superb short biography of Franklin demonstrates, as a historian he is still as active and sharp as ever, and for that we can be very grateful.

For well over the past half-century Morgan, who is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, has been one of the most influential and admired historians writing on colonial and early America. To have a major influence on early American history, or on any part of American history for that matter, is no longer easy. During the past fifty years the field of early American history has become so vast and boundless, with so many historians involved in so many aspects of America’s early years, that it has been very difficult for any single historian to make much of a difference. One more monograph among the thousands published can hardly have much effect. But Morgan is one of the exceptions: he has made a decisive difference in the way we interpret the earliest decades of our history. Not only has he influenced the field by training dozens of distinguished graduate students, first at Brown and later at Yale, but he also has written more than a dozen important books and a large number of articles, many of which have helped fundamentally to shape our understanding of colonial and early American history.

In 1944 Morgan published his first book, The Puritan Family, which was followed by a similar study of the colonial Virginia family. By now family history has become fashionable and an integral part of mainstream history, but sixty years ago it was not. Morgan’s work effectively launched the modern study of the family in American history. In 1953 he, together with his wife Helen, did the same for the modern study of the American Revolution. For over a half-century prior to the publication of the Morgans’ The Stamp Act Crisis, scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. had described the Revolution as the product of underlying forces, mostly economic in nature. These Progressive scholars dismissed the revolutionaries’ own explanation of their motives—that they were revolting on behalf of their rights against parliamentary power—as bombastic and inconsistent propaganda, not to be taken seriously by any hardheaded realist. But writing in the face of decades of economic determinist scholarship, the Morgans did take seriously what the American colonists had to say about parliamentary power and their rights. And they thus set in motion a generation of historical scholarship that began by revealing the richness of the ideas of the revolutionaries and ended by turning the American Revolution into one of the great intellectual achievements of modern times.

Morgan next went back to his earlier interest in the Puritans of New England and wrote several works explaining what these powerful seventeenth-century religious dissidents were up to. Not only did his works help to reverse a half-century of scholarly and popular denigration of the Puritans, but he demonstrated his remarkable ability to make the most recondite material comprehensible. For decades thousands of students have used his short books The Puritan Dilemma and Visible Saints to make sense of the esoteric distinctions and peculiarities of Puritan theology. (As far as I know Morgan is the only scholar to have a rock band, the Puritan Dilemma, named after one of his books.) As readers of this paper know, Morgan always writes with a clarity and elegance that few authors ever achieve. For that reason his work, however scholarly and however complicated its subject matter, has always had an appeal beyond the academic community.

Morgan’s major book, and perhaps his most influential one, is American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, published in 1975. This book was one of the first of several important works published over the past generation that have transformed our understanding of the seventeenth-century Chesapeake. Morgan revealed a world in early Virginia that we scarcely knew existed—a world in which life was nasty, brutish, and short, where money was quickly made and lost, diseases ran rampant, Indian conflict was constant, and parentless children and multiple marriages were the norm. This historical reconstruction of a lost Chesapeake world is one of the major achievements of modern scholarship. In the final section of his book Morgan set forth his view that there was a deep connection between slavery and freedom in America, a view that still generates controversy and debate.

More recently Morgan has returned to the era of the American Revolution. He has traced the rise of the idea of popular sovereignty from England to its fulfillment in late-eighteenth-century America and has written essays on several of the Founders, with Washington being a particular favorite. His books have received numerous prizes and in 2000 he was awarded a National Humanities Medal. He has had an extraordinary career and, as his neat biography of Franklin shows, it is far from over.

Morgan is chairman of the Administrative Board of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, of which Yale University Press has published thirty-six volumes so far, taking Franklin’s life up to March 1782. In view of his connection with the papers and with Yale, it was perhaps natural that Morgan would become interested in Franklin, especially since he and Franklin share the same birth date, January 17, if we use the modern calendar; besides, Franklin was the one major Founder that Morgan had not written about. When David W. Packard of the Packard Humanities Institute funded the placing of all the Franklin Papers on a CD-ROM, and made an advance copy of that disc available to Morgan, his writing a biography became inevitable. The disc, says Morgan, not only enabled him to write the book, it “compelled” him to.

There have been many biographies of Franklin, though none of them is a multivolume work like Dumas Malone’s six volumes on Jefferson or Douglas Southall Freeman’s seven volumes on Washington. The great expert and Franklin celebrant of our time, J.A. Leo Lemay, is reputedly preparing a huge seven-volume biography to be published in time for the tricentennial celebration of Franklin’s birth in 2006. In addition to Morgan’s biography, James Srodes has also recently published a biography, entitled Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.* As the tricentenary of his birth approaches we can expect a spate of Franklin studies. At present the best big biography of Franklin is still Carl Van Doren’s, written in 1938. Until recently nothing else written has come close to Van Doren’s. In 2000 H.R. Brands published The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, comprehensive, very readable, and certainly the best full-scale biography since Van Doren’s. In 1954 Verner Crane wrote a splendid brief life of Franklin in 220 pages. I thought no one could better Crane’s concise achievement until I read Morgan’s book. Now Morgan has given us the best short biography of Franklin ever written.

His book, he says, is “purposely short. It is meant only to say enough about the man to show that he is worth the trouble” to read about him. Because Morgan used the Franklin Papers “but not much else,” he says his biography is “pretty one-sided,” what he calls “a letter of introduction to a man worth knowing, worth spending time with.” Because it is one-sided, Morgan’s biography tends to describe Franklin very much as he would like to have been described. It is essentially a celebration of a great man, and the second-brightest star after Washington in the galaxy of American Founders.

Morgan spends very little time on Franklin’s youth, which is covered fully in the first part of Franklin’s autobiography—the only substantial source we have for the early years of his life. He jumps almost immediately into telling us about Franklin’s “most conspicuous virtue, the thing that would earn him world-wide fame in his own lifetime: his insatiable curiosity.” In just a few pages Morgan deftly describes Franklin’s peculiar questioning temperament—“that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why.” So he wondered about some pelagic crabs he found in seaweed; he wondered about the effects of differing amounts of oil on water; he wondered why an ocean voyage between England and America usually took two weeks longer going east than it did going west. He could not drink a cup of tea without wondering why the tea leaves at the bottom gathered in one way rather than in another. He possessed, says Morgan, the same curiosity about the world that drives today’s scientists. It was this scientific curiosity that led Franklin to his exciting discoveries in electricity—discoveries that originally established his fame in the world.

Electricity was one of those hidden forces like gravity and magnetism that fascinated everyone in the eighteenth century. Initially, however, like so much in that era that we today label “science,” electricity was simply a curious amusement, a matter for showmen-savants or “electricians” playing parlor tricks with electrostatics, trying to get people to laugh at the way things attracted and repelled one another. The court electrician to Louis XV of France once sent an electric shock through 180 soldiers of the guard who were touching one another in order to get them to jump simultaneously and amuse the court.

Naturally Franklin was intrigued by electricity and in the late 1740s started to study and play with it. He began sending to a correspondent in England piecemeal reports of his ideas and experiments. Because he could not know what European philosophers had already discovered and was never really sure of the significance of his findings, he presented them diffidently. He apologized for the crudity and hastiness of his thoughts and generously urged his English correspondent to share them with whomever he pleased. It was his English correspondent who collected his findings and oversaw their publication in London in 1751. The eighty-six-page book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America, was translated into French, Italian, and German and turned Franklin into an international celebrity.

Despite the fact that Franklin was out of touch with the centers of European thought, his ideas on electricity were truly original and fundamental, laying, as Morgan points out, “the foundations for all subsequent electrical research.” Although Franklin was excited by his findings, he was chagrined that he could not at first discover any practical use for them, and, for Franklin, science or philosophy, indeed anything valuable, had to be useful. Only his invention of the lightning rod seemed to him to make all his experiments with electricity worthwhile.

  1. *

    Regnery, 2002.

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