Wise Men

Edmund S. Morgan
Edmund S. Morgan; drawing by David Levine

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…

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