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


Americans have been learning from Edmund Morgan for many decades—not only the distinguished historians he has trained at Yale, or other historians, but the reading public at large. He is the clearest of writers. He can put complex matters in ways that make misunderstanding him almost impossible. I learned much about American individualism from his account of the private conversion experience in Congregational churches.1 I never saw the brilliance of George Washington’s neutrality policy until I read his 1977 George Rogers Clark Lecture.2 The history of Virginia comes alive in his paradoxical book on slavery.3 He continues prolific to this day, having published in 2002 a survey of all Benjamin Franklin’s published and unpublished writings.4 Now he gives us a collection of his review-articles in these pages, in what he calls “a kind of intellectual autobiography.”

It is more than that. We get here a wise assessment of major developments in early American history over the last half-century.5 We see social history, black history, feminist history, arriving on the scene. We see what influence Freud and Marx still have. He separates serious contributions from fads or false starts. But he does not reduce any of the books he weighs to a mere representation of a “school” of history. Each is given a fair hearing on its own terms. In fact, he often makes a better case for a book than its author could. I tried several times to grasp the tangled argument of Sacvan Berkovitch in The American Jeremiad (1978), but I could not get it clear in my head till I read Morgan’s pellucid restatement of it. He makes it not only clearer but more persuasive (though I’m still not persuaded).

Clear writing comes from clear thinking. Because Morgan sees so clearly what each author is doing, or trying to do, he sees as well what has been skipped, suppressed, or covered over. The effect sometimes is almost comically deflationary, as if he were building up a fragile edifice, taking seriously each step of the process, only at the end to touch just one spot on it—at which it all falls down. Mary Beth Norton, for instance, argued that colonial women were more repressed in New England than in the South because the New Englanders were more subject to a “Filmerian” Father-King.6 Morgan simply notes that the King appointed more officers in the South than in New England, where the community charters of self-government and the dissident religion usually kept the Anglican king at a greater remove than in the South. The whole structure collapses with a sighing sound.

Though the results of this method can be devastating, Morgan is always fair and respectful when he differs from an author. Well, almost always. There is one place in this wide-ranging collection where he loses his temper, more with the book’s editor than with the author. The Library of America appointed for its volume American Sermons (1999) an editor who betrays no knowledge of American history or the history of religion. He is a professor of English much taken with postmodern theories. Morgan reacts with what is, for him, a paroxysm: “There is simply no apparent rationale for assembling these sermons and no intrinsic theological, historical, or literary significance in most of them.” The book includes nothing by Charles Gradison Finney, “arguably the most popular and most powerful preacher in all of our history…. Nothing from the great Methodist preachers of the early nineteenth century, whose sermons brought more Americans to their churches than those of any other denomination.” No Unitarian is given a voice. When the book does include a famous preacher, it is usually for a sermon neither characteristic nor important:

Solomon Stoddard and Increase Mather led opposing religious movements at the end of the seventeenth century, but each is represented here by a sermon that either of them could have written and that has nothing to do with their argument over church memberships, which divided New Englanders for a century after them. Cotton Mather, Increase’s son and the most influential minister of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, is represented not by anything characteristic of his special pietistic and chiliastic doctrines, but by two sermons, one affirming in platitudes that Christianity is reasonable, and the other an untimely warning against the presence of witchcraft, the worst thing he ever wrote, published just when the rest of New England was trying to forget the delusions that produced the Salem trials.

The compensation we get for this baleful report is that Morgan gives us a brief but rich explanation of the form, importance, and sources of the sermon literature. He shows that its long reign came from the Protestant turn against liturgical ceremony and social rites. The word of God, read in private, needed a public and communal affirmation, supplying the joint expression that had been foresworn with Mass and sacraments.


Morgan’s reaction to this book comes from his own deep immersion in the theology and practice of American religion. He did his graduate work at Harvard with Perry Miller, the great exponent of Puritan thought. This means that Morgan began as an intellectual historian, a form of history that fell in favor over the course of his career. He notes that Miller’s intellectual construct has not been brought down by vigorous reassessments; it has just been bypassed, to stand in dusty isolation. Though Morgan has done his share of work in other fields (as in the social history of his American Slavery, American Freedom), and has used the fruits of new work in feminist and black and Native American exploration, he is more inclined to see merit in the rare works of intellectual historians than in demographic and economic studies. This can be seen in his review of Berkovitch, in his praise of Gordon Wood’s work on changing concepts of equality, and in a treatment of several books dealing with honor in Southern culture.


Morgan is too broad in his interests to be confined within a certain type of history. But if he were forced back on his last chosen redoubt, it might be called What-They-Said-ism. He is frequently astonished that historians pay so little attention to what the people they are studying wrote about themselves and their world. (The restriction of his recent Franklin study to the man’s actual words is a kind of manifesto of this concern.) It may seem unlikely that historians could so often ignore the comments of their own subjects. After all, anyone who has owned a pet has been frustrated when it became ill by the fact that it could not tell what was bothering it. The quickest way into another person’s mind is by way of his or her words. Admittedly, the words can reflect error, deception, or misunderstanding. But the wise skepticism about taking words at face value has become, with some, an unwillingness to rely on them at all. They turn instead to death-rate statistics or any other things that “cannot lie.”

The resistance to subjects’ own testimony began, in modern times, with Charles Beard’s claim that the writers of the Constitution talked about freedom while they acted to protect their economic holdings. The pocketbook spoke louder than their tongues. The Marxists had to penetrate the rationalizations of ideological “superstructure” to get to the base of economic fact. Others in the past have used words to cover up racism, patriarchy, superstition, or imperialism. Morgan knows that words are suspect and must be tested for all such distortions. But one cannot simply ignore them. He finds this tendency in a book that causes him to draw on his training with Perry Miller—John Demos’s Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982): witchcraft victims, Demos suggests, “were carrying out a regression into infantile attitudes and projecting onto witches a ‘pre-Oedipal’ rage against their mothers, a rage that had been engendered in them between the ages of one and three.”

There may be something in that, though it would not explain why the Salem women were more susceptible to this pre-Oedipal rage than others in the same culture. What surprises Morgan is not so much that Demos pays attention to Freudian theories, about which the Puritans never spoke, but that he can dismiss so easily what they did speak about, the theology of the devil they had learned from Calvinism:

It would almost seem that Freudian psychology for Demos has usurped the place that theology held for the Puritans and that in trying to explain seventeenth-century New England in terms that will make sense to the twenty-first century he has in some measure neglected their own understanding of themselves.

What Puritans said must be avoided.

The search for nonverbal evidence brings out all Morgan’s suspicious instincts. Rhys Isaac, for instance, constructs two Virginia societies—of aristocratic individuality and of lower-class communalism—from archaeological remains that show private rooms in homes of the wealthy and few partitions in humbler dwellings. But Morgan turns to another book by John Demos, A Little Commonwealth (1970), for a claim that crowded housing in Plymouth Colony had an effect just the opposite of the one described by Isaacs:

As Demos sees it, the lack of privacy made for the temporary suppression of aggressive impulses that later erupted in quarrels among neighbors. In other words, lack of privacy worked in the long run against communalism. Either reading is intuitive. Probably neither is susceptible of empirical dem-onstration, but they are scarcely compatible.

The lesson here is that material conditions, however important, do not dictate their own results. It depends on how the people affected interpret their circumstances—and to learn that we have to consult them, listen to their words.


Morgan reviews a good example of social history “from the bottom” in A Place in Time: Middlesex County, Virginia, 1650–1750, by Darrett B. and Anita H. Rutman. Sophisticated demographic study of the exiguous court records left after Civil War destruction uncovers the alarming death rate in colonial Virginia. From these numbers the authors trace an early stage in the split between large plantation owners and smaller farmers. The death rate of slaves meant that the small investor with, say, one or two slaves could be wiped out if one expensive purchase died shortly after arriving: “Death and the various afflictions of humanity might bring disaster to the small planter who invested his all or more than all in so perishable a commodity.” The big slave owners had “stock” enough to survive inroads into it.

But after recognizing such valuable insights produced by the numbers, Morgan wonders why other forms of testimony are omitted. The big event of the time and place studied in this book was Bacon’s Rebellion, “the largest uprising against constituted authority in America before the Revolution and the centerpiece in conventional accounts of Virginia’s colonial history.” The authors make little attempt to fit their “bottom” to this superstructure of politics. That would be listening to those at the “top” of society, a thing to be avoided. The result is a partial or disintegrated view of society as a whole:

Is it possible that the events that seemed important in the old history have lost their significance in the new, not because they were negligible to ordinary people of the time, but because the kind of sources on which the new history necessarily depends cannot disclose either their significance or their lack of it for ordinary people?

Morgan compares this to the way political issues disappeared for a time from British history after Lewis Namier focused all attention on the ruling structures of the time—only to have political issues return with a later generation of scholars.

The attempt to let “only the facts, Ma’am” speak does not guarantee an escape from ideology. What usually happens is that the investigator puts his or her own presuppositions in place of the actors’ explanations. Peter Shaw, in American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution (1981), for instance, studies New England crowd rituals as rehearsals for the overthrow of the King-Father in England. The participants did not think of ritual that way, but Shaw says the mere fact of the rituals speaks louder than the celebrators’ words:

What this amounts to is psychological determinism, comparable to the economic determinism that was fashionable among the Progressive historians in the early part of this century. For them too the substance of what the colonists said in objection to British measures was not worthy of serious consideration. Everyone was supposed to be moved by economic motives, hidden behind the window dressing of political and constitutional argument. Shaw does not give us economic motives. He does not give us motives at all. The measures to which the colonists objected are for him mere occasions for the performance of rituals; it is the rituals themselves that must be considered as “operative.”


I do not want to suggest that Morgan has only one historical concern or measure. He is in fact very flexible in his work. It is with great subtlety that he sifts the issues of historical truth and dramatic presentation in comparing the actual events at Salem with Arthur Miller’s treatment of them in The Crucible (both the play and the screenplay). A different kind of subtlety is deployed in his omnibus review of legislative records on both the British and the American sides during the Revolutionary era. Here he uses again his argument that the legitimacy of a regime is always established by means of a “political fiction.” What cannot be literally true is a workable hypothesis so long as it does not blatantly deny the reality. He shows how the fiction of the divine right of kings was sustainable until King Charles I threw away the fig leaf provided him by Parliament, after which a new fiction was constructed—popular sovereignty. This has proved so durable in England because adjustments have been made over the years to make the reality conform more to the fiction—by extension of the franchise, elimination of “rotten boroughs,” and by a recognition of the importance of public opinion.

But in colonial America the fiction and the facts diverged. Not that Americans rejected the fiction of popular sovereignty—they just felt that they were not included in the ruling populace. The colonies were exploited rather than represented. They were not only disconnected from the ruling apparatus in England, but from the populace that was (by the prevailing fiction) supreme. That is why Americans came to think they had to prove that the English people were corrupt, incapable of just self-rule. Morgan thinks this was the reason for the assertion of an entirely new popular identity in the Revolution—the virtuous American people had to separate themselves from the vicious British. Before, they had thought of themselves as members of a specific colony, but also as Englishmen, with all the fictional rights of Englishmen. Now they had a new overarching identity—Americans. This analysis confirms the legal argument of Richard B. Morris—that, contrary to the states’ rights thesis, the individual colonies did not declare themselves independent. The new people did.7

The political fiction of popular sovereignty can take one of several forms. It can embrace (or try to) “direct democracy,” always an unreal construct. Or it can adopt the equally unreal but more usable fiction of “representation.” Morgan studies that fiction in his review of the Library of America Revolutionary documents edited by Bernard Bailyn. This myth has endured because it was capable of maneuvers that made it approximate reality—a process Morgan finds occurring in the growth of egalitarianism described by Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992). In fact, Morgan takes the point an intriguing step further, suggesting that the representative fiction has endured because it is constantly having to defend itself against the direct-democracy fiction:

The debate over the Constitution retains its vitality because the Antifederalists spoke for a populist element that makes representative government representative, while the Federalists spoke for a national interest that can require defiance of popular pressures. Republican government cannot survive the loss of either element. The representative who loses touch with his constituents loses office, but the representative who sacrifices the national interest to local prejudice or to the changing winds of popular opinion betrays all of the people for some of the people. Anyone walking this tightrope will find an uncomfortable familiarity in the arguments of both sides of the debate over the Constitution. The Federalists won, but the issues persist.


Morgan ends his book in a very appropriate way, with a review of the twenty-four-volume American National Biography (ANB). This replaced the older standard reference, the twenty-volume Dictionary of American Biography (DAB), which was modeled on the monumental Dictionary of English Biography. Since the DAB appeared incrementally between 1928 and 1937, Morgan was twenty-one years old when its final volume was published. Many of the articles in the DAB were written by young scholars at the beginning of their careers, so Morgan came to know most of them in his own time as a historian. One might expect him to have some nostalgic tie to old mentors of his youth. But his loyalties are clearly with the new. He celebrates the ANB because it reflects all the historical changes for the better that have occurred in the profession over the sixty-three years between the DAB and the ANB.

The latter work is less elitist, more populist, more inclusive. It contains more women, more blacks, more Native Americans. It also contains more entertainers and athletes, reflecting the growth of a media culture. There are three times more actors and actresses in the latter. The DAB listed eight baseball players, the ANB has 171. (There were no football or basketball players in the DAB.) Morgan rightly says that these changes reflect political and social progress that necessarily altered the discipline of history. This is not simply a matter of greater inclusiveness but of an altered tone. Not only are there more religious leaders, from a broader variety of religions, but the treatment of minority religions is far more respectful and understanding in the new volumes. There is greater depth of research in the new articles.

Different treatments of slavery, race, Reconstruction, and civil rights reflect altered attitudes. Morgan writes:

The change in race relations in America since the 1920s is undoubtedly the most spectacular social development of the last half century, and along with the growth of the historical profession it has certainly affected the different ways the same people are treated in the two series.

Here I would respectfully disagree. Great, necessary, and welcome as were the advances of the civil rights movement, there has been a more vast and unexpected change—the women’s movement, which for the first time in history has made us take seriously the equality of half the human race with the other half. Of course, the two have influenced each other, and benefited from the same movement toward greater awareness of human rights in general—for gays and Native Americans and Hispanics and the handicapped. The point is the same, and all these changes are reflected in the ANB. Morgan does not advert to the gay rights movement—perhaps because the new volumes are still only guardedly frank about the sexuality of people like James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Gertrude Stein, Bayard Rustin, and Walt Whitman. Only the Randy Shiltz entry is fully candid. The DAB would not have brought up the subject at all.

Part of the interest of a series like this is to see who was included, who left out (I miss particularly Judith Anderson, Julia Griffiths, Frank Meyer, and—naturally—Helen Wills). But one is more apt to be surprised by what is left in. And browsers are warned they may not get free of any volume once they start looking into it. I find a volume, despite its bulk, makes good bedside reading. I start with an old hero—say, Rosa Ponselle—and soon find in the vicinity a new one (say Samuel William Pond, missionary to Native Americans). The lingering is prolonged by the fact that the entries are so well written.

That is the final point Morgan makes about the books. It is customary to lament the poor quality of academic writing. Perhaps that is a just complaint in some fields; but in the eyes of Edmund Morgan—sharp eyes indeed—this is a graceful as well as a learned series. Perhaps he deserves some credit for that. He has set a benchmark of what a good historical style should be—not ornamental or pretentious, but never plodding. He picks up on the tics of others—as when Gordon Wood repeatedly says that it would be “difficult to exaggerate” the importance of this or that. Morgan notes: “Some readers may feel that he has overcome the difficulty.” Even his beloved Puritans come in for rebuke when they try to foist on others a legacy they never wanted. Over and over, a phrase hits home—like the slavemasters’ tactic of “exemplary murder,” or New Englanders’ way of being “collectively self-conscious.” He is as good for bedside reading as the ANB.

This Issue

June 24, 2004