If you studied colonial American history in a U.S. college in the last half century, chances are good that you were assigned at least one book by Edmund S. Morgan, the Yale historian who passed away Monday at the age of 97. If you paid attention to his books, you were treated to an understanding of America’s founders that few other historians before him ever accomplished.
Edmund Morgan began his career as a historian in the 1940s. At the time, the prevailing attitude among historians of early America was that the Founders were hypocrites whose talk of liberty was just a front for maximizing their wealth and protecting their interests. Morgan ignored the theories and explored the source materials himself.
The result was a half century of scholarship that helped restore the reputation of the Founders simply by presenting them as they really were. Morgan neither glorified nor denigrated his subjects. He just told their stories accurately, and by so doing he inadvertently marginalized the political historians. His example led to a revival of fact-based narrative scholarship that eschewed political theorizing for accurate storytelling.
The greatest testament to Morgan’s scholarship is the fact that books he published three, even five, decades ago remain not only in print but required reading in many undergraduate history classes. It is a shame that he will write no more. R.I.P.