NEW YORK (AP) — Edmund S. Morgan, a leading scholar of the colonial era who helped reinvigorate the reputations of the founding fathers, probed the country’s racial and religious origins and, in his 80s, wrote a best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin, has died in Connecticut. He was 97.
Morgan died Monday afternoon at Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he was being treated for pneumonia, said his wife, Marie.
A professor emeritus at Yale University, he was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and author of more than a dozen books, including “Birth of the Republic,” ”The Puritan Dilemma” and “Inventing the People,” winner in 1989 of the Bancroft Prize. His other awards included a National Medal of the Humanities in 2000 and an honorary citation from Pulitzer Prize officials in 2006 for his “creative and deeply influential body of work.”
Morgan shared Franklin’s birthday, Jan. 17, and impish spirit. The bald, round-faced historian had a prankster’s smile; a soft, sweet laugh; and a willingness to poke fun at his own prestige, joking that history books bored him and that his favorite students were the ones who disagreed with him. He attributed the success of his Franklin book to “the geezer factor.”
For decades, Morgan and Harvard professor Bernard Bailyn were cited as leaders of early American studies. Joseph Ellis, who studied under Morgan at Yale, dedicated his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Founding Brothers” to his former teacher. Gordon Wood, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” cited Morgan for often being ahead of his time.
“When he was first writing (in the 1940s) the dominant thinking among historians was that ideas didn’t matter, that the founders only cared about the rich and that they didn’t mean what they were saying about freedom and government,” Wood told The Associated Press in 2002. “But Morgan started with the assumption that their ideas were to be taken seriously; he was really bucking the tide.”
Morgan wrote several books and essays about the country’s founders, especially Franklin and George Washington, praising them not just as men of action but of inaction. He cited the “genius” of Washington in declining to seize power after the surrender of the British and found the seemingly sloppy Franklin a far more effective diplomat overseas than the ever-prepared John Adams.
An informed and accessible prose stylist, Morgan liked to imagine his readers as “ignorant geniuses”; the public knew him best for “Benjamin Franklin,” published in 2002, when Morgan was 86. It was a short, lively summation that began with the unlikely image of a young, athletic Franklin. Based solely on the historian’s reading of Franklin’s volumes of papers, which Morgan himself helped organize, the book sold more than 100,000 copies and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.
But Morgan never imagined that the founders were perfect or that the country’s early history was unscarred by racism or sly intentions. In his acclaimed “American Slavery, American Freedom,” winner in 1976 of the Francis Parkman Prize, he documented how demands for greater freedom in colonial Virginia were influenced by the rise of slavery, which gave whites a heightened sense of entitlement. In “Inventing the People,” Morgan stated that politicians often used democratic language as a cover for maintaining power.
“Government requires make-believe,” Morgan wrote. “Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governments are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.”
Morgan approached his work as both scholar and hobbyist. He had no agent and didn’t accept advances because he disliked deadlines. Only when the Franklin manuscript was finished did he bother showing it to the Yale University press.
“Surprise” was a favorite word of Morgan’s, and he loved discovering the unexpected in American history, whether the Puritans’ tolerance and even advocacy of sex, or the 1787 persecution and murder of a suspected witch just outside the State House in Philadelphia where the U.S. Constitution was being drafted.
Morgan did not plan to major in history much less specialize in the colonial era. Born in Minneapolis and raised in New Haven, Conn., and the Boston area, he dreamed of owning a ranch as a boy and preferred English to history when he entered Harvard University. In one European history test, taken freshman year, he scored 27 out of 100.
But after studying at Harvard under colonial historian Perry Miller, Morgan became fascinated by the Puritans and wrote about them in his first book, “The Puritan Family,” published in 1944. “Miller was an atheist, and so was I, but we both had this tremendous regard for the intellectual grounding of their theology,” Morgan told the AP in 2002.
Morgan’s restless mind often led him well away from the sedentary work of scholarship. After retiring as a Yale professor, in 1986, he took up flying, set up both a wood and metal shop in his basement and put together a lathe in his garage.
Known for his thorough research, Morgan preferred the founder’s own words to the books written about them. He read all of Franklin and James Madison, both of whom lived into their 80s. He also worked through multiple volumes of Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
“I don’t read many biographies,” he said in 2002, acknowledging that he hadn’t even gotten around to David McCullough’s million-selling book on Adams. “I can spend all day reading Washington’s papers. … I can do that all day long. But if I pick up the kind of book that I write I go to sleep.”
Morgan was married twice. He and his first wife, Helen M. Morgan, co-authored “The Stamp Act Crisis,” published in 1953. In recent years, he collaborated on reviews and essays with his second wife, Marie Morgan.
Associated Press Writer Dave Collins in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.