Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Edmund Morgan, R.I.P.

Edmund Morgan, one of the greatest early American historians to ever practice the craft, passed away last night at the age of 97.

It is hard to summarize Morgan's prolific career.  Many of his books, including American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) and The Stamp Act Crisis (1953--written with his wife Helen) continue to resonate in the field. Earlier this year I taught it for the fourth time in my career.  Scholars of Puritanism still wrestle with The Puritan Dilemma (1958), Visible Saints (1963), and The Puritan Family (1944). While the argument of these books have been challenged by more recent scholars of Puritanism, they continue to inform some of my lectures on colonial New England. Just a few weeks ago, after a visit to Newport, R.I., I ordered a copy of The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles (1962).

Perhaps Morgan's greatest legacy is the impressive group of graduate students that he taught. Off the top of my head, this group included John Murrin, Rosemarie Zagarri, John Mack Faragher, Joseph Ellis, Robert Middlekauf, Christine Heyrman, T.H. Breen, John Blasingame, and Karen Halttunen.  (I am sure I am missing many, many others, please add them to the comments section).

Here is a taste of the New York Times obit:

Edmund Sears Morgan was born on Jan. 17, 1916, in Minneapolis. His father, Edmund Morris Morgan, was an expert on the law of evidence and served as chairman of the committee that drafted the first uniform code of military justice for the armed forces in 1948.

Edmund grew up in Arlington, Mass., where the family moved after his father began teaching at Harvard’s law school. He enrolled in Harvard intending to study English history and literature, but after taking a course in American literature with F. O. Matthiessen, he changed to the newly offered major of American history and literature, with Perry Miller as his tutor. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1937, and, at the urging of the jurist Felix Frankfurter, a family friend, he attended lectures at the London School of Economics.

In 1942, he completed a doctorate in Harvard’s new program on the history of American civilization under Professor Miller’s supervision. His dissertation, on the domestic life of the Puritans, became his first book: “The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in 17th-Century New England” (1944).

In 1939 he married Helen Theresa Mayer, who died in 1982. He is survived by their two daughters, Penelope Aubin and Pamela Packard; his second wife, the former Marie Caskey, a historian; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. 

Although a pacifist, Professor Morgan became convinced, after the fall of France, that only military force could stop Hitler, and he withdrew the application he had submitted for conscientious objector status. During World War II, he trained as a machinist at the M.I.T. radiation laboratory, where he turned out metal parts and instruments for radar installations.