Edmund Sears Morgan, 1916-2013

Article excerpt

Edmund Sears Morgan, a Sterling Professor of American History Emeritus at Yale University, died on Monday, July 8, 2013 at the age of ninety-seven. The news brought me back to a September afternoon in 1974 when I entered upon what, in retrospect, would be the single most formative experience of my professional life. Along with eight or nine other first-year graduate students, I took my seat at the long seminar table in Mr. Morgan's (as he then was to us) book-filled office in Yale's Hall of Graduate Studies to begin his legendary seminar in American Colonial History. A bottle of sherry and some plastic glasses soon materialized on the table (to my recollection, it was Harvey's Shooting Sherry), as did photocopies of a document written in Elizabethan court hand. We spent the rest of the afternoon learning to translate that treacherous and heavily abbreviated script. It was Ed's way of introducing us to the craft of a professional historian, which, in his view, meant staying close to the primary sources and letting the past speak for itself.

As Princeton's John Murrin has written, the seminar was an "intellectual delight." Over its course, we graduated from small research projects to presenting a full-fledged paper--the presenter responsible for the week's sherry and rewarded with a private conference with Ed. Along the way, we were continually dazzled by Ed's command of every aspect of colonial history from Puritan theology to the unintended consequences of British tax policy, always leavened with his dry humor and impish smile. I distinctly remember him explaining that since the English taxed tobacco exports by the hogshead, Virginians developed a tobacco barrel that weighed something over a ton, so enormous that it could only be loaded on a ship by being rolled up the gangway by means of a huge spoke inserted top to bottom. Ed thrived in the realm of the specific. But he also offered the broader apercu. One of his most memorable observations was that we would be more at home if we were instantly transported to present-day Tokyo than if we found ourselves in the same spot in New Haven two hundred years earlier. It is a remark that I always hear when I am tempted to confuse the past with the present.

Later, Ed asked me to be one of the teaching assistants for his immensely popular under-graduate survey course in colonial history. The weekly sessions he spent with us preparing for our discussion groups were, if anything, even more intellectually stimulating than his graduate seminar. As I now realize, he was trying to pass on his own capacity for being open to the sources, and, through us, to transmit that gift to his undergraduates. Together, we read letters home from the early Jamestown settlers describing a land of wild strawberries and giant oysters, dripping with plenty. Then Ed asked us, if this were so, why did colonists starve to death? His answer, subsequently embodied in the Beveridge Award--winning American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, was that the settlers' self-image as gentlemen precluded manual labor; quite simply, they were willing to starve rather than soil their hands. Or, as he memorably put it, in setting up Jamestown, the Virginia Company "sent the idle to teach the idle." The Virginians' ultimate solution, of course, was to have other people, primarily slaves, do the work for them.

Ed's undergraduate lectures were a marvel of the art. I can still recall his bravura turn on the battle of Bunker Hill--the sweating British regulars carrying their full eighty pound kits, tricked out in heavy wool coats, struggling up the hill in the brutal summer sun, holding formal ranks, sitting ducks for the American militiamen who had grown up hunting small game with their long-bore rifles. One aside has always stuck with me--the British army training manual did not include instructions to teach infantrymen how to aim their muskets. In that small detail, Ed captured the ethos of the entire conflict. …