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  • Edmund S. Morgan and the Urgency of Good Leadership
  • Benjamin L. Carp (bio)

Edmund Sears Morgan (1916–2013) leaves a legacy as one of the great historians of early America, with a formidable influence on academic and popular audiences. The Stamp Act Crisis (1953), which he wrote with his first wife, Helen, is still the dominant book on the subject. American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) won the Beveridge Prize, while Inventing the People (1988) won the Bancroft Prize. The four editions of The Birth of the Republic (1956) and three editions of The Puritan Dilemma (1958) have been enduring staples of college courses. Yet Morgan has had less critical attention than some of his peers, such as Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970). Looking at his broader corpus, particularly his biographical profiles, we see Morgan wrestling with the problems of leadership in a fallen world, and it is through this set of problems that we can best understand the urgency of his scholarship.1

Morgan was, fundamentally, a Cold War liberal. He received the second Ph.D. granted by the History of American Civilization program at Harvard, part of the exceptionalist American Studies movement that was keen to combat fascism and Marxism. Like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, many liberal ironists had a Burkean, pessimistic view of human nature and rejected the idea of human perfectibility. They looked askance, therefore, at mass movements, including both socialism and McCarthyism. Instead, many intellectuals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., sought a “vital center” that might retain liberal stability amid the nation’s affluence; they believed that the United States was grounded in liberty, equality, and unity, and they sought a moderate balance between realism and idealism. Trusting that the United States had strong political institutions and a free exchange of ideas, they hoped for an educated public. They sought leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy to shepherd the American experiment. They hoped that these leaders—almost always white men—had the moral and intellectual caliber to imagine a brighter future while still remaining responsive to public opinion.2 Morgan’s work on Puritan New England and the American Revolution upheld these goals. [End Page 1]

In a 1957 essay on the Revolution, Morgan argued for an analysis of “the ideas that enabled men of that age to stand as the architects of modern liberty” (CAR, 59).* Although he conceded, two years later, that U.S. history “would lose some of its richness and excitement if we confined our study to such respectable and eminent persons,” such persons made up the bulk of his writing, particularly in the latter half of his career (AH, 36). He began a 1997 essay on John Winthrop (“America’s First Great Man”) with the question, “What makes a great man great?” He dismissed as “fashionable” the impulse “to read them out of history altogether, in favor of the impersonal forces and ‘-isms’ that historians like to discover behind everything” (GA, 5). Morgan wanted to understand the architects of big ideas and enduring institutions, the personal forces behind historical change. Like Samuel Eliot Morison, his undergraduate mentor, Morgan wanted a past that was both usable and reliable.3

Morgan encouraged his students to begin with documentary evidence rather than theoretical models, and his documentary evidence largely came from the papers of religious and political leaders.4 Such methods led to an emphasis on personal forces. Morgan was an ardent supporter of documentary editions, calling the publication of the papers of the Founders “the major scholarly achievement of American historical scholarship in the twentieth century” (GA, 250). American Slavery, American Freedom seemingly represents the exception to Morgan’s focus on the utterances of great men, “the ideas and ideals” that illuminated “a people’s understanding of themselves” (SAC, viii). As he explained later, he was forced to study “nonideological forces” (as an interviewer put it) such as demography, prices, and labor because of the paucity of literary evidence about colonial Virginia after 1625; his change in approach, Morgan recalled, “was probably dictated more by the nature of the materials available for studying people in Virginia than anything else.”5 American Slavery, American Freedom did not produce a permanent shift in Morgan...