Edmund S. Morgan, one of the foremost historians of early America, died of pneumonia Monday in Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was 97. He had taught since 1955 at Yale University, where he was Sterling professor emeritus of history.
In 2000, Dr. Morgan was awarded the National Humanities Medal. “With his elegant prose, fresh perspective, and exhaustive research,” the citation read, “he has enhanced our understanding of American Colonial history by challenging traditions and assumptions about the birth of our nation and by bringing to life the people and ideas that shaped America’s destiny.”
Six years later, he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his “creative and deeply influential body of work . . . that spans the last half century.”
Dr. Morgan’s 2002 biography of Benjamin Franklin was a surprise bestseller. “The popularity of the book,” he said in a 2003 Boston Globe interview, “is attributable in part to what I call ‘the geezer factor.’ ”
A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and other publications, Dr. Morgan strove to appeal to the interested layperson as well as fellow historians. “In writing about the past, there’s more of an aesthetic dimension than people realize,” he told the Globe. “You’re trying to see connections, patterns, to tell a story. The dispute among historians as to whether there should be narrative is misguided. All good history is narrative. History that doesn’t tell a story just hasn’t gotten far enough; people have been too lazy to tell the story.”
Dr. Morgan won a Bancroft Prize for “Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America” (1988) and the Francis Parkman Prize for “American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia” (1975).
“In a way, he was one of a kind,” said Robert L. Middlekauff, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Berkeley and a former graduate student of Dr. Morgan’s.
Speaking in a telephone interview Tuesday, he likened Dr. Morgan’s stature to that of Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller (both of whom Dr. Morgan studied with) and Bernard Bailyn. Dr. Morgan, Middlekauff said, “had a great deal of influence in the development of the study of several large areas of early American history.”
The son of Edmund Morris Morgan and Elsie (Smith) Sears Morgan, Edmund Sears Morgan was born Jan. 17, 1916, in Minneapolis. His father was a law professor at the University of Minnesota. The family moved to Arlington when Dr. Morgan’s father assumed a professorship at Harvard Law School. He also twice served as the school’s acting dean.
After graduating from Belmont Hill School, Dr. Morgan earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard.
Dr. Morgan taught at the University of Chicago, 1945-46, and at Brown University, from 1946-55. At Brown, he also spent a year as acting dean of the graduate school.
Several of Dr. Morgan’s students would go on to become eminent historians, including Middlekauff, David D. Hall, T.H. Breen, and Joseph J. Ellis.
Recalling Dr. Morgan as “a marvelous teacher,” Middlekauff characterized him as “witty and funny and in every way a delightful man.”
“I don’t think you’re going to find people to say anything bad about him — and not just because they’re being quoted in an obituary.” Middlekauff said. “He really was the genuine article.” “The Genuine Article” is the title of a 2004 collection of Dr. Morgan’s essays.
Other of his books include “The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England” (1944), “Virginians at Home” (1953), “The Birth of the Republic” (1956), “The Puritan Dilemma” (1958), “The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles” (1962), “Visible Saints” (1963), “Roger Williams’’ (1968), “So What About History” (1969), “The Challenge of the American Revolution (1976), “The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson” (1976), and “The Genius of George Washington” (1980).
Dr. Morgan also wrote “The Stamp Act Crisis” (1953) with Helen Morgan, his first wife, who died in 1982.
Retiring from teaching in 1986, Dr. Morgan divided his work day between writing and research (he served for many years as chairman of the committee overseeing Yale’s publication of Franklin’s collected papers) and wood- and metalwork. During World War II, he had worked as a technician at the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The expertise he acquired on the lathe he would put to use on fine bowls and furniture. His favorite materials were walnut and dogwood. He exhibited at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven and the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Dr. Morgan spent summers in Eaton, N.H.
A past president of the Organization of American Historians, Dr. Morgan also belonged to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, American Antiquarian Society, American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, British Academy, Royal Historical Society, and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
In 2002, Dr. Morgan was the fifth recipient of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s highest honor, the John F. Kennedy Medal for distinguished service to the cause of history. In 2008, he was awarded a gold medal for lifetime achievement by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Dr. Morgan, who was an avid pond hockey player at Belmont Hill, was “an absolutely loyal” Boston Bruins fan, said his widow, Marie Morgan. One of Dr. Morgan’s favorite possessions, she said in a telephone interview Tuesday, was an autographed Cam Neely Bruins cap. When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 Dr. Morgan nailed a Ray Bourque jersey to the front door of their house in celebration, where it has remained ever since. “He wouldn’t let us take it down,” Marie Morgan said, “since where there’s Boston there’s hope.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Morgan leaves two daughters, Penelope Aubin of Montreal and Pamela Packard of Los Altos Hills, Calif., both from his first marriage; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.