on July 9, 2013 - 9:20 PM
Jan. 17, 1916 – July 8, 2013
NEW YORK (AP) – Edmund S. Morgan, Ph.D., a leading scholar of the Colonial era who helped reinvigorate the reputations of the Founders, 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.
Mr. Morgan died Monday afternoon in 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.”
Mr. 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, Mr. Morgan and Harvard Professor Bernard Bailyn were cited as leaders in Early American Studies. Joseph J. Ellis, who studied under Professor Morgan at Yale, dedicated his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Founding Brothers” to Morgan.
Mr. Morgan wrote several books and essays about the 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.
Mr. 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 Yale University Press.
Known for his thorough research, Mr. Morgan preferred the Founders’ 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 the papers of Washington, Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
“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.”