Edmund S. Morgan
National Humanities Medal
"Curiosity is the principal motivator of all important work," says historian Edmund S. Morgan.
Whether he is overturning common wisdom about the American Revolution or debunking the myth of "the American people," Morgan is quick to wade into controversy.
"There is no way there's such a thing as the American people expressing a wish," Morgan says. "Wishes must be expressed through representatives who have their own views. But we need the fiction of the 'American people' as an entity with a will and expressed views. Our American government is based on this fiction."
In his book, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, Morgan says the popular control of government is largely a fictional concept, inherited from the notion of the divine right of kings. "No society is governed by the many," he says. "All societies are governed only by the few, whether the government is a monarchy or a democracy." But it is a concept that has worked well over the centuries and the continued belief in it, he asserts, is essential to our system of government.
The author and editor of eighteen books, Morgan has written on the Puritans and the intellectual foundations of early American life. Still active in the field at the age of eighty-four, Morgan says, "The more familiar you become with a subject, the more you realize you don't know, so there's a reason to go on."
Morgan taught at the University of Chicago and Brown University before joining the faculty at Yale in 1955. He is the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale. "I made a point of always teaching undergraduates because they are not a captive audience," Morgan says. "If you teach undergrads, you have to make history intelligible to people who are not specialists in your field and that's good for you as a scholar. I always tried out my research ideas first in the classroom to get feedback from people who didn't have to listen to me if I didn't make it interesting." Morgan retired in 1986.
In such books as Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea and American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, Morgan explores the contradictions surrounding the Puritans of New England and the slave owners of the South. "How do you account for the fact that the principal authors of the Constitution and general proponents of liberty in American life were slave owners?" Morgan asks. "These people grew up with slavery. Jefferson and others were troubled by this, but they were not willing to sacrifice their inheritance to do something about it. I suppose we have to say simply that they were human. Ultimately you can't reconcile this paradox. There are many things in human society you can't reconcile."
Morgan is currently working with the Founding Fathers Project on a biography of Benjamin Franklin to accompany the CD-ROM edition of Franklin's papers.
"Political history was the major field of interest when I began my studies. Today the focus is on social history, but this will change, too," Morgan says. "In the end history can't get too far from questions of power, who has power and how they wield it."