A life in history

Edmund Morgan remembered.

Michael Marsland

Michael Marsland

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Edmund S. Morgan and his wife, Marie, had season tickets to the Yale men’s varsity hockey games for a quarter of a century. This year, when the team won the NCAA championship, Morgan’s wife recalls, “he turned to me and said, ‘I didn’t think they’d win a national championship in my lifetime. I am so glad.’”

Morgan, an emeritus professor of history at Yale who grew up playing pond hockey in Arlington, Massachusetts, died in July at the age of 97. A scholar of colonial and revolutionary America, he taught at Yale from 1955 to 1986 and was named a Sterling professor in 1965. Late in life, his fame spread when his compact biography of Benjamin Franklin, which he wrote in his 80s, made it to the New York Times bestseller list in 2002.

“He was much more interested in writing for general readers than in writing to a narrow circle of historical scholars,” says Marie Morgan ’74PhD, ’79JD. “He considered his audience to be people like Yale undergraduates. They might not specialize in history, but they have a great deal of curiosity about where we’ve come from and what our values are.”

Fellow Yale historian and former Graduate School dean Jon Butler remembers inviting Morgan to speak to his freshman seminar on revolutionary America in 2003. “He was long retired by then,” Butler recalls, “but he mesmerized the students for two straight hours. He was fantastic, witty, and insightful.”

Butler credits Morgan with changing the way we understand American history. “His writings have been incorporated into every textbook from grade school to college and beyond,” Butler says. “He is influential to an almost incomprehensible degree.”